Charlie Reid, 50% of Scottish pop totems The Proclaimers, chats to John-Paul Davies about 40 years of singing with his twin brother Craig and what a Swansea Arena audience can expect from these two master songwriters on their Dentures Out tour.
The Proclaimers are known for your vocal harmony blend and tight songwriting. Who were your influences when you were starting out as young performers?
Charlie Reid: I think stuff just washes over you when you’re little kids – I suppose we were more interested in just kicking a football about. It wasn’t until 10, 11, 12 that I started listening to music. But being born in 1962, we’d absorbed all that mid-to-late-60s thing anyway. So it comes back to The Beatles and The Hollies and the kind of harmonies that were in records back in those days. Looking back, I suppose you can’t be in a group from Britain and not be influenced by The Beatles to some degree.
When we started it was the new wave thing. We could’ve gone in one direction, in a more expansive way – but two to three-minute songs are what we like; that’s what I listen to when I’m putting music on. I like classical music, I listen to folk and jazz, but I gravitate towards the three-minute song and that’s really what we do. Try to get out and tell people the story inside a couple of minutes. That’s who we are.
When the Letter From America video was first played on Top Of The Pops, it was a huge moment for you and for Scottish music. Had you made a conscious decision to present yourselves as more pop/rock than folk?
Charlie Reid: What happened was we took a look at ourselves. And we were never gonna be a kind of glam-pop thing, you know – we just weren’t interested in it. We were more interested in putting forward the song. We cut it back to just really simple clothes, a simple look and just the songs. That’s what it was about; for us, it’s always been about that.
I don’t have any problem with people trying to get a new persona on every record, that’s brilliant. But the songs are really about us, to some degree, every time. They’re not autobiographical, obviously, but they contain something of us or our passion in them – that’s why we’re writing them in the first place. So it’s always been just about the song, and everything else just goes out the window.
Do you think that was from being part of the folk scene around Edinburgh at the time? Was there more focus on having to prove yourself musically – the song was king and that was it?
Charlie Reid: I’m not sure that’s the case. I do think that subsequently when we came out, there was a number of Scottish bands at the time that had good songwriters: Pat and Greg [Kane] from Hue And Cry, obviously, and Del Amitri. There were several others who had quite decent-sized hits, like Danny Wilson, who wrote Mary’s Prayer.
But you know, it was early, mid-80s, we were unemployed. We didn’t really have any contact with anybody else in the week because we wanted to develop something unique and not copy anybody else and we wanted it to come from the heart. Afterwards you find out that other people had the same idea!
The way you’re talking about yourself and Craig, you sound like a pretty tight team. I make it 40 years since The Proclaimers formed. What’s it like for you both, as twin brothers, working so closely for four decades?
Charlie Reid: I’ve got to say, John-Paul, it’s usually pretty good. But sometimes they are strains, obviously, as there are in any relationship. You know we’re twin brothers, whatever, that’s great – but I think what holds us together, the older we get, is doing the music and doing the shows, touring and the hassles that go with that. You live your life together, and with the other guys that are in the band, obviously. So you have your own little gang and that sustains you.
We’re 61 now, so we know full well it’s not gonna last forever, but we want to make it last as long as it can to get sort of every bit of juice out of it. I think a lot of people, for some reason, they quit early and then they regret it – and there’s some that go on way too long! You’re always finding a balance, so if we can get the balance until one of us becomes ill or is just not up to it, then that’ll be the time to quit.
And in all that time, after a dozen albums, what is your favourite song that you have written together?
Charlie Reid: Sunshine On Leith. It means the most to Craig and I because it means the most to the audience that comes to see us, you know? Everybody knows about 500 Miles. But of the people who come to see our shows, their favourite song is Sunshine On Leith, and therefore it’s my favourite song. We feel lucky to have got it, and it’s sustained really well over the years.
Are you lyrics-first writers or do you start with the melody and chords? Take a song like Dentures Out, the opening song from your latest album of the same name, which is so witty and melodic.
Charlie Reid: Generally, it starts with a melody. Often nowadays there’s – I wouldn’t say it was a concept, but a glimmer of something. I think for a lot of songwriters, it must be the first line. You get the first line, and then you might not even know exactly what the song is about until the chorus, but it strikes a tone and gives you a colour. “Britain’s old and rather thin / I saw her with her dentures in” – there’s a story there already. There’s something about ageing and decline there.
To some degree I think that if you get a good opening line, songs do suggest themselves: they give you a path with which to follow. I mean, with this album, I would say – from old punks like us! – this is our first album that has some sort of concept to it. It’s an anti-nostalgia album: that thing of people looking back with rose-tinted glasses to a time, or their own childhoods, that never really was.
The last time you played in Swansea I saw you in the Brangwyn Hall. Will you approach your first gig in the new, larger Swansea Arena differently and what can we expect on the night?
Charlie Reid: If there’s a difference, John-Paul, since last we came back we try to keep the gap between songs as small as possible. I mean, it’s not like a James Brown revue or anything like that – one segue into another – but it’s to try and keep the intensity. And I think it really works. I mean, we never hung up between songs anyway, but there’s not too much chat. It’s more, you know, a series of songs and then a chat, and then another, to try and keep the intensity up. So if you notice a difference, I hope it would be that.
The Proclaimers, Swansea Arena, Fri 18 Aug.
Tickets: from £40.99. Info: here
words JOHN-PAUL DAVIES