Twin geeks: From Leith to legends

The Proclaimers have never been cool, but they have somehow stuck around for two decades. Now a play based on the Reid brothers' unique sound is to open next year. Paul Kelbie reports on a pair of Scottish legends
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The Independent Online

Even in 1987, they couldn't be classed as cool. But in spite of their geeky looks, twin brothers Craig and Charlie Reid shot to musical fame when they appeared on Channel 4's iconic music programme The Tube wearing spectacles and singing "Letter from America" in Scottish accents so thick they could be cut with a knife.

The fledgling television channel's telephone switchboard lit up with callers ringing in to inquire about the Buddy Holly look-alikes. The Proclaimers had arrived. Hailed simultaneously as radical new talents and one- hit wonders, they have gone on to win cult status and now are about to be immortalised in theatrical history.

For the story of the boys from Auchtermuchty who refused to change their image to fit in with the slick 1980s music scene, is to be turned into a musical, following in the footsteps of Abba, Queen, Madness and UB40.

A new genre of musical theatre based on pop legends was created seven years ago, when Mamma Mia!, based on hit Abba songs, opened to rave reviews in London's West End. More than 30 million people worldwide have seen the musical, which consists of an entertaining plot woven around the Swedish supergroup's most popular ditties.

Now it is the turn of The Proclaimers. The duo, who have enjoyed almost as many comebacks as Frank Sinatra, are set to be on the cusp of yet another revival amid hopes that the show featuring their work will eventually reach audiences across Scotland, North America and even Australia and New Zealand.

Sunshine on Leith, which premieres at Dundee Rep in April, tells the tale of two men who leave the army to return to their families in Edinburgh and explores the themes of love, loss, identity and belonging through The Proclaimers' songs.

Written by the Doctor Who scriptwriter Stephen Greenhorn, who believes the poignancy and wit of the band's songs makes them ideal for the theatre, the show is expected to move to Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow later in the year.

It will feature some 20 tracks, including "I'm Gonna Be (500 miles)", "Letter from America", "Sunshine on Leith" and "Let's Get Married", along with less well-known numbers such as "Misty Blue" and "Oh Jean".

Set in the working class communities of Leith - the docklands of Edinburgh - the show coincides with the 20th anniversary of the first Proclaimers album, This is the Story.

The brothers, whom English critics claimed could only be understood by professional translators, were hailed as a breath of fresh air compared to the other polished pop acts around at the time, including Rick Astley and Sinitta. Following their memorable appearance on The Tube, "Letter from America" reached number three in the UK singles charts.

Their raw style - which they had cultivated since they began playing in bands at the age of 14 - was influenced by a combination of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, Ray Charles and punk rock. Within a month of appearing on The Tube, the brothers, who refused to change their image or style merely to suit the whim of a record label marketing department, were signed to Chrysalis Records.

Six weeks later their debut album This Is The Story had gone gold and for the next 12 months the brothers played to sell-out crowds across the UK. Audiences warmed to the pair, dressed in jeans, jumpers and glasses, and belting out politically radical music.

Their follow-up album Sunshine On Leith went on to sell a million copies in America, going platinum in the UK, Canada and New Zealand and triple platinum in Australia, where "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" stayed at number one for six weeks.

By 1990 the band appeared to be running out of steam as the brothers took time off, initially to spearhead the Hands Off Hibs campaign - a bid to stop the threatened take-over of their beloved Hibernian Football Club by Edinburgh rivals Heart of Midlothian.

In 1993, however, the Reid brothers were once again riding high after the actress Mary Stuart Masterson, star of Some Kind Of Wonderful and Fried Green Tomatoes, played their song "I'm Gonna Be" incessantly on the set of the film Benny & Joon, in which she co-starred with Johnny Depp.

Almost overnight "I'm Gonna Be" went from the cinema screen to the radio airways and into the record shops to become one of the biggest hits in the summer of 1993, spending more than 28 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100.

It soared to number three in the US charts, sitting at number one in over half the states of America and selling a million copies.

The record resulted in The Proclaimers appearing on a number of US television shows, including Letterman and The Today Show. They even performed before a 22,000-strong audience in New York's legendary Madison Square Gardens alongside Jon Bon Jovi and Duran Duran.

Their mixture of traditionalism and radicalism soon earned the brothers a cult following, especially among the Scottish-American diaspora who took the boys from the old country to their hearts.

While the UK appeared to forget about the band, throughout the late 1990s, Craig and Charlie found themselves still popular among the Hollywood movie industry despite the fact that they were producing little and appearing even less.

They contributed a version of The Temptations' "Get Ready" to the soundtrack of the hugely successful Dumb and Dumber, and a cover of "Over and Done With" to the cult movie Bottle Rocket as well as a version of the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love".

They also recorded Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place To Go" and Buddy Holly's "Maybe Baby", for John Byrne's 1997 film adaptation of his play The Slab Boys.

Millions of people across the world were exposed to The Proclaimers' music as their work was used in movies and numerous advertisements. It promoted everything from IBM's Hot Products, South Korean mobile phones and Canadian beer and Swedish meatballs. In the meantime, while Scottish pop contemporaries, such as Stuart Adamson of Big Country and Marti Pellow of Wet, Wet, Wet succumbed to the lure of drink and drugs, the Reid brothers managed to avoid the urge to self-destruct and instead focused their energies on their own independent record label, suitably called Persevere.

The butt of jokes by British comedians, the twins maintained a low profile in the UK, until 2001, when their song "I'm On My Way" featured in the animated box-office hit Shrek. The year proved to be something of a turning point. "Up until 2001 we didn't have a career. What we had was a series of freak accidents," said Charlie Reid.

That year, the band began to find new fans in their home country, headlining the T in the Park festival and playing before the 100,000-strong crowd at Edinburgh's spectacular Hogmanay celebrations.

Fervent supporters of Scottish independence, the brothers have supported causes such as the appeal to spare Kenny Richey, the Scot facing execution in a United States jail, and Reprieve, the human rights charity formed by Clive Stafford Smith, the human-rights lawyer who represents Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

Last year the Reids were called upon to be the opening act at Live8's Murrayfield concert, playing "I'm Gonna Be" to symbolise the conclusion of The Long Walk to Justice. Once again, their popularity surged and they were asked back to perform at T in the Park.

They have been signed up to star in the US cartoon series Family Guy and have even been name-checked in The Simpsons - Homer Simpson paid tribute to the band with his own unique version of their hit: "I Could Drink 500 Beers".

In July this year, "I'm Gonna Be" - arguably The Proclaimers' most famous song - swept the United States again, some 18 years after it was released when it was chosen as the background music for a new ad for the credit card company Visa.

It has been estimated that Craig and Charlie Reid will have netted £500,000 from Visa's use of the song - on top of the £2m or so they are estimated to have already earned from its royalties over the years. It has been previously used to advertise Ariel washing powder in the UK, a Spanish telecom network and in an South African campaign for Cadbury's Lunch Bar.

Their career could be seen as a rollercoaster ride, but the twins regard the new show as just another happy surprise. "Their songs run the whole gamut of human emotion. It's great to see Charlie and Craig's songs being given a new lease of life," said Kenny MacDonald, their manager. "They are delighted."

Brothers in arms

Noel and Liam Gallagher, Oasis

It was 1994 when the rock 'n' roll brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher swaggered onto the music scene with their debut single "Supersonic". One of Manchester's finest exports, the band have sold more than 60million records and to many, their band, Oasis, was the defining English rock 'n' roll band of the Nineties. In November, they received a Brit award for outstanding contribution to music. Definitely Maybe (1994) was the UK's fastest selling debut album of all time. What's the Story (Morning Glory) has sold 20 million copies worldwide.

The Kemp Brothers, Spandau Ballet

Fittingly, given their later performance as the infamous east London gangsters the Kray brothers, Gary and Martin Kemp named their synth-pop band Spandau Ballet after a Berlin prison. Born in Angel, north London, (hence nickname, the Angel boys), the Kemps formed the band in 1979 and dominated the 1980s London club scene. Martin played bass, while Gary was the guitarist, synthesizer player and songwriter, alongside bandmates Tony Hadley, John Keeble and Steve Norman. After they broke up, Martin Kemp went on to play Steve Owen in EastEnders.

Ray and Dave Davies, The Kinks

English rockers The Kinks had been making music for over 30 years when they disbanded in 1996. Muswell Hill-born Ray and Dave Davies (hence the name of their 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies), were founding members of the band, supposedly named after their kinky leather boots and capes. Their first hit single, "You Really Got Me", reached number one in the UK and the top 10 in the US. They were part of the so-called "British invasion" of UK rock bands into the US, alongside the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Who. Ray, who was awarded a CBE in 2004 for services to music, was shot in the leg in New Orleans, while Dave had a stroke in 2004.

Jesus and Mary Chain

John and William Reid, from East Kilbride, were the founding members of punk-rock/indie band Jesus and Mary Chain. Renowned for riotous gigs, they often played with their backs to the audience and destroyed their equipment soon after. The band's music was striking in its use of feedback and for its screaming vocal accompaniments. A number of their songs, including "Reverence", were banned from the airwaves, and they were banned from Plymouth, Birmingham and Sheffield. The "Jesus and Mary Chain Riot" in North London Polytechnic caused £8,000 worth of damage. Their first album, Psycho Candy, followed their first single "Upside Down" in October 1984. One of the most important indie groups, they split in 1999.

The Everly Brothers

Tennessee-born brothers Don and Phil Everly sang four-part harmonies with their parents on The Everly Family Show in the 1950s on radio. Their first hit single, "Bye Bye Love", spent 22 weeks on the Billboard pop charts, while "Wake up Little Susie" reached number one in 1957.

Their country-influenced rock bridged the gap between genres. After a short stint in the Marines, the duo followed solo careers in 1972. They reformed in 1983. In total, they have had 26 top 40 singles.

The McDonald Brothers

Craig and Brian McDonald, from Ayr, won huge support from Scottish fans in the third series of The X Factor. Week after week they voted for the duo deemed by Simon Cowell as "the worst I have ever heard in my life". Perhaps somewhat less talented than the above, the McDonald brothers had sung to wedding parties and family groups for three years before their performance on the show. The guitar, piano and fiddle-playing duo were voted out of the competition with only two weeks remaining.

Laura Dixon