Deacon Blue: "Our new album is called The
Hipsters - basically, because we're not'
Cambridge News 10th October 2012
On the eve of the Scottish rockers’ sold-out Corn Exchange show, frontman
Ricky Ross tells PAUL KIRKLEY why he doesn’t care about being cool
Deacon Blue today, from left, Jim Prime, Lorraine McIntosh, Ricky Ross and Dougie VipondDespite what the rock history books might have you believe, not every British teenager spent the late 80s raving under a motorway bridge in an ecstasy-fuelled haze. For every kid caught up in the acid house frenzy, there were probably 50 sitting in their bedrooms diligently memorising the lyrics to The Cure’s Disintegration. Or was that just me?
The dog-end of this most divisive of decades was also something of a purple patch for that oft-maligned species, the earnest singer-songwriter. Blame Thatcher, blame Duran Duran, blame it on the boogie: something was inspiring people to make passionate, intelligent, politically-engaged music again, and it certainly wasn’t designer drugs.
This was particularly true in Scotland, where a certain streak of Celtic pessimism stubbornly resisted the rave scene in favour of world-weary tales of love, heartbreak, isolation and struggle in cold, northern cities from the likes of The Blue Nile, Del Amitri, Hue & Cry, Eddie Reader and Deacon Blue.
The latter wore their hearts on their sleeves to the extent of calling their debut album Raintown. A concept record of sorts about the hardships of inner-city Glasgow life, it was clearly no party record – though it was anything but dull. Containing the sleeper hits Dignity, When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring) and Chocolate Girl, Raintown is a proud product of an age when people weren’t afraid to namecheck John Maynard Keynes in a top 20 single.
The band, founded in 1985 by Dundee-born former English teacher Ricky Ross and including his girlfriend (now wife) Lorraine McIntosh, went on to even greater success with their follow-up album, When The World Knows Your Name, which knocked Madonna off the number one spot, helped by the huge-selling single Real Gone Kid; in Scotland, the album outsold every other record in the week of release by eight-to-one. In 1990, they scored their biggest ever hit with the Four Bacharach and David Songs EP, before finding more success with their third long-player, Fellow Hoodlums, and its Cajun-flavoured single Twist and Shout.
Despite being one of the biggest-selling British acts of their time, Deacon Blue were never exactly what you’d call cool – in an era when Paul Oakenfold and Andrew Weatherall were bringing Balearic beats to rock records by Primal Scream and the Happy Mondays, a band named after a Steely Dan song weren’t in any danger of being considered bleeding edge. (The group belatedly hooked up with Oakenfold for 1992’s more groove-centric Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, but by then Britain was on the verge of embracing Britpop.)
Two decades on, the 54-year-old Ricky Ross is relaxed enough about Deacon Blue’s image to make a joke of it in the title of the band’s new album, The Hipsters.
“It was a title that was flying round that made me laugh,” he tells What’s On. “I thought it was quite a funny song for Deacon Blue. Basically, because we’re not."
He’s phlegmatic, too, about being sidelined to the margins of pop history by the likes of The Stone Roses and Soul II Soul.
“People look back and can make anything of headlines,” he says. “But the late 80s was also the time of Tracy Chapman and REM and The Replacements, and the time of new country like Nanci Griffiths and Roseanne Cash. There were loads of different things, and there always are. In some ways now people have come to celebrate that diversity. But sometimes music critics want to pigeonhole it all, and it’s never like that, I’m sure. It’s a bit like Mod – yes that was was happening in the 60s, but so were a lot of other things.
“If you’re a songwriter, like me, you just love songs. I love songs by Rogers and Hart, I love songs by Cole Porter, I love songs by Bacharach and David. These are timeless things. I was always trying to make a record of songs that would last. You don’t have any sense when you record things how on earth it will last – you just hope that it will.”
Does he find songwriting gets harder or easier with age?
“That’s a good question. When I was younger I always thought I had about 10 to 12 songs in me a year, good or bad. But in the last 10 years or so I’ve done a lot of writing with other people, and realised you can actually write a lot more than you think you can. I’ve always been quite prolific, but within that there are purple patches and there are points where you go off the boil a bit.
“I think now I’ve realised it’s a bit of a graft – you’ve just got to go back and keep doing it. Sometimes what you need to hear is: no, you’re not quite there yet, keep going.”
I wonder if having had real life experience as a teacher brings a different sensibility to songwriting that you might not get from a bunch of kids who’ve got a record deal straight from school?
“To be honest, if kids get a record deal straight from school, chances are they’re very talented, and I don’t think I was anywhere close to having my music ready to go like that. I don’t think I’d have had any success. The thing that worked for me was getting some experience of work and of life.”
Was he a good teacher?
“I’m not sure. I wasn’t very academic, to be honest. I’m not really one of life’s academics. I always felt I was about one page ahead of my students. A teacher friend of mine said, ‘I’m not sure what it does for them, but it does wonders for me’, and I still feel a bit of that when I co-write with young artists and young songwriters. I think if you’re open to learning and listening, I think that helps.
“I was a good teacher in the sense that I did listen to people, and eventually I was quite good working one-to-one with kids, with disaffected kids who didn’t really want to be at the school. I think I was probably better at that side of things. But I’m not sure I would have made a big difference to anyone’s career.”
Vintage Deacon BlueOnce he quit the classroom to try his luck as a musician, success came relatively quickly. Did he get the chance to take a breath and enjoy it? “I don’t think I enjoyed it enough at the time,” he admits. “You’re too busy worried about what’s going to happen next, and why you’re not doing such and such over there.”
Deacon Blue split in 1994, during which time Ross released two – rather fine – solo albums, and McIntosh pursued a successful career as an actress. The band reunited in 1999 and, since then, have continued to tour intermittently between other projects – though The Hipsters is their first studio album since 2001’s Homesick, and the first without founding guitarist Graeme Kelling, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2004.
Since re-forming, Ross says he has a better appreciation of his good fortune – and well he might, as Sunday’s sell-out Cambridge Corn Exchange show suggests Deacon Blue remain a more popular draw than genuine hipsters like The Enemy (tickets still available, folks) or arguably more influential pop pioneers such as The Human League.
“It wasn’t really until we got back together – really in the last decade – that I was able to stand on a stage and look round and. . . Well, you’re in Cambridge, there’s a good example: you think, ‘this is pretty perfect, what a great, great place to play, there’s a whole lot of people here want to see us, and they love what you’re doing’. What is there to find fault in there? Nothing.
“But when you’re younger you’re just impatient and restless, so I think, to be very, very honest, I don’t think I did appreciate it at the time.”
Did having the missus in the band help? Or did it just add to the stress?
“I think both. I think both of us would say that, at the time, we got fed up with the fact it was the one thing we did, and whenever there was stuff going on with Deacon Blue, it came into our house and pervaded our house in a way that just became quite dominant.
“Even now it does, and it’s great to know that, when we come back from tour, she’ll be looking to do her next theatre gig, I will go back to songwriting, or doing my slightly obscure radio show that I do [on BBC Radio Scotland], and I’ll do an even more obscure solo album.
“It’s great doing separate things, and I can go off and see her at the theatre, or watch her on TV, and we enjoy the fact we get to do separate things, and we love the fact we get to do the music that we love together as well. It’s good, but I certainly wouldn’t want to do it together all the time – it would drive us mad.”
As he looks back on 25 years of Deacon Blue, Ricky Ross is a man clearly comfortable in his own skin, and at ease with his legacy.
“When you’re a kid you want to be a footballer or a movie star and cover all the bases, and when you’re in a band you want to be the coolest band in the world, and the most successful and all the rest of it,” he says. “But you have to be one of about 10 options, not all of them. And if you’re not at the cutting edge of critical acclaim, then it’s still great to have music that matters. My line on these things is, ‘look, there’s Bob Dylan, and then there’s the rest of us’.”
:: Deacon Blue play Cambridge Corn Exchange on Sunday, October 14. Sold out.
We asked Ricky which song from the Deacon Blue back catalogue he’d like us to feature. Here’s what he said:
“I don’t really like the videos, I have to say. I’m not a big fan of music videos. I like I’ll Never Fall In Love Again because I’m not in it. I actually quite like The Chocolate Girl video, cos it’s just us playing on a stage, doing what we did at the time.”