Breaking out again
The Scotsman 18th November 2006

IT'S NOT THE MOST AUSPICIOUS start to a national tour - a gig in a gym hall at three o'clock in the afternoon, where the audience carry in their own chairs. But not every band chooses to start their tour behind bars. This is jailhouse rock, Deacon Blue style.

"A bit of news for some people who've been here a long time," shouts frontman Ricky Ross to the assembled inmates of HMP Kilmarnock. "Dundee United are top of the league and we're No 1 in the charts!"

The audience cheer and whistle, loving every minute of the greatest hits: Real Gone Kid, Wages Day, Raintown, Loaded. The Day That Jackie Jumped The Jail gets a knowing laugh. When the first chords of Dignity chime out, they're on their feet clapping and singing along.

Everyone knows the words - the prisoners, prison officers, a handful of journalists at the back doing their best to look cynical. And here, the familiar words take on an extra resonance. "I'm thinking about home, and all that means... I'm thinking how good it would be to be here one day on a ship called Dignity...."

Deacon Blue's connection with the jail began when chaplain Father Joe Bowland organised for Ross and his wife (and Deacon Blue vocalist) Lorraine McIntosh to put on a small acoustic session last year for those serving life sentences. Ross says he was amazed by how well they understood each other.

"They got my songs more than any other audience," he says. "It was quite moving. It was nice to do a workshop, but what they want is a full-on show. The reality is that people are often very quick to say, 'Send them to jail, lock them up and forget about them.' But they shouldn't be forgotten about.

"We're not claiming that they're great, or that they shouldn't be here, but they deserve to have a good time occasionally. It's there but for the grace of God go I, and I'd like to think if I was in here somebody would put on a wee gig."

The band are treating the prison the same as any other date on their three-week tour. They've dressed up - the guys in sharp suits, McIntosh in a sparkly dress - brought the light show and a wall of speakers. It's a polished performance, but then they have been at this for 20 years. Deacon Blue were doing gigs when privately run prisons like this one were nothing but a gleam in Mrs Thatcher's eye.

Everyone remembers Deacon Blue. But we forget how successful they were: 17 top 40 hits in the late 1980s and early 1990s, six million albums sold. In 1989 they broke all records for fastest-selling tickets at the SECC. Their second album, When the World Knows Your Name, shot into the charts straight at No 1, thereby deposing Madonna's Like a Prayer.

THERE WEREN'T MANY GOOD things about growing up in Scotland in the 1980s, but one of them was music. Every major record company had a scout in Glasgow, signing up bands like Simple Minds, Del Amitri, Hue & Cry, Aztec Camera and Deacon Blue. Ten years later, the scouts had moved on, the bands largely relegated to a paragraph in the annals of rock history. Few now admit to having followed them.

Deacon Blue's first album boded well. With the benefit of hindsight, Raintown begins to look like a concept album, so rooted was it in Glasgow, pre-City of Culture, a tough, warm-hearted city, down on its luck, losing its industries. It's an album shot through with the poetry of ordinary lives, dead end jobs, rainy streets, an earnest belief in working-class values: faith, work, dignity.

A remastered version of Raintown was released last year to mark the band's 20th anniversary. It has lasted well. "I did think it sounded good," says Ricky Ross, cautiously. "You'd never make that record again in the same way, but that's the charm of it really. I always felt good about what went on each record. I felt every song merited its place on that record. From that point of view I feel OK about them."

When they brought out the hugely successful When the World Knows Your Name in 1989, however, critics complained that the band had lost their edge, opting for cheerful, catchy pop tunes with singles appeal. But commercial success does not mean compromising on musical integrity. It's not easy to write a really good pop song, and Deacon Blue did it again and again.

Fellow Hoodlums (1991) had a rougher sound, more immersed than ever in the west of Scotland: Buchanan Street, macaroons, two bottles of Tizer. Even as Glasgow itself was in the process of being transformed, the bleakness of Raintown was rescored with optimism: songs at closing time in rainy streets, a hope of better things to come.

But as the 1990s progressed, music changed. Bands who emerged essentially from a folk tradition were beginning to look pass. So Deacon Blue made a radical attempt to update with 1993's What Ever You Say, Say Nothing, produced by Steve Osborne and Paul Oakenfold from dance label Perfecto. Some critics liked it, but fans were alienated. It was a change too far, too late.

Things were changing, too, for individuals in the band. Dougie Vipond set off for a career as a TV presenter (he's back for this tour). McIntosh and Ross were increasingly struggling to juggle band life with the demands of being parents. In 1994, Deacon Blue called it a day, playing farewell concerts in Glasgow's Barrowlands.

That should have been the end of the story, as it was for most of those names from the 1980s. But after a five-year hiatus they reformed for a charity gig in 1999 which sold out within 90 minutes. There were further gigs, a new compilation album, some new songs. New musicians came on board. The band realised two things: that the fans had not forgotten them, and that they quite liked being back.

When guitarist Graeme Kelling was struck by cancer in 2000, it seemed if anything to strengthen their resolve to carry on. (He fought the disease and went into remission but the cancer returned and he died in 2004.)

"When Graeme was really ill, he did two tours with us," says McIntosh. "It was remarkable. He was dying, basically, but it was the thing he looked forward to, and he worked towards it. It must have been horrendous for him at times, he was in such pain, but he loved it, and it was a real privilege for us to do gigs with him. It brought us all very close."

Now they're back on the road, with a new collection, Singles, currently sitting respectably in the album charts, and a single, Bigger Than Dynamite, which has been praised as a quintessential piece of pop. McIntosh and Ross's two elder daughters, Emer, 14 and Georgia, 12, have to cope with their parents being in a pop group.

"You'd think they'd be mortally embarrassed, but they're not," smiles McIntosh. "When we went on The Sharon Osborne Show, they were like 'You've met Sharon Osborne?'. It was huge for them. Suddenly we were quite cool."

That Deacon Blue is held in esteem is signalled by the fact that they were chosen to open the Carling Academy in 2003. Then, last year, they played the tsunami benefit in Glasgow with Travis and Franz Ferdinand and discovered a new generation of fans. "We thought it was going to be all kids there to see Franz Ferdinand," says McIntosh. "But these kids knew all the words to all of our songs. We were carried out shoulder high by them. Maybe they hear it from their parents, but they still seem to like it."

It's no surprise, though, that prisoners "get" Deacon Blue songs like no-one else. Like the literature coming out of Glasgow in the 1980s - Alasdair Gray, James Kelman etc - they gave voice to working-class experience. They illuminated the everyday, made it shine a bit more than it did in real life. They're singing about the world the men in HMP Kilmarnock left behind, but better - the world as they want it to be like.

Just as the band struck a chord with the idealistic kids of the 1980s who wanted to ban the bomb and free Nelson Mandela, so they were reinvigorated by the spirit of Make Poverty History, the tsunami benefits and later this month Rock Against Racism. Once again, rock'n'roll can wear its social conscience on its sleeve.

Unlike U2, they had no postmodern reinvention, no switch into ironic self-awarenes, no Achtung Baby. Ricky Ross is no Bono, but that is no bad thing. Deacon Blue always refused to play the fame game, prefering to raise their families in Glasgow than hang around celebrity parties and go on reality TV shows.

And so they do unashamedly what they've always done. They do it well and the crowds love it. By the time they played their opener at Kilmarnock jail, the tour had sold 30,000 tickets. McIntosh makes a simple point. "If 30,000 people want to come and see you 20 years after you started, you must have done something right."

BLUE REIGN

1984 Ricky Ross brings out So Long Ago, a solo EP, on indie label Sticky Music.
1985 Ross meets drummer Dougie Vipond and forms Deacon Blue.
1987 Raintown released on CBS. The first 20,000 copies sell out fast, and it eventually sells one million copies.
1989 Second album, When the World Knows Your Name, enters charts at No 1. SECC concerts are fastest selling shows in venue's history.
1990 Play to 250,000 at The Big Day in Glasgow, celebrating the European City of Culture. Album of B-sides and extras, Ooh Las Vegas, gets to No 3. An EP, Four Bacharach and David Songs, reaches No 2 with almost no promotion.
1991 Third album, Fellow Hoodlums, reaches No 2 in the album charts.
1993 Fourth album, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing is praised but fans hate it.
1994 Vipond quits for a TV career. Band announces split.
1996 Ross brings out solo album, What You Are, which fails. Sony drops him.
1999 Reunion charity gig at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall sells out in 90 minutes. Walking Back Home is released.
2001 New album Homesick panned, but gigs sell out.
2003 Band opens Glasgow's new rock venue, Carling Academy.
2004 Guitarist Graeme Kelling dies of cancer.
2005 Band plays tsunami benefit in Glasgow. Remastered Raintown released on band's 20th anniversary.
2006 Back on the road with a new single and a hits album.