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Deacon Blue

+ {Ricky Ross}

Scotland had again been at the epicentre of the pop scene since SIMPLE MINDS and the unrelated Postcard Records emerged at the turn of the 80s – but then in the mid-to-late 80s a fresh batch of Glasgow-based contemporaries, headed by WET WET WET, the more politically-conscious DEACON BLUE, HUE AND CRY, plus others in their wake, like TEXAS, heralded a new phase in Caledonian blue-eyed soul. Under the auspices of Dundonian remedial teacher-cum-singer-songwriter Ricky Ross, DEACON BLUE – named after a STEELY DAN song – didn’t immediately pop the champagne corks, but through time and a re-release of signature tune, `Dignity’ (and its parent set, “Raintown”), the sextet were at the top of their game for several years until they first split in 1994.
Formed in 1985 and assisted by James Prime (keyboards), Graeme Kelling (guitar), Ewen Vernal (bass) and Dougie Vipond (drums), it was by sheer accident/inspiration, Ricky invited girlfriend Lorraine McIntosh to sing/accompany his vocals; she duly became the sixth member and married Ross the boss in 1990. The band’s first break came when Glasgow Herald journo John Williamson used their song, `Take The Saints Away’, for a fanzine-type various artists compilation cassette, “Honey At The Core” (1986).
Subsequently signed to C.B.S. by their manager Muff Winwood (ex-SPENCER DAVIS GROUP), DEACON BLUE released their debut single, `Dignity’, the following spring. A tale of working class pride, the song reflected the group’s inherent downbeat politicos (although they were hardly The REDSKINS), while the slightly jazzy pop/rock dynamics of their sound came as little surprise, bearing in mind the group’s affiliations with cover art Clyde shipyard photographer, Oscar Marzaroli.
DEACON BLUE’s debut album, RAINTOWN (1987) {*8}, followed a few months later, a promising set of soulful Celtic pop which suggested a more solid, less flighty PREFAB SPROUT. The melancholy ebb and flow of `Chocolate Girl’ was Ricky and Co at their laidback best, the track a minor hit in summer ‘88 following similar low-key chart success for a re-issued `Dignity’ and `When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring)’.
It was the anthemic `Real Gone Kid’, however, that took the band from the fringes of the Scottish scene into the hearts of the mainstream pop market, the song’s infectious keyboard hook and girly harmonies seeing it reach the Top 10 in October ‘88. Pursued by the Top 20 success of `Wages Day’, sophomore album WHEN THE WORLD KNOWS YOUR NAME (1989) {*7}, topped the charts; perhaps they’d been afflicted by SIMPLE MINDS syndrome, as the cool subtlety which had characterised their first release was replaced with a heavy dose of stadium-friendly bombast. Still, fans were treated to a healthy batch of sophisti-pop hits to sink their teeth into, as `Fergus Sings The Blues’, `Love And Regret’ and `Queen Of The New Year’, all reached Top 30 status.
Presumably as a reaction to such critical rumblings, DEACON BLUE opted to release an EP of BACHARACH & DAVID covers the following summer, its Top 5 success closely tracked by a similarly-productive B-sides/rarities affair, OOH LAS VEGAS (1990) {*6}. Again produced by Jon Kelly, third album proper, FELLOW HOODLUMS (1991) {*6}, was another major success, although it failed to convince their detractors despite healthy sales for attendant 45s, `Your Swaying Arms’, `Twist And Shout’, `Closing Time’ and `Cover From The Sky’.
Roping in dance bod production duo Paul Oakenfold/Steve Osbourne for WHATEVER YOU SAY, SAY NOTHING (1993) {*5}, the Top 5 record smacked of desperation. But who could argue with their winning formula, as the Deacons churned out hit after hit through `Your Town’, `Will We Be Lovers’, `Only Tender Love’ and `Hang Your Head’.
An untimely split finally came the following year, DEACON BLUE bowing out with a No.1 “best of” set, OUR TOWN – THE GREATEST HITS (1994) {*8} – featuring freshest chart entry, `I Was Right And You Were Wrong’ – and fittingly, with a third-time-lucky success Top 20 for the superior `Dignity’. While Vipond went on to become a top sports presenter for STV and Radio Scotland, RICKY ROSS worked with ex-STEELY DAN sessioner, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, amongst others, on a “second” solo set, WHAT YOU ARE (1996) {*6}; his near-forgotten debut actually came out in ’84: SO LONG AGO {*4}.
Taking his bold grooves to the streets (he also played T In The Park), fresh subject matter was a bit closer to the man’s heart as he dealt with the death of his father; songs like `Jack Singer’, `Rosie Gordon Lies So Still’ and `Cold Easter’, were miles away from minor hits, `Good Evening Philadelphia’ and `Radio On’.
Having the riches of Scots alumni such as Mick Slaven (from DEL AMITRI) on his previous set, there was room this time around on NEW RECORDING (1997) {*5} for the likes of former LOVE AND MONEY’s Paul McGeechan and BIG DISH’s bassist Brian Doherty; Lorraine guested on `The Further North You Go’.
DEACON BLUE were duly spurred on to reunite for Glasgow gigs, although Sony-Columbia were less than impressed by some new recordings; the old nugget `Love Hurts’ was pulled from release, leaving the hotchpotch of WALKING BACK HOME (1999) {*4} to garner only loyal support from their entourage of fans. Papillion Records (an off-shoot of Chrysalis) would stand behind the merits of HOMESICK (2001) {*6}, and while there was minor hit success for attendant single, `Everytime You Sleep’ (plus best-in-show `Out There’ and `I Am Born’), the disc was hardly stuff of legend.
RICKY ROSS battled onwards with his own career and issued his slightly disappointing album, THIS IS THE LIFE (2002) {*5}, a record which sounded almost exactly like DB’s earlier works, although with a modern spin. Who would’ve thought such a pop icon could’ve been so heavily influenced by OASIS? Well, the evidence was all there: `Threatening Rain’ and `Rodeo Boy’, cranked up high the stadium rock guitars, matched with accompanying pianos and BEATLES-esque riffs. Opener `Northern Soul’ drifted into the rest of the album, hiding like a musical chameleon behind ROSS’s mournful ballads and playful pop tinkering.
PALE RIDER (2005) {*7} was another observational set of songs; one song in particular, the title track, dealing with the death of DEACON BLUE stalwart, Graeme Kelling, who passed away from pancreatic cancer the previous year. Of the other tracks, `In This World’ and `Kichijoji’, recalled Ricky’s dote of VAN MORRISON; the Deacons had covered the man’s `Angeliou’ some time ago.
The absence of Kelling (and Vernal, who’d joined CAPERCAILLIE yonks ago), DEACON BLUE were back in circulation in 2006, tours and reunion gigs were aplenty as it looked mighty promising that a new studio set might be in the offing. Meanwhile, the long-term marriage of McIntosh & Ross was never under any pressure when the pair collaborated on Cooking Vinyl set, THE GREAT LAKES (2009) {*5}.
With Edsel Records buying out the complete catalogue of DEACON BLUE and giving them carte blanche to spin out a long-awaited comeback album, things looked decidedly upbeat for the quartet. Gate-crashing the Top 20 in September 2012 with the Paul Savage-produced, THE HIPSTERS {*6}, the group’s intensely-defined subject matter and melody-driven formula was spread over nearly a dozen dirges, the best stemming from `Here I Am In London Town’, `The Rest’ and `The Outsiders’.
While the Deacons were hot to trot, RICKY ROSS was quick to cash-in on a possible avalanche of sales, when he delivered his sixth album to date, TROUBLE CAME LOOKING (2013) {*5}. A fan and advocate of the Celtic Connections season at the start of every year, Ricky also lends an ear and a mic to presenting BBC Radio Scotland show, Another Country, while he’s also authored songs for the likes of JAMES BLUNT, KT TUNSTALL, Ronan Keating, Will Young, Jamie Cullum et al.
DEACON BLUE were back on song – and furnishing the Top 20 – in 2014 with A NEW HOUSE {*7}, in other words, a new Scotland. Produced again by former DELGADOS sticksman, Savage, the 4-piece of Ricky, Lorraine, James and Dougie (and added personnel Gregor Philip – guitar, and Lewis Gordon – bass) played it rather safe. While it would be almost impossible to come close to Raintown, the band were at least keeping a high profile in their own inimitable soft-rock aplomb; Caledonia and other parts of the globe had a fleeting glimpse of their old selves when they performed `Dignity’ live at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. Catchy, uplifting, harmonious and delivered with their usual pizzazz, the song `For John Muir’ was of particular interest to trackers far and wide, while the group’s range was vast on `Bethlehem Begins’, `An Ocean’, `Our New Land’, the title track and others.
Another perfectly-timed autumnal album, leap of faith-orientated BELIEVERS (2016) {*7} was their darkest part of the trilogy; the subject matter on this occasion, the frustration of life and the things we can’t alter. Dealing with watching the scenes of hopelessness among the incumbent refugees crossing over the Mediterranean, `The Believers’ opened up the portrait-annual of a dozen, idiosyncratic songs. Savage again played his part at the mixing desk, and with the uplifting `This Is A Love Song’, `I Will And I Won’t’ and `Birds’, one could almost taste the air or touch the sky, the water, the grass and everything else that graced Ricky’s picturesque lyrics.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD / rev-up MCS Jul2013-Oct2016

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