AS Dublin was to James Joyce, so Glasgow is to Ricky Ross. Peter Ross takes a stroll with the Deacon Blue frontman as he recalls the people and landmarks behind the songs
“There was a wee door that we had the key to, and in the evenings we’d go down to this basement below Royal Exchange Square. I remember sitting there and playing When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring).”
Ahead of the release of exuberant new album The Hipsters and Deacon Blue’s 25th anniversary tour, Ross has gamely agreed to a walk around Glasgow, his adopted city yet one which has served as both base and inspiration throughout the lifetime of his band. Ross, who is still lean and youthful at 54, moved here from Dundee in his mid-twenties, having spent time as a youth worker with the church.
“I think I was destined to come to Glasgow,” he says. “There’s just something about the place which hooks you in. It’s something to do with the spirit of the people. I don’t think you can understand it until you live here.”
There is something about his songs –open-hearted, sing-along and full of characters – which suits the city of their creation. Working as an English teacher and living in a flat in Kenmure Street, Pollokshields, Ross used to look out of the bay window at the street-sweepers of the cleansing department as they changed shifts. Watching them walk by with their brushes, wondering about their lives, it gave him an idea for a song, which he later wrote while on holiday in Crete. He called it Dignity.
One of those rare songs which transcend their writer, Dignity, which came out in 1987, has become part of the fabric of Scottish life. You hear it at the football, on the radio, at the shops; at weddings and funerals and works nights out. Ross knows it is special. He is grateful for the way his music has soundtracked lives, and the way that that song in particular has become a sort of anthem for the decent, aspirational working life. He felt the force of that one afternoon three years ago when Deacon Blue played Glasgow’s Hogmanay celebrations.
“There’d been a big freeze,” he recalls, “and during the soundcheck all these working guys from the council were chipping away at the ice. They’re all kind of leaning on their brushes and watching us, and one shouts up, ‘Ricky, gonnae do Dignity?’ Now, we never do that song at soundchecks. But I said, ‘You know what? Let’s do that.’ So, for about three or four guys and whoever else was in George Square at four o’clock in the afternoon, we performed the most moving version of Dignity that I can remember. Those guys probably didn’t realise, but it meant more to me than anything.”
Walking around the city with Ricky Ross is fascinating, like surveying an imaginative landscape as well as one which is real. His models were always Seán O’Casey and James Joyce; he wanted to use Glasgow as they had used Dublin – setting universal stories of love and loss within a specific locale.
We visit Fixx, the pub on Miller Street where Deacon Blue played their first gig on December 5, 1985 (Ross recently found the gig listing while clearing out his attic) and we stop to take some photographs on Royal Terrace where, in a first-floor flat, he struggled to write Wages Day and Fergus Sings The Blues. Tree-lined, beautiful Kelvin Way, nearby, featured in Your Swaying Arms. Ross points out, too, the columns of the Gallery of Modern Art in front of which, he always imagined, stood the street preacher from A Brighter Star Than You Will Shine.
Ross was raised in the evangelical Christian Brethern tradition. The itinerant preachers visiting Dundee were his first exposure to the idea of public performance and storytelling. “I had more influence from those guys than from any other group of people,” he says. “Every Sunday when I was a kid growing up, they could really brighten your day. They made you laugh, they made you cry, they made you feel anxious or reflective. They were the guys that did the business.”
We take a taxi to the Finnieston Crane, which appears in Oscar Marzaroli’s cityscape on the front of Raintown. Here, by the Clyde, on the bonnet of an old Cadillac, Deacon Blue signed their first record deal, in the summer of 1986. “We loved the crane as a big metaphor for post-industrial Glasgow,” Ross says. “I was enthralled by it. By strange coincidence it turns out that Lorraine’s great-uncle Archie not only drove the crane, he died up in the cab and had to be carried down.”
Lorraine is, of course, Lorraine McIntosh, Ross’s wife and a member of Deacon Blue. Originally from Ayrshire, but with Irish Catholic roots, she grew up in a house full of music. She was singing at a party with her brother John, covering songs from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, when Ross first noticed her. She remembers him as intense, angsty and arrogant. “She hated me,” he laughs. He thinks the arrogance was essential, though, a necessary level of self-belief without which he’d never have the courage to create anything.
McIntosh joined the group in time to record Raintown. She and Ross subsequently became a couple, which was exhilarating for them but hard on the rest of the band. When The World Knows Your Name, a 1989 album groaning under the weight of hits, was “a really unhappy record to make... the worst time ever to be in Deacon Blue,” according to Ross. The subsequent fame did not suit him – “Temperamentally unsuited is a good way of putting it. I think I was frightened by it all. At times I wanted to hide” – and it is perhaps telling that Ross does not suggest we visit Glasgow Green where, in 1990, Deacon Blue reached their popular high water mark, playing to 250,000 people at the Big Day concert. Nevertheless, despite Ross’s ambivalence about When The World Knows Your Name, the band will shortly play the album in full at a concert for Radio 2, which he hopes will “exorcise the ghosts”.
There is a sense of stock-taking within Deacon Blue at present, with collectors editions of their previous studio albums being released next month. In truth, until this point, the reformed Deacon Blue had been more solid live act than creative force, their best known songs like antique furniture – well-crafted objects that bear the weight of our collective memories and emotional associations. The Hipsters, however, is a truly excellent record – fresh, melodic, dramatic, heart-stirring pop. In no way does it sound like a creaky nostalgia act going through the motions. Anyone would be proud to have made it. Ross describes it as “an open love letter to Deacon Blue” and indeed the overall tone is celebratory.
“I suppose what’s interesting is just how much our music has seeped into people’s lives,” he says. “As a songwriter I find that moving. I think before I didn’t know how to react to that, but now I’m really pleased and thankful that the songs have made such a difference.”
And with that, he turns and heads off up Union Street, dignified and at ease, just another citizen disappearing into the afternoon crowd. «
• The Hipsters will be released on 24 September. Deacon Blue’s 25th anniversary tour begins at the Caird Hall, Dundee, on 4 October and visits Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Perth. www.deaconblue.com