"While I'm Worth My Room On This Earth": In Praise Of The Proclaimers

Was ever a band more aptly named than The Proclaimers? They proclaim, they cry out, they shout forth. And what shouting it is.

Think back to the first time they burst upon the public consciousness with their song Letter From America. Written when Craig and Charlie Reid were raw 20 year olds, the song tries to imagine what it was like for people emigrating from Scotland.

I've looked at the ocean

Tried hard to imagine

The way you felt the day you sailed

From Wester Ross to Nova Scotia.

It asks whether the exiles who have left might ever return to help reinvigorate Scotland.

I wonder my blood

Will you ever return

To help us kick the life back

To a dying mutual friend?

Do we not love her?

I think we all claim we love her

Do we have to roam the world

To prove how much it hurts?

But if anyone feels inclined to view the song as a wistful folk tune about a time long ago, the Reids seek to show the painful effects on Scotland of the union from the Highland Clearances to the destruction of the steel, coal and shipbuilding industries by Maggie Thatcher. They do this through the list of places and towns they sing about, spanning the centuries from Lochaber and Sutherland to Bathgate and Linwood.

But as important as the lyrics and the tune is the way they sing. It’s uncompromising. They don’t transplant their accents to somewhere in the mid-Atlantic for the sake of airplay. They sing in the accent they were born with. It’s something they address in Throw The ‘R’ Away on their first album This Is The Story:

I'm just gonna have to learn to hesitate

To make sure my words on your Saxon ears don't grate

But I wouldn't know a single word tae say

If I flattened all the vowels and I threw the "R" away.”

Needless to say, being The Proclaimers, they didn’t hesitate.

As for their harmonies, yes they can sound like the Everly Brothers but there is also a strong Scots element in much of their music where the harmonies sound like something you’d hear in the Outer Hebrides or the highlands. The background vocals behind the verses in Letter From America are a good example, to me at least.

Nationalism, in the sense of having the freedom to be Scottish, is a powerful force in their writing. But their nationalism is not the Braveheart cliché. They don’t cite the shortcake sentimentality of Robert The Bruce or William Wallace when they write about the right to be Scottish and for Scotland to govern itself as an independent nation.

In Cap In Hand, for example, they turn the spotlight on the Scots themselves:

We fight - when they ask us

We boast - then we cower

We beg

For a piece of

What’s already ours.

It’s a song that ferociously undercuts the tea towel boastfulness of the Wha’s like us brigade, confronting their self-delusion head-on:

“I can't understand why we let someone else rule our land, cap in hand.”

The Reid brothers aren’t exclusionary nationalists and they’re not going to indulge those who are. In Scotland’s Story, they make this point very clearly, leaving no room for ambiguity:

In Scotland's story I’m told that they came

The Gael and the Pict, the Angle and Dane

But where's all the Chinese and Indian names?

They're in my land’s story and they're all worth the same.

You could argue ambiguity is not a word that anyone would ever find in The Proclaimers Dictionary and all the better for it.

All through the story the immigrants came

The Gael and the Pict, the Angle and Dane

From Pakistan, England and from the Ukraine,

We're all Scotland's story and we're all worth the same.

Your Scotland's story is worth just the same.

Their willingness to write honestly and unflinchingly and to cover topics other musicians rarely visit sets them out almost as much as their singing. They might not succeed all the time but they never give up trying. It’s part of what sets them apart.

Take a song like Let’s Get Married. What other modern pop or rock act would sing so joyously, so exuberantly and unashamedly about getting hitched? If there’s one thing we know about The Proclaimers it’s that they wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Let's get married

I love you and I want to stay with you,

Let's get married

Have kids, grow old and grey with you,

Let's get married

Hold hands, walk in the park,

Let’s get married.

And when did pop or rock songs talk about having children without sounding distinctly abashed or uncool. The great thing about The Proclaimers is that they make a virtue of being uncool. Look at them, listen to them, it’s who they are.

For the good times

For the days when we can do no wrong,

For the bad times

For the moments when we think we can't go on,

For the family

For the lives of the children that we've planned,

Let's get married

C'mon darlin', please take my hand.

Unlike so many other modern musicians, the Reid brothers are more than willing to write about parenthood and children. They’re not afraid of expressing their feelings. At all. Think about Ten Tiny Fingers, for example.

Ten tiny fingers, ten tiny toes

I thought I knew about love

But I didn't know

No no, I didn't know

Then there’s Your Childhood, which starts like this:

From birth to five, you're learning

From five to ten, you're playing

By the time you're fifteen

You're never wrong

Then you turn around

And it's all gone, your childhood.

They don’t care if you think they’re walking the tightrope between an unalloyed expression of love and the sentiment you might find inside a Hallmark card. Why should they? For them, there is no tightrope. Everything is true.

Every morning

Your crying ends my sleep

I kid on I'm angry

But it's not a feeling I can keep.

There's no light outside

I don't care 'cos I know it's true

That in our house

The sun shines out of you.

You've got your mother's looks

You're a beautiful little girl

You'll break boys hearts

All over this world

Then one day you'll walk out the door

And I know you'll break mine,

You'll break mine.

Any father would be proud to have written those lines. Not so many fathers would own up to writing lines like the ones in He’s Just Like Me.

His father's pride, his mother's joy

The end result of love, a beautiful little boy.

You think he's perfect, and that he'll be

The answer to the disappointment that you feel in me.

But he's just like me

You'll never own him

You won't control him

He'll never phone.

You civilise him

And I'll criticise him and along the way

He'll grow to be a man.

They have a knack for expressing the feelings so many parents have about their children, as they do to great effect in Wherever You Roam:

I picture you all around ten

But now you've grown to women and to men,

Things will never be the same again

Things can never be the same again,

And I'm not going to be there

And you won't always take care

But my love goes with you

Wherever you roam.

No matter where you are in the world

You're still my boys

And you're still my girls

And my love goes with you

Wherever you roam.

They also turned it around with their song Act Of Remembrance about their father. Even there, in the opening, there’s an honesty you rarely get in modern songs:

Arms of steel, hair of gold

Royal blue eyes with a rebel soul

You scared me, you still do

But I loved you more than you ever knew.

It’s song that illustrates perfectly how any accusations of sentimentality against The Proclaimers fall apart because their sentiments are always grounded in reality, truth and honesty. They don’t lie to themselves and they don’t lie to us.

Drove my car to your street

Hoped a ghost I would meet

Well, that ghost, he's moved on, yeah

But his anger, Dad is it gone?

Is the pain gone, is it all gone?

The Proclaimers most successful song is I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). It encapsulates so much of what makes them great. Straight up lyrics about love with a fantastic call and response after another infectious chorus. But even here, in their biggest hit, there is an unashamed Scottishness in the lyric:

And if I haver, yeah I know I’m gonna be,

I’m gonna be the man who’s haverin’ to you.

How many thousands or millions of times have people sung those lines without having a clue what they mean?

In the end, though, their most beautiful song is also one of the simplest, Sunshine On Leith.

My heart was broken, my heart was broken

Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow, sorrow.

My heart was broken, my heart was broken

You saw it, you claimed it,

You touched it, you saved it.

While I'm worth my room on this earth,

I will be with you.

While the Chief puts sunshine on Leith,

I'll thank Him for His work

And your birth and my birth.

The lyrics and the tune are the essence of simplicity. There is no artifice, no attempt to write something beyond what it is and yet, as a result, it is so much more than you think it should be. It’s one of the things that makes them great.

One of the most affecting and moving moments I have witnessed in sport was when thousands of supporters of Hibs (Charlie and Craig’s team) belted out this song after their team won the Scottish FA Cup in 2016. Even for those of us who aren’t Hibs fans (or sports fans even), this is a very emotional experience – you can find it here – an incredible moment that says just how much The Proclaimers are worth their room on this earth.