Lost In Music… Neil Cocker on The Proclaimers’ This is the Story
This month’s ‘Lost In Music…’ comes from our Luxembourg correspondent Neil Cocker, a Scottish writer in exile in the Gran Duchy. Neil reminisces about the importance of The Proclaimer’s debut album, This is the Story, not only to Scottish music, but also his young self. To understand just how odd the The Proclaimers appeared when they first graced our TV screens, you have to remember that this was the mid-1980s, a time when many Scottish bands, and their fans, equated ‘authentic’ with ‘American’, be it rock n’roll, soul, film and even food. We were the 51st State culturally speaking. Our jeans were Levi’s, our quiffs were high, (authentically waxed with Dax), and our singers sang with a mid-Atlantic twang. At first sight and sound the brother’s Reid seemed no more than a one-hit novelty act.
It seems ludicrous now, but to anyone with ears it soon became obvious that Charlie and Craig were the real deal, and still are to this day. It was folk music, it was the blues; it was brilliant. But enough from me, this is Neil’s story:
Like thousands of others, my first experience of The Proclaimers was on the cult Channel 4 music show “The Tube” in January 1987. The presenter introduced the next act as coming from “Uckta-Muckty”, and the camera panned over to two shockingly uncool Fifers, kitted out like Mormon missionaries in crisp white shirts and national health specs. I was already embarrassed for them. But then they ripped into a defiant three-minute blast of punky gospel all about their broad Scots accents, and that was it: I was smitten:
In the aftermath of my next trip to the dental hospital in Glasgow (where my teeth were being rigged with byzantine metal braces) I bought The Proclaimers’ debut album This is the Story. I remember blushing furiously as I handed over the cassette – the cover featured the geeky twins, face to face, noses touching – and I secreted my purchase deep in the inside pocket of my anorak, terrified that I might bump into a crowd of my far cooler schoolmates, who would no doubt pin me down, frisk me, and reveal to the world my devotion to the speccy brothers. But I made it home safely. And then I did what 14-year-olds all over the world have done since the birth of popular music – I retreated into my bedroom to absorb and study this incredible and still under-appreciated record.
The album starts with the same track they sang on The Tube – Throw the R Away – launching their manifesto of unashamed Scottishness. When Craig Reid sneers “Perhaps for some money / I could talk like a bee dripping honey” the brothers’ punk roots are evident, and the mood of the album is set.
Next up is Over and Done With, which begins with Reid half-singing, half-yelling the immortal lines “This is the story of our first teacher / Shetland made her jumpers and the devil made her features.” The song fuses a soulful reflectiveness with a Calvinistic shut-up-and-get-on-with-it pragmatism – not many of those tunes around, that’s for sure.
The album powers forward, driven by hard-strummed acoustic guitars, tambourine shakes and percussive handclaps. Side A ends with their acoustic version of Letter from America, a stripped-back version of the song that would make it to number 3 in the British charts by the end of the year (the official single version was later somewhat needlessly tagged on to the end of the album).
Side B gives us more raging Presbyterian soul music, concluding with The Joyful Kilmarnock Blues, a stomping delta blues number about a Hibs fan’s epic hitch-hike back from Kilmarnock on match-day, and what’s revealed by his odyssey: “The best view of all / is where the land meets the sky…”
Not only is This is the Story a brilliant album, but it kicked down the doors for Scottish bands to sing in their native accents and be proud of where they came from. Twenty-five years later, it still sounds astonishingly fresh, untarnished by the glossy over-production of many 80s records, a coruscatingly honest record that blends sharp lyrics with real emotion. And for someone like myself who left Scotland ten years ago, it’s also my emigrant’s soundtrack, the first album I reach for when I feel a little homesick.
* Neil Cocker’s novel “Distillery Boys” was recently shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize 2012. Download a free ebook featuring extracts of all 12 shortlisted authors here: The Dundee International Book Prize: The Shortlist 2012
* Keep them coming folks, unless you want to read me banging on about the slender merits of Richard Jobson’s solo output or the second Hispway album. I’m much more interested in what record you reach for in times of need. Send your own ‘Lost In Music…’ pieces to firstname.lastname@example.org where I can promise them a good home.