(Photo: Nick Ponty)
This interview originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on Dec 14, 2013.
DEACON BLUE: RETURN TO CRANE TOWN
Here’s the way he’d tell the story.
There’s a man in a Glasgow institution. He’s sat with his scarf on, waiting for coffee, working hard on a winter’s morning, and he dropped his watch, so time has stopped, but he wears it anyway. He happens to be Ricky Ross, singer and songwriter with Scottish pop favourites Deacon Blue, but he’d probably rather you didn’t notice that. He’s awaiting a woman who’s windswept and rained-on and eager to talk about his music. (She’ll keep the fact her heart is reeling, betraying a lifetime’s fanaticism, to herself.)
Ross would turn this everyday Café Gandolfi scene into a social pop landmark. He would focus on a human feature, then zoom out to the wider geographic (and political) environment, and he’d frame it in Glasgow, because that’s what he’s always done – from Dignity’s worker for the council and Chocolate Girl’s dysfunctional Don Juan, to Wages Day’s clocked-off cigar aficionado and of course Fergus, who sings the blues.
Ever since Deacon Blue formed in 1985, they have created music that is folk in purpose, if not in form: they make songs we make our own. They soundtrack our ceremonies (weddings, parties, football matches), commemorate Christmases (they’re about to release a festive EP) and bring in the New Year (they play Stirling Castle at Hogmanay).
This time 25 years ago, the band (then comprising Ross, Lorraine McIntosh, Dougie Vipond, James Prime, Ewen Vernal and the late, much-missed Graeme Kelling) were working on their second album, When The World Knows Your Name, at Glasgow’s Cava Studios. They’ve just reissued the LP on vinyl and next weekend, they’ll play many of its hits (among others) a stone’s throw from Cava at The Hydro in Finnieston – an area that resonates throughout the history of Deacon Blue.
“We signed our record deal under the Finnieston Crane,” Ross recalls, now with coffee in hand. “When I first moved down from Dundee to Glasgow, the Finnieston Crane became this mythological object.” The crane defined the cover of Raintown, Deacon Blue’s 1987 debut album, and its follow-up, too, had a Finnieston vantage point: the artwork for 1989’s When The World Knows Your Name was shot in nearby Royal Terrace. But rather than looking down on a scene, it looked up – at smiles, streetlights, stars.
It appeared to signify the contrasting outlooks of Deacon Blue’s first two records. The band’s evocative calling card was abstract, distant and melancholy; its bombastic sequel was gilded in bright light (Circus Lights, This Changing Light, The World Is Lit By Lightning). Would Ross agree they had differing perspectives?
He nods and smiles. “This story might answer your question. After Raintown came out, Dougie heard about a guy in Coatbridge who was doing a Higher English project on the album. The boy invited us out to see it, and that was resonant for me because I’d been an English teacher. So I went in, and he had all the themes written out for each song – you know, ‘sadness’, ‘loss’, ‘break-up’, over and over and over,” Ross laughs. “And I remember thinking, ‘Okay, I get it.’” (Raintown documents, among other things, the breakdown of Ross’s first marriage.)
“So yeah,” he continues, “I’d say Raintown was, at its heart, quite an unhappy album, and When The World Knows Your Name had, at its core, something much more positive: falling in love [with his wife Lorraine McIntosh], here’s my new life, isn’t this wonderful. It’s definitely a happier album.”
That’s not to say it was an easy, or even enjoyable, record to make. The epic tale of its recording is beset with transatlantic to-ing and fro-ing, countless re-takes, mixes, producers and strained band relationships. But the tortuous sessions were loaded with promise, particularly in the now-ubiquitous strains of Real Gone Kid.
“Real Gone Kid was the crux to everything,” says Ross of their first Top Ten single. “It was released and a hit before the bulk of the album had even been finished. It came out in October ‘88, and the album didn’t come out until the following April. I always remember, we were in the studio mixing When The World Knows Your Name – this would have been December ’88 – and our manager came in and said, ‘The sales people are talking about bringing this album in at Number One.’ That was incredible. And then he said, ‘The agent thinks we should book Wembley’. It was nuts, you know? The record hadn’t even been made.” It would go on to knock Madonna’s Like a Prayer off the top of the charts.
You might wonder if such commercial expectations impacted on the songs that were subsequently recorded for When The World Knows Your Name; if hits like Queen of the New Year and Fergus Sings the Blues were written under record company pressure to replicate Real Gone Kid. But Ross is having none of that. “Oh no, we were the ones saying, ‘The stakes are high, this is the ballgame that we’re in now. Let’s play it properly.’”
Indeed, one of their biggest singles would have been lost if it wasn’t for Ross’ commercial nous. “We went into Cava to record some b-sides, and as part of the session we did Wages Day,” he recalls of an anthem inspired by a man lighting a cigar outside a Finnieston newsagent. “I had a feeling that it was one of our best songs. It was me who thought that it should be a single. It’s simple, and for me, the simpler the better. If I could write that song every day, I would.”
There’s a theory that a songwriter is always writing the same song, or variations on it. A line in This Changing Light, supports this notion (“I wrote this once before”) – does Ross reckon this argument holds any water? “I think it’s very true,” he says. “You’re always trying to capture, or re-capture, something. I always say to Jim, ‘Write us another Fergus!’, because it’s a great riff. I’m always trying to write a song on one riff.”
Deacon Blue’s new single, You’ll Know It’s Christmas, advances their knack for (re-)capturing festive nostalgia. Ross has made a tradition of writing such carols, including the wonderful Christmas and Glasgow, a rarity which first appeared on a tribute LP he curated for the late photographer Oscar Marzaroli in 1991. (Marzaroli’s everyday Glasgow portraits graced many Deacon Blue record sleeves, including Raintown.)
Entitled The Tree and The Bird and The Fish and The Bell: Glasgow Songs by Glasgow Artists, the compilation underscored Ross’s interest in documenting the city, his muse. “There was so much going on in Glasgow at that time, it was remarkable. One of the real hubs was Mayfest,” he reminisces. (Mayfest was a city-wide arts festival, which ran from 1983-1997). “I think that for all Glasgow’s gained in terms of the arts and the Commonwealth Games and The Hydro, Mayfest was one of the great losses. I think that’s missing in the Glasgow equation now.”
We head across the city to The Hydro. It’s the latest new development on an ever-changing Finnieson landscape which reminds us that time marches on, despite what it says on Ross’s watch. Where once there were warehouses and docks, now there are homes, bridges and burgeoning venues that have welcomed the myriad stages of Deacon Blue: their sold-out SECC performances of the late-80s; their Clyde Auditorium reunion dates in the late-90s (they disbanded from 1994-1999); and, next week, the band (now comprising Ross, McIntosh, Vipond, Prime, Gregor Philp and Lewis Gordon), play a huge homecoming show The Hydro, part of an ongoing renaissance abetted by last year’s seventh studio album, The Hipsters.
The political landscape, too, has changed – the “cruel and heartless woman” (Thatcher) of This Changing Light has gone; Labour came into power and lost it – yet a quarter of a century since they made When The World Knows Your Name, its social backdrop of poverty and disaffection seems more resonant than ever. “That’s very true,” says Ross. “A lot has happened, but a lot remains exactly the same.” And with a Scottish independence referendum approaching, there’s a prescience in songs like Fergus Sings The Blues (“this is my country, these are my reasons”).
We wander round Finnieston in the rain. “It’s quite an area, right enough,” says Ross. We look across to the BBC, where he’s a presenter on Radio Scotland. We talk about the SECC, where they recorded live film The Big Picture. We walk across a pavement I once sat on for almost 24 hours in the hope that I would meet the band, but I don’t mention that. This long narrow land is full of possibility.
Deacon Blue play Glasgow SSE Hydro on December 20; Stirling Castle on Hogmanay; their new single, You’ll Know It’s Christmas, is out now.
SIDEBAR: MY AMERICA
The band are synonymous with Glasgow, but America also looms large over the Deacon Blue canon.
From the Tennessee reverie of Fergus Sings The Blues (“I still dream of Memphis”) to the Florida souvenirs of Wages Day (“the cap from Disneyland”), the American landscape has never seemed far from Ricky Ross’s imagination, and this was particularly evident around the time of When The World Knows Your Name (1989). The album’s working title was Ooh Las Vegas, which eventually became the name of an accompanying rarities and b-sides anthology.
Ooh Las Vegas (1990) was rich in US reference points, including a blues-pop number called Las Vegas which surrendered to Nevada’s charms (“Las Vegas, you break your way into my heart”), a choral lullaby called Disneyworld that identified Orlando as a symbol of escapism (“carry me off to Disneyworld”), and a pop psalm hooked on a US literary classic (Undeveloped Heart echoes Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter).
Best of all was a gorgeous folk anthem called My America, which variously appeared to utilise the States as a metaphor for love, salvation and new beginnings (“oh my America, my new found land”), and for opportunities, if you’re willing to take them (“she’s far and she’s wide and she’s one small step away”).
Why the captivation with America? You’re never quite sure whether Ross’s references to the States are nostalgic, geographic, metaphoric, aspirational, cultural, or all of the above. “Actually, I’m not really sure either,” says Ross, with a smile.
He tells a tale which suggests that America’s bright lights blinded the band for a while. “I remember when we were making When The World Knows Your Name, a Columbia A&R came over to see us from LA. He had all these different ideas, and he sold us this big story. It was a bit like one of those scenes, you know – what do you tell your dog, and what does your dog hear? You tell your dog, ‘Sit down by the fire’, and what does the dog hear? ‘Blah blah blah’. All we heard was, ‘Blah blah, Los Angeles, blah blah blah, LA, blah blah blah, Hollywood,’” he laughs. “That’s all we understood. Needless to say we were on the next plane out there.”
And then they came back. There’s a telling line in Fergus Sings The Blues – “Homesick James, my biggest influence” – which refers, of course, to the legendary US bluesman, and accentuates Ross’s enduring love of Americana. But the Tennessee slide-guitarist’s moniker also captures a sentiment that Deacon Blue have constantly explored, and evoked in their work – that of homesickness – and suggests that perhaps Ross’s fascination is not with going to America, but with coming home.
Related articles: Deacon Blue Interview, The Herald, September 2012