When The World Forgets Your Name
Movement Magazine Issue 101
Ricky Ross interviewed
We meet in an offputtingly trendy place called Air Organic - you ask for water and it arrives spiked with lemon and something that I fear might be seaweed. This compounds the nervousness I already feel - I can't remember if we arranged to meet downstairs or upstairs - and I've managed to talk myself into thinking if I am on the wrong floor, the interview will be off. I run song lyrics through my head like a formula just before an exam: somehow it might help, but it's really too late.
When Ross comes he has a definite presence: the air of someone who has done things. Yet he is also as gentle and generous and unassuming as they come. During the interview Lorraine, the 'other face' from Deacon Blue and now his wife, pops in: she has left her purse in his bag. It is a delightfully mundane way of puncturing images of celebrity.
Since Deacon Blue split up in 1994 - surprisingly amicably for a pop group - Ricky Ross has been quietly grafting away: two albums and an E.P that have made the odd ripple but don't come near the success of Deacon Blue. (When the World Knows Your Name sold 300 000 copies in a fortnight and when straight to no.1 in the album charts). The days of Wembley Arena and Top Of the Pops are over - and Ricky seems grateful for that.
I ask him if being out the spotlight makes it easier to be creative: "It was quite easy at first. But I'm at a funny place right now. I don't have a publishing deal, I'm trying to do these negotiations - which aren't the most relaxing." He has a stack of songs but it really is a question of what to do with them: "In a sense I'd really like to make a live album. I've worked on my own now for the last year, I'm really ready to work with lots of other people". Deacon Blue were a fairly traditional outfit, and recently Ricky has moved away from guitar-based rock to more intimate songs on the piano. He is a craftsman rather than an innovator; and a songwriter who discovered he was a charismatic performer.
Deacon Blue's biggest single was a cover version of I'll Never Fall in Love Again originally sung by Bobby Gentry (a girl if you need to be told). He sang the melancholy words, intended for a female, "What do you get if you fall in love?/ A boy with a pin to burst your bubble," when it could just as easily have been sung by Lorraine McIntosh. "A good song is a good song. [Gender] is such small barrier." He points out the great Tin Pan Alley songwriters didn't write with an artist in mind: when Goffman and King wrote Say A Little Prayer they wrote a male and a female version - not knowing who would end up performing it. From the outset Ross has written lyrics undoing the sexual stereotypes of rock lyrics. ("He knows she's a Chocolate Girl,/ 'cos he thinks she melts when he touches her" satirises male bravado. The aching When Will You Make My Phone Ring? conjures up the image of a boyfriend desperately, passively awaiting that call.)
The essential criteria for Ross, one that comes up repeatedly in the interview, is that it is "something human". These days such a universal claim is out of favour - we define ourselves primarily in terms of race, sexuality et al and empathy does not allow others to speak for us. Ricky argues that it is insight not origins that matter: you must be "someone who hears, who senses and can get a proper picture".
Empathy was certainly a part of his early working life: in his native Dundee he was a youth worker and then a teacher. Having drifted into teaching, the profession offered only increasing paperwork and specialisation, which did not appeal. "I still really enjoy working with kids. I would really enjoy a certain amount of teaching: if it was just so many weeks of the year". His upbringing was in the Christian Brethren - a disparate vangelical church without formal doctrine or clergy, a more open offshoot of the Plymouth Brethren. Their strong ethos of community and philanthropy made teaching an unproblematic choice. In Dundee the Brethren was a tight-knit community and Ross was outgoing and a 'faithful' member of the youth network - "we grew up with a real strong thing of Christian young people must mix with other Christian young people. Every human being was looked at in terms of what they believed... a real misconstruction of what Jesus was saying." Elsewhere Ross has said he used to be very hung-up about his unconventional upbringing until, "I reached a turning point when I realised that my background was actually quite rich and quite unusual." He absorbed this is into his songwriting and talks of it as a heritage - and that is surely better than the adolescent bitterness some people drag through life with them. Although he has left the Brethren behind, Ricky's family are still involved and he stays in regular contact.
His passion for listening to and playing music was not encouraged; popular entertainment was generally distrusted; and ambition, no matter how it is channelled, was felt to be sinful. But the urge was too great: "I realised there was something inside me that wanted to make music. It just nagged away at me." At that time, aged 24 and married to his first wife Zara, he moved to Glasgow where a teaching job had come up. This was crucial in terms of meeting band-members-to-be and learning about the music scene.
Intriguingly, when he first moved, Ross was involved in a loosely structured intentional community: it didn't have a name or a leader, it just 'was'. "They met, lived in the same area, shared some money and tried to do some good - and worshiped and took communion fairly regularly." He seems ambivalent about close community as an idea - it is "very unrealistic... those who have done it in high style, written about it and all the rest, have usually fallen apart big-style, leaving a lot of scars". On the other hand he has great affection for the people and although "I didn't stay... I remained very good friends with them". The community is still going, 20 years later, due largely to its informal structure and the fact they don't unduly encroach each other's freedom.
When the band took off, faith - somewhat inevitably - took a back seat. Yet throughout this time Ricky was aware of a fundamental human need: "People have a spiritual side to them - whether it be Christian or whatever. In the eighties that kind of got lost for me."
Deacon Blue were a politically committed band (small 'p': we're not talking obsessives like The Levellers or Chumbawumba or anything) and gave voice to the movements against nuclear weapons and the Poll Tax. They were a vaguely socialist band on corporate bandwagon. Yet, as he said, if you are trying to pull a bunch of people together artistically you don't need unnecessary 'issues' getting in the way. Does he wish they'd been more explicitly political and used their influence more? "If you're in the charts people don't expect a big political thing. If you had a message behind what you say, what would be the point of writing songs? You'd be better putting out your message standing on a street corner."
Nevertheless Ricky is engaged with political issues and seems thrilled by the prospect of the Scottish Parliament: "I grow more excited by the day. It's only just dawning on people how big a thing it is. Once you start dismantling the British Constitution it'll never come back. For some bizarre reason Tony Blair seems to want to do it." It is possible that independence will follow - and Ricky feels sure that it will: "Look at any country that has moved away from being part of the British State: they've never wanted to come back". He acknowledges the dangers of nationalism but espouses an inclusive and outward-looking vision. "Scotland is about the people who live in Scotland - Asian, Chinese and English people living in Scotland - they're my neighbours." Then he adds mischievously, "Alan Hansen is English as far as I'm concerned - that's what he wants to be: he wants to live in the Home Counties and talk to Des Lynam."
He did not abandon his commitment to socialism when he made it big - at the time of Thatcher and huge tax bribes. Unsurprisingly, he is disappointed with New Labour: "We've replaced one lot we've the same lot - who are doing it in a kinda smiley, kinda nice way." Ross' politics and beliefs are firmly rooted in where he lives and his own experiences. "I'm a very great opponent of private education and private health. But I wouldn't like to say if it was my daughter that had a life-threatening illness... what would you do? It's great to have principles yet when family come along you have to be very real about things."
It is these forces - the generation before and after, being both a parent and a son - that seem to shape Ross' thinking. Ricky Ross has had a gradual rediscovery and reassessment of faith, sparked by the death of his father: "I realised when it happened I hadn't got rid of all my intrinsic beliefs. I expected to immediately step back into, 'Ah, but he's gone to a better place' - then I realised a few months later it was, 'Hang on, I don't actually think that'. So what does that mean? Having declared the words: 'I don't believe in God', I said this to my wife (she went, 'What?! You can't believe that.') If I do, what kind of a God do I believe in? How do I fit into this? And who am I?"
He sketched some ideas out for me - and he was not the world-weary liberal I was expecting. Ross is passionate but not preachy, his tone confident and also full of doubt and scepticism. "If you are going to be really open and journeying, one has to journey with other people. There's no point in saying, for example, 'Oh yeah, I'm open to new ways of discovery, new interpretations and stimulating ideas and I can't talk to them because they are conservative evangelicals'. Either you're open or you're not." It was one of the most sustained and honest conversations I've had about faith and 'big things' for a long time - all more surprisingly considering the circumstances.
He fires rhetorical questions into the air ("Was Mary the first priest? Was Jesus scared to go to the cross?") and enjoys that intellectual twang and trail they create. But the 'doing' of faith is more important. He tells me about the church he and Lorraine have been going to for a couple of years. There were a couple of loyal old ladies - "I got talking to them and found they had incredible stories to tell, real personal hardship. The woman who sat behind us had lost a daughter in early adulthood. I thought, 'What do I have to offer? What smart alec thing about faith do I have to say to you?'. Nothing I've learnt has anything on that experience of faith."
Lorraine and he take their role seriously as parents of three young daughters and grapple with the difficulties of transmitting faith."Lorraine was telling the kids one of the stories from the Old Testament, and one of our daughters said, 'I don't like God'. I don't like him in this story either, not that kind of God." Given that faith is a mixed blessing - what is the best way to convey it to a child? "We sat down and discussed this: we want our kids to be brought up in a faith in a way that is hopefully enjoyable enough for them to want to carry on for its own sake - and open enough for them to say 'This is not me' and be able to spread etheir wings. That's all you can do." That's as healthy as you can imagine, without even the smug glow of enlightened parenting: "I'm sure we'll make the same mistakes as our parents made - but in different areas and different ways." Ricky Ross is an annoyingly balanced person. So the kids go to church each week: "Let's not kid ourselves there is any free will in this - you could take them off to Satanic Mass." Feeling guilty for dumping three kids in the Sunday School, he found himself teaching "a brilliant program... it has posters of heroes of the faith: pictures of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King." His next creative project is the nativity play. My mind starts to wander at this point: 'Can I have a bit more bass for Joseph? No, not the strobe of Bethlehem yet.'
The church is Catholic-lite (aka Episcopalian) which is a happy solution - one side of the family is Catholic, the other Protestant. Although content in this tradition he has no intention of abandoning his roots. "I attach a lot of importance to how I was brought up. One of the good things about evangelicalism, which is overlooked, is that people know their bibles incredibly well." This theme comes up again and again: the gospels, the power of stories, reading the bible creatively. "That's what it is all about - asking questions: questions you want to ask. You want to find out more about [the stories] and not just someone's gloss on them."
It all seems to boil down to how one deals with Christ and what it means to be Christ-like in this day and age. "The incarnation is so important - if we are trying to understand God, Jesus is the most important model we have got. There was a brilliant Christmas song (I say brilliant ironically): 'The road leads from Bethlehem to Calvary'. It summed up for me what my evangelical background believed about the nativity: it is a nice little story, but let's cut to the chase: the real stuff is the Easter story. The point about Jesus' life is that we don't cut to the chase - we've got a whole load of stuff to get on with now." Tim Woodcock
AN OPINIONATED HISTORY OF DEACON
Raintown was a strong debut: it was soulful
sequence of songs about a dead-end city - the need to belong and the need to
escape. The songs were bulging with every kind of passion. It featured their
trademark juxtaposition of McIntosh's voice with Ross' growl. And band gelled in
the studio and demonstrated their proficiency - which was exactly the problem,
they seemed like interchangeable session men.
Deacon Blue's label CBS were pushing them very hard: 1987 was a year of hard touring and a very deliberate attempt to go mainstream. The vulnerability & Raintown's tracks was replaced by a more rocky sound a more cocky attitude. At the time Ross commented, "There's no way we could do another set of songs about being unemployed and trapped when we're not". When the World know Your Name, the difficult-to-listen-to second album, now sounds dated and rushed. Circus Lights was a tender and powerful moment - otherwise only the big singles Real Gone Kid, Wages Day stand out.
Deacon Blue were never darlings of the music press. As they established themselves as an act, the stadium rock ambitions and self-confidence of U2 and IRS were beginning to look absurd. This was soon overtaken by cool of the late eighties and Madchester scene. Big music was out. Shambolic and ironic was in. And Deacon Blue lost out.
Having said that, Deacon Blue were more prone to experiments than most would admit; but having been labelled a dependable corporate rock outfit no-one took it seriously. The release of Ooh Las Vegas - a collection of b-singles - surprised some: but it is a sparkling record with some great moments. Where else would you hear Abide with Me and a Julian Cope song on the same record? Fellow Hoodlums, perhaps the strongest album and certainly the most joyfully eccentric, is a series of vignettes about the dark often drunken streets of Glasgow. Ross' intriguing and poignant lyrics were set alight by the most varied instrumentation to date.
The final studio album was produced by Paul Oakenfield and the indie-dance sound was unlike anything else they'd done. The single Your Town offered some promise but the album seemed to be unsure what it was aiming for. Commercially speaking it was the final nail in the coffin. In 1994 the the end of the band was announced.
About time, I guess. But what a time it was.
What's your favourite possession?
What are you reading at the moment?
Richard Holloway - "Dancing on the Edge".
How do you relax?
Golf. Football - playing and watching. In the garden... you can see that winter is difficult. I still love listening to music and the radio (3, 4 and 5) and I really enjoy cooking.
What's your favourite journey?
There isn't really a big one. But as I'm an exile from Dundee I love driving or even taking the train up there. The last stretch through the Carse of Gowrie is probably my favourite stretch of road.
What do you like most about yourself?
I like to think I'm open to new things.
What do you dislike about yourself'?
How long have you got? At the moment I realise my body is failing me - I seem to take ages to get over injuries and am as supple as something that isn't very supple!
What' s your favourite word?
Sturrock [get a Scots dictionary]
If you could be someone else who would it be?
I'd have loved to have a been a footballer. I know I could never have been so I imagine being a manger and I'd love to be Alex Ferguson.... The reality is I'd settle for being anyone involved, so being a commentator on R5 would be the best it could get!
When did you last cry?
On stage at the end of a Victor Jarra Foundation benefit a few weeks ago. The sight of Childean exiles all singing a traditional song, "The People United will Never be Defeated" was incredibly moving.
What are you scared of?
Dying and the loss of my wife or children.
Describe a recurring dream that you have.
Being in front of an audience without knowing what to say or do.. no, wait a minute, that's life.
What do you never miss on TV?
Stars In Their Eyes.
What music do you listen to most?
It depends on the year. The last two have been a shrine to Randy Newman. At the moment the Jackie Brown soundtrack and "The Protecting Veil" by John Taverner.
What pet hates do you have?
Bad questioning by TV journalists and failure to present the real issues. Recently this means that we all get fobbed off with right wing theories for job cuts. In fact journalists are really my pet hates: the fact that music reviewers hunt in packs is the most depressing. I would say radio DJs but I think everyone hates them.
What would your motto for living be?
Fuck'em if they can't take a joke.