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The Proclaimers are an iconic Scottish folk duo whose commercial success on this side of the Atlantic has been limited by the very things that defined their success on the other side. Originally discovered by Paul Heaton, then of the Housemartins, they released their first album This is the Story which spawned the number 3 smash Letter from America. Then in 1988 they returned with Sunshine on Leith where their acoustic folk style was embellished by further instrumentation, including legendary producer and pianist Pete Wingfield.
For those who don't know them, the Proclaimers are twins from Fife, Craig and Charlie Reid, who sing in an immediately identifiable Scottish accent with close harmonies and very simple, catchy melodies. Their lyrics are often witty and reflect the parochial psyche of 1980's Scottish nationalism and life.
But a bit of personal background first; I remember tearing the Christmas wrapping paper off this cassette, the first album I ever owned, and inflicting it on my parents time and again on holiday car journeys. This album awakened a Scottish nationalism in me which has long since died due to the Reids sheer enthusiasm and anguish. It was also instrumental in awakening a Christian faith in me which has not since died.
But let's be clear, they were never cool! How could two guys with glasses and terrible hair ever be cool, particularly when they sing of snogging on the back of the bus.
So to the album itself;
1. I'm Gonna be 500 Miles - the best known from this album and a number 11 hit. They were never going to write conventional love songs and this puts a witty twist on the usual smaltz with their familiar call and response. I remember Smash Hits magazine printing the lyrics for this with almost a whole page of 'Doo do do dah's. This is a great, catchy and upbeat start to the album.
2. Cap in Hand - the first bit of nationalism on the album and its a sad song of woe with the refrain, 'I can't understand why we let someone else rule our land, cap in hand.' But again it is peppered with witticism such as 'i can tell the difference between margarine and butter, i can say Saskatchewin without starting to stutter.' This is all a key theme in their writing. The pressure was on them by this stage to tone down the accents and the opinions and as they said on their first album, 'all those guys with their clever mouths saying we should move south.' In other words, go where the money is: London. The irony being that they moved south, from Fife to Edinburgh!
3. Then I met you - this, coupled with Sunshine on Leith, is a peculiarly local love song. Speaking of meeting a girl in Morningside (an exclusive area of Edinburgh). It has an infectious catchiness.
4. My old friend the blues - the only cover on the album and beautifully sung and played, a mournful number.
5. Sean - a song I've never really understood. It seems to be about someone called Sean from Mississippi but other than that I've no idea. For this reason it was one of my least favourite but an upbeat number nonetheless.
6. Sunshine on Leith - a slow mournful love song featuring Pete Wingfield's piano playing. This is about finding love after heartbreak featuring the great line, 'While the chief puts sunshine on leith, i'll thank him for your birth.' Beautiful.
7. Come on Nature - an upbeat number full of hormones and discovering the opposite sex.
8. I'm on way - a real upbeat number of hope. Became a classic in my school after appearing on Blue Peter with its 'uh-huh, uh-huh' call and response.
9. What do you do - the second overtly political number of the album. Another mournful number, remember this was released pre-devolution. Includes the classic lines, 'What do you do when democracy fails you.' and 'Pat votes the Scots way just like her mother, but south always takes all just like her brother.'
10. It's Saturday Night - a peaen to the weekend. Another reviewer commented that this number is now hard to approve of. I think this missed its purpose, lines like 'I think I'll scratch cars' and speaking of terrible headaches gives it a bittersweet flavour.
11. Teardrops - the most tedious of the album but has some beautiful close harmony singing.
12. Oh Jean - a six minute romp about snogging at the back of the bus. I remember my parents hating this one. We loved it, particularly the bit where it sounds like Charlie Reid is just sneezing for about two minutes at the end.
'I've never been lucky wi' girls, I confess.
Don't know who to blame for my lack of success.
And even wi' ones up the back o' a bus,
There was always a risk of a slap in the pus.
Oh, Jean, you let me get lucky with you!'
In all this is very much an album of its time, reflecting the culture and mindset of a frustrated Scotland, but in other ways its timeless in its reflection of how love and relationship is viewed in small town Scotland. But for all that that is to detract nothing from its beauty and energy and wittiness.
Sunshine On Leith is the second album from The Proclaimers, dating back to 1988 - although their first, This Is The Story from a year earlier, is probably known to non-fans only for the hit "Letter From America", which reached the dizzy heights of no. 3 in the singles chart. This record, on the other hand, has a couple more songs which are reasonably well known, though again there is only one true smash hit here.
Before I get on to the music, however, it falls to me to comment on the album cover design. This I do with a heavy heart, because - being charitable - it is absolutely terrible. The rear-view picture of the Reid twins gazing out over the local landscape is presumably supposed to look moody, but instead it just looks as though the photographer pressed the shutter at the wrong point. The cover photo also has a bizarre blue colour cast, which together with the simple block lettering brings to mind the output of a teenager who has just got hold of Photoshop for the first time.
That whinge out of the way, we can get on to the songs themselves, and perhaps unsurprisingly we kick off with the actually rather oddly-named "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)". Since the internet is dominated by Americans, I'm constantly being told by websites and suchlike that nobody knew about this song until the release of the 1993 film Benny & Joon (which, incidentally, I don't think I've ever seen). This is complete rubbish as far as the UK is concerned, as it was quite a hit at the time of initial release five years earlier, making it to no. 11 - though it had to wait until the "Best Of" release in 2007 to reach the absolute pinnacle.
It's a good way to get English listeners used to The Proclaimers' strong Scottish accents - which are an integral part of the experience - and it's not a bad song at all. In fact, it's darn good, with an utterly infectious beat and call-and-response lyrics that practically demand to be sung along with. We Sassenach listeners are in for a bit of a shock after this, however, as track two, "Cap In Hand", is a complaint about Scotland being ruled from London, slightly tongue-in-cheek but no less heartfelt for all that; both brothers are strong Scottish nationalists, so really this should be no surprise.
I'm going to skip ahead a little bit now (don't worry, I'll be back!), because track eight is "I'm On My Way". If you thought "(I'm Gonna Be) 500 Miles" was ridiculously catchy, then heaven knows what you're going to make of this song. It's upbeat, bouncy, slightly silly and joyous, almost exultant, in its relentless, railway-recalling beat. It's also almost impossible to get out of your head once you've heard it, but that's no hardship in this particular case. This would be the one song I would choose above all others from this album.
That's not to say that there are no other tracks here worth listening to; far from it. Although it's in a very different style to "I'm On My Way", the title track, "Sunshine On Leith", runs it very close indeed in terms of sheer quality. It's an absolute gem of a song: a beautiful, reflective ballad with gorgeous harmonies, perfect orchestration and gentle, thankful lyrics. If you asked for a song epitomising the phrase "smiling through the tears", then this would be it. (Interestingly, despite the religious hints here and elsewhere on this album, and the existence of a song by the duo called "I Want To Be A Christian", Craig said in an interview in 2000 that he was only "almost convinced by Christianity" and had "too much doubt" to consider himself a believer.)
Another favourite is "What Do You Do", and here we are back to politics. This is a simple, acoustic guitar-led, protest song speaking with melancholy of the destruction of Scottish industry and jobs ("I painted 'fight' on factories / But the factory closed down, pal") and of the feelings of helplessness endured by Scots who, lacking in weight of numbers within the UK ("What do you do / When minority means you?") wonder whether it's really worth the effort any more. The song has dated slightly with the advent of devolution, but its deceptively soft voice still has plenty of power behind it.
Very different is "Saturday Night", a rolling, rollicking piece about weekend drunkenness, which is such a problem these days (and especially so in Scotland) that although it's a slight song, I'm not altogether certain how to feel about it. It's not the weakest number in this collection, though: that dubious accolade probably goes to "Come On Nature", which passes the time but is all a bit "by the numbers" and pedestrian. I'm less than crazy about the closing song, "Oh Jean", either: it's almost six minutes long, and my goodness it feels like it too.
Despite these concerns, there are certainly more nuggets of gold than lumps of lead on Sunshine On Leith, and it's a very good album all in all. Despite its relatively short duration (the whole CD runs for around 45 minutes) It offers a nice variety both of musical styles - listen to the Steve Earle cover "My Old Friends The Blues" for yet another example of this - and of lyrical imagination, and especially at the current bargain price of £4.48 including p&p from Amazon it has to be recommended.
1. I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)
2. Cap In Hand
3. Then I Met You
4. My Old Friends The Blues
6. Sunshine On Leith
7. Come On Nature
8. I'm On My Way
9. What Do You Do
10. It's Saturday Night
12. Oh Jean
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)
2 Cap in Hand
3 Then I Met You
4 My Old Friend the Blues
6 Sunshine on Leith
7 Come on Nature
8 I'm on My Way
9 What Do You Do?
10 It's Saturday Night
12 Oh Jean