DREICH & BLUE
I doubt you would expect me to open up a DiscDiscussion post talking about the commoditisation of the High Street and how wherever you travel much of it looks the same now. Estate Agents, Chain Cafes & Charity Shops - so much of what made places so individual has disappeared not least through the disintegration of traditional industries. In the US, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and John Cougar Mellencamp were all making significant musical commentary at the decline
For northern British cities, this depressed situation really began to bite in the 80s and so there are quite a few examples of songs which favoured nostalgia for a fading world. Dire Straits "Tunnel Of Love" or Aztec Camera's "Killermont Street" were celebrations of places from their author's youth that still held resonance. Chris Rea's seventh album "Shamrock Diaries" from 1985 looked back at the changing face of his hometown, Middlesbrough with songs like "Chisel Hill" and "Steel River", which he had written about driving to somewhere in the town only to find it had been knocked down and was no longer on the map.
He even managed to have his first top 40 hit for seven years with another nostalgic song called "Stainsby Girls" which reflected on the girls he had known growing up who, though the same age, were simply out of the league of the singer as they went off to enjoy a seemingly more glamorous life with guys who had money and cars . A friend of mine and I felt this was particularly resonant and christened a group of local girls we knew as "The Stainsbys" - of course we didn't have cars or money or glamour for that matter but it was never meant bitterly. For us - and of course, Mr Rea - it was just the natural course of things and there were always going to be those of us at the lower end of the romance food chain, anyway.
This marked the start of a renaissance for Chris Rea as he gradually picked up popularity although interestingly, it wasn't until he confronted a particularly "southern" issue (traffic on the M25) with "The Road To Hell" that his UK re-acceptance really kicked off again.
However, I am not writing about the decline of industry or retail or indeed the rise of Chris Rea but one of the. most nostalgic albums of the 80s which captures so much of that diminishing world.and one for which I have huge affection still - Deacon Blue's debut album, "Raintown".
Originally, I never quite saw the link between the band's name and the Steely Dan song after which they were named. Their sound borrowed far more from "The Big Music" of Scotland that was so popular at the time. Their contemporaries, the excellent Danny Wilson, seemed to borrow more closely from The Dan, to my ears.
Yet over time, I have come to realise that there is a strong link that comes in their songwriting, which are often beautifully constructed stories, rich in characters and filled with detail. They may not sing of Haitian Divorces or Major Dudes but they use their backdrop to carve out similarly memorable musical tales from the streets and surroundings of Glasgow largely.
Ricky Ross's writing style would always begin with lyrics and this may be why they are always so strong. A good place to start is the country blues tale of 'Alan' (could a character sound any more Scottish?) and the "Chocolate Girl". The song was inspired by Prefab Sprout's "Cruel", wanting to write a hurt male character but not from the first person standpoint. There's a lovely slide guitar piece that clearly strongly influenced Texas in their early albums but it gives the song a timeless longing. The slide guitar would return during "Love's Great Fears", this time played by Chris Rea coincidentally, and this remains Ross's favourite of all his songs.
During lockdown, they performed a lovely online version of "Chocolate Girl" that is slightly slower but therefore heightens its sense of plaintiveness.
Deacon Blue were also for me, one of the highlights of Gary Barlow's online crooner sessions when they covered "Real Gone Kid" - from their next album, admittedly, but worth checking nevertheless.
However, I have always thought that "Raintown" was an incredibly brave album in every respect. Their record company stood by the band through several false starts as their singles failed to make the charts - clearly a depth of faith that would not find favour today - but to CBS' credit they realised that there was a musical power within the band that could really resonate given the chance. Interestingly, it is the same label that backed Prefab Sprout at the same time, in a similar way.
The production of the album by Jon Kelly leaves a sound that has endured, avoiding many of the 80s pitfalls and so comes across as sometimes epic and sometimes intimate but without losing its overall cohesion. It is detailed without being fussy. This begins from the opening track of the album "Born In A Storm" which is simply Ross's solo voice echoing over a simple piano before it segues into the title track "Raintown". It is an incredibly brave start to a debut album from a then largely unknown band.
The title track, itself, is the scene setter for the panorama of the album - the grey landscape of Glasgow - introducing characters most of whom are struggling with their circumstances. From the quiet start of the opener it brings the album bursting into life but more so because of the early segue.
"Ragman" picks up the theme of Glasgow's characters and the need for a strong will to attempt to survive. The real rancour towards the city would come out in the closer "Town To Be Blamed" which is another brave decision - this time, to finish in such a downbeat tone and not one of the more positive numbers. That track was originally left off the original running order but seemed the perfect summary of all that had come before in the previous songs that it seemed the perfect ending.
The outlier on the album is probably "He Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now" which was written about Harold Agnew who had flown on the Hiroshima atomic bomb mission as a scientific observer and had taken the only photographic record of the bombing. It seems a strange inclusion within a collection of songs so clearly rooted in Scotland's largest city, yet he feels like a character from those streets; a tragic figure haunted by the past. The "Bomb" was of course a very live discussion and associated fear in the mid 80s, so it has its place in the running order.
Ross had read about him in a Time Out article and you can imagine him reading the self-same under a grey Glaswegian sky and immediately heading off to compose.
There is a downbeat aspect to this album - summed up in its "Dreich" cover - and like The Sprouts' "Swoon", could also be termed songs written out of necessity. Most of the band were unemployed or in dead end jobs and this gloom sits as a bedrock to the album but what makes it so strong are its counterpoints of positivity.
"Loaded", despite its obvious pop sensibility, was actually written as a reaction to the band's early trips to London after they had been signed. They had found some of the excesses of the capital particularly disconcerting and wanted to write of the need to stay grounded in the light of any form of success.
Apparently, a contemporary interview with Rod Stewart where he stated that "a few quid in your pocket" could change your politics so outraged Ross that he wrote the song and challenged anyone to take it up with him directly if success changed him in the same way.
Yet it is probably the happiest sounding song on the album.
The best counterpoint is probably demonstrated between "The Very Thing" a song about everything crumbling down and the centrepiece of the album, "Dignity" a glorious exhortation to the human spirit and voted "Scotland's greatest song". Thankfully, Deacon Blue kept out any potential barbs or irony that Messrs Becker and Fagen might have chosen to insert, and this creates the uplifting essence of the song. However, had their New York mentors spent time in Clydeside, they would have been proud of such a soaring narrative arc as the one given to "Bogey The Binman".
The song builds and builds with glissando piano and congas until the full might of the band is unleashed and the chorus takes flight. You cannot help but feel optimistic not least because its starting point has been so low-key. It is a song for everyman in every age.
Which leaves only really my favourite song on the album and the finest song Hall and Oates never wrote - and that is intended as a compliment to both - "When Will You Make My Telephone Ring". It is quite simply a blue-eyed soul classic and my only surprise with this song is that nobody of higher ranking may have chosen to record it. It has a familiarity that leaves you convinced someone else recorded it.
Backing this song, are a group of session vocalists - Jimmy Helms, Jimmy Chambers and George Chandler) - who had been working with Paul Young on "The Secret Of Association" (it certainly sounds like the kind of song that would have thrived equally with Mr Young's larynx) and it gives the song an unexpected but fitting gospel feel. These session men would go on to become Londonbeat who charted in the early 90s.
Most of this album was recorded live with the band playing together which is why they transfer so wonderfully into a live setting still. Indeed, I think that whilst they are a super-tight band one of the most important musical ingredients remains Lorraine Mcintosh who I refrain from calling a backing vocalist because her voice brings its own magic. Sometimes, she acts as an echo to Ross's crackling delivery and others almost as a virtuoso soloist. Her voice provides a texture like an extra instrument in the band and those that have criticised her over the years simply have not understood the integral part she plays in their sound.
"Raintown" is an album that meant a lot to people when it came out. Their record company bet the house on Deacon Blue and stuck with the band - even perhaps mistakenly remixing "Dignity" to get more airplay. I was lucky enough to see them just before they broke through when my college band were on the same circuit. They looked absolutely like stars (we didn't) and you just wanted the best for them.
But "Raintown" means even more to us now. I was equally lucky to see the band when they came out of retirement to promote the album's 25th anniversary where they played the album in front of a word-perfect audience of around 400 people at The Scala in King's Cross. They seemed surprisingly overwhelmed at how much love and affection there was towards them.
They have reformed now and still record intelligent and cleverly constructed music. Live, they are still a real treat. "Raintown' however remains the shiniest of all their treasures. A sound that was unusual for the time in that it avoided any form of bombast and instead concentrated on a set of authentic stories that resonate deeply still.