The Sunday Times 12th September 1999
Deacon Blue, Scotland's most successful rock band, is back together. Singer-songwriter Ricky Ross tells why the band split up in 1994, and why they are giving it another go
A couple of years ago I met a priest whom I knew from my time teaching in Maryhill. "Ricky!" he said, "I was there when you died and ascended to heaven!" I was confused. "The Barrowlands, in May '94. I was at your last ever show. Saw you being taken to join the choir invisible!"
Disbanding Deacon Blue sometimes felt like that: a kind of death. The six of us were together for almost a decade. We were a family, and our music touched a great many people. Even today, if I walk down the street or into a pub, I can be greeted with a word-perfect version of Dignity, our first hit single.
Playing music's a bit like playing football: what can you do that will ever be as good? This is not how it felt before Deacon Blue split up. I found myself wishing I was a school teacher again. It was a terrible time.
Some of the reasons for the split were positive. My wife Lorraine (a fellow band member) and I were expecting another baby and the thought of taking two children on the road would, at that time, have been too much. Ironically this is about to happen in a few weeks, though now both can walk, talk and sleep.
The pleasure of making music was being destroyed in 1993. The then head of our label (thankfully no longer there) Columbia Records, was notorious for his crude approach to marketing. He tried to insist we call our Greatest Hits "All the Best!" because: "That's the kind of thing you Scots say!" I pointed out that Paul McCartney had already done that. Nothing got through to him . . .
At the more intimate level of the band itself, things were going wrong. The phrase "musical differences" is a bit of a joke. It was hard, though, to imagine Deacon Blue going into the studio wanting to make the same album. We always consulted each other about things, and it was my job to create the consensus. It was laborious and exhausting. I wanted to be an individual again.
By 1994, my stress levels were at an all-time high, while my creative energy was at an all-time low. One rehearsal for our last tour got very ugly. I lost patience with one of the guys. I cannot even remember why. All my frustration came out in the ensuing argument. I wanted to give up there and then, but someone suggested we should sit down and talk it out. It wasn't hard. I had already made up my mind to end things. I was happy to apologise, realising there were no real issues around any more. Over the next couple of days, the band started quietly looking around for new sources of income. We were forced to announce the split publicly when Scottish Television hired our drummer, Dougie Vipond, as a presenter.
The break-up was eclipsed for me by a greater loss, that of my father. The day remains vivid in my mind. My team, Dundee United, were making their customary dogged progress to cup final humiliation. We were still 1-0 down to Aberdeen after 90 minutes at Hampden in the semi- final when big Brian Welsh headed in an equaliser. On the Tuesday of the replay I had my strip on to rehearsals. I was to go home with Lorraine for dinner, before heading to Hampden via the Victoria Infirmary. My dad had been in hospital quite a lot over those last months. My short stop was to be an informal visit to tune in his radio so he could enjoy the match live.
When Lorraine took the phone call, I knew something was wrong. By the time
I got to the hospital, my family were gathered in a waiting room and my father
The next few weeks were a blur. All the Deacon Blue guys came to the funeral and were fantastic in the immediate days after. I was numb. All I wanted to do was to finish the tour and get back home. Within a week of my dad's death we were on stage in Ireland, and I was in the strange position of bidding farewell to people I'd never met, having missed the chance to bid a real farewell to my father.
The last twist happened the day after what Fr Willie called our "final ascension". At 4.44 p.m, a whistle blew at Hampden Park and Dundee United won the Scottish Cup for the first time. I'd been there for six losing ties, the first and last spent in the presence of my father. The crowd at the Dundee United end sang Dignity. I'm not exaggerating when I say it felt like an era had ended.
IT'S five years since that last concert. I've played a lot of solo shows in that time that were particularly enjoyable - the most frightening and most rewarding things I've done. Getting up on stage alone is quite different from being in a band, even as the lead singer. You must create a bond between yourself and the audience. Sometimes I'd stand in the wings beforehand, afraid of going on. But I was always glad I did. Generating warmth out of nothing, on your own, is incredibly fulfilling.
I developed a habit of walking out after the show and chatting to some of the audience in the bar. Some nights I felt I'd given everything but blood and nobody could expect more. I'd be confident, relaxed and composed as I casually signed an autograph and posed for a photograph. Then the question would come: they loved the show, they enjoyed the album and thanks for doing that song tonight but . . . is there any chance of the band getting back together?
Moments like that put my back up at first. Then I would relax: they were only paying a compliment. Deacon Blue played songs that I wrote and sang - not much to resent there. My answer was always truthful: "There's no plan, but you never know. There might be a gig some time".
Then, one day, it just happened. Braendam House and Glasgow Braendam Link are two linked charities that support many isolated families whose lives suffer under the stress of living in acute poverty. They approached me to organise a fundraiser featuring various artists in May 1999. I worried if this would be enough to sell all the tickets.
So I phoned round Deacon Blue: Dougie, Jim Prime on keyboards, Ewen Vernal who played bass and Graeme Kelling on guitar. Would they be up for playing for an hour to finish the show? Everyone agreed right away - Lorraine was already on board. Soon we'd changed the venue from the King's to the Royal Glasgow Concert Hall. Two thousand tickets sold out within an hour and a half. An offer came in to do two extra shows at the Clyde Auditorium.
There were still sensitivities, however. I knew I would feel happier with a second guitarist. Most Deacon Blue tracks had at least two guitar parts and in 1994 it was always in my mind to reproduce this sound for the live show. The musician I wanted was Mick Slaven, with whom I'd recorded and written songs since the band split up. I was worried about how our original guitarist, Graeme, would feel about the change. I needed to make sure.
As we met that morning I was apprehensive. It was quite a heart-stopping moment. I did not want Graeme to take it as a personal slight. But his response was: "Sure! Is that all?". I was immensely relieved. Some musicians would get very egotistical and defensive about such a request. But Graeme was just keen to enhance the live sound for our audience; I think it says a lot about his character. The only thing left to see was if we could all be in a room together - and if it sounded any good.
The six of us had not occupied the same space since we stepped off the stage of the Barrowland five years ago. I think the nearest we came to a reunion was when four of us went to Graeme's stag night. There was bound to be some tension. Maybe we all hadn't been in touch as much as we wanted. But families are like that. If one of us had been knocked down by a bus in those five years, the whole band would have cried at his funeral, said he was a great guy and been genuinely devastated.
That first day was tense and, at times, hilarious. Ewen walked in, having listened to the tape of the songs we were going to perform, on his way up to Glasgow from Ayrshire. Mick's girlfriend Emma was overdue with their first baby and any incoming telephone call was met with apprehension and expectation. Lorraine arrived last. We were all finally together again.
It was strange, seeing them there with their instruments. Musicians almost become indistinguishable from their drum kit, their keyboard or whatever. Looking round the room, it was like rebuilding a long-abandoned house, putting the furniture back in exactly the same place.
Maybe we picked the right songs, maybe we'd all forgotten how it sounded before, but it seemed to me we were singing and playing better than ever. Certain songs hadn't ever sounded as good: Ragman, The Wildness, Loaded . . . memories just flooded back. I'd get caught up in the moment, then the song would stop and we'd shuffle around like the west of Scotland men we are, and wait for someone to crack a bad joke. We lapsed back into our dumbed-down student humour. Jim was notorious in the early years for disappearing at odd times - or at least that was what the rest of us decided. When somebody said "Where's Jim?" we rolled around on the floor, uncontrollable with laughter. The new member, Mick, was perplexed.
The first, charity show required a great deal of thought - we had a host of turns for the first act. I've never enjoyed a Deacon Blue gig so much: the audience felt high. We seemed so relaxed that, at times, I felt I was in a particularly enjoyable dream. Lorraine often told me of her recurring nightmare, where we are playing to a baying crowd without the correct instruments or line-up. This was the opposite of that.
The next two shows were great fun: even bigger crowds and the uncertain feeling on the third night that this really might be the last time we perform together. We'd played to 8,000 people in one city in a week. Not even on our last tour in 1994 had we had such a demand for tickets. Within days, the promoter MCP asked us to commit to an October tour of the UK. Irish promoters requested us to come over in November. I started to explore the possibility of producing a new, retrospective album. When I returned from holiday in August, we had sold out our first Albert Hall show and added a second. A recording plan and budget were agreed.
Within a fortnight, we were in Park Lane studios in Glasgow where, in 1986, we made our first demo tapes. Nothing I've worked on has been turned round as quickly. We mixed the songs just last week. The result is Walking Back Home, a 17-track collection of love songs. Walking Back Home itself was written about a Dundee Hogmanay in 1979 and seemed to be the right title for the tour and the album. It includes some of the best things Deacon Blue ever did, but which never found the right home.
I could not have recorded these songs as an individual artist. When I made my first solo record I wanted to try new things. I wanted to get away from the epic "big sweep" of Deacon Blue, but some songs need that treatment. One such track is called Jesus, Do Your Hands Still Feel the Rain. It was commissioned for a Hollywood film called Blown Away, shortly after we made the decision to split. The studio loved the demo, but when they received the master tape a few weeks later, they decided they didn't want it in the film, after all, so we had a Deacon Blue song nobody had heard before. When I heard Jim play it, it almost made me weep. He is such a beautiful pianist that I heard the song anew. It is all about loss, and though it was written just before my father died, it could so easily be about him. Jesus was recorded in the new session, along with an old classic, Love Hurts, and a new song called Plastic Shoes.
I've had little time to stop and reflect. Five years has made a difference. We now have a common understanding about what made us good: the ability to play together seamlessly, like an orchestra. Deacon Blue, however, no longer governs our lives. All the other people in the band have successful new careers. Jim is setting up the Scottish School of Music and Recording Technology, which will open soon in Ayr. Dougie has a television career and presents the Holiday Programme. Ewen is the regular bass player with Capercaillie. Graeme was involved in researching Pete Irvine's book Scotland the Best! and also works in television. Lorraine has her own acting career and recently appeared in the BBC drama, Life Support.
The $64,000 question: is the band back together for good? Well, we're bringing out a new album and we're going on the road, but nobody is abandoning their new lives. If we enjoy playing the shows, then we'll maybe do some more and get back into the studio. If that happens I'll be pleased. I'm just glad we're getting a chance to play all these songs together one more time, without the shadows that overcast our final tour. Those feelings of dread have gone. Music is again better than working.
Another priest story: the brother of our school chaplain in Maryhill was the Catholic chaplain to Barlinnie. He invited me to go up to the prison one day to launch a visiting/support initiative. I felt a little awkward arriving as I knew nobody. Soon I found myself talking to Billy McNeil, who's as nice a man as you can ever meet. I knew he was no longer directly involved in football so I asked him if he was working. "I've never worked, Ricky," he answered, brilliantly. I want "never to work" too.
Walking Back Home by Deacon Blue is released on Oct 18. Deacon Blue play Aberdeen Music Hall on Nov 18 and Dundee Caird Hall on Nov 19
The life and times of Deacon Blue
1985: Ricky Ross forms the band, recruiting Graeme Kelling, Ewen Vernal, Dougie Vipond, Jim Prime and Lorraine McIntosh. They take their name from a song by Steely Dan
1987: Release first album Raintown on CBS Records. It is compared to Bruce Springsteen's early work and Celtic rock such as The Waterboys and U2. The evocative tracks include Dignity, their first hit single, about a Glaswegian binman who dreams of escaping the drudgery of his job by sailing to the Hebrides
1989: Their second album, The World Knows Your Name, knocks Madonna off the No 1 chart position and in Scotland, outsells any other rival act by eight copies to one in the first week of release. By the end of the year they are performing sell-out shows at Wembley Stadium
1990: Ross and McIntosh marry in a hotel by Loch Lomond. The band claim to be uncomfortable with their stadium-rock image, and take most of the year off. They reappear in September with an EP, Four Bacharach and David Songs, which becomes their biggest single hit - reaching No 2 in the charts
1991: Fellow Hoodlums is released, producing one Top 10 hit, Twist and Shout
1993: The band collaborate with dance gurus Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne on their last album Whatever You Say, Say Nothing. After re-election of Tory government, Ross helps found Scotland United, the cross-party group campaigning for a Scottish parliament
1994: The band splits after a sell-out tour and differences. Ross's father dies, leaving him devastated. Vipond joins Scottish Television as a presenter
1996: Ross releases a solo album, What You Are, recorded in Los Angeles, and takes to the road solo.
1999: Ross asks rest of band if they will reform for one-off fundraiser.
They agree, and sell out the Royal Concert Hall in less than two hours of
tickets going on sale. Several more concerts are planned. An album, Walking
Back Home, to be released later this year