Blue Is The Colour! Record Buyer
Scottish band Deacon Blue notched a massive 19 hit singles before splitting up in 1994. With an album of new material due, lead singer and main songwriter Ricky Ross shares the highs and lows with Ian Shirley
Ross took the name Deacon Blue from a song on the Steely Dan album ‘Aja.’ Everyone assumes that main songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagan are one of Ross’s greatest influences. They are not. “I think they’re a great band, but I was never that strongly that influenced by their music because I wasn’t that into jazz. I just loved this title.” Ross’s main influences were those masters of pop, the Beatles. ‘I was a huge Stones fan I actually bought Stones records first but the Beatles were in the house, my sister had Beatles records. I think they were the biggest influence because they wrote songs.
It was the knowledge that they wrote songs that interested me. In the late sixties and seventies that whole singer-songwriter thing was part of the game.” Ross also learned his trade from Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Neil Young and even Marc Bolan’s T Rex, one of the most underrated groups. Rhythm and blues and soul came later to the brew. Before forming Deacon Blue in 1986, Ross had a couple of false starts. I joined a band and was the co-writer and keyboard player. That was frustrating because the band was neither one thing nor another.
The other guy was probably as frustrated as me. He wanted to do one thing and I wanted to do another so we pulled in two different ways.” This band, Woza, supported people like the Waterboys on tours around Scotland in 1982 before falling apart. In 1983 Ross recorded a cassette-only album, So Long Ago, for a small independent label and sent copies to various London publishers with a view to selling his songs to other artists. He was advised that if he wanted to hear someone sing his songs he should form a band and sing them himself. Ross, now in his late twenties, decided to follow this advice.
Deacon Blue went through several line-up changes before the musical concrete set. Douglas Vipond (drums), James Prime (keyboards), Ewen Vernal (bass) and Graeme Kelling (guitar) were the final line-up. Although Ross took care of lead vocals, he decided to add a female singer to the mix. It’s always good to have backing vocals. It’s very practical. It was just a different colour to the band, a different sound.’ The first singer was Carol Moore but she was soon replaced by Lorraine McIntosh, “She and I clicked musically and we liked the same records.”
Deacon Blue began playing live, the set list was made up of Ross compositions
like 'Loaded’ 'Dignity’ and 'Chocolate Girl’ Gordon Charlton signed Deacon
Blue to Columbia Records in August 1986 and Ross still smiles at the memory, “I
don’t know how it happened but he’d come up to see this other band and
decided to see us as well. He actually didn’t sign the other band, he signed
us!” Producer Jon Kelly was assigned to the band, and Ross believes he was
perfect for the job. He gave the band confidence. Jon was great for making
everyone in the band feel they could contribute. So, for the other guys in the
band, it just gave them a lot of confidence for them to perform. He made you
feel that being in a recording studio should not feel intimidating.”
A debut album, Raintown’, was released in May 1987 and for a first statement it was tremendously mature. The songs were aimed at the pop mainstream but the lyrics were sharp, knowing reflections on the life Ross had lived and observed in his native Scotland. Chocolate Girl,’ for example, was a dark rumination on a failing marriage, “I always think it’s funny that people view ‘Chocolate Girl’ as a really romantic song. I say, ‘If you think that is a romantic song then you must have a bad marriage!’ Because the point is that it’s a very horrible relationship.’ Despite strong touring, early singles like Dignity,’ Loaded’ and When Will You Make My Telephone Ring’ sold poorly while, though ‘Raintown’ received favourable reviews, it did no serious damage to the album charts.
At the end of 1987 the song ‘Dignity’ was re-recorded, and Ross makes no bones about the reason why. “It was meant to be remixed by Bob Clearmountain. He heard the playback of the song and said that he would do it if he could re-record it. I said Okay.’ That is how it happened. We did it to get a hit record and I think that everyone felt at that time that if we didn’t get a hit record we wouldn’t have a record option. We did it because we wanted to keep making records.” Like a pig, the re-recorded version of ‘Dignity’ was sent to market. Played to death on the radio it became the first single to get into the Top Forty. In many respects, it remains a Deacon Blue touchstone and a shining example of Ross’s songwriting.
But the frugal old man in the song who saved 20 years to buy a dinghy was a total work of fiction. There is no truth in the story, nothing about the boat. When I first moved to Glasgow I used to live in a street that had a cleansing depot on one side of it. I used to look out of my window and these guys were walking down the street with these brushes. That must be where the guy from the street came from.” The main thrust of the song was about the terrible unemployment across the country at that time and the ridiculous vapourware job schemes the Conservative government had introduced. People have got to have dignity. People have got to have something that is meaningful and respectful and all the rest of it.” Ironically, in later years Ross learned that his solo collaborator, guitarist Mick Slaven, had a grandfather who was partial to sailing on the West Coast of Scotland.
Deacon Blue hit paydirt with their second album, ‘When the World Knows Your Name.’ Released in April 1989, it was a chart topping album and spawned a massive five hit singles. including ‘Real Gone Kid.’ and ‘Wages Day.’ Looking back, Ross has mixed feelings about the album. “I’ve often said I didn’t like Warne Livesey’s production on the second album which is probably a bit unfair to him, because I think he did a great job. In fact, he’s still wondering why he never got asked back! I just felt that it wasn’t how I liked making records. Nevertheless, this remains their best- known album. The strength and chemistry of the band was reflected in the fact that James Prime wrote the music for ‘Fergus Sings the Blues’ and ‘Queen Of The New Year.’ “Jim is a great writer but not a prolific writer. He always says that there is something about when we write together that makes sense. I get some good out of him and he gets some good out of me.’ Ross also collaborated with Ewen Vernal. “‘Orphans’ was a bit of a fluke. The drum machine kept running in the studio and Ewen played this bass line and we literally built the song around that. That just basically came together in the studio.”
Deacon Blue were not allowed to have their cake and eat it. There was a critical backlash, and the band were accused of blandness. How dare they sing, ‘Tell me, can this white man sing the blues? Ross actually understands the animosity the band inspired. “We were flavour of the month because we were not typical. The trouble is. that if you are successful. people give you an opinion. If you are on the radio a lot of people form opinions. “I personally don’t like Craig David’s music and I feel sorry for him. If you don’t like him six times you don’t want any more of him! If you don’t like someone’s music, personally, I’m sure that he is a lovely guy and very talented but its not my kind of thing, you hear yourself saying Och, I’d love to kill the person who sings that song! That’s what happened to us. We were getting really heavy plays on the radio and people thought, ‘I hate them.” Ironically, the worst example of this backlash had occurred before Deacon Blue scaled the mountain of mainstream chart success when they played the famous Reading Festival in August 1988. They walked onto the stage and, having received a very negative reaction from the crowd, played one number and walked off somewhat soggier than when they first came on.
Various sections of the audience threw cans of piss at them! “I hate rock festivals. I just can’t be bothered with the whole kind of laddish notion, It was that sort of mentality. I thought why should we do it? To be a real cred band? I though that it doesn’t mean that much to me so we walked off. I never regretted it.” At the height of their success in 1989 Deacon Blue came close to splitting up. The chemistry between McIntosh and Ross gave Deacon Blue’s live shows great panache. Her voice was a counterpart to his and very much part of the Deacon Blue sound. This professional relationship became personal. No big deal under normal circumstances, but Ross was already married. “It was a nightmare! It was a nightmare because I was going through a divorce and all the rest of it. Everybody was saying, ‘Don’t do it! Go out with someone else!’ But now, I’m so happily married that it’s the best thing I ever did ‘ Ross and McIntosh tied the knot on 12th May 1990.
The relationship between the two singers was not the only
thing that caused friction in the ranks. In the space of two years, Deacon Blue
had become the most successful band in the UK. This led to a punishing schedule
of touring, recording and industrial strength promotional work. “The things
you do that you never expected to do, the places you got to visit, the
experiences you got to have just blew everybody apart.” After a while
everybody, apart from Ross and McIntosh, were literally sick to death of
being with each other.
“We’d been on a tour of the UK, through Europe, through Australia and America. It just got to the point when we needed time off.” The band decided to do just that. Giving themselves a breathing space yielded Deacon Blue’s biggest hit. As early as 1986 Ross had told an interviewer of his admiration for the songwriting team of Hal David and Burt Bacharach. Deacon Blue even played one of their songs in concert, “We’d been doing ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ and people loved it, absolutely loved it.” For fun, the band decided to record and release four Bacharach and David songs as an EP. In keeping with their decision to take things easy they did no promotion whatsoever, “We were so relaxed. We had had hit singles and we were not that bothered. We just put it out. We all went on holiday and someone made the video and we were not even in the video and we didn’t do Top Of The Pops. Because it got so much radio play it became a huge hit.”
It was Deacon Blue’s biggest hit single and reached No. 2 in August 1990. For Deacon Blue, the sword of success was always double-edged. In September 1990, ‘Ooh Las Vegas,’ a double album of B-sides and hard to find tracks, was released. Reviewers saw it as a marketing ploy to milk fans. “That was very hurtful at the time. We got bad reviews. It was kind of indicative of where we were. We were in the charts and in people’s faces and people thought it was their chance to get our goat. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hurt by the reviews, the reviews were terrible. It was awful. “In a sense it was one of the bits of baggage of being on a major label. You cannot release an album on a label like Sony or Columbia without them pushing it. They had to chart it.” Negative reviews aside, the album contain some interesting material including songs written and performed for William Mcllvanney’s BBC play Dreaming, where Deacon Blue appeared as themselves. Spiting the critics, Deacon Blue went from strength to strength. Tours played in larger and larger venues although Ross found the vast expanses of Wembley Arena and Birmingham’s NEC centre somewhat impersonal. On later tours the band decided to play smaller venues which offered better acoustics and more intimate surroundings.
A third album, ‘Fellow Hoodlums’, was recorded in Paris during 1991 and Ross still feels the record does not totally work. “I wanted to remake ‘Raintown’. We got Jon Kelly in who had made Raintown’. ‘Fellow Hoodlums’ was going to be an album from start to finish and we were not going to bother about singles and all the rest of it. But it was a little self- knowing in that sense. I think it ultimately failed. With ‘Raintown’ we just picked the best songs and put them on the record. I think that is why that is a more satisfying record.” Ross also admits to ego problems. “I don’t think I listened enough to other people. I was too big headed about that record. I was a bit pig headed in the sense that I had these twelve songs that I wanted to be on the record and nothing else would come into that.”
‘Fellow Hoodlums’ received excellent reviews and for many fans remains a great album. It also spawned four hit singles, and even today Ross finds the ‘singles band’ tag frustrating. “People only knew us for our singles and I thought that we were a serious band. Our records were always written as albums. Singles do sell albums but people have to take it home and put it on and it has to hang together and work.” When it came to making their fourth album Ross wanted a radical change in production and asked Gordon Charlton at Columbia for suggestions. Steve Osborne and Paul Oakenfold were mooted.
This was an interesting choice because the ‘Perfecto’ team were best known for their dance-tinged work with artists like the Happy Mondays and Neneh Cherry. Ross invited the producers to a Deacon Blue concert at Hammersmith Odeon. “They came down and they were completely confused about what we were about and what we wanted.” It was mutually agreed that the Perfecto team would test the waters by producing two tracks. One of these was ‘Your Town.’ “They were so pleased with the song and we were so pleased with the song that rather than work with other people we decided to finish the album with them.” Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,’ to my ears is the best Deacon Blue album. Osborne and Oakenfold give the music a more muscular and harsher edge.
On ‘Your Town.’ Ross’s voice is electronically treated to sound harsh and distorted. Ross still loves the album. “I think it is the best record actually. People don’t believe this, but it was a very Deacon Blue album.” It contains one of Ross’s favourite songs in ‘Bethlehem’s Gate.’ “I was recently clearing out my study and found these negatives in a drawer. I looked at them and they were the negatives of this night at Loch Lomond and immediately the same feeling came back. ‘Bethlehem’s Gate’ is really about that, It’s about heaven on earth, and that is a favourite song because it reminds me of good times.”
Your Town went to 14 in the charts, although following singles did not chart as high as expected. "I think the problem with that record was that we did not have a follow-on single. Again record company politics. They got a bit scared of it. Everyone loved Your Town. It should have been a huge hit. They cocked up the second single by the way they released it. It was 'Will We Be Lovers’ which was a brilliant song but I thought it should be 'Only Tender Love.’ One year later Deacon Blue had gone, splitting after a tour to promote a greatest hits album. To be honest we were not at each others throats but I just felt it was going to be difficult to go in and make a new record. I felt real pressure as to how did I involve everyone? I think I’d just had enough of being in a band.” Deacon Blue went out on a high when ‘Our Town; The Greatest Hits’ went to Number 1 in April 1994. For Ross, the demise of Deacon Blue meant a solo career.
He was intent on making a personal statement rather than deliver a seamless mainstream follow-on from Deacon Blue. He had been listening to Buffalo Tom and the Lemonheads and noticed that they were produced by the Robb Brothers. "I decided to find out about them and no one seemed to know much about them. It turned out that they were interested in working with me.” ‘What You Are’ was released in April 1996. As a solo album it was a strong calling card. Two singles made little impact and the album only made a brief chart appearance. Retribution was swift; “The label chucked me off!”
Ross took time out and, when he did return to the fray, it was a back to basics affair on his own label 1997’s ‘New Recordings’. “The songs on it were very different because they were only songs that could be done acoustically either on guitar or piano. I suddenly discovered that there was a show waiting to be done where you talk and just play songs.” Ross began touring this acoustic show in small, intimate venues. “It actually saved my life because the first time I toured the country, I met all these Deacon Blue fans who came to the shows and I got to talk about songs like ‘Dignity’ and ‘When Will My Telephone Ring.’ People actually loved the show because it was relaxed and I could change it every night.”
As the years crept by, rumours of a Deacon Blue reunion increased. This became reality on 27th May 1999 with a concert at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Later in the same year the band toured to promote a new compilation album, ‘Walking Back Home. Initially, there were no plans to record new material. “It’s a big step because when you split a band you do leave a body of work, whether it’s good or bad, you’ve completed it, and I think the temptation is not to dick with that. That has always been in my head.”
However, with no material released since 1997, Ross had a deep pool of creative waters to draw songs from. He was also open to collaboration and it was decided to record an album under the Deacon Blue banner. Can he now describe the elements that go towards making the Deacon Blue sound? “It’s something to do with the voices and something to do with the voicing of chords and the playing. It’s something that you don’t try to quantify. It’s there when it goes onto tape.”
Early signs suggest that the new album, Homesick’ (released by Papillon on 30th April) will maintain Deacon Blue’s high standard of chart-friendly material. A Is For Astronaut’ and 'Every time You Sleep’ (the first single) are strong, melodic pop songs. Like all good songwriters Ross can turn his personal observations, views and feelings into excellent lyrics. “I think song lyrics work because they are surrounded and supported by a song. I think there are things that work in songs that don’t work in poetry like repetition. Van Morrison, for example, is a great lyricist because he knows the power, the magic of words being sung.” Whether Deacon Blue will submit themselves to another golden shower at Reading is, as yet, unconfirmed... Ian Shirley