Dundee Rep's latest production won't turn back the clock but it will give a new perspective to a dispute which proved to be disastrous for many in the city. Keith Bruce speaks to the composer of the soundtrack to the Timex struggle

THERE was, we should infer, a touch of irony in the composer raising the spectre of unemployment. After all, that is what it's all about.

Just the same, it was cannily opportunistic of Dundee Rep's Hamish Glen to perceive that frontman and songwriter of Deacon Blue, Ricky Ross, might have some time on his hands when the band called it a day two years ago. When they played their third last ever gig in the city, the message was passed to him by singer and songwriter Michael Marra.

So why did Ross agree to compose the music for Alan Spence's new play On The Line about the bitter Timex dispute in the city? ``I was out of work,'' he claims, wryly.

Not entirely true, Ricky. Apart from the bit about you being out of work, that is. While it is true that Ross had no specific job fronting a band after Deacon Blue said farewell to a second capacity crowd of Glaswegian fans two days later, it was never likely that the mighty Sony Corporation would allow a bankable talent to pick up his P45. Ask George Michael.

Two years on from that fond adieu, the solo Ross has extricated himself from an unhappy relationship with Columbia records and moved to another branch of the empire at Epic, whence he will be launched on the world at the beginning of June by way of the album What You Are. With Glasgow guitarist Mick Slavin at his side, Ross recorded it in Los Angeles using top sessioners including guitarist Jeff ``Skunk'' Baxter.

He saw the Rep commission as a way of keeping himself creatively busy alongside the writing of the new record. It is by coincidence that the play's opening will only just precede the album's release, a consequence of the vast amount of research put into the piece by Spence and director John Carnegie, which delayed the production.

Ross, whose last venture into theatre was as a writer with a piece in 7:84's Long Story Short compilation, says: ``It was a good chance to do another, and different, project, but what scared me most was the political theatre thing.

``There is a certain type of Scottish political theatre that is not my thing. And I don't like the idea of rock music being used to attract the kids into the theatre - that's never a goer.''

Ross has been known to speak out politically and took part in one of the last demonstration marches in Dundee as part of the Timex dispute. He knows the pitfalls of being an opinionated rocker.

``You always think afterwards: I shouldn't have done that. It's always completely misconstrued and comes across as hamfisted. But you think what you think and you always end up doing it.''

For the record, Ross, who was born and brought up in the city, was unhappy with the media's portrayal of the Timex dispute as ``another of Dundee's disgraces''.

``I felt very proud of Dundee, and of people who did exactly the sort of principled thing you hope you would do in the same circumstances. But a lot of people were left hurt and disappointed.''

In the end, of course, everyone lost. The factory closed and the strikers, the replacement workers, and many of the management were without jobs, the city without an industry established immediately after the Second World War, and Timex's public image was indelibly tarnished.

That presumably explains why the company refused to co-operate with the production and reportedly why some other voices in the city were unhappy that the Rep was picking at the sore.

``The Rep wanted to do the show while the memory of the dispute was still fresh in the public mind, but people on all sides don't want to hear the word `Timex' again. It is quite possible that even if the critics like it, the public won't,'' says Ross.

His own contribution began with sending the Rep a tape of songs he'd written for an unproduced piece he had written following his involvement with Long Story Short. One song from that has gone straight into the show, but for most of them he revelled in the challenge of the straightforward hackery of the task.

A recurring phrase in the text, Time Was, is the hook for one song, while another had to wait to be written until the title of the play had been decided. The arrival of the Americans in the city is heralded with Beautiful Thing, and Watchparts, in part an evocation of the meaninglessness of production line work, was written with the assistance of a repair manual, and is partly in French because the book was.

``Another song had to have a verse for the pickets, one for the police, and one for the replacement workers. I'd never written a duet before, never mind a trio.

``The style of the music is `keep it simple, stupid'. It is not like an album that you'd listen to again and again. By two lines into a song, you should know what the third one is going to be.''

Ross had noticed that there were not many songs on the picket line, or on any modern political marches, so he looked to the past, to the songs of the Weavers and Woody Guthrie, and to the material rediscovered by female vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Musical director Gordon Dougall - whose record with this sort of project which combines professional performers with community talent is second to none - has worked within the composer's restriction of ``acoustic instruments only''. ``I've developed a loathing of electric keyboards,'' says Ross.

The simple approach is also evident on the new album. Ross hints that the musical capabilities of the members of Deacon Blue often meant that the songs became more complex than he would have liked.

Primarily a pianist himself, he deliberately wrote the new record on guitar, ``so it's limited by my ability''.

``The Timex songs had no connection lyrically with what I was writing for my own album, and musically it is very different because the album is much more a full-blooded rock 'n' roll record.''

This time there will be no dance remixes of Ricky Ross tracks. ``I don't go to nightclubs, and I don't want to be involved again in something where I don't understand what's going on.''

A sentiment that might well be echoed by many of those involved in the Timex dispute. Ross says Spence and Carnegie are not making any one point at the end of On The Line, beyond pointing up historical lessons for the city.

``It is very much for Dundee. It is so based there it can't really transfer anywhere else. We won't be looking elsewhere for laurels.''

That in itself must make a refreshing change from the rock'n'roll life.

n.On The Line previews at Dundee Rep today and tomorrow, opening next Tuesday. The production is sponsored by Selan Design.