Like most white guys with an innate distaste for golf and Miracle Whip, I've desperately wanted to be black or Latino at various times. But now, in middle age, I find myself with a whole new and completely unexpected dilemma: suddenly and most un-Jewishly, I long to be, of all things, Scottish.
It started when I met a Glaswegian named Jocko in the vast expanse of cyberspace a few years back; we've become fast friends with much in common. His missus describes Jocko's most salient and endearing character trait thusly: "My husband is obsessed with the texture of his own shite." This is a man after my own heart. Jocko has enlightened me to the rich and myriad pleasures of his culture: I have partaken of the infamous haggis, the Scottish national dish comprising organ meats, suet and oats boiled in a sheep's stomach. He has regaled me with tales of Glesga Neds, Scotland's mutant version of our own wiggers, but a far more entertaining and dangerous breed. I esteem Scotland's national sports hero, featherweight boxing champion Scott Harrison; I recognize Sean Connery as the only James Bond, and if I still prefer American bourbon to Scotch whisky, well, MacEwans ale beats the motherfuck out of Budweiser.
Still, the entity for which I will be most eternally Jocko-grateful is Scottish cultural icons the Proclaimers, whom I here today recognize as being what my kilted komrade klaimed all along: perhaps the world's greatest contemporary pop band.
It was, for me, a stunning revelation. Mention the Proclaimers to me a few scant months ago, and I would have started giddily intoning, "And ah-HYE would walk 500 miles, and ah-HYE would walk 500 more . . ." while making goofy faces, as if trying to entertain a toddler, in all my ugly American ignorance. I was lost, children, but now I'm found.
Fronted by identical twins Craig and Charlie Reid—wonderfully retarded-looking with their Coke-bottle specs, close-cropped haircuts, pear-shaped bodies and ever-present grins—the Proclaimers' domestic Q factor has been stymied by many issues: accents thicker than Bill O'Reilly's fivehead; American radio's disinterest in thoughtful, intelligent pop music; and the band's less-than-prolific track record (with a scant half-dozen CDs released since their 1987 debut). Yet self-respecting music fans who don't sing along and dance dizzily to the Proclaimers' new album, Born Innocent, best check their hearts for a pulse, their innards for a soul: this is among the most thoroughly enjoyable, sharp and filler-free pop records to surface since the Beatles, Byrds and Beach Boys were omnipresent on the airwaves.
From anthemic rockers like "Born Innocent" and "Blood On Your Hands" to Everly-esque harmony pop such as "Unguarded Moments" and "Redeemed," from the bawdy skiffle of "Role Model" to the gorgeous country/R&B balladry of "No Witness" and the perfectly sublime cover of the Vogue's "Five O'Clock World," this is a five-star effort from top to bottom, good to the last drop, life-affirming, gorgeous.
The Reids largely came to their artful, idiosyncratic sound like any self-respecting European group: through early exposure to classic American music. "That's the type of stuff we've always liked—rootsy, simple chord progressions, mainly based around American folk and popular music," says Charlie. "Growing up, our early influences were mostly from my dad's record collection. He liked guys like Ray Charles and Fats Domino. We were born in 1962, so we also came up listening to the Beatles and the Stones on the radio. Then in the late '70s, we started getting into the punk bands in Britain at the time. But I suppose when you get right down to it, the biggest influences were American—folk music, country music, Appalachian harmony groups. My favorites have always been people like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. And I really liked the Motown and Stax stuff, guys like Sam & Dave."
Further comfort comes from "Blood On Your Hands," an oddly upbeat and tuneful diatribe against terrorism, pointedly skewed against Islamo-fascists, rife with allusions to martyrs washing blood from their hands in paradise. For anyone fearful that Europeans don't take the threats of a post-Sept. 11 world seriously, for those who worry about continental appeasement, the track will come as sweet reassurance.
"I can't understand anybody who can believe they're doing God's will when they go blow up a bus in Jerusalem or walk into a train station in Spain and blow themselves apart," Charlie says. "I cannot . . . nothing in my culture and the history of my people taught me any way I could identify with that. I can identify with people saying, 'I've taken enough; I'm going to fight back,' but I don't see how you can fight back by blowing women and children up. It is totally immoral, and the people who fund it, the people who send guys out to do that and say it's for a moral reason, I . . . I . . . cannot understand that, and I loathe them—I hate them."
Elsewhere, heavier subject matter is offset by the Reids' humor, melodic brilliance and playfulness. The thickness of their Scottish accents alone is enough to tickle most American funny bones, and the brothers would have it no other way. "When we started playing in bands, it was the late-'70s/early-'80s thing in England, and there was this Johnny Rotten kind of Cockney drawl thing going on," Charlie recalls. "Before that, most people tried to sound American or mid-Atlantic. With us, we were singing about our own lives and our own country, and it seemed not right to do that and try to sound like something other than what we were. Basically, we adopted the style you would have used if you were singing a Scottish folk song. It's just that instead of using that on a song from 200 years ago, we'd use it on a song we'd write ourselves. That approach always suited us."
That hasn't suited American radio, which has continued to shun every record released by the Proclaimers in the wake of their lone hit, the goofy but infectious "(I'm Gonna Be) 500 Miles," which was included on their 1988 album Sunshine on Leith but didn't soar up the U.S. charts until it was used as the theme song for the Benny & Joon soundtrack five years later.
True to form, the pair soldiers on for the faithful all over the world, particularly in Australia, the U.K. and Canada, where ears and airwaves are more receptive to simple, honest pop music. The band headlined a recent outdoor festival in their homeland, which drew more than 100,000 fans.
"It's difficult in the Clear Channel world, where a small amount of people decide who's going to be on the radio," Charlie laments. "Truthfully, though, I don't worry about it too much. We're going to do the kind of records we want to do and hope that people like it. That's always been the philosophy, and so far, it's worked."
The Proclaimers perform at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Sat., 8 p.m. $17.50. All ages.
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