Glasgow, 1985, a Scotland enduring high emigration and the ravages of Thatcherism, but there still manages to be a thriving and creative music scene in the city, and it is there that songwriter Ricky Ross and singer Lorraine McIntosh form a band named after a key song on Steely Dan's 1977 album Aja.
Nobody knows it then, but Deacon Blue will go on to achieve enormous success in the late 1980s and early 1990s with albums such as When The World Knows Your Name and Fellow Hoodlums, and singles like 'Fergus Sings The Blues' and 'Real Gone Kid'. Such is the band's enduring appeal that they eventually re-formed, and in recent years, have enjoyed success with albums like 2012's The Hipsters, and their status as an in-demand concert attraction. Ricky has also maintained a solo career, on and off throughout that time; and with Lorraine, now his wife of 25 years, worked under the moniker McIntoshRoss; and all the while Scotland, its places, people, and life as lived there, remain an enduring influence on his songwriting.
Given that this year marks his 30th in the business, it is little surprise Ricky is currently touring a new solo show entitled The Lyric Book Live, where, seated at a piano, he performed stripped back, intimate, versions of songs from across his distinguished career. That show comes to Galway's Róisín Dubh on Friday November 6 at 8pm, but Ricky has more reasons to present his work this way than to simply mark a milestone.
"I've occasionally gone on solo tours, the last time was in 2013 when I had a solo album out," Ricky tells me during our Monday morning interview. "I was thinking it would be nice to go out without a record as it frees you up to play what you want, and also to be honest, it's about me thinking aloud, about what makes a song connect with people? What are the key elements that are important? For this show I'm drawn to the ones that work best with just voice and piano. It's also about me reconnecting with my own songs, and there is no better way to do that than in the presence of an audience - and also, I've never been to Galway before, so it's a nice excuse to come."
Ricky is a songwriter who can genuinely boast of a number of his songs having made deep connections with with people. The exuberant 'Real Gone Kid' was a Top 10 hit in Ireland and Britain in 1988 and was inescapable that year. It remains a staple of radio play and continues to soundtrack adverts. Ricky admits some surprise himself at the song's staying power.
"You don't think much initially beyond writing it, playing it live, and then finally recording it," he says. "You hope it can become a hit, but never think it will. I wrote it in a flat in Galsgow, I had this riff and I was trying it out. We played it for the first time at a charity gig to see if the song would work. We got a feeling for it and we played it live a year before it came out, we knew we were getting a good reaction."
The reaction of audiences today for the song, remains undimmed. "You also never think 'I'm fed up with it'," says Ricky. "We know it's a great thing to play in the middle of a show. People want to hear it and there' no point in being churlish. There are moments of introspection and seriousness in a show, but a show also needs joy and that song always gets people up."
Yet it is possibly 'Dignity', a song which was only ever a minor hit, that has possibly gone on to be Ricky's most deeply affecting song, and maybe his greatest. "You don't ever realize how long a song will stick around," he says. "I'm 57-years-old and there's a generation who know 'Dignity' from school dances, and I've met people who have told me that the song was played at the birth of their child, I've even met people who've played it at a relative's funeral - that's most moving. Once you write a song, it's no longer yours. It belongs out there and people will make of it what they will, you can't control it, and that's been the most interesting thing, when you see how a song has affected people."
The song's origins and inspiration though, came from a most unlikely place - the eastern Mediterranean. "I was on a holiday in Crete, a place I've never been back to," Ricky recalls. "I was doing that thing where you're more preoccupied about back home rather than where you are. At that time in Scotland, and you had it here in Ireland as well, there was huge unemployment and people emigrating, people wondering what will they do, that whole thing about needing to work, but being stuck in a job they didn't want to do or hated - everyone wants to have meaningful employment, and I wanted to give voice to that in song."
Peace & jobs & freedom
Ricky remains a politically active and engaged songwriter. During last year's Scottish Independence referendum he was involved in the Artists For An Independent Scotland, and his pro-independence stance remains undimmed, but is also driven by a strong sense of practicality.
"One of the things I point out to people is that a border between countries does not stop those two countries being friends," he says. "During the campaign there were people predicting terrible things were going to happen if a border was created, it's ridiculous, it's an argument I cannot understand. But some people haven't moved on and I don't want to fight the referendum all over again.
"Independence was not what Scotland wanted at this moment, but that does not mean Independence will never happen. For some No voters, No meant 'Not yet'. In Scotland, we have the luxury of not having to do what Ireland had to, and find a bloody way into it followed by a horrific civil war. Right now we must keep working to make Scotland a fairer, better, society, and show that we can do things on our own, so that independence is an inevitability rather than something that feels like it's forced on people."
As with his politics, Ricky is a songwriter who prefers to look forward mostly, rather than back - even The Lyric Book Live is about re-exploring, rather than rehashing - and he and Deacon Blue are working on a new album. "Deacon Blue is in a position that, we enjoy what we do and we also have the space to do other things as well," he says. "We're looking forward to doing more recordings next year and touring again, and separate things as well. It's all in a good place."
Among the "separate things" Ricky does outside of Deacon Blue and solo endeavours, is present the BBC Radio Scotland shows, Another Country and Sunday Mornings With Ricky Ross, and a recent post on his website, rickyross.com, reveals an appreciation for the music format which refuses to die - vinyl.
"I'm pleased about vinyl's revival as it's a lovely format and that's good for the album itself, as the album is also a lovely format - two sides of music and you have to flip it over, but the pricing has become very high, and that threatens the revival and risks making it a middle aged, middle class, add on, but I do love when I go to indie gigs and see the band's vinyl for sale, and I'd much rather see people buy the vinyl at the shows rather than the T-shirts."
Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.