Despite being seen by some as a novelty act, The Proclaimers have always had apolitical edge. It’s a side of the twin duo that has become even sharper with Brexit looming, writes Ed Power.
The Proclaimers are looking forward to visiting Ireland this month for a short tour. They have a long-running love affair with audiences here, having first come over in the 1980s.
Also, Brexit is about to fall like a Union Jack-wrapped anvil from the clear blue sky. Come October 31, who knows when next Scottish identical twins Charlie and Craig Reid will be able to travel abroad at their leisure.
“It’s a lot of confusion,” says Charlie. “Obviously we live in Scotland. Like two thirds of people here we voted to stay. Unfortunately we got dragged out. I think Boris Johnson is bluffing everyone. He doesn’t have a hand to play. It’s all getting very concerning.”
Brexit — and the tectonic social forces that led the UK to vote Leave –were one of the inspirations for the duo’s latest album. The title track, ‘Angry Cyclist’, refers to the sort of incoherently furious everyman who voted for Brexit (and in the United States for Trump).
“We like our three or four minute pop songs,” says Charlie.
“Angry Cyclist uses the image of a guy cycling down the street in Dublin or London or Edinburgh and getting hemmed in by lorries and feeling he’s about to get pushed off. That seems to be the story with populism all over Europe. All these people are looking back to a world that never existed, when the advantages of the British Empire were still to be had.”
He sits forward, leaning into the argument. “That shit’s gone and it’s never coming back. Britain is never going to go back to the power it had in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are looking for something that isn’t returning. Whereas the EU, for all its faults, is looking forward.”
This isn’t a new drum The Proclaimers are banging. ‘Letter From America’, their 1987 hit single, draws a line between the Highland Clearances of the 16th and 17th century and the devastation of heavy industry in Scotland during the Thatcher era. The aesthetic is folk. The spirit is rather punk.
Lochaber, Sutherland, Lewis and Skye — all the communities listed in the lyrics had their social fabric ripped asunder in the Clearances. But the Proclaimers were also singing about the industrial centres that had their hearts torn out in the 1980s. It was one of the most political songs ever performed on Top of the Pops.
“As someone who came of age politically in the ’70s and ’80s, my fear is that if Britain bounces out under a no deal Brexit the next thing they will do is slash taxes and turn it into a quasi 51st state of America,” says Charlie, a long time proponent of Scottish independence. “Any deal will be done on the Americans’ terms. The Thatcherite free market thing will have won completely. She’ll have won from beyond the grave. It would be too much.”
The Proclaimers’ Scottishness did them few favours south of the border early in their career. Much as the London-based music industry doesn’t always get Irish artists,labels and managers are often baffled by The Proclaimers.
“How we presented ourselves, how we looked and sounded with the accent, it put a lot of people off,” says Charlie. “People saw it as a novelty thing almost. But if you’re around long enough you get to the point where people think ‘f**k it — it’s beyond a novelty’. There was a time we couldn’t get arrested in the south of England outside of London. But in the past 10 or 15 years our audience there has grown.”
They’ve been just as astonished to see their 1988 single ‘Sunshine On Leith’ take on a life of its own. The track barely registered originally and was for many years overshadowed by ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’, from the same record.
Yet with time it has been embraced by the public. It has inspired a jukebox musical and a 2013 film from future Rocketman/ Bohemian Rhapsody director Dexter Fletcher. And it has been adapted as the unofficial singalong of Hibernian FC in Edinburgh. The Proclaimers have literally written a terrace anthem.
“It is weird — but in a good way,” say Charlie. “I can’t think of a lot of negatives. My oldest son drinks in a pub where they’ve banned it because it causes fights between fans of Hibs and [local rivals] Hearts. The song was a small radio hit originally.”
The duo never chased the charts and refused to be defined by their big moments. “A lot of the bands we were into growing up looked on the hit single as the novelty. It’s nice to have one or two. What it’s really about is building a live audience. And the only way you can do that is by putting out an album every three or so years and getting out to tour. It’s always been the only way it worked for us.”
It’s the tenth anniversary of the implosion of Oasis. Noel v Liam has reinforced the stereotype of the feuding rock brothers. Where do The Proclaimers fit on the sibling rivalry spectrum?
“Well, we’re not like the Gallaghers or Ray and Dave Davies. There were certainly times when it’s been less easy. But I remember a quote from Roger Daltrey. The reason he never did drugs or got out of condition was because the thing he wanted to do more than anything was sing in a band.
“He was so committed he never let drugs get in the way. It’s the same with us and our relationship. You have to get on reasonably well to be around as long as we have. But even when there was a little strain, the desire to do what we were doing exceeded any petty disagreements.”
The Proclaimers play Cork Opera House, Thursday; and Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, on Saturday