Stepping back to gain perspective with The Proclaimers – the Charlie Reid interview

Gear Factor: Craig and Charlie Reid on location with The Proclaimers in Leith (Photo: Murdo MacLeod)

This weekend, Cooking Vinyl release Angry Cyclist, the 11th studio album from The Proclaimers, with plenty of dates between now and the end of the year to celebrate on both sides of the Atlantic.

Their first LP since 2015’s Let’s Hear It For The Dogs finds twins Charlie and Craig Reid and their band in typically top form, at the peak of their songwriting prowess, with more of those catchy hooks and melodies, gorgeous close harmonies, and clever, subtle and often biting lyrics we’ve come to expect.

The new record opens with the title track and first single as its rather short and succinct statement of attempt, perfectly showcasing Charlie and Craig’s impassioned vocals in a lyrical metaphor about the reactionary and bigoted times we live in, from a band who were politically and socially aware from day one.

The sharp, dry and wry observations and added punch are there on songs such as ‘Looted’ and ‘Classy’ too, taking the British Empire and class system to task, while elsewhere the twins are at their romantic and anthemic best on songs such as ‘Streets Of Edinburgh’, a moving paean to their home city, and the joyful ‘You Make Me Happy’ and ‘Sometimes it’s the Fools’. And you can add to that the inspirational drive and poignancy of further stand-outs like ‘Then It Comes to Me’ and ‘The Hours Between’, the jaunty quirkiness of ‘A Way With Words’, and witty yet touching send-off, ‘I’d Ask the Questions’.

And as their publicists put it, ‘What is remarkable about their writing is, after 30 years, it would be so easy for them to be cynical, but Angry Cyclist is incredibly positive, hopeful and optimistic: a life-affirming listen. Its’ vitality and passion easily puts many artists half their age, or younger, in the shade.’ Yep. well said.

Their songs are often timeless, written with poignancy, emotional honesty, political fire and wit, and have been known to feature at weddings, funerals and everything between over these past three weekends, with a few known the world over, having become global anthems, the brothers even inspiring the successful play turned film Sunshine on Leith, its movie becoming the fifth highest-grossing independent UK release of 2013, while the musical had its fourth UK run earlier this year – its biggest production to date – and is now seemingly destined for London’s West End in 2019. But don’t imagine for one moment the fame has gone to their heads, judging by my recent conversation with Charlie Reid.

Charlie was at home when he called, ready for a date at Ayr Town Hall the next night, followed by weekend engagements in Dunoon and Oban, ruling out a trip to Greece to see his beloved Hibernian FC’s Europa League second qualifying round away leg. And having watched the first-leg highlights, I asked if he was a little worried when Ateras Tripoli scored a thumping second goal at Easter Road, making it 2-0 on the night (Hibs fought back to win 3-2).

“It certainly was, and I think the defence is – how shall we put it – being charitable at the moment. It’s the goalie they got on loan from Liverpool. Both of ours are crocked at the moment. Maybe he’s just not settled in yet.”

So Hungarian cap Adam Bogdan is unlikely to appear in a future Proclaimers lyric then, like a certain No.1 mentioned in ‘Cap in Hand’.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s in Andy Goram’s class.”

Are you saving yourself for Motherwell at home on Sunday, the afternoon after your Oban date?

“Well, being on the road, if we get a day off in the middle of the week and there’s a night game, maybe, but the voice gets really worn out, so if you know you’ve got a gig the next night you don’t tend to go. You’ve really got to watch it with all the verbals, y’know.”

You’re still showing plenty of passion on the terraces then, by the sound of it.

“I do. I go to the same place. I used to stand there when I was a kid and a teenager on the old terrace, the big wooden terrace. That was all knocked down, and eventually the whole thing was knocked down, and it’s now the one-tier East stand. I used to take the kids behind the goals. But they’re all grown up now, and don’t all live in Edinburgh anymore.”

Do you remember the first time they played ‘Sunshine on Leith’ at Easter Road  (if you’ve never seen footage of the Hibs fans singing it, you’re missing out)?

“We weren’t even there. It was for another European game against a Greek side, AEK Athens. We were in America at the time, and it was just after 9/11, with a lot of tension. My ex-wife and two of my sons were there, and it seemed to take off that night. They played it and the punters joined in. It just seemed to become one of the club songs from then on, so we’re very grateful of that.”

Plenty of adulation has come The Proclaimers’ way over the years, often in high circles. Actor David Tennant sees them as ‘my favourite band of all time’, adding, ‘They write the most spectacular songs, big-hearted, uncynical passionate songs’. Meanwhile, Dexys frontman Kevin Rowland talks about their, ‘Incredible passion. They inspired me. To me they were like a conscience … They were so honest, they were so genuine.’ And the latter quote in particular must really resonate, bearing in mind that Dexys were such an important influence on so many of us, not least the Reid brothers  themselves. That must give them a thrill.

“It does. He was always one of the top heroes for us when we were younger, and an inspiration and a guy who helped us out on several occasions with studio time. He couldn’t have been nicer to us. Yeah, we love him, And that’s a long-term relationship, that one.”

It seems an obvious thing to say, but singing in your own accents was a key part of your development. Even my recent interviewee Dave Peacock talked of that sudden lightbulb moment when Chas and Dave realised they were better off singing about their own manor in their own London accent. Then there were bands like Stiff Little Fingers hearing The Clash and realising they should write about their own lives in Northern Ireland rather than life on Californian highways. Has The Proclaimers’ story involve a similar journey?

Soul Brothers: The Reid twins, heading your way this autumn (Photo: Murdo MacLeod)

“I think it has. I think it was part of the new wave thing, particularly with The Clash, Buzzcocks, and all those bands with all that energy around at that time. Even The Jam, and people like that. We’d go and see them every time they were up in Scotland. Then with Dexys, Kevin with his Irish heritage, beginning to talk about that when it was really unhip at the time, being Irish in England. I think he was the first who made us think, ‘This is what I am, and I’m not necessarily playing traditional Irish folk music but I am of Irish descent and I’m not going to lie about it’. And I thought that was inspirational.

“I think to be authentic you actually have to find your own voice, be that Chas and Dave, Ian Dury, or what The Clash did. You have to find your own voice and speak about what you know.”

The Clash were a major influence, weren’t they?

“A couple of years ago there was a charity record came off, and we went down to London and finally met Mick Jones. That was a big moment. It’s one of those things – you know he’s had all that stuff said to him a million times, but we meant it. We’d bought every record he ever made, and The Clash was probably the biggest influence of all.”

On to the new LP, Angry Cyclist, and I knew your producer, Dave Eringa, had come up in conversation recently, but had to look it up and saw not only all those Manic Street Preachers’ credits but also involvement with Roger Daltrey and Wilko Johnson’s Going Back Home (2014), remembering it was Wilko who mentioned him in my interview ahead of the release of this year’s Blow your Mind LP. Was Dave good to work with?

“Fantastic. This is the second record we’ve done with Dave, and funnily enough with that album, this is how things go in cycles. Steve Shaw, who played fiddle in Dexys, said you’ve got to hear this Daltrey and Wilko Johnson album. So I went out and bought it, and that’s how the thing with Dave started. So there you go! And he’s great. Again, we work with people we admire and like, and with Daltrey, like The Who, it was one of the great things ever. Just the sound he got … fuck it! We knew we were going to try someone new, his name came up, and we thought that should be the guy to go for. And this is the second record we’ve done with him now.”

In a sense, that takes me back to your roots and the 1987 debut album, This is the Story. Much as I appreciated the Gerry Rafferty single version of ‘Letter from America’, it was the raw sound of the original album track and the whole of that record that first convinced me about you. And I think it’s that more sparse version that really stands the test of time.

“I think so, yeah. As with most bands, it’s the songs you’ve written since your supposed adolescence. And it’s raw and sounded like who we were, because of that sound, and (producer) John Williams set us up and did a great job – just letting us play.”

I’m not sure if it was just a case of setting up the mics then letting fly, but This is the Story still sounds so fresh today. John Williams clearly knew what he was doing, and you had the songs, but I wonder if you took charge or were still green to the process.

“I think we were probably green to everything then, and very much the recording process. We’d only done demos before that and we’d had no money for years. And it was really through Kevin Rowland, then two of The Housemartins, then meeting Kenny (MacDonald), our manager – it was almost like emerging from a cave! A bunch of people we could identify with who could help in their own way. And that’s how we got started on that first record.”

Incidentally, a good mate’s brother, Danton Supple, who also attended my secondary school in Guildford, was credited as assistant engineer on that LP, and went on to a lot more success in his own right as a producer.

“That’s right, I remember his name came up a couple of years ago when we were talking about the record. Yeah, amazing, and all these people who had been either successful before or went on to be successful, and all those connections you make over the years.”

I seem to think I snapped up the first album either just before or just after I saw you – as a 19-year-old – perform on the Sunday at Glastonbury Festival in 1987.

“He he! What I remember is that we were first on, with so many people just getting up and scratching themselves! We were basically waking them up, y’know. We literally woke the PA system up. But you know, I remember doing it then driving to London and doing an interview, having a splitting headache after too much sun. That was with Stuart Cosgrove, so again there’s a connection with another guy who was successful then and is still doing well.”

I also remember my brother raving about catching you at the Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park a few days before that Glastonbury visit, one he trots out to this day as a classic ‘I was there’ moment.

“That was absolute Proclaimers in the raw!”

When I spoke to Charlie I’d not had chance to take in the new album (I certainly have now, and it’s a corker), but I already loved the title track. That set us up nicely. So is that fairly indicative of what we’re about to receive, I asked him.

“It’s probably one of the more political tracks on the record, but as soon as we started playing it – Craig and I standing in the room, mucking around with the songs until they feel comfortable – I thought, ‘Yeah!’ There was just something about it. I loved the chord progression, it was great with the guitar. And the sentiment – the confusion a lot of us are feeling about how things are going culturally and the air of violence and anger that seems to determine everything at the moment – all pretty unsettling.”

A couple of recurring Proclaimers’ themes come up on the album, not least on ‘British Empire’ and ‘Classy’. Has this farce of the last couple of years, politics-wise, made you the more determined to see your homeland break away from the UK?

“Do you know what, I don’t see it as breaking away, but – how can I put it – joining a more civilised world on our own terms. I’m not really big on the flags. It was never about that for me. It was about democracy, and is still about democracy, and I would hope it’s more about getting a more modern country. It’s always ironic when you find the old Tories or even the old Labour left harking back. It’s not about that. It’s about looking forward. And to me the Britain they hark back to – my father’s Britain as a child – has gone. That’s where I’m coming from really.”

Yet there are also new songs on there that prove you’ve not lost your touch for the heartfelt as well as the political. But I guess to do one so convincingly, you need the other. Otherwise, it’s just empty rhetoric. In a bid to explain myself, I mentioned how I’d just seen a documentary about Paul Simon making Graceland, and while I subscribed at the time to the NME view of him exploiting those musicians rather than rightfully boycotting apartheid, his actions were perhaps more politically worthwhile through just celebrating and turning people on to South African music in the long run. And with The Proclaimers, similarly, the message remains strong because it’s not delivered in some bitter whinge. They remain positive in their outlook, despite knocks at the worst aspects of 21st century Britain.

“I think you have to have an open mind, and when something’s clearly wrong, it’s clearly wrong. Playing Sun City was clearly wrong. But what Paul Simon did, I think, in retrospect, helped bring everybody out of that shite, although I too subscribed to that boycott at the time. So yes, he did a lot of good in the long term.”

For those who have only picked up on the band in recent times via 2014’s Sunshine on Leith film and the original 2007 stage musical, where should they go from there with your back-catalogue. Start with this album and work backwards? Or head from Hit the Highway onwards?

“I’m tempted to say go on the internet and listen – it’s all there anyway! It seems that as soon as the damn thing’s published now, it’s on the internet. I think David Bowie said years ago that music’s gonna become like water or electric – turn it on or press a switch. And that’s where we are.

“For us now the main thing is that the publishing helps. The ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ thing just goes on and on, and the song is so much bigger than the band ever were or ever will be! It keeps us on the road and there are a couple of songs that the public know, and everything else is there – I would hope for anyone who is interested – for them to then explore.”

On the related subject of material on your second album, the splendid Pete Wingfield-produced Sunshine on Leith from 1988, how old is your son Sean (as name-checked on side one track five) now?

“Sean is now 31 and he’s just come back from a holiday this morning with his fiancée and her family, after two and a half weeks in America and Mexico. He was living with me when he was at university and he’s now living with his fiancee, working in recruitment and loving life.”

There’s a verse in that song which rings true to me, and probably anyone else who’s had children of their own, which reads,

‘Though fear and hurt and care
Can lead me to despair
I saw why I’m here
The morning you appeared’

That for me sums up so much for anyone who’s been in that position of becoming a father. It’s about self-discovery and appreciating everything around you really. Yeah?

“Appreciating it and appreciating you’re a link in the chain, and you’re privileged to be so, and if there’s any reason to hang around, it’s family and loved ones, and I suppose it’s all part of that.”

That’s just one great example of many, not least on that album, and if the first LP was about your arrival and letting us know, ‘This is us’, that second album proved you were here to stay and were every bit as soulful as some of those artists you wore on your sleeves. You mentioned Dexys, and then there was Van Morrison and Al Green perhaps, to name just two more. And while I’m a big fan of Steve Earle, your ‘My Old Friend the Blues’ is the definitive version for me.

“Erm, it’s nice of you to say so. I’ve listened to him a lot recently, and like Kevin (Rowland) he’s as relevant to me now as ever he was. With some of his songs, like ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Christmas in Washington’, he’s just like, ‘Fucking hell!”

While I’m on, as well as spells living in Midlothian and Fife, I see there was a boyhood spell in my beloved Cornwall too. What was the story there?

“It’s funny – not many people ask about that. We were kids in the late ‘60s in Edinburgh when we went for a holiday in Cornwall, as people did, and my parents loved it. My Dad’s father died during the war, and his mother brought up the kids on her own from when they were quite young. She passed away in ‘68, so we had a holiday in ‘69 and then moved down in the summer/autumn of 1970 and were there until mid-to late-’72 when we moved to Fife.

Reid Riders: The Proclaimers’ studio shoot in Leith, 2018 (Photo: Murdo MacLeod)

“We went to Gwinear Primary School, near Hayle, and lived on a little country road, with about three or four cottages at the bottom of it, about two miles from the school. We were then in Fife from about the age of 10. I’ve got very good memories, including how beautiful the weather was so much of the time. We had a palm tree outside the school, and people were so pleasant. And because we lived down there, my cousins and aunts and uncles would come down for holidays. Everybody loved it.

“Dad was a joiner on building sites, and Mum was a nurse who worked at a hospital in Edinburgh and became a district nurse when we went to Gwinear, and was then a district nurse in Fife when we went back.”

Were both of your parents musical?

“Yeah, my old man was a massive Ray Charles fan and into traditional jazz and old r’n’b. He’d pick up records from old second-hand record sales. They were everywhere in those days. We’d go into Hayle every weekend and he’d pick up old records. Mum liked Sinatra, and Dad liked opera and classical music as well. And being born in 1962 you were absorbing all that stuff from 1965 and certainly ‘66 onwards. I remember the radio clearly. It was always on – the (BBC’s) Light Programme and then Radio 1. And it was just … I’m a very lucky man!

“The other thing about my family and the way I was brought up, was also just being born at that time, when the schools still seemed to have enough books. Looking back, Dad grew up in the War, and then my kids were brought up in a very different world. And I think I was luckiest of the lot, to be honest.”

I have my own family links to nearby St Ives and spent many a holiday at the turn of this century with my own family just across the water from Hayle.

“It’s a lovely part of the world. I’ll never tire of it. I’ve only been back a couple of times since we left – a couple of times for gigs and once on holiday. We played the Hall for Cornwall and that place they used to have at St Austell.”

Cornwall Coliseum?

“Yeah, the one they had on the beach. But there’s a bad memory of that from the time we played it, as it was the night of Lockerbie. It was our last show of the tour before the end of the year, and Tom, the tour manager – who’s still with us – said, ‘It’s gonna be a bit slow – there’s a plane crash just on the other side of the border, so we’re gonna have to take a diversion.’ So all those memories come back.”

Twin Engines: Charlie, left, and Craig Reid, back with their 11th studio album (Photo: Murdo McLeod)

Where’s home now?

“Home is Edinburgh, Newington. The kids are all grown up and everybody’s living on their now or with partners. And I’ve just become a grandfather for the first time, a month ago.”

Boy or girl?

“A girl – thank God! Three sons and then … it’s amazing.”

We then started talking about children and I mentioned how my eldest daughter, now 18, was very impressed at me interviewing Charlie, as a fairly recent convert to the Sunshine on Leith film. So on that subject, I asked him about the day playwright and screenwriter Stephen Greenhorn came to him with the idea for the musical on behalf of Dundee Repertory Theatre. Could he see its potential?

“Erm … I checked the diary at first to see it wasn’t an April Fool. I’ve met the writer many times over the years, and he said he’d literally been on the whisky one night and jotted the idea down. It’s nuts! When he suggested it, I said, ‘Ah, come on!’ I thought they’d work up 20 or 30 minutes of material, then abandon the idea quietly. But it went on, and it’s just gone on and on.

“They did another run – some  dates in Leeds – earlier in the year and then brought it up to Scotland for a few days, and they’re talking about the West End now. So, I’ve been sceptical all the way down the line and I never thought any of it would work … and I’ve been proven totally wrong!”

I loved your cameo with Craig in the film, and wondered, seeing as Mamma Mia’s now had its cinematic follow-up, if there was scope for a second Sunshine on Leith movie.

“Hey look – the first idea wasn’t ours, so if another idea came along it wouldn’t be ours either! I’ll leave it at that. But if somebody’s got the determination to put it on, I’m not going to oppose it!”

The original stage musical and subsequent film must have inspired a new generation of Proclaimers fans.

“It really has. It’s rejuvenated everything we’ve been doing, because you come along and play songs, some of which are in the film, and people are getting it, and kids are getting it. From teenagers like your daughter to children with Shrek (which, like the Sunshine on Leith musical included the track, ‘I’m On My Way’) and stuff like that. It’s absolutely amazing. Yeah, it’s been nothing but good for us.”

Finally, the diary’s fairly full through to December, heading for a sell-out 47 UK shows, and in Scotland you sold out 30,000 tickets within 20 minutes of them going on sale. There’s also a 13-date coast-to-coast Canadian tour in September, their 2018 schedule finishing with December sell-outs in Belfast, Dublin, Motherwell, Stirling and Dundee. Not a bad job this, is itm Charlie?

“It’s a fantastic job! The other week when we got back from Scarborough, on the Monday I felt so tired, but it’s like, ‘I’ve got the best job you could ever had’. My old man worked on a building site all his life and he would have loved this, but never got the chance, being part of that generation. I know how lucky I am and how lucky we are. And I do appreciate it.”

Spokes Persons: The Reid twins put the finishing touches to their tour transport (Photo: Murdo McLeod)

Remaining 2018 UK live dates (sell-outs marked *, with the others selling fast): August – 11 Bournemouth Pavilion, 12 Lakefest Eastnor Castle Ledbury, 22 Isle Of Man Villa Marina Royal Hall, 24 Carfest South, 25  Towersey Festival Thame; October – 10  Cardiff St Davids Hall, 11 Norwich  Theatre Royal*, 13 Blackburn King George’s Hall,  14  Liverpool Empire, 16  Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, 17  York Barbican*,  18 Newcastle City Hall*,  20 Hull City Hall, 21 Sheffield City Hall,  23 Leicester De Montfort Hall, 24  Southend Cliffs Pavilion, 25 Portsmouth Guild Hall,  27 Bath Forum, 28 Brighton Dome, 29 Birmingham Symphony Hall, 31 Cambridge Corn Exchange*; November – 1 London  Palladium, 2 Coventry WAC, 4 Manchester Opera House, 9/10 Edinburgh Playhouse**,  5 Dunfermline Alhambra*,  16/17 Glasgow Academy**,  22 Perth Concert Hall*, 23  Inverness Leisure Centre*, 24  Aberdeen BHGE Arena*, 29 Ipswich Regents Theatre,  30 Basingstoke Anvil*; December – 1 Hastings White Rock, 7 Belfast Ulster Hall*, 8 Dublin  Vicar Street*, 13 Motherwell Town Hall*, 14 Stirling Albert Hall*, 15 Dundee Caird Hall*.

For ticket details, further information about the tour and how to get hold of the Angry Cyclist album, head to the official website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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