An end to post-Deacon blues
Sunday Times 15th November 1998
Photograph: Mike Wilkinson
After breaking up his band and having a solo career cut short, Ricky Ross has found inspiration in family life.
Songwriters with a gift for exquisite melancholy should be allowed to relish their moments of personal angst. Ricky Ross was denied the full, bitter experience when his record company dropped him on the morning of his 38th birthday two years ago. He wanted to curl up with his commiserating wife, vent spleen, expletives and ask: "Where now?" But the piano tuner called. "And he just wouldn't go away," says Ross, retrospectively enjoying the tragi-comedy.
"He kept wanting to show me how good it sounded. 'Just listen to this!' he'd say, going up and down the keyboard Mrs Mills style. Just when you thought he'd finally finished the cadence he'd give another little flourish. I was waving this cheque at him, almost crying, I just wanted him out of the house. Then he burst into a medley of Broadway hits." The piano tuner was possibly the only person in the music business not in on the secret. Ross knew the end was nigh before he completed his first solo album with Epic, a division of the entertainment corporation, Sony.
As George Michael also discovered, the Japanese conglomerate's takeover of CBS ushered in a whole new era of pounds, shillings and yen. A company skilled in shifting units of hardware, that is CD players, had no time for quaint concepts such as artistic development. When an advance single from the album was unsuccessful, senior executives lost interest. No marketing budget was likely to be forthcoming. Ross was working on something doomed to fail.
"It was one of those very clear moments. Like driving a car which you know is going to crash in a few moments time, yet you cannot get out." His friends were outraged. Deacon Blue had been one of the label's most successful British bands. Their 1989 album, When the World Knows Your Name, had entered the charts at No 1. Its success was not isolated. Ross and his wife, fellow Deacon Blue singer Lorraine McIntosh, could plaster their walls with platinum. Singles such as Dignity, Wages Day, Real Gone Kid and I'll Never Fall in Love Again seduced consumers and critics. Deacon Blue were not just profitable, they were credible.
Ross is unsentimental about Sony's snip job. "My friends said, 'You've made them millions. How could they?' But at the end of the day, major record companies are major record companies. If you take the money and the advances, you can't moan if they drop you when it doesn't sell. It's like being a football manager. The one certain thing is you will get dropped at some point . . ."
But was it inevitable? Deacon Blue fans still wonder why Ross split up his band in the first place. They were Scotland's real stadium stars. To the faithful - and their following could be evangelical - Ross was a Scottish Springsteen. His lyrics were at once intimate and cinematic. He could work the crowd. He believed in being a rock star. But that big sound, which plugged into so much rock mythology, was inextricably linked to the idea of a band. Audiences expected boys with guitars, not Ross alone with his piano.
Ross will kick off the regional Celtic Connections tour in Edinburgh on January 16, joined onstage by special guests as he performs a mix of old hits - Dignity, Chocolate Girl and Raintown - as well as new songs."But I'm not a group person," he protests. "I didn't even like football at school. Artistically it wasn't working, but I couldn't bang my fist on the table to sort it out. I never wanted to be in a band." But he did want to be a star. Ross assumed his place in the rock firmament at 30, relatively late in life. It explains a great deal. "I had a delayed adolescence," he says.
Brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, a strict Protestant sect, he stayed at home with his parents in Dundee's prosperous Broughty Ferry until he was 21. A committed Christian, he married young and devoted himself to the caring professions after university. He was a social worker in the city's poverty-stricken Hilltown and spent time teaching English.
Then, in his late twenties, everything changed. Inspired to form a band by the Waterboys, a Scottish group that never achieved Deacon Blue's level of commercial success, he captured the mood of Glasgow in the late 1980s with Raintown, the first album.
But setting off on adventures means leaving things behind. He split from his first wife around the time their daughter, Caitlin, now 10, was born. He married McIntosh in 1990. They have two daughters Emer, 6, and Georgia, 4. The arrival of the couple's daughters played a big part in the band's demise. Ross's window of adolescence suddenly closed. He found himself all grown up in his mid-thirties, a concerned husband and father.
"When Caitlin was born I was never at home because I was away from my wife. I missed her growing up. I see her a lot now and am as close to her as any of the girls. But was I there when she was a baby? No. "It's something I find very hard to rationalise and make excuses for. It should not happen, mums and dads should be with their kids. I was determined that it would not happen again. We had made some money and we used it to be close to our children."
Life after stardom and children does not look too bad. We sit in a Homes & Gardens kitchen. Though located in Glasgow's southside, the feel is rural. McIntosh, who has a part in the new Ken Loach film, My Name is Joe, is in London for an audition. Away for three days, it's the longest she has been apart from them.
Ross has his own projects. He joined the Scottish National party earlier this year, though he has no plans to stand for the parliament. "There are a great many people with a better grounding in politics than me." He works closely with anti-poverty groups and is off to Brazil this week with Christian Aid to highlight the plight of landless peasants. He is negotiating a new songwriting publishing deal and would like to write a musical.
He has made a documentary for Grampian television, Walking Back to Happiness, in which he visits his old haunts in Dundee. Having lived in Glasgow since 1982, with most of his family and friends away from Tayside, much had changed.
His last real engagement was during the Timex dispute in 1993 when he raised money for sacked workers. Five years on, he meets Charlie Malone, one of the shop stewards. Blacklisted, he paid his own way through university and came out with a first-class degree. He now lectures in management.
More comfortingly, his old church is much the same. The family home, which now has new owners, is most unsettling. "It was so strange, there was a pull-down ladder which made exactly the same noise. It was very nostalgic. But when I told my mother and sister about it, they wouldn't visit. And I immediately wished I hadn't either. You can't really go back."
But at 40, Ross has gone back further than he thought possible. The 30-year-old rebel was, in many ways, an aberration. He is now reconciled to the background he rejected for Top of the Pops. "Somebody recently gave me a copy of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days. There is a chapter headlined Protestant which is so close to the strict atmosphere in which I was brought up. The twenties and thirties were liberating for me. In your rebellious period, you can be very cynical. You think nobody has seen things the way you see them. Now I look back on my childhood with love and gratitude more than anything else. I realise that most of what my own parents did was done out of love."
The most affecting experience of recent years was not, in fact, losing his record deal, but his father. "I don't think I'd got over it that well. I had this terrible sense that when we put him in the ground, that was it. I felt my father's not up in heaven. There is nothing beyond death." It was the first time in his life that his belief in God was threatened. "Lorraine was shocked. I thought she would feel the same as me but she took me aside and said, 'I want to talk to you about this!' "
Ross read books by Richard Holloway, the Bishop of Edinburgh, "which affirmed my belief". He began attending Tuesday morning communion at the local Episcopal church - "Just me and a couple of old ladies." The whole family now goes each Sunday, "though the children don't have much of a say".
Faith, home, work . . . it sounds like a good life. And if Ross were a country star, it would be the ideal life. But is it rock'n'roll? How do you play the devil's music at 40 and stay true to yourself? Ross looks too young for a midlife crisis, but he has given the age question some thought. He does not believe you need to raise hell to be authentic. "I want to write songs about being 40, not about falling in love at 25. Popular music is a big enough thing now that you can do that. People accept that some of their favourite songwriters have grown older. Tom Waits got better and better. Bob Dylan has made one of the most beautiful records he's ever made in his life. There is a song called Let Me Feel Your Love, which you could only write as the parent of a grown-up child. You get rock songs about love and babies and children. But a grandfather's song! That gives me hope . . ."
Flushed with this new confidence, he will leave behind the acoustic folk of his solo years in his next record. Expect a full band . . . and a female voice. His wife is likely to accompany him for the first time since the band broke up. "She joined me during a few gigs in London and Spain. There is something we do together which really works and which people seem to like. It is really enjoyable." So "Faith, hope and work" are taken to their logical conclusion. And weren't they a line from Dignity? Perhaps life has not changed so much after all. By Joan McAlpine