The Proclaimers at Portsmouth Guildhall: ‘You always want to have something new to go out with’

Craig and Charlie Reid, The Proclaimers. Seen here in studio shoot in Leith in 2018. Picture by Murdo MacLeod.
Craig and Charlie Reid, The Proclaimers. Seen here in studio shoot in Leith in 2018. Picture by Murdo MacLeod.

Their new album may be called Angry Cyclist, but The Proclaimers themselves are no pedal-pushers.

As one half of the twin double-act with brother Craig, Charlie Reid says with a chuckle: ‘We were as kids, but not as adults!

‘I live fairly close to the centre of Edinburgh so I walk a lot, and if I don’t walk I take the bus for a longer journey – I’m an occasional motorist, but mostly a walker.’

The Reids hit paydirt early in their career in 1987 with second single Letter To America. Other hits followed like King of The Road, Let’s Get Married and the monster I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). Originally a hit in 1988 it has appeared in countless TV shows and films, as well as scoring a number one for Comic Relief in 2007 when they rerecorded it with Peter Kay and Matt Lucas.

Equally at home with social commentary as they are with love songs, the new album – their 11th –  features their usual blend of deft lyricism and catchy melodies.

Charlie explains the idea behind the title track: ‘It’s a kind of representation of the culture, particularly the political culture at the moment and not just in the UK, but in the US as well. It’s all very adversarial – people shouting at each other rather than talking, people taking sides. Whether this more entrenched by the internet generation I don’t know, it probably is, people can just sit in a bubble.

‘It’s a general thing about that and comparing it to a cyclist – who could be in Portsmouth, could be London, could be Edinburgh –  he’s stuck in traffic and hemmed in one side by a bus and a car on the other. He’s feeling intimidated, he feels frightened and he feels put upon, and understandably so, and that’s the image for it.’

And the brothers are happy that their songs can continue to run the gamut without them being pigeonholed.

‘At times people think you’re a political act, at other times it’s a singalong thing, a social commentary thing, or people think it’s a love story thing, and that’s fine.

‘When we do our gigs, we kind of vary the songs – with 11 studio records you can move it around a bit.

The Proclaimers performing at Wickham Festival 2015. Picture: Sarah Standing (151319-1847)

The Proclaimers performing at Wickham Festival 2015. Picture: Sarah Standing (151319-1847)

‘There’s always been a mix of all kinds of songs in what we’ve done, we don’t set out to write a kind of song. Sometimes there’s no political songs on the albums, sometimes there’s two or three, that’s just the way it goes.’

This year also marks the 30th anniversary of their biggest selling album, Sunshine on Leith, but the brothers weren’t tempted to go out and do the ‘classic album’ tour that has become a staple of recent years.

‘No, for us, it’s important to write new songs. It makes it better for the guys on stage not just us, but the other musicians in the band as well. And we vary it a little bit every night so people don’t go into what I’d call nightclub mode, or musical mode, where you’re playing exactly the same thing every night, which is fine, but it’s not what we really want for our gigs.

‘You try to vary it a bit – I’m not saying we don’t replicate things at all, of course you do, but we try and keep it a bit loose. The main thing is to change four/five songs every night, and that changes the dynamic.’

But as Charlie admits, the songwriting side hasn’t always been easy.

‘We had periods where we were off the road, between the mid-90s and 2001. Partly it was kids being born and there was a lot going on, but there was a bit of a fallow period with the writing.

‘The last few years it’s come okat though. Since 2001 we’ve produced an album every two-and-a-half/three years, and we’ve kept moving, but we’re glad we’ve got a decent body of work now.

‘You always want to have something new to go out with, I can’t understand bands who just go out and play the greatest hits thing. I’m not saying never, but I hope we’d always have something fresh to play and there’ll be a few new songs in every set.’

It’s that creative drive that has motivated the pair from the start. ‘We wanted to be full-time musicians and writers, that was the only ambition. We didn’t know if we’d last one record or whether it would go on as long as we have done. I’m 56 now, at 24, 25, you don’t really think that far down the line.

‘We just wanted to get off the dole and make a living performing rather than drawing dole money, and that was the absolute sum total of our ambition. Some of it came very quick to us in those first 18 months, and it was all a surprise, and things ebb and flow.

‘We don’t sell records like we used to, and most people don’t, but we sell a lot more tickets to shows than we used to, so it works in reverse. In the old days you used to subsidise your tour. You got paid to go out on the road, because the assumption was that you would probably lose a bit of money touring. Now a lot of bands, most of the money they make is on the road, and that’s the same for us.’

While they want to keep pressing onwards, the twins know that those early hits are what has enabled them to do everything else.

‘It’s the backbone, particularly I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), Letter From America, I’m on My Way, and Sunshine on Leith, even though that wasn’t a big hit at the time, it’s seeped into the consciousness, particularly in Scotland.

‘But obviously the 500 Miles song is the one that’s kept us going around the world. It’s enabled us to play everything from Glastonbury to the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens, or the Singapore Grand Prix which we did a few years ago. If you get one record like that, it underpins everything else that you do, and the publishing on it pays for the records.  

‘You probably lose money making the records now, but it’s subsidised by the royalties on the old stuff.’

With 500 Miles already absorbed into popular culture, the band had its status reinforced when their songs were used as the basis for a jukebox musical, Sunshine On Leith. The musical debuted in 2007 and was made into a critically acclaimed film in 2013.

As Charlie admits, he didn’t know what to make of it when the idea was first presented to them.

‘I didn’t quite check the date to see if it was the first of April, but I was very sceptical.

They worked about 30-40 minutes of material and Kenny, our manager, went up to Dundee – it was the Dundee rep theatre that did it, and Stephen Greenhorn wrote it. Kenny thought it was brilliant, so they worked it up into the full musical.

I was talking to Steven years later when the film came out of it. He said he was drinking whisky one night and thinking of ideas – he noted down “Proclaimers musical”, and went to bed. He said “If I hadn’t noted it down, I would have forgotten it!” 

‘It’s just done another run this year, West Yorkshire Playhouse produced it. It’s just grown and grown. I never thought it would work, but then I’m not in theatre, and I don’t have the vision to see these things. But Stephen Greenhorn did and we’re very glad that he did!’

The Proclaimers are at Portsmouth Guildhall on Thursday, October 25, doors 7pm. Tickets £37.40. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.