Photo by Murdo MacLeod
The Proclaimers are too polite to say it’s history repeating, but, well, it probably is. And not as farce, but rather, inchoate anger.
Some thirty years ago, Craig and Charlie Reid looked at the gutted industrial towns of their native Scotland – knowing it was replicated down south, in England and Wales – and wrote a song about the immigrant generation leaving for a better place.
The surprisingly buoyant lament, Letter From America, asked for word from abroad as “the blood that flowed away across the ocean to the second chance” departed, and with a sense of despair listed the towns sinking without jobs, people or hope. “Bathgate no more/Linwood no more/Methil no more/Irvine no more.”
The blame was most certainly laid at the feet of a political class lacking heart.
Ten albums on, with the new Angry Cyclist, the Edinburgh-based twins look at the gutted political and social norms of the new and old worlds and in the title track wonder with a sense of despair if a better place is possible with “black loathing so sincere/Red anger born of fear”. The blame is on a political class lacking soul.
Is Angry Cyclist in some ways a letter to America, and Britain and Europe, to do better? To do something without basing it on fear and anger?
“I think it’s definitely a song about the way politics has become extremely polarised in the main Western democracies, Britain and America probably especially so,” says Craig Reid, the principal songwriter of The Proclaimers. “There are people harnessing anger for their own ends, rather than for the good of the people who are actually angry.
“When you get people like Jacob Rees Mogg, a multimillionaire, and Boris Johnson, people like Nigel Farage, persuading people who have nothing that they are in the same fight, it’s beyond belief. I think this era will draw to a close one day but I think the bitterness that is in political life will take a long time to disappear.”
Hatred is something few would have any time for, but the album has more complicated feelings about anger than just anger bad/niceness good. Lines such as “the power of rank stupidity” and “give prejudice a chance” walk the divide between not liking what fear and anger have wrought but also wanting to fight back.
“Yeah, I suppose that’s right,” says Reid. “We have to fight back against the hard right who have been gaining the upper hand but in the end you have to persuade people, and I think there are many people in politics now who think you only have to appeal to your own, core voters and then you can do what you like and disregard the views of those on the other side. Even if that means lying.”
Can artist be trusted though?
“I don’t know. I think all you can do is give your opinion and put it over in a way that people will hopefully be able to understand,” he says. “I don’t think artists are, by nature, any more trustworthy than anybody else.”
If you’re reading this and thinking this talk is some distance from walking 500 miles to the one you love, or declaring yourself on the way from misery to happiness today (uh huh, uh huh) it’s probably proof of the downside to having had a couple of massive hits early in your career which define you for the next three decades.
While Angry Cyclist has more songs about optimism than hate, and several about love sustained, it’s worth remembering the brothers grew up in the Thatcher years, moulded by working class Scottish roots built on defiance and action.
“I suppose if you have sincerely held political views, unless something comes along that absolutely destroy some, then you should hold on to them,” says Reid. “I’ve not seen anything in the last 20 years that made me think that Scotland shouldn’t be an independent country, and I have not seen anything that made me think that tax cuts for the rich make you a happier society.”
That may be today’s letter from Scotland.
Angry Cyclist is out now.
The Proclaimers play Newcastle Civic Theatre, May 21; Sydney Opera House, May 22; Canberra Theatre Centre, May 23; Hamer Hall, Mebourne, May 25; Costa Hall, Geelong, May 26
(A version of this story first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.)