Deacon Blue on their early years: ‘We didn’t give the idea of hits any thought at all’

As they prepare to embark on a UK-wide tour and release two career-spanning box sets, Deacon Blue take a trip down memory lane with Nicola Meighan
Deacon Blue PIC: Cameron BrisbaneDeacon Blue PIC: Cameron Brisbane
Deacon Blue PIC: Cameron Brisbane

There used to be a printing works in Glasgow, in Buchanan Street, a stone’s throw away from the pen behind Sloans. In the basement, in a corner, under paper, under dust, circa 1986, Deacon Blue started writing songs. They’d gradually build them up until they reached the land and the city; till they climbed cranes and mined the heavens; until they rained back down on us. Thirty-six years later, those songs are collected on a new best of release, All The Old 45s, and there’s a career-spanning albums collection, suitably titled You Can Have It All, which includes a new acoustic album of old favourites too. “I remember the first time [founder member and guitarist] Graeme Kelling came round to my flat in Pollokshields,” says Ricky Ross, of a home with a view of the local street cleaners, who’d later inspire a ship, and a song. “He maintained that it was sunny at the front of the house, and raining at the back, where the studio was. He took it as some sort of mystical sign.”

And so they cast a spell. Their debut album, Raintown (1987), produced by kindred spirit Jon Kelly, was an 11-song pop psalm devoted to the art of waiting: for fairer politics, brighter skies, requited love, the phone to ring. “My mum always thought that ‘When Will You…’ was our best song,” says drummer Dougie Vipond. “She used to say, ‘You should be number one all over the world with that.’ The chorus is just so massive. Those backing vocals: hair-on- the-back-of-the-neck stuff”.

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Whilst Lorraine McIntosh was a vital voice, and a force of nature, from the get-go – in the early days, she wasn’t an official member of the band. “I remember going into the studio thinking, ‘I need to impress these guys. I need to really go for this. I need to make my mark on these songs,’” she recalls.

Vipond nods. “Lorraine brought a brilliant battle landscape for Ricky,” he says with a laugh. “She’s like the lead guitar player as well as a vocalist, and she’s always brought so much energy, and a wildness.” This reflects a group philosophy: listen to each other, make room for the music. “I’ve only ever seen myself as a conduit for Ricky’s work,” says Vipond. “Move it along, lift the chorus if need be, but absolutely get out of the way of the lyrics. It’s all about supporting the song.”

The songs, in turn, supported each other. The band started opening their live shows with Real Gone Kid long before the advent of their second long-player, When The World Knows Your Name (1989), and so – as befits a group with a Calvinist work ethic wired to pop music – it earned its keep: it did the heavy lifting for two LPs. “People heard us play Real Gone Kid, and they wanted to buy a Deacon Blue album. And of course we only had one at the time,” says Ross. “So it basically sold Raintown for us.”

That same track would go on to define the sound and ambition of When The World Knows Your Name, which was largely produced by Warne Livesey.

“You’d be amazed how little we knew about anything when we recorded Raintown,” says Ross. “All I wanted to do was make this album, and everything else got lost. We didn’t give the idea of hits any thought at all. That’s probably why, the second time around, I really felt that we needed singles. I knew we had to hit the ground running.” And so they did, with the quintuple chart threat that was Wages Day, Queen of the New Year, Fergus Sings the Blues, Love and Regret, and, leading the way, Real Gone Kid – even if the latter’s vocal jubilation caused occasional bewilderment. “Lorraine and I played it as part of a benefit gig in Glasgow,” Ross recalls. “Afterwards my pal, Innes, came up and said, ‘Yeah, I really like that one with the seagull noises…’”

Some singles were almost overlooked: Wages Day would have been a b-side, if it wasn’t for Ross’s conviction that it could be a hit. “I often cite Wages Day as my favourite song,” he offers. “It pretty much came fully-formed. As a songwriter, you get so many gifts every year, and your job is to know when to accept them,” he says with a quiet laugh.

Fergus Sings the Blues, meanwhile, was the product of a revelatory gig with Hothouse Flowers in Dublin, as Jim Prime (keyboard) recalls. “I heard them playing I’m Sorry, with everyone playing the same riff and I thought, ‘I want to do that.’ We got home and Ricky was like, ‘Okay, you’ve been going on about this song Jim – come over. Have you got it?’ And of course I was going, ‘Absolutely yes, yes.’ It did not exist. So I drove over to Ricky’s flat, he was in Wilton Street by this point, and that’s where the Fergus… riff was written. In my car, in my head. I got to his piano, and I just started playing it, and Ricky did his usual – walking around behind me with his pencil and paper, writing down lyrics and coming up with melodies.”

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There’s revelry, too, on Queen of the New Year. “Yeah, that song’s like a ceilidh where all the band are getting increasingly drunk,” Vipond laughs. “There’s a country and bluegrass influence,” adds Prime. “Also, I think having fiddle and accordion on it opened up the idea of playing more natural instruments on Fellow Hoodlums.

If Queen of the New Year paved the way for Fellow Hoodlums (1991), so too did the band’s accidental hit success with 1990’s I’ll Never Fall In Love Again. “When we did Four Bacharach & David Songs, the record label didn’t really have any expectations,” remembers Ross. “But we knew people loved I’ll Never Fall In Love… from the gigs – we’d been playing it with Silhouette, and that worked really well. Success buys you space on a whole lot of levels. You don’t have people breathing down your neck. It bought us more freedom to make the record we really wanted.”

Both releases also saw them reunite with producer Jon Kelly. Its calling card was a track that is cited by most of the band as an all-time favourite: Your Swaying Arms. “That came really early on,” remembers Ross. “I think I started writing it on guitar, even though I could barely play guitar. Again, we started doing it live before we had the rest of the album… so it’s a bit like Real Gone Kid – that’s another bridging song.”

“I loved making Fellow Hoodlums,” Vipond recalls. “I loved the idea behind the songs and the lyrics, I loved that the record was essentially set in a square mile in Glasgow, around Queen Street, Hope Street, Buchanan Street. The city became part of the romantic plot. Everything was intimate, everything was up-close. I think that was our happiest and most comfortable time as a band.”

For 1993’s Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, the band joined forces with dance producers Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne, and unleashed thrilling singles like Will We Be Lovers and Only Tender Love. And then there was Your Town – an emotional juggernaut that saw Vipond harness Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love. “That’s one of my favourites,” says McIntosh. It’s got this unbelievable energy and power.” There’s a fierce undercurrent of frustration and ragged anger: an impression, perhaps, of a band at sea, fighting against the tide.

“I think there was a feeling that we weren’t entirely sure where we were going,” McIntosh nods. “Musically, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing was brave and passionate in lots of ways. But it was quite a difficult record for us.”

What can you do, if you’ve exceeded your own quiet expectations? If your music has risen from basements to stadiums; from forgotten demos to the top of the charts? You can take it all away.

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They signed off with a song before their split in 1994. It was a heartbreaking kiss-off, I Was Right And You Were Wrong, and its conga beats bookended those of Deacon Blue’s debut single, Dignity, so long ago.

Ewen Vernal (bass) left the band and burled into Capercaillie. We lost Graeme Kelling in 2004. Following reunion tours, compilations and the occasional single, the band re-energised themselves with guitarist and co-writer Gregor Philp, and bass player Lewis Gordon, and came back with a bang on the Paul Savage-produced The Hipsters, in 2012. They released two more LPs with Savage (2014’s A New House, 2016’s Believers), before Ross and Philp co-produced 2020’s City of Love.

“Ricky was just so fired up about being a songwriter for Deacon Blue again,” remembers Gregor Philp. The Hipsters was key to that. It felt like there was a real joy about being in the band. From the start of being with them, all I’ve ever tried to do is give that as much respect, to the best of my emotional and technical ability, as I can.”

Lewis Gordon sings from that same hymn book. “I felt a real sense of responsibility to the music when I joined,” he says. “But as the years have gone by, I’ve also realised that I have to find my own way into the old songs – and into the new ones.”

Prime agrees. “I’ll be honest with you. Although we’d been playing live again, I’m not sure we knew exactly where we were going – but then Ricky played us The Hipsters, and there was just something about it. I thought, ‘There’s the hook, there’s the big chorus, there’s the singalong bit, there’s the clapping bit…’ It had all the elements.”

“I think simplicity can be really powerful,” McIntosh adds. “Lorraine’s incredible,” Philp nods. “She would say she doesn’t really write songs, but she’s always around, and she’s a really great sounding board. She’s come to the rescue on quite a few songs, either when we’re writing them or later in the studio, as has Dougie – he’s a massive part of Deacon Blue. Ricky’s not kidding when he says that Dougie’s the keeper of the flame. Jim is basically a genius. And Lewis is as much a composer as a bass player. Ewen was exactly the same, I believe.”

Philp, meanwhile, has been instrumental – as a songwriter, producer, and a catalyst for Deacon Blue. “He’s just been a huge force for Ricky,” says Vipond.

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“And I think in a way, we all learned to be a band again through Gregor’s encouragement. Lewis has been brilliant too.”

And so the band march ever-forward, but not without a fond look back. You’ll hear echoes of Dignity in Chic-fuelled chorale I Wish I Was a Girl Like You (co-written with The Feeling’s Dan Sells and Richard Jones); of Loaded in This Is A Love Song (Ross’ abiding modus operandi); of Twist & Shout in City of Love – the title track from Deacon Blue’s highest-charting album in decades.

“City of Love’s become an important motif for us,” offers Ross. “It’s given us the chance to say to fans – ‘We want to celebrate wherever you are, wherever your heart is, wherever you live.”

Still thinking about home, after all these years.

All The Old 45s - The Very Best of Deacon Blue, and You Can Have It All - The Complete Albums Collection are both released on 1 September via Cooking Vinyl. Deacon Blue play the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 10 and 11 October, the P&J Live Arena, Aberdeen, on 13 October and the Hydro, Glasgow, on 14 October

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