In the spring of 1993, twins Charlie and Craig Reid, also known as the Proclaimers, received a major boost to their musical careers. Actress Mary Stuart Masterson was starring in the motion picture Benny & Joon, and the film’s director asked her to bring some of her favorite music to the set. Some scenes required her character to paint wild, colorful canvases, and she needed some musical inspiration. When she pulled out her copy of the Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith and played the joyful love song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” the director knew he had the perfect opening song for the offbeat love story. Soon after Benny & Joon’s release, the Proclaimers suddenly had a huge hit in the United States—with a song that was five years old.
Although it took mainstream America years to discover the Proclaimers, American critics had long been fans and the Reids had a huge following around the world, built on what a Guardian contributor dubbed their “unique brand of tuneful, old-fashioned pop.” They sing with tight harmonies and thick but melodic Scottish accents, and their output sounds like a sampler of
Members include twin brothers Charlie Reid (born in April of 1962, in Auchtermuchty in Fife, Scotland; divorced; children: a son, Sean), vocals, acoustic guitar; and Craig Reid (born in April of 1962, in Auchtermuchty in Fife, Scotland; married; children: one daughter), vocals, tambourine, bongos, maracas; father was a joiner, mother was a nurse.
Played in punk band, late 1970s; formed the Proclaimers, 1983, and performed in clubs in Edinburgh and Inverness, Scotland, 1983-86; toured United Kingdom with the Housemartins, 1986; signed with Chrysalis Records, 1987, and released This Is the Story, 1987; added band, released Sunshine on Leith, 1988. “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” used as theme for film Benny & Joon; became the band’s first hit song in the United States, 1993; released Hit the Highway, 1994.
Addresses: Home —Edinburgh, Scotland. Record company —Chrysalis/ERG, 8730 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069. Management —Braw Music Management, Edinburgh, Scotland. Proclaimers Info —P.O. Box 309, Edinburgh EH9 1JE, Scotland.
the last several decades of popular music. Jim Sullivan of the Boston Globe identified “Scottish-made melodic folk, heartfelt soul, American country, light punk, pop and rock—most all of it imbued with an exuberant, uplifting zeal.”
While some critics likened the Proclaimers to early rockers—the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly—others emphasized their contemporary edge. Sullivan compared them to alternative rocker Elvis Costello, affirming that they share “more than a bit of his songwriting craft, the knack for weaving serious, trenchant lyrics into soothing, gently stinging, songs.” They write about adult topics—family, relationships, politics, and spirituality—and as Steve Hochman observed in Rolling Stone, “While most of their contemporaries search for the meaning of life, the Reids … revel in its various manifestations.”
The comparisons to Costello and Holly are engendered not only by the twins’ music but by their striking appearance. Both are over six-feet tall, lanky, and, as writers like to point out, a bit nerdy. In fact, according to the Guardian, the British press took to calling them “swotty geeks” and “speccy eight eyes.” But when they start playing, the stereotypes and innocence melt away; they sing, in the words of Rolling Stone’s Peter Galvin, “some of the most muscular folk music you’re likely to hear.”
The Reids pay little attention to “nerdy” cracks and make it clear that they’re hardly naive, remembering the slings and arrows of struggling in the music business. “You’ve got to remember that we were grown men before we became professional,” Charlie reminded Guardian writer David Bowker, and as Craig added, “You can’t struggle for seven years if you’re weak and vulnerable.”
The Reids’ career began in the small Scottish town of Auchtermuchty in Fife, where they were born in 1962. Their mother was a nurse and their father was a joiner, but more importantly, the Reids’ parents loved music. Their father had a large collection of jazz, blues, soul, and country and western, and most of it was American—Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, James Brown.
In spite of their penchant for American soul and country and western, the Reid brothers’ first foray into music was fronting a punk band in high school. Punk was popular at the time, and in their town it wasn’t hip for a teenager to admit to a taste for country and western. “It was quite destructive, in a way,” Charlie recalled in the Chicago Tribune, “because it ‘hijacked’ all our ideas for about three years. We wouldn’t play anything other than new wave music.”
By 1983 the new wave had passed and the Reids formed a duo, calling themselves the Proclaimers. Craig explained the choice in a Chrysalis press bio: “We always wanted a strong name. We wanted something with a gospel feel to it that indicated strength in the vocal delivery, a sort of spiritual element.” For three years they played pubs in Edinburgh and Inverness, building a strong following. During that time they gave up their quest for a music career twice, but discovered, as Charlie admitted to Bowker, “we have no other talents whatsoever.”
Determined to stay in the business, they wrote to Kevin Rowland of the Scottish pop group Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Rowland became a good friend, giving them advice, financial assistance, and help producing a demo. An Inverness fan sent their demo to the British band the Housemartins, who were impressed enough to invite the Proclaimers on their 1986 United Kingdom tour. The exposure of the tour won them another key invitation, this time from British television. In January of 1987, they performed on the BBC show The Tube. Two weeks later, they found themselves playing a set for interested Chrysalis Records executives, and they signed a Chrysalis recording contract on March 2. The brothers were in the recording studio the next day and within nine days had finished This Is the Story. Six weeks later it hit the record stores.
This Is the Story is entirely acoustic. Some critics liked this “lean and lively,” sound, as Leslie Berman termed it in High Fidelity. Others admired the debut album but found the acoustic sound too spare for their tastes: in words of High Fidelity contributor Billy Altman, it was “a wee too folky tame.” The album’s songs were split between songs of family and love, and songs of a more political nature, reflecting the Reids’ dedication to Scottish nationalism. “We believe that Scotland would have a lot better standard of living and a lot better society if it would govern itself,” Craig insisted in a Rolling Stone interview with Shelia Rogers.
The Proclaimers explored this conviction in such cuts as “Throw the ‘R’ Away,” a defense against those who sneer at the distinctive Scottish accent, and “Letter from America,” which laments the continued Scottish emigration to the States. British listeners liked the mix of songs on This Is the Story, and in eight months it went gold. In November of 1987 a non-acoustic re-recording of “Letter from America” hit Number Three on the singles chart. Throughout the next year, the Reids toured Britain and Europe and generated some interest in the United States.
The Proclaimers’ next album, 1988’s Sunshine on Leith, had an even bigger impact. This time, Charlie and Craig decided to add a band to their duo, in order “to make a fuller sound for what we do,” they told Claudia Perry in the Houston Post. The band included Dave Mattacks on drums and Jerry Donahue on guitar, both of the seminal folk rock group Fairport Convention, as well as fiddler Steve Shaw of Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
Many critics judged the fuller sound on Sunshine on Leith a great improvement, and their response to the album was distinctly positive. Altman applauded its “refreshingly joyous music,” and in Rolling Stone, Hochman declared it “a wonderfully guileless treasure of an album.” Again the Proclaimers joined political music with songs about family and love, balancing such cuts as the effusive “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” and “Oh Jean,” with the powerfully nationalistic “Cap in Hand” and “What Do You Do.” Playing off the album’s title, Ken Capobianco of the Boston Globe called this music “potent, Leithal stuff.”
Again, the Proclaimers followed the album’s release with an extensive tour. The touring paid off: Sunshine on Leith sold well in Europe, went platinum in the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zeland, and made it to triple platinum in Australia. “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” was a hit around the world and spent five weeks at the top spot of Australia’s singles chart. In the United States, the album had some success on the college charts, but with the exception of some positive reviews in the press, the Proclaimers did not get much attention.
After this spurt of activity in the late 1980s, the Proclaimers hit a dry spell and went five years without producing an album. For a time, other parts of their life took precedence—Charlie’s marriage broke up and Craig and his wife had a baby girl. Charlie also had trouble with writer’s block. “It’s not that we’d been sitting doing nothing,” Craig emphasized in their Chrysalis press bio in 1994. “We could have had an album out two or three years ago, but it would have been mediocre. Mediocre or bad. And there’s no point in doing that.”
By the time Benny & Joon sent them up the American charts, the Proclaimers hadn’t performed in years. After the film came out, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” spent 28 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, rose to Number Three, and sold almost a million copies. Sunshine on Leith sold almost half a million copies, and the Reids returned to the States and toured in 1993.
By this time, the Proclaimers had produced new material, and their smashing success in America gave them the impetus to go ahead with it. They recorded Hit the Highway in the fall of 1993 and released it the following spring. Some critics noted that the 1994 effort lacks the political edge of the brothers’ earlier work. “There’s been really nothing to inspire me in the last four or five years, and that’s a terrible thing,” Craig acknowledged in the Boston Globe interview with Sullivan. “I think our cynicism about government has probably turned not even to despair—just probably resignation.”
Taking up the slack were more spiritual songs, including the all-out gospel “I Want to Be a Christian,” and “The More I Believe.” However, the Reids proved as questioning in religion as they are in politics, penning “The Light,” an attack on evangelical organized religion: “But I can’t put my faith in / Your words and demands/I believe in God alright/It’s folk like you I just can’t stand.”
Critics enjoyed the album, particularly its harmonies and passion. While Rolling Stone contributor Peter Galvin criticized the brothers’ occasional vehemence, he found their spirit “infectious,” and Scott Schinder, writing in Pulse!, delighted that their music “still embodies a proudly untrendy balance of sincerity and playfulness, embracing tradition while effortlessly transcending it.”
The Reids probably received their greatest compliment from David Okamoto in CD Review. Noting the album’s mixture of “vintage Memphis soul,” “gospel balladry,” “’50s doo-wop,” and “percolating New Orleans funk,” he concluded: “Even more impressive [than their spirit] is the Proclaimers’ expanding grasp of American music.” After years of loving and learning American music—and going for so long without an American hit—this estimation must have made the Proclaimers, as they sing in “Don’t Turn Out Like Your Mother,” “as happy as hell.”
This Is the Story (includes “Letter from America” and “Throw the ‘R’ Away”), Chrysalis/ERG, 1987.
Sunshine on Leith (includes “Cap in Hand,” “I’m Gonna Be [500 Miles],” “Oh Jean,” and “What Do You Do”), Chrysalis/ERG, 1988.
Hit the Highway (includes “Don’t Turn Out Like Your Mother,” “I Want to Be a Christian,” “The Light,” and “The More I Believe”), Chrysalis/ERG, 1994.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 14, 1989; April 9, 1994.
Boston Globe, March 3, 1989; May 25, 1989.
CD Review, May 1994.
Chicago Tribune, March 9, 1989.
Entertainment Weekly, May 7, 1993.
Guardian, January 18, 1989.
High Fidelity, March 1988; June 1989.
Houston Post, May 16, 1989.
Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1989; April 24, 1994.
Minneapolis Skyway News, July 12, 1994.
New York Times, February 26, 1989.
People, March 27, 1989.
Pulsel, May 1994.
Rolling Stone, April 20, 1989; May 4, 1989; June 30, 1994.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 16, 1994 (as reprinted from the Boston Globe).
Stereo Review, June 1989.
Twin Cities Reader (Minneapolis/St. Paul), July 13, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Chrysalis/ERG publicity materials and staff, and the liner notes to This Is the Story, Sunshine on Leith, and Hit the Highway.
—Megan Rubiner Zinn
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