Farewell Cruel World Spectrum 22nd May 1994

Deacon Blue have played their last gig. Craig Mclean was in the emotional audience

AW NAW, Ricky’s back to wearing vests again. The spectre of Deacon Blue’s weakest link, their sub-Springsteen stage posturing, raises its head. But it’s Friday night at Barrowlands, and Ricky Ross and Co are back on home turf for their last ever show. Everything’s forgiven by their pet crowd. By way of a convoluted introduction to The Day That Jackie Jumped the Jail, his vest caught in the red glow of the mechanic’s lamp in his hand, Ross tells of being arrested by the football police (where were the taste police?). The story drags on and the natives are revolting (couthy couples and all that). They want more stadium-stormers and eye-dampners. Tall tale duly ends and Deacon Blue deliver Fergus Sings the Blues, Loaded, James Joyce Soles, Love and Regret, Cover from the Sky. The really big cheers are saved for the really big anthems, the ones that are least testiment to Ross’s songwriting skills. But the singer, man of the people, seems humbled by all and every cheer and clap.

It’s an emotional night. There wouldn’t be a dry seat in the house, if Barrowlands had seats. “if there is an element of bluff in a song, the audience are going to be the first people to pick up on it. You can’t expect people to take you seriously unless you are facing up to your own situation.” That was seven years ago, April 1987. Ricky Ross, sombre in felt hat against a black background, stared from the front cover of NME. The banner headline read “Break For The Border Deacon Blue lead the Scottish invasion”. The band’s debut album, Raintown, would be released in two weeks.

For consistency of depth, empathy, passion and vision, the qualities that founded Deacon Blue, the band would never top Raintown. Ross, no slouch at self-criticism, has probably always known this. Four years later he told me Raintown ‘was a joy to work on, I had some of the best times of my life on it”. How frustrating then for this songwriter who had to wait until he was 28 to make his long- cherished first album that the second “was a misery to make”. When The World Knows Your Name was a commercial triumph, knocking Madonna’s Like A Prayer from the top of the album charts and selling nearly one million copies. A socialist, republican, ex- teacher and product of a strict Christian Brethren upbringing, Ross was always at his best when living his faith and his beliefs through his art.

So Raintown rang true, When The World Knows Your Name just rang the cash registers. But the US breakthrough remained elusive and Deacon Blue concentrated on consolidating their European and UK profile. They were MOR stadium rockers, adored and reviled with equal vehemence. Unsurprisingly, Ross hated the fact that quantity seemed to have overwhelmed quality. “You are open to the lowest common denominator factor,” he said bitterly. He seemed happiest when his band’s talents and pulling power could boost causes he held dear. Shows for anti-poll tax groups, Lockerbie victims, the STUC, the homeless, the Oscar Marzaroli Trust, community groups in. Drumchapel all benefited from Deacon Blue’s patronage. Ross was the reluctant pop star.

On the release of Fellow Hoodlums in 1991, when he once more found lyrical comfort in matters spiritual and Glaswegian, and Deacon Blue again sounded like they meant it, he said: “There must be some room for destroying the star system in pop music; some way you can have good pop music but don’t need to become some big superhero.” Against which, last year’s rebirth as glitter-encrusted dance dabblers now seems even more incongruous. But the “psychology of being in a band and what it takes for a band to stay together” meant change,  such were the music business exigencies that Deacon Blue never seemed wholly comfortable embracing. The knee-jerk response, though, was that Deacon Blue were attempting to “do a U2” by enlisting club gurus Steve Osbourne and Paul Oakenfold as producers.

Yet in most instances the Perfecto team’s input was little more than gilding the lily, as that set featured a clutch of Ross’s strongest songs. One, Bethlehem’s Gate, featured in a new version on the current re-issue of Dignity, is up there with his all-time best. And that, just, is how they leave us, with dignity, and a greatest hits album at No 1. Unlike their “Scottish invasion” contemporaries, Deacon Blue know the game is up. Thirty-six now, Ross will undoubtedly turn his hand to other work (he has already written at least one play), maybe more music. He is not too sure of what direction to take next. But, as he told The Scotsman in June 1991: “It’s good to doubt, to search and fumble and even get lost occasionally. But the good thing is that at least you are looking for something and you may find out what you are searching for. But it’s not an easy road, never is.”  Craig Mclean