It’s 30 years since The Proclaimers made their legendary TV debut on The Tube, performing the now classic song Letter From America.
Back then, the charts were dominated by the likes of Rick Astley and Sinita and The Proclaimers were unlike anything seen before. The response to the two impassioned brothers singing their hearts out in their own accents about serious political issues was extraordinary and Channel 4’s switchboards were jammed with curious callers. Back to the present day, Craig and Charlie Reid tell me what the journey has been like.
This is the one with The Proclaimers…
C: You originate from Fife, but where are you now living?
Charlie: We’ve stayed in Edinburgh since we were 18, or something, it was a village that we grew up in so when you didn’t have a driving license and you didn’t have this you really had to move to a town.
C: Is it true that all the activity really happens around Edinburgh and Glasgow?
Charlie: No, I wouldn’t say that, I would say that a lot of people in Scotland, if they’re in bands of any description go there because, y’know, folk scenes are big both in Edinburgh and Glasgow…rock, there’s more there, y’know, and so I suppose people do gravitate towards it a little bit. I wouldn’t say it was exclusive but probably within kicking distance of either of the cities I suppose.
C: You were almost like an overnight success but was it a challenge to get your music heard?
Charlie: An overnight success after many years of trying to tell folk what we were doing! So, I think it was a challenge but the way we approached it was a challenge as well, the fact, y’know, that we started off just as an acoustic duo really and the first record was made that way.
It wasn’t really, I mean, there wasn’t any compromise in what we did. I suppose in a way you’d ma’be say we made it difficult on ourselves but that was the way we wanted to do it. So we stuck to our guns and, y’know, got some level of success, and this success just grew over a period of about a year to two years. It became a bigger success than we ever thought it would!
C: The Tube was your big break wasn’t it, which, in those days, was a terrific media channel for you?
Charlie: That’s right and we were only talking about this the other day. There was really only four channels then, y’know, so on a Friday night, most kids, most teenagers, people in their 20’s were watching that show. So the impact that that had probably could never happen now, except on a really big thing like a Live8 or something like that, cause there’s not as many people who probably sit down and watch one TV show.
C: Yes, the media has completely fragmented since then, has that made it difficult for you?
Charlie: I don’t know whether it’s not an advantage to someone like us because I think, if you have to be in the media all the time, if you’re...y’know, I dunno…Charlotte Church or someone like that, if you’re in the media all the time, then ma’be you want to be on specific shows.
With us, we’ve got a following and are not, y’know, expected to have massive record sales. There are things that you can get on that ma’be are not huge shows but you still get a little bit, whereas in years gone by if y’didn’t get on one, that was it, there was nothing else.
C: So now it’s less ‘mainstream’ for you?
Charlie: Well we didn’t see ourselves as a mainstream band, I don’t think that the record company did either. The fact that we had some mainstream success doesn’t dilute the fact that we have never been a mainstream band and never could be, so I think it kinda made a skewed picture of what we were at the time cause we had a few hit records.
C: It’s a strange world the music industry isn’t it?
Charlie: Yeah, I think for us, we didn’t aim to have hit records we aimed to do what we wanted and we were lucky enough that we had a couple of hits, that was a different thing.
C: That’s so refreshing. Many acts coming through now are only thinking about what’s going to sell and how they’re going to become famous, the ‘Pop Idol’ phenomenon.
Charlie: I don’t mind people wanting to be successful, my only problem has always been with it: well are you going to do something that’s a derivative or are you going to do something that’s original and if you do something that’s original and you become a huge hit or something then good luck to you, you’ve got the talent, that’s no problem.
It’s the ones, the ‘wannabes’, who kinda chase on someone else’s coat-tail that don’t really get it. I mean, to me, if you’re not phenomenally talented, most people aren’t, then surely you’ll stand out more if you were a bit more individualistic? Some people, I think, are scared of it.
C: Talking of individuality, your image has been a bit of a double-edged sword hasn’t it…do people focus on it too much?
Charlie: Yes…that’s what they do, y’know! I mean, we’re twins, so we can’t change that. We could have changed the way we looked, we could have done a lot of different things, y’know, and present ourselves in that way, but…
C: Do you think that would’ve been a sell-out, though?
Charlie: I know it’s a sell-out. I think it’s…it’s ma’be something that you would be doing if you were worried about being more successful but if you’re no’ that worried about it…I mean, we want to be successful as much as we possibly can, but we’d rather do it on our own terms and rather take less success than do something we’re uncomfortable with.
C: It seems to me that it’s the music that most important to you and doing what you want to do.
Charlie: It’s essentially your own personal freedom and being a master of your own destiny as much as you can and in a business this does tend to squeeze people.
C: When you hit the music scene you were singing about issues of love and politics. How have the messages changed since then?
Charlie: I think we write about the same themes and stuff and they’re pretty varied. So, there was never one kinda message...I think the mixture of songs on the new records is roughly the same scope as the first one was, I think they’ve always been relationship songs and political songs and all points in-between.
It’s not…we never say that an album’s gotta have a theme or there’s too many songs like that on the album – you just do the songs that are the best for that time you go into the studio and I think, generally with us, we have a pretty broad range of material.
C: You’re on your 6th album now. How difficult is it to continue to create good music?
Craig: Try not to think about it, y’know. These last two albums have been written to deadlines, which none of the others have been before because…. that’s part of the reason we’ve had a couple of long periods between albums.
So, we did that and you kinda sit down and forget that you’ve ever written a song before and if you get something you like then put words to it…try not to think about it too much. I think that’s one of the main things – try not to think about it too much.
C: So you’re still recording on your own record label?
Charlie: Yeah, we put the last three albums out in a row on our own label. We had offers on all three, on all three albums we had offers and I guess this one coming up, to do them on different records labels but we didn’t feel that they were offering us something better than we could do ourselves.
It was like, well, it costs you but you lose a little bit of the control, but if we were offered a mega deal by Columbia, we’d have to consider it! But, realistically, I don’t think we’re gonna get offered that, so we’d rather do it ourselves, make sure we had enough in the bank so that we can make another record and hope that by the time we come round to making the next one there’s enough money to do it again.
C: Self-funding is so common now, especially with new artists, isn’t it?
Charlie: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s quite a healthy thing to do and you can also find out if there’s an audience there. I suppose record companies are having their jobs done for them now – if you have a success with an independent record then you can get a deal with a major, but you’ve already done the bloody work so the major…what’s the major have to worry about?
C: Absolutely! So… what have you been doing recently? You appeared at Live8 didn’t you?
Charlie: Live8, yeah that was good, that was great! You know, with the people and that, it really meant a lot to do that there. We were on for 3 minutes 50 seconds [laughs] but it was good enough!
C: But you were on there, so that’s all that counts!
Charlie: We were on [laughs]. We did the Glastonbury...we did the Avalon stage at Glastonbury which was fantastic.
C: You’ve played Glastonbury before, haven’t you?
Charlie: Yeah, in the 80’s we did it a couple of times, so that was brilliant to do that again. I mean, we like doing festivals ‘cause we can get across to a lot of different types of people. We’ve done stuff where we’ve played to 10 or 12 thousand people, mostly who wouldn’t come and see us but you get across to them if you do a good performance they remember it. I think from purely a live thing, festivals are a great opportunity.
C: So the live thing is the most important thing for you?
Charlie: If I knew I was never gonna make another record then I’d be sad but if I thought I was never gonna do another performance I would be really upset.
C: It’s about the performance of the music at the end of the day.
Charlie: And the interaction with the audience no matter what size the audience is, a few hundred at a club, a big festival, a small festival, three at a gig, no matter what it is, if you get it coming back to you and you feel that something happens on the night, that you’re feeling it and I think that’s an entertainer’s reward that you get and it’s addictive.
C: I can imagine. So, to the question that everyone must ask you, what’s it like working with your brother, keeping it in the family, is it a help or a hindrance?
Craig: Probably a help, I think. We get along pretty well. I think it’s probably helpful, ‘cause you’ve got somebody with you all the time, you’ve got the support…erm… An element of trust, as well maybe? Craig: …trust and that and probably musically they’ve grown up the same way as you, so you’re not having to kinda tell them things and explain things.
C: Can you ever switch off though? I can imagine BBQs on a Sunday [laughs].
Charlie: No…I can effectively very well switch off, I think at the end of a tour you want to put it down for a few weeks and think about anything, go to a football match or just stay away from it and not think about it and then, y’know, you’ve gotta get back into the mindset of doing it.
Craig finds it, Craig’s a little more successful than I am but…the best I can do is hit a few ideas and we can hopefully finish a couple of things when we’re away. It’s probably got a wee bit easier for me over the last few years, I think it’s got easier for Craig but I don’t think it’s easy and I don’t think it’ll always be this way cause there were periods where it wasn’t.
C: This is it, it’s a bit of a roller-coaster and now you’re on a high again, which is fabulous.
Charlie: Of course it is. We’ve enjoyed it, I’ve gotta say we’ve enjoying the doing it, it’s tiring, but I’m personally enjoying it a lot more now than I ever did. The people we’re touring with are refreshing people, good people to be with. You get feeling you can do your job a bit better now, well I do anyway.
C: A bit of experience, a bit of age, you’re a bit more confident in yourselves?
Charlie: I think so and a bit more calming down and realising, y’know, you take a step at a time, you don’t know what it’s gonna be like in 6 months, what’s gonna happen with this and you do have to concentrate on the 24 hours to come and next 24 hours and really just do it that way and get less stressed, well I do anyway.
C: So what’s it like to be here at Cambridge [Folk Festival] as it’s your first time?
Charlie: Amazing, after all these years. I mean, we’ve always wanted to play here and got an offer for last year, from what I can remember we couldn’t do it, we’d just come off the road, we’d been on the road a long time, so we were “right, we’ll leave it” but luckily we were offered to do it this year. It’s a legendary festival and one we’ve wanted to do for a long time.
C: And Friday night, headlining…
Charlie: No, canny complain y’know. So, a very important festival for us.
C: So, what’s next for you?
Charlie: We’re playing, doing a gig in Birmingham tomorrow, and we’re doing a festival in Belfast on Sunday night, we’re just doing festivals right up until the start of September, we go to North America for six weeks, we come back and then we’re touring Britain and Ireland right up until Christmas. Then probably do something at Hogmanay, then early next year it’s off to New Zealand.
C: You’ve had a lot of success abroad, haven’t you?
Charlie: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of songs that let us, y’know [laughs], like 500 Miles, ‘cause they help you tour places you don’t really get. They get you get gigs and openings, to y’know, go to America and Australia and ma’be still lose money but you can do a tour there and you can sell tickets, play clubs, small theatres and it’s good, y’know.
C: Is your audience over there different to that of the UK?
Charlie: I think it is different, I think you sometimes you get a wee bit of the ex-pat thing. But, having said that, most of Australia, North America, it’s local people, some out of curiosity, some that remember a couple of records, so who just come cause it’s a night out….and hopefully we’ll go to Australia this time and get a few festivals. We did that 2 or 3 years ago, similar things to this [Cambridge Folk Festival] but much, much hotter! [laughs].
C: Just to finish closer to home – do you think you’d ever move from Scotland or are you comfortable with the distance you are from the commercialism of the London music scene?
Craig: I think so. We’ll probably stay in Scotland cause…we’ve both got family as well – I’ve got four kids in school y’know, wouldn’t want to move them.
Charlie: There’s places that I could live, y’know, we lived for 2 ½ years in Cornwall as children, so I know I could live in other places. But, the thing is, when you do this job you get to see all over the world anyway, so we’re happy to stay there.
As featured in CATtales Book