Deacon Blue frontman Ricky Ross: "It's still OK to get angry now and again"
Looking back three decades at Scotland's biggest gig The Big Day, Ross tells Paul English that he's now more comfortable with the personal than the political
by: Paul English
6 Mar 2020
Their best-loved song tells of a man who finds meaning in his life by pushing a council dustcart through the streets, driven by the dream of saving his money to buy a dinghy, which he’ll sail up the west coast of Scotland, through villages and towns.
Since its release in 1985, Deacon Blue’s anthem for the working man, Dignity, has become public property, a shared metaphor of hope, its simple message and joyful refrain passed down through generations as lovingly as family lore.
It has come to define the Glasgow band, its protagonist Bogie imagined like a character in a Peter Howson portrait, toiling, square-jawed and hopeful against a climate of trying times.
Yet as the Dundonian who wrote the song sits down with his wife and bandmate over morning coffee to talk about their group’s new record 33 years later – and six weeks after Scotland returned 48 SNP MPs to Westminster – we’re considering the political prescience of another of his band’s hit singles.
“The line that still really resonates is the line ‘first we speak for ourselves now’,” says songwriter and frontman Ricky Ross of their 1992 hit Your Town, a howl of anger and optimism in response to Margaret Thatcher’s 11-year premiership (which had finally ended two years earlier) and the burgeoning sense of Scotland wanting to take greater control of its own affairs.
“That’s something that has actually happened, that has become the truth. And we do it in ‘pictures and songs and words’.”
“It’s a song which still seems alive to me,” agrees wife Lorraine McIntosh, Ross’s co-singer in the multimillion-selling band. “Every time we do it live, I never feel I have to dig down too deep.”
Deacon Blue formed in 1985, a year when, thanks to Live Aid, millions were alive to the notion of music’s transformational power. Their early political leanings were as hard to miss as McIntosh’s sirening vocals on their 1988 breakthrough hit Real Gone Kid.
By the time Glasgow had been anointed as Britain’s first European City of Culture in 1990, they’d played gigs at CND rallies and Aids fundraisers, and would soon be at the centre of a collective of cultural players, including literary titans William Mcllvanney, Edwin Morgan and Alasdair Gray, in the pressure group Artists for Scottish Independence. Both Ross and McIntosh have remained high-profile supporters of the cause ever since.
At the centrepiece of the city’s cultural celebrations that year was the largest free music concert ever held in Scotland. The Big Day on June 3 pulled a crowd of 250,000 people and Deacon Blue headlined.
It’s remembered for Michael Stipe playing on the Broomielaw, Sheena Easton being booed and bottled off on Glasgow Green and Ricky Ross angrily accusing the Labour Party of being ineffectual in Scotland at a time when Tories were cutting off the country’s manufacturing lifeblood and using Scotland as a test ground for the Community Charge (more commonly known as the Poll Tax). Broadcast around the country live on Channel 4, it sounded a political and cultural klaxon from the banks of the Clyde to the rest of the UK.
Fast forward 30 years and the post-Brexit political dissonance between north and south once again provides stark parallels.
“I think it’s OK to be angry now and again,” Ross says, recalling the mood of that day in 1990. “But I would definitely have expressed it differently.
“I think a lot of people think, undoubtedly, that we are in a horrible position politically at the moment, because we have a Tory government in control. Even people who don’t believe in independence as an idea seem to think of it as the direction of travel now.
“There’s a lot of stuff to learn before you get to that point. There’s hope, definitely, but you have to reflect and change, adapt to the circumstances. You have to deal with the government that’s there, because they’re there for five years, maybe 10. You can’t just go on a constant ‘anti’ stance.”
It’s as true for their fanbase, too – a large and loyal following, which has, over the last 10 years, returned them to arenas like Glasgow SSE Hydro, Liverpool Arena and London Royal Albert Hall, where they’ll play on their winter European tour.
The enduring appeal of their music is in no doubt – the new album’s title track City of Love was on the Radio 2 A-list for four weeks over Christmas – but, in Brexit Britain, political presumption is less predictable, as they discovered on tour in 2016.
McIntosh says: “When you start off you have nothing to lose. You can be who you want and say what you want. Ricky would talk about politics all the time, we’d go to towns in the north and he’d be campaigning for Labour, talking about Margaret Thatcher, and you felt that these people were all with us.
“But things have become much more complicated. A few years ago, when we did the song Birds [from the band’s 2016 album Believers, their most successful release in 25 years] Ricky talked about refugees washing up on the shores of places like Italy, and one night on the tour someone shouted, ‘Send them home.’ That really depressed us. It reminds you that things aren’t black and white, left and right.”
Many of the songs on their 10th studio album, their fourth LP in eight years, deal more in the intimate and the personal, than the ostensibly political.
In Our Room peeks through the window on the early days of the couple’s relationship (their marriage is Ross’s second, and they now have three grown-up children), sleeping on mattresses on floors of tenement flats with stains on the ceiling. Intervals is the lightest of pre-fledging parental reassurances to a young adult; Weight of The World a shimmering eulogy and last act of remembrance for a lost soul.
Yet it’s the album’s finale, On Love, which most catches the breath. Delivered partly in spoken word by Ross, it’s a seven-minute sepia-toned daydream of autobiographical reveries on lost love.
Wistful and unconventional, it’s one of the most affecting songs in the band’s 30 year catalogue, a universe away from Greatest Hits territory.
“When I was a student English teacher, there was a guy I worked with who’d talk about some of the essays he got as ‘a stream of unconsciousness’,” he says, with tongue in cheek self-deprecation.
“It’s a series of events from childhood to my early life, which are ostensibly all disconnected,” explains Ross. “But it’s why I consider this to be the album of my life – it’s allowed me to tell the stories I’ve held back from Deacon Blue before.”
It is, he hopes, also an album in which the essence of a hymn he sang in his childhood, Away Far Beyond Jordan, resonates, too.
“I always thought it had a poignancy to it, that part about ‘if you get there before I do, look out for me, for I’m coming too.’ It’s a simple childlike verse but I think it’s the hope that everyone has.”
The echoes of Dignity’s euphoric refrain are all here. There are songs of home, of faith and work.
Because it is still work. And 35 years later, it is still working for Deacon Blue.
“I think it’s amazing that we’re even still doing it,” says Ross, now at 62, officially an elder statesman of British rock. “Making records, going on tour, it’s a lot of hard work, artistically and physically. We sleep ten hours after a show. But it’s a privilege.
“I feel a sense of real gratitude that we still have an audience.”
Deacon Blue’s new album City of Love, is out 6 March. Their European and UK tour begins in Cologne, Germany, on 25 October, ending on 4 December at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro
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