Love And Longing
The Herald 19th September 2012
You would not wish rain upon the City, and yet it seems wrong to meet Deacon Blue under a sunlit sky in Glasgow. Twenty-five years ago they released their debut album, Raintown – an abstract eulogy to Glasgow and an abiding collection of songs about love, hope, home, work, faith and our inclement day-to-day. A lifetime hence, Raintown's backdrop still resonates – the political landscape is unsettled; the skyline ever-changing – and its anniversary sees the return of a band who sold millions with hits such as Real Gone Kid, Dignity and I'll Never Fall In Love Again.
They also won legions of avid fans, including the odd scribe who never recovered from hearing Raintown as a child; who never got over its revelation that pop could have a local voice; and who will thus struggle to eat the lunch frontman Ricky Ross and co-vocalist Lorraine McIntosh offer as they discuss the past and new album, The Hipsters, which Ross labels "a love letter to Deacon Blue".
Produced by former Delgado and Scottish pop overlord Paul Savage, The Hipsters stars founder members Ross (who presents Radio Scotland's Another Country), his wife McIntosh (an acclaimed actress), drummer/BBC presenter Dougie Vipond and keyboard player/academic Jim Prime. Original bassist Ewen Vernal now plays with Capercaillie. Guitarist Graeme Kelling died of pancreatic cancer in 2004. "We never got over losing Graeme," Ross reflects. "Never will."
The Hipsters, says Ross, happened by accident, after meeting a potential new manager. "It didn't work out, but he got the whole thing going because he said, 'You should make a Deacon Blue record.' I wasn't convinced. But I came home the next day and wrote down The Hipsters – just those words – and I had this riff. I didn't know how the song would work, but it seemed to be about longing. Then I wrote The Outsiders and realised, 'This is about Deacon Blue.'"
In the midst of that quote, Ross lands on a word that defines the band he formed in 1985 – their melodies, themes and imagery; their arrangements and words; their way with a well-placed minor chord. Longing. It's in the yearning swoon of Your Swaying Arms (1991); in the nagging hooks on I Was Right And You Were Wrong (Deacon Blue's heart-breaking sign-off when they split in 1994, they reformed in 1999); and it's in everything – from sleigh-bells to choral swell – in their most perfect song, Long Window To Love (1989). Raintown was about longing (for a chance, for home, for love). The Hipsters is about longing (for memories, for loss, for love). Longing has always burned at the heart of Deacon Blue.
"Actually, that's very true," Ross agrees. "I think every record I've done has been a fond look back. When I made my first solo record, So Long Ago (1984), I was in my twenties, but even then it felt like I was wistfully reflecting. I've never been nostalgic for youth, but there was always a sense of being on the outside" – he identifies his strict Christian upbringing in Dundee as playing a role – "and that runs through everything you do."
Ross has lived in Glasgow since the 1980s, but retains an outsider's affection for the city, from Raintown's urban romanticism to Fellow Hoodlums' lyrical map. "There was a TV play in the mid-80s called Holy City," Ross recalls. "It was set in Glasgow, and I remember thinking, 'That's it, Glasgow is Jerusalem – everything can happen here!' It's that idea that your place becomes the most important place, whether you're living in Damascus or Dundee. We all grew up in Scotland with a sense that the world happens elsewhere, and it doesn't. That was one of the things that became very clear to me; that became very important. 'No, we'll make our own stories.'"
McIntosh agrees. "Writing from Glasgow was also a way of saying, 'Our streets are as valid as your streets. Our city is as real and important as yours.' I think that's why a lot of people tuned into it – it was a voice from where they came from." She's right, and what they also said was: our pop stars are as valid as yours.
Deacon Blue had a forceful political streak, whether playing anti-poll tax demos, saluting Tony Benn (1993's Peace And Jobs And Freedom) or chronicling 1988's Govan by-election (Don't Let The Teardrops Start), but Ross's lyrics were always ambiguous: was 1987's Loaded an anti-Thatcherite call-to-arms, a cautionary anthem about wealth, or a lament for a selfish lover?
Rock-as-social-conduit was never his motivation for the band. "I saw The Waterboys and thought, 'Wow, Mike Scott loves Dylan! He loves the records I grew up with!' This was in the mid-1980s, all post-ABC glittery-pop, which is what I thought I'd have to do, then I realised, 'Maybe everything I've listened to and loved is relevant.'
"I'd also been writing songs I thought people wanted, about love affairs I'd never had," Ross says. "The last of these was [Raintown's] When Will You Make My Telephone Ring, which actually had a truth to it. Then I went on holiday and came back with these lyrics – Dignity and He Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now – and they paved the way."
This narrative echoes through Deacon Blue's canon – being in a far-away scene, then coming home (with souvenirs) – and The Hipsters sustains this heartening tradition. It thrives with driving, harmonic rock but sets the tone with opening piano-hymn, Here I Am In London Town. "I love that song," smiles McIntosh. "It harks back to Born In A Storm, which opens Raintown. It's like a letter from Ricky to himself."
For all of Raintown's countless charms, it's still best known for Dignity, which has captured our collective hearts to the extent it's almost a national anthem.
Whatever their alchemy, Deacon Blue created songs we made our own. "People come up and say, 'That's my song,'" Ross nods, "and it's like folk music, it is theirs. But the one that always gets me is Chocolate Girl. It's about this destructive west of Scotland character who's the personification of all that you would loathe in a man, and this woman who's trying to escape him, and they'll say, 'We played that at our wedding.'"
Ross and co instilled in some of us such a sense of home that I heard Raintown in a taxi while living in London and immediately resolved to move back to Scotland. "My God," says McIntosh. "The notion our band could make anyone feel like that, I can't believe it." Well, they did.
Some fans would play Deacon Blue at their weddings. Some would travel the world to see them. Some of us would try to write in the hope we would one day get the chance to tell our favourite band how much we loved them. Love them. Nicola Meighan