Words: Karl Hodge
Pictures: Ruth Ellen Brown
Everyone knows The Proclaimers. You’ll know they’re identical twins. There aren’t too many of those in pop and rock. The Cheeky Girls and Jedward don’t really count, either as musicians or human beings.
So, I’ll assume you know they’re a pair of strawberry blonde Buddy Hollies who sing in their native Scottish accents. You may know the singles; Letter from America, I’m On My Way and King of the Road.
You’ll definitely know the song I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). Released in 1988, it defines the band for many – and it keeps coming back. It’s their only US hit, thanks to its 1993 appearance in a Johnny Depp film called Benny and Joon. It’s the one Peter Kay covered for Comic Relief back in 2007.
“I’m Gonna Be” has a strident, shouty, pub singalong chorus you can either love or hate, depending on your current blood to alcohol ratio. Everyone knows the words – and everyone gets them wrong.
If that’s who you think the Proclaimers are, then that’s a real pity. It’s a pity because, if you love music, you’re missing out.
As we waited in Holmfirth’s Picturedrome for Craig and Charlie Reid to come out with their band, the sound system cranked out Motown and Northern Soul. It was no accident. We were being educated and primed. During the set, I kept finding myself reminded of classic rhythm and blues, with pumping Hammond lead lines, bubbly bass and thumping beats.
When you look beyond the singalong anthems, The Proclaimers write songs that make you remember great old tunes without ever really stealing from them. Songs like Shadows Fall, which tonight feels like the memory of Unchained Melody. A tune like Then I Met You makes you of think of Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. The Long Haul is what a protest song by the Four Tops would sound like.
But The Proclaimers are authentically soulful in their own right.
I first saw Craig and Charlie play a long, long time ago. It was in some Biko bar in some polytechnic student union. Every student union had a Biko bar then. And – my memory may be failing me here – but I’m pretty sure they were supporting someone entirely inappropriate. Xmal Deutschland or The Bolshoi. Some last, cadaverous gasp of second wave goth.
It was just the two of them and the set was pretty much their first album, before their first album came out. Before “I’m Gonna Be” came out. The overwhelming impression I had was that they were underwhelming. They were weedy in appearance and reedy in tone. But they were young then, a pair of kids and I was pretty stupid, because I was young too.
The Proclaimers who came out on stage at Holmfirth were men. Voices mellowed by age, but no less strong and astounding in range. The harmonies were still as instinctive as only siblings can be (from the Everly’s onwards). Confident, commanding, backed by a band comfortable in its virtuosity – clearly enjoying every minute of the 90 minute set.
In contrast to many bands that have been plugging away since the 80s, in whatever permutation, The Proclaimers seem current.
Perhaps that’s because they pick from such timeless influences. Perhaps it’s because they still follow a regular, slow and steady schedule of renewal – of touring and writing and recording and subtle reinvention – long after their peers have become tribute act versions of themselves.
They play music that is grown up. It has punk somewhere in it – the polemic and politics (reassuringly socialist rather than soggy liberal or merely left of centre). That’s how they began, after all. But it also has polish and craftsmanship. It freely borrows from country, soul and folk. And there are hooks everywhere.
If you truly love music, you can hear and appreciate passion wherever you hear it – whether it’s a wax cylinder recording of Robert Johnson or an obscure bunch of Brazilian post-rockers on MP3. You can hear the love in the music of The Proclaimers, the love of music and for music and (a rare thing) a love of words.
Of course, the audience loves them back. When some bands known best for a handful of hits play their big single at the end of the night, it feels like cake after an evening of crumbs.
When The Proclaimers finally play I’m Gonna Be, right before the encore, it’s as the evening’s crescendo; a masterfully planned narrative building to this well earned resolution.
It would take someone far more cynical than me to pretend that I didn’t sing along.