Few other records have so saturated my life as Deacon Blue’s Raintown. In May 1987 I was smitten with it and played it to death pretty much over the following two years. I had the record shop publicity boarding on the wall of my lounge in Central Park, Antrim town.
No one who talked to me about music in that period left without being aware of this band and this record. Many people were convinced, or peer pressured, into buying it. That it took its place on perpetual rotation on my turntable just a matter of weeks after the release of U2’s Joshua Tree gives some perspective on its impact in my musical heart.
What was it that caught my attention and the deep affection? The simple answer is Ricky Ross’s songs. There might be better songwriters on the planet, and I am sure Ricky and I would agree on some of them, but Ross’s lyrics resonated with my head and heart and soul like no one else. I thought that if I could write good lyrics they would be very much like these.
I already had the 12” single of Dignity before the album was released. I had heard of Ricky Ross in the pages of Strait, the magazine of the Greenbelt Festival. He had the same name as my best mate growing up. I thought I would give it a try.
Wow. The lyrics - “sipping down Raki/And reading Maynard Keynes”. The story of a street cleaner dreaming. This was about more than a boat and I was particularly caught by the idea of “a place in the winter for Dignity.” Then there was the: “And I'm thinking about home/And I'm thinking about faith/And I'm thinking about work.”
Home, faith and work. Deacon Blue were like the band next door. They were singing about the streets of their city, the working men and women of that city. These were subjective songs yet all dressed up in objectivity. There was sharp social observation and critique but it all felt personal. Though never explicit there was something about faith in there too.
Then there were the stories. As well as the road sweeper of Dignitythere is the title track that gave you the mood of the Oscar Marzaroli’s grey bleak photograph on the cover. Chocolate Girl about the wrong kind of guy. Not confining it to Glasgow on Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now we got the atmospheric story of Harold Agnew, an American nuclear physicist who wanted to collect personal photographs of the Hiroshima bombing.
In the end though it is a record set in Glasgow. It is not a concept album by any means but the way it is sequenced is a little artier than the normal debut album of the time. The slow little vignette of Born In a Storm was no hit them with a hit intro but it was creatively perfect and by the time you get into the second verse of the closing Town to be Blamed you feel a circle completing.
Then there is the sound. Raintown has a full energetic sound that shifts moods and styles. There is a pop sound immediacy but it has too much artiness and it rocks too. There are the wondrous Gospel harmonies on When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring), there are the hints of Springsteen and Morrison throughout.
Yet, in a sea full of Scottish bands like The Big Dish, Aztec Camera, Del Amitri, Blue Nile, Danny Wilson et al Deacon Blue’s sound might never be called unique but it had a pumping energy that carried you right through the entire piece.
That sound was built by a gathering of the best players in town. Dougie Vipond was the crack young drummer. Add the sophisticated bass playing of Ewen Vernal and you had a back beat like no other. Jim Prime was the experienced session man with Altered Images and John Martyn and his piano playing made Ross’s songs soar. Graeme Kelling was playing guitar with every cool band in Glasgow and every riff or fretboard dance added detail to every song. Lorraine McIntosh added her whirling dervish in sound and vision. These guys rocked. It would have been a more remarkable story of they hadn’t made it big!
It was immediate with me. From Ricky’s raspy “That hurricane day…” I was in but the general public needed more time and remixes! I felt like an isolated evangelist for maybe a year before the world caught on. I traveled to the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow that November to be among the faithful for an hour or two as much as to experience the band live.
Thirty five years later and the very cover of the album takes me back. Yet, don't leave these songs back in nostalgia. Dignity still has a poignancy. War and big bombs are threatening and Loaded is as good a commentary on Boris's Britain as you can find in a catchy piece of four minute rock music.
Ricky Ross would admit that this wasn’t the happiest time of his life. As he has done in his song writing throughout the last thirty years he was somehow able, in the midst of such a time, find hopefulness and even create joyful songs out of difficult times.
The old negro spirituals from the slave plantations did that. A mixing of emotions to dance while you grieve. To dare to hope in the dark. To look inside and be honest but look forward to what can still be. Raintown has all of that and more: -
One day all of us will work
We'll stand outside this orchard and we'll talk
When all is said all is done
We'll still be thinking about home
They say that love might be the very thing
If only it could be…