An Album Ian Likes: Sunshine On Leith by The Proclaimers

Craig and Charlie Reid are identical twins. Their music can best be described as “idiosyncratic”, which is a word often used to describe artists who have a distinctive sound that is difficult to pigeonhole. Their 1988 album Sunshine On Leith (their second) was successful in ways that not many people were able to qualify… so I’m going to give it a go.

Just occasionally a cultural artefact comes along that gets you right where nothing else does and stays with you forever: hell, this entire blog is an example of just those moments. My main focus has always been on books, but music attaches itself to us in a way that very few other art forms manage to. A song or a melody is easy to remember: a novel or film or a portrait or a long-ish poem is harder to capture. And we often have music around us at significant moments in our life and a few notes is often all we need to send us back on a remembrance of times past.

With The Proclaimers, it always takes me back to the middle of 1988…

… One of my friends strode into the Rosny College cafeteria, brandishing their Walkman at me like a trophy. “Banksy, you have to listen to this: you’ll love it.” I wasn’t sure if this was a compliment or not, because my music taste was, is and shall remain terrible. I slid the foam earpieces over my head and listened. There was a solo guitar thumping out a simple bass line then a very Scottish voice sang, “When I wake up…”

The album has a simple design. You can see the boys staring into the distance at some post-industrial landscape with some cramped terrace houses in the foreground. It’s a clever mix of the pastoral and urban and it gives a hint of the contents within.

“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”

What a great opener: this is fun, easy to sing along with and incredibly catchy. It’s also got cleverer lyrics than you might credit a song like it to (“And when the money/ comes in for the work I do/ I’ll pass almost every penny on to you.”). And, most importantly, it’s a great song for people like me who… struggle… with singing.

“Cap In Hand”

After the upbeat and peppy opening track we get another fast-paced song which is tremendous fun… and then you listen to it properly and realise that you’ve been dumped deeply into Scottish Independence territory… and I love it. It’s a great set of lyrics, with our narrator telling us about all the things he does know (the meaning of “serene” for one thing) and can explain (why Stranraer are doing so poorly) … except for why “we let someone else rule our land/ Cap in hand.” Listening to this song at the tail end of Australia’s bicentenary was a thought-provoking experience and it may have coloured a little of my thinking since then.

“Then I Met You”

This one’s a belter: it starts breathlessly and keeps that pace up all the way through without stopping. It’s the story of how a couple met and how pointless the singer’s life was until that moment (“Thought the book was written/ Thought the game had ended/ Thought the song was sung/ And I could never sing another”). It’s steeped in past despair and wonder and awe at how meeting someone you care about can completely change your life and outlook.

“My Old Friend The Blues”

The only cover on the album (it’s a Steve Earle track) and it’s a doozy. It also gives the listener a break after the energy of the first three tracks. It’s about being on the road and being lost and forgotten by everyone that loved you. It’s perfect for walking home alone after boozy nights out… apparently

“Sean”

This would be up there as one of my favourite songs on the album. It’s a tad weird when you hear it the first time (the “uh, hi-ya, hi-ya, hi-ya” can be a little off-putting) but once the song hits its stride it literally soars and becomes a heartfelt paean to family and parenthood and growing up. It’s just lovely.

“Sunshine On Leith”

There’s a lot of pressure that gets put on title tracks: they’re expected to be a thematic representation of the entire album as well as the best track. Putting it at the end of Side 1 can also be a gamble.

Fortunately, this one manages it. Telling a story about love being found after heartbreak and, in a way that makes one of the dingiest skylines in ‘80s Scotland look wonderful, it’s a magical song that restores your faith in humanity. I love it. I also insisted that it be the bridal waltz at my wedding in 1993, making it the most significant thing I contributed to the day, apart from “I do.” I haven’t yet watched the Dexter Fletcher-directed musical that takes its title from this song but I’m looking forward to it.

“Come On Nature”

Just another joyous song about a boy wanting a girl to notice him. Totally relatable for that particular part of my life.

“I’m On My Way”

This one summed up the Summer of ‘88/89 for me perfectly: I started it as potentially unemployed with some rubbish school results, watching as my friends began to embark on more successful lives. By the end of it, I had been miraculously accepted into a university course I’ve since managed to wrangle a career out of and was rounding out a season of a ridiculously successful play that I’d thought would have been a fun diversion at best. And while I haven’t always done “… my best to do the best I can” this song will always remind me of that time.

“What Do You Do?”

A song about being let down and having the world set against you, this is a perfect song for a morning-after-the-night-before or for a moody walk after being let down by someone or something. It’s ostensibly about Scottish Independence but it can be applied to any time that you feel the odds are against you.

“It’s Saturday Night”

There were a couple of occasions in my younger life when I may have considered this a bit of an anthem. Its about the time after you’ve realised that you may have had too much (“the drink that I had/ 3 hours ago/ has been joined by 14 others/ in a steady flow”) and that you’ve got to somehow get yourself home… or get yourself sorted out somehow. It isn’t, importantly, about regretting things or bemoaning what you’ve done; it’s about accepting them and finding ways to deal with them.

“Teardrops”

I love this song but it does feel a little creepy if you think about it for too long. The singer is watching tears on his lover’s face and wants to comfort them and wipe them away.  

“Oh Jean”

A brilliant choice for a final song, this is a love song to a girl that the singer has grown to care about over time. Paralleling the situation in the song, it builds to a… er, well… climax is probably the best and most apt word for a song that makes no apologies for making its subtext the text.

It’s a fun album, overall, with no real duds on it. And each song is different but recognisably by The Proclaimers.

I jumped on their bandwagon quite promptly: I bought it on cassette not long after I first listened to it in the cafeteria and instantly fell in love with it. For various reasons I’d recently started carrying a backpack around with me. This was largely because I’d started to seriously get involved in amateur theatre and I needed to carry my scripts, pencils and snacks around with me when going to rehearsals (I didn’t have my driver’s license at this point), but it soon became a habit to take it wherever I went because I also threw in whatever book I had going at the time, a bunch of other cassettes and batteries for when my Walkman (or cheap imitation) ran down. I was working on a play at the time (it was a stage production of The Life Of Brian) and doing a few other bits and pieces and I was carting my stuff around with me everywhere. So I listened to Sunshine On Leith a lot. In fact, it became the soundtrack of that summer (1988/89) for me. If I had to walk anywhere after a few drinks at night, I’d be thinking of “It’s Saturday Night”. If I was going to a party or meeting friends I’d be humming along to “I’m On My Way.” And while I didn’t have an “Oh Jean” or “Then I Met You” moment that summer, alas (or, more accurately, no lass), I definitely had a couple of “Come On Nature” thoughts.

The sound of The Proclaimers is, like I said, instantly recognisable. It’s a unique country/ punk sound that feels a little bit folk and a little bit rock and roll. It’s right in my wheelhouse – and I’m not alone: here in Australia Sunshine On Leith went double-platinum (140 000 copies) so it clearly struck a lot of other people the same way it did me. Worldwide it sold over 2 million copies and they became a minor cultural icon (they also had a sartorial style that made me feel cool for about half-a-second): The Simpsons referenced them, David Tennant (probably their most famous fan) used “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” as the basis for a farewell video when he left Doctor Who. “Cap In Hand” also became an anthem for (some of) the Scottish people in 2014 when they went to the polls to test the waters for independence.

I love a lot of their other songs but there’s nothing in their catalogue that really compares to this entire album for me personally. It came along at the right time to be loved. Which is fine: there are loads of artists whose work only resonates in part with me, despite them having huge followings elsewhere. I’m counting myself lucky that what does work for me works in wondrous ways.

You can find out more about The Proclaimers here: https://the.proclaimers.co.uk/

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