Deacon Blue - Caledonian Dreamers
The Telegraph 18th September 2014
After Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games put them back in the spotlight, Eighties pop
stars Deacon Blue are embarking on a second life. Anita Singh meets them
Amid the frothy camp of the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony – Kylie Minogue reviving The Loco-Motion, a tartan-trousered Lulu – there was one performance delivered without gimmicks. Deacon Blue played Dignity, the song that launched their career 27 years ago, in the heartfelt style that has been their trademark. Never mind the teenagers tweeting: “Who the hell are Deacon Blue?” For those of a certain age, it was a nostalgia trip and a reminder that this band was still going strong.
Frontman Ricky Ross may be greying at the temples now but the commanding voice remains intact, as does the soaring vocal of Lorraine McIntosh. She also appears not to have aged in two decades, although she laughingly puts this down to a make-up artist hired at the last minute: “I never have a make-up artist for gigs but suddenly I thought, 'Hold on a second, this is quite a big gig and quite a lot of people are going to see this. And I’m sure Kylie will have a make-up artist.’ ”
The band are getting used to being back in the spotlight. After some lean years in which they split and reformed, with no one but their most ardent fans taking much notice, and in which they lost bandmate Graeme Kelling to cancer, they are back with their seventh studio album. A New House brims with optimism and what the band sum up as “rekindled passion for the second life Deacon Blue has embarked upon”. The title track was Radio 2’s Record of the Week and the band – Ross, McIntosh, keyboard player James Prime and drummer Dougie Vipond – begin a nationwide tour in November. Together with their appearance at the Games, Deacon Blue are having a bit of a moment.
“As opposed to a senior moment?” says 56-year-old Ross. “Well, it’s nice when it happens. People say, 'I heard you on the radio the other day,’ and you go, 'Oh, really. What was it?’ and it’s one of the old ones. What you really want people to hear is your new stuff. Sometimes it takes something like the Commonwealth Games, doing Dignity, to make the connection again.”
Dignity divides opinion: for every person who loves the tale of a binman and his boat there is another who finds it cloying. Ross was inspired to write it while sitting in the bay window of his flat in Pollockshields, Glasgow, and watching council workers leave the cleaning depot at the end of his street. He claims not to be sick of it. “I never take it for granted. I’m a great believer in pop music, and popular music by its definition has to be heard.”
The single and the album from which it came, Raintown, made stars of Deacon Blue at a time when every other band in the charts seemed to be Scottish – Aztec Camera, Hue and Cry, Danny Wilson, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. “You would go to a gig and there would be a bunch of A & R guys up from London to see whoever was the subject of the next big rumour,” Ross recalls of their early days. “And you’d try to create your own rumour, because this was pre-internet so it was all just hearsay.
“There was a lot of money around from the major labels. It felt like anything was possible and that the phone was going to go one day and there’d be someone saying, 'I want to sign your band.’ One day it did, and it changed our world.”
Deacon Blue’s second album, When the World Knows Your Name, was their biggest hit, knocking Madonna’s Like a Prayer off the number one spot in 1989 and spawning the singles Real Gone Kid, Wages Day and Fergus Sings the Blues. But it is Raintown that stands the test of time.
Listen to it now and it hasn’t dated. The band were tagged as “sophisti-pop” but from the opening lines of the title track (“It’s a rain dirt town, job hurts and it don’t pay”) to the black-and-white cover image of Glasgow’s sprawl, it is a hymn to urban life.
If they were not an authentic voice of working-class Scotland – Ross was privately educated and working as a teacher when he was signed – they were certainly Left-wing, performing at anti-poll tax gigs and benefits for Nicaragua. It is partly memories of that time that have made Ross, and several of his contemporaries, including Hue and Cry’s Pat Kane and Fairground Attraction’s Eddi Reader, passionate about Scottish independence. He is a prominent Yes campaigner, albeit in a measured voice far removed from the “cyber nationalist” internet trolls who vilified J K Rowling after she donated £1 million to the rival Better Together campaign.
“Our generation, you’ve got to remember, lived through the Eighties where the majority of Scotland voted one way and got something else, so that casts a long shadow,” says Ross, who claims that wanting the Yes vote is “the default position amongst artists”.
“A lot of people I know really fear what’s going to happen with the next round of cuts and the austerity that’s controlled from London. It’s about imagining a better place than we live in at the moment.”
Perhaps naively, he refuses to believe the political divide will leave any lasting bitterness after the vote. “I don’t see people falling out, I see us all chatting in a fairly healthy way about it,” he says. The debate has got young people thinking about politics, and how can that be a bad thing? “All of us, from all political sides, have the same problem that we’re not getting people to come and vote. Yet all my children have been engaged with this over the breakfast table.”
His love for Scotland shines through on A New House. The track Our New Land is an almost absurdly romantic paean to independence, while another is named after John Muir, the Scottish-born conservationist. It is also a testament to the love between Ross and McIntosh, who have been married for 24 years and have four children.
The husband-and-wife dynamic works pretty well in the band, both say, although they admit it became a healthier atmosphere when they began pursuing their own side projects, Ross as a solo artist and songwriter for the likes of James Blunt and Jamie Cullum, McIntosh as an actress, appearing in Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe and the television series Taggart. As McIntosh, 50, puts it: “If Deacon Blue stopped tomorrow we do have lots of other things going on in our lives and careers that would keep us going.”
Not that they want to stop. “You don’t get to this age without looking back with a certain amount of nostalgia at your life, and that comes through on this record,” says McIntosh. “But it’s also a joyful record, so it’s marrying those two emotions – looking back on youth and all the things you’ll never experience again and saying, 'Celebrate them, but know that there’s still brilliant things to come.’ ”