By Bob McMahon
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The best songs often have the least interesting origins. Craig Reid, one-half of the Scottish twin-brother band the Proclaimers, wrote their most successful song just to pass some time between gigs. "I think 'I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)' was one of those songs that was written in about 45 minutes," Reid explains in a phone interview. "I think we were gonna do a gig in Aberdeen, which is about 150 miles from Edinburgh. In those days, the road was even worse than it is now, so you'd set off a few hours before you did the gig. I was sitting in the house, just waiting to get picked up in the bus. It was about an hour before, and I was at the piano. I just came up with the chords, and I got the lyrics straight away. It was like falling off a log. Some songs, you have to really work at them, and that one was like simplicity itself."
The song's path to world domination was considerably less simple. First released in 1988, "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" was the opening track on the Proclaimers' second album, Sunshine on Leith. A modest success in the United Kingdom, Sunshine sank quickly to the bottom of the U.S. charts despite heavy play on college- and community-radio stations. In 1989 the single took off in Australia, but that failed to propel the Proclaimers to greater fame. Finally, in 1993, "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" was featured prominently in the movie Benny & Joon, and the Proclaimers suddenly had a monster hit on their hands. "I think we've been in 13 or 14 movies down the years," Reid says. "Besides The Commitments, we'd been in some other ones that were art-house movies, and we had songs in the soundtrack that hadn't done anything. So Benny & Joon came along, and we said yeah; it was some money, and we didn't think anything more. We just figured it would be in the movie, and that would be it. The movie came out, and radio stations across the States started getting requests for the song. The record company at that time didn't even know if we were still on the label. It fell into their lap completely. It was a shock for everybody. We'd had three or four songs in films before, and we earned a few quid off them, but nothing like that."
Craig and Charlie Reid began making music as teenagers in mid-'70s Scotland; like so many musicians of their age, the burgeoning punk scene inspired them to devote themselves to music full-time. "That was like a great thing for us, because some of the bands that were playing were almost as bad as we were," Reid admits ruefully. "Four chords, and anybody could do it. By the time it happened in Scotland, we were about 15 years old, so it was exactly the right place and time and the right age to be."
Though the Reids were influenced by punk, their musical inspirations were from all over the map, touching on Elvis Presley, James Brown, Fairport Convention, the Band and, in the '80s, Dexy's Midnight Runners. But it was their decision to abandon a normal lineup that set them apart from the pack. "We started off as the Proclaimers in 1983. We decided that if we wanted to do our own songs, it had to be just the two of us," Reid explains. "We could do it better with just the one guitar and a tambourine and a couple of voices. We did that for three or four years. Basically, we got tons of gigs everywhere. When we played live, we always got a good response. No matter where we were, we always got that."
Eventually Chrysalis Records signed the duo, and their first album, This Is the Story, did well in the U.K. After re-recording an acoustic track from the album ("Letter From America") with a backing band, they soon found themselves with one of England's biggest radio hits. This success allowed them to hire producer Pete Wingfield, who'd been a noted session keyboardist for two decades and had worked on the first album by their beloved Dexy's. He brought the Reids into the studio with a crack team of musicians, including guitarist Jerry Donahue, who became an integral part of the sound of Sunshine on Leith.
The guitarist who replaced Richard Thompson in Fairport Convention, Donahue is currently best known as a member of the Hellecasters, a virtuoso trio of guitarists devoted to the string-bending possibilities of the Fender Telecaster. His clucking, chattering, insistent guitar style proved the perfect foil for the Reid brothers' soaring, straightforward vocal melodies. Song for song, Sunshine on Leith stands as a pop/rock classic because of this perfect partnership.
Although Hit the Highway came out in 1994, timed to capitalize on the left-field success of "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)," the record suffered a quiet chart death. Perhaps it was the choice of "Let's Get Married" as the single -- it's a delightfully catchy song, to be sure, but one whose matrimonial theme rarely works well in the context of pop music. Or perhaps it was the fact that Donahue wasn't playing on this one. The arrangements were still sharp but not as urgent. That problem has been rectified with the release of the Proclaimers' fourth album, Persevere, which features not only the fiery return of Donahue but such session stalwarts as drummer Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello's Attractions), keyboardist Chuck Leavell (of the Allman Brothers, Sea Level and, oh yeah, the Rolling Stones), pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz (of k.d. lang's band) and fiddler Peter Ostroushko (who's played on hundreds of records since his first gig, providing uncredited mandolin for Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks). This crew may just be the best lineup you'll find on any record released in 2001. (It should be noted that the Proclaimers' fine touring band unfortunately doesn't include any of the aforementioned big names.)
So, why the seven-year lag between albums? "We took far too long to write a few songs," Reid confesses. "I was at the stage of having seven or eight musical ideas and thinking, 'Well, I've got tunes for seven or eight songs that could definitely be album songs.' Instead of getting them completed, I would say, 'Well, maybe there could be a couple more, and then I'll start getting the lyrics.' I should have started doing that once I had a couple of ideas. I got out of the habit of completing songs. That's really what it was."
The brothers' personal lives interfered for a while, too. In addition to the usual complications associated with raising a large family, their father became seriously ill in 1997 and died in 1998. For the most part, the songs on Persevere reflect these events. The brothers write of their children, their wives and their father; a fourth theme of adultery presumably reflects Reid's insistence that not all their material is autobiographical: "We don't necessarily have every experience that's related in the songs, but if we don't actually have the experience, then we've seen it close up."
The Proclaimers are at their best when they write about deceptively trivial domestic subjects. Take "Sweet Little Girls," the music of which evokes the chorus of ooh-oohs in "Sympathy for the Devil" and the lyrics of which delve into the concurrent cruelty and innocence of little children. The great theme of the album, and the one that hits home the hardest, is fatherhood. "Act of Remembrance," although pretty, is a little too obvious an attempt to pay homage to their late father, but "That's When He Told Her" is a profoundly sympathetic leap into the experiences of the speaker's parents, and "One Too Many" is a rigorous re-creation of the painful wrestling by a child with a parent's death.
With Persevere, the Proclaimers have equaled the musical triumphs of Sunshine on Leith, delivering a series of snapshots that reveal the actual experience of life during middle age, when love is more complicated than it seems in the perennial adolescence of most popular music. It remains to be seen which film director will capitalize on the pleasures of Persevere.