While I am abroad in Scotland, I’ve made it my mission to expose myself to as much Scottish music as possible. Freshman year on my radio show, titled “Scotland’s Yard,” I played a song by a Scottish artist to open and close every show. These blog posts are hopefully going to serve as a kind of ‘revival’ of Scotland’s Yard as I take a closer look at some of the most influential, and some of my favorite, albums by Scottish musicians. – S.R.K.
This story came to me via my flatmate at the University of Edinburgh. While on a tour of the Scottish Highlands the bus driver was playing “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by Scottish band The Proclaimers. The bus driver said that if Scotland had a national anthem, that would be it. For most Americans The Proclaimers aren’t much more than a one-hit wonder. If you’re around my age, you would recognize their second-most streamed song “I’m on My Way” from 2001's Shrek. In Scotland however, The Proclaimers’ music inspires Scottish pride. Twin brothers Charlie and Craig Reid sing with a distinct Scottish accent and about Scottish life, problems and politics. I decided to take an in-depth look at their second album, 1988’s Sunshine on Leith.
Opening up the track list with their most recognizable track “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” is about as strong an album opening as you can get. The song, like many on Sunshine on Leith, is simple: it’s an anthemic love song. The simplicity and sincerity of Reid’s lyrics (“When I’m workin’/Yes I know I’m gonna be/I’m gonna be the man who’s workin’ hard for you”) are endearing, and his brothers’ backup singing during the chorus just adds to the charm. “Then I Met You” is also characterized by the same kind of unbridled joy. Reid is shaken out of his distinctive Scottish fatalism (“Thought the song was sung and I would never sing another”) by one person, singing “Then I met you.” Charlie Reid’s pure joy–again alongside his brothers soaring backup vocals–is uncontained in “Sean” written for his newborn son. The brothers are ever optimistic on “I’m on My Way,” definitely a standout track. The instrumentals are nothing special, but to be frank that’s not the point. The Proclaimers are at their best when they are swept up by the thrill of the moment, all the focus is on the lyrics and their charismatic delivery.
However, it’s not always sunny in Leith. Tracks like “My Old Friend the Blues” and “It’s Saturday Night” are quiet acoustic ballads written when the Reids are at their most vulnerable. These songs also tend to touch on other particularly Scottish themes; depression, alcoholism and drug use. “It’s Saturday Night” seems like it could be written by Mark Renton right out of Trainspotting as the singer comes to grips with what happens when the alcohol stops flowing and you are finally left alone with your own thoughts (“I think I’m alright, I know I’m all wrong”). The emotional highpoint of the album, “Sunshine on Leith,” has The Proclaimers create a Scottish ballad that is above all hopeful. The lyrics (“While the Chief, puts sunshine on Leith/I’ll thank him for his work/And your birth and my birth”) show the Proclaimer’s determined to be optimistic. They seem able to take control and responsibility in their personal lives–a task that becomes a lot harder when they are confronted with political issues.
The track list of Sunshine on Leith contains two fundamentally political tracks, “Cap In Hand” and “What Do You Do?” It is in the political sphere that the Reid brothers seem at their most nihilistic. In the 1980s, Scotland was struggling under the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher–who my Scottish Politics professor described as “Scotland’s ultimate supervillain.” Scots overwhelmingly voted time and time again for Thatcher’s opposition, the Labour Party, but her popularity in the conservative parts of England kept her in power for over 10 years. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that The Proclaimers’ were not fans of Mrs. Thatcher, and in fact they are outspoken advocates of Scottish Independence to this day. In “Cap in Hand” the brothers lament the fact that Scotland is perpetually under the thumb of England. To the Reid brothers, like many Scottish nationalists, living under English rule just doesn’t make sense (“I can’t understand why we let someone else rule our lives, cap in hand”). In the gloomy “What Do You Do?” The Proclaimers seem to have no idea how to move forward politically. Talking about poverty, deindustrialization, and general political apathy, Reid asks “What do you do/When Democracy’s all through?/What do you do/When minority means you?” To these questions, The Proclaimers have no concrete answers–questions that seems just as important now as they did in 1988.
Filled with equal parts power pop anthems and intimate acoustic ballads, Sunshine on Leith is overall a quite enjoyable record. The Reid brothers definitely are not the most talented musicians to be born in Scotland, (see Jack Bruce of Cream, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and Malcolm and Angus Young of AC/DC) but they are undeniably the most Scottish I’ve heard so far. The album isn’t solid all the way through; tracks like “Come on Nature” and “Jean” either don’t age particularly well or lack the sincerity of other more stand out tracks. The Proclaimers never made it big in the US, probably for good reason. In Scotland however, their music encapsulates a certain snapshot in history and national pride. I’ll leave you with a quote from Trainspotting that seems to sum up the Scottish attitude towards The Proclaimers:
“He went straight into the room and put The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith on the turntable. He wanted to celebrate the fact that wherever he went, this was his home, these were his people.” (Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting p. 62)
Rating - 7/10
Favorite Tracks: I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles), Cap in Hand, Then I Met You, I'm Gonna Be, Sunshine on Leith.
Least FavoriteTracks: Oh Jean, Come on Nature, Teardrops.