If You Go, Will You Send Back
Thoughts on The Proclaimers
' 'I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)
'I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)' was a hit single for the Proclaimers in Britain and Australia in the early part of 1989, and again in 1993 in America thanks to an appearance on the soundtrack of a motion picture, 'Benny and Joon'. Subsequently the Proclaimers have ascended into the aristocracy of rock, their most recent brush with the public on the soundtrack to 'Shrek', but this early single remains the group's most enigmatic as I will explain and you will agree with me.
Before one can analyse the Proclaimers' 'Five Hundred Miles' it is essential to recognise the nature of the song's artistic voice. All popular music is a highly public discourse, the apex of expression resting on the shoulders of a small group of men and women, its base encompassing as large an audience as possible. Pop music is not a private discourse; any music which is recorded is recorded with the expectation that another person will listen to that music, even if that person is the artist at a point in the future. Furthermore, the act of replaying music, either in a live context or on record, denies the temporal reality of the voice. Therefore, pop music is not a pure expression, and pop songs are not delivered with the artist's time-through-space nowbeing. All pop music is sung from the third person; most often, this third person is the musician's fantasy view of him or her-self, a smarter, slicker and better-looking alter-ego which the artist has created.
The pop voice comes in many forms. The Verve's classic 1998 hit single 'Bitter Sweet Symphony', and much of anthemic rock, takes the voice of the aforementioned amplified alter-ego. I do not know what lessons in life Richard Ashcroft is qualified to teach, but the persona he adopted for his group's most popular song was clearly well-versed in the prayer book of humanity. Def Leppard and other 'hard rock' groups adopt an exaggeratedly hedonistic persona which the band members then attempt to mimic in real life, furthering the innovative dichotomy of Bowie and Bolan, albeit on a baser level. Tori Amos, in her 1992 album track 'Me and a Gun', inverted this paradigm, attempting to adopt the persona of one less fortunate than herself; a technique used by much of folk music and c&w, although in the case of Amos' song the effect was lessened by the unfortunate omission of steel guitar.
Perhaps the finest artistic work in the pop music medium of the 1980s was Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire', a work which blended the best of contemporary pop trends with thoughtful lyrics of contemporary political and social relevance. For this song Joel adopted the voice of an entire generation, his words giving voice where there had before been none to what would eventually be called 'Generation X'. On an even more grandiose scale, early-period post-Britpop pop starlet Louise Nurding delivered her 1997 hit 'Arms Around the World' in the persona of a being or force so huge as to capture all the love in the universe; not even the imagination of Stan Lee could visualise such a creation.
Rather like the Righteous Brothers before them, The Proclaimers faced an unusual problem when it came to choosing a voice for their songs. The Proclaimers were brothers, a pair of twins. Without even entering the world of fantasy they must have been bamboozled by the choices which faced them. That they could produce such enduring music remains testament to their skill and to their willingness to embrace alternative realities.
The verses do not concern me. I concentrate on the chorus, the text of which is:
"But I would walk five hundred miles
and I would walk five hundred more
just to be the man who walked a thousand miles
to fall down at your door"
It must be noted that the first and second lines are delivered by individual Proclaimers, whilst the last two lines are delivered in unison. This raises a number of ambiguities. Who will walk five hundred miles? How many miles will the Proclaimers walk? With which voice are the Proclaimers singing? Wherefore?
As I was going to St. Ives
I met a man with seven wives
This is a venerable riddle, simultaneously a test of one's memory, an entertaining rhyme, a mathematical puzzle and a class in lateral thinking. Whilst on the road to St. Ives the narrator meets a man who is accompanied by a number of people, each of whom in turn are accompanied by a similar number of lesser people, to several levels of iteration. How many were going to St. Ives?
The classic answer is of course that only the narrator was going to St. Ives, as the man and his wives must have been moving along the road towards him, away from St. Ives. Yet it is also possible that the narrator was riding on horseback, and caught up with the fellow travellers from behind, or that they were travelling along parallel paths in a similar motion. The merits of these solutions can be argued indefinitely, without resolution, perhaps another reason for the rhyme's ongoing fascination.
Yet it no longer remains of contemporary relevance. St. Ives is a long way from anywhere, too far to walk. The only practical way to reach St. Ives is by car or train, in which case the narrator would pay as little attention to his fellow passengers or road users as much as possible, lest his attention provokes a fight. Cornwall is no longer the friendly place it was when the riddle was written, all those centuries ago.
The Proclaimers' 'Five Hundred Miles' is similarly anachronistic, although this is clearly deliberate. The group's other popular hit, 'Letter from America', was also self-consciously archaic, the protagonist not considering that his departed loved one might more easily contact him by telephone or e-mail (even if, as seems more likely, the Proclaimers were evoking Alistair Cooke's long-running radio programme, the song remains rooted in an imagined past, just as Alistair Cooke's broadcasts seemed to have been written in 1922). If we assume that 'Five Hundred Miles' is set in America - Scotland does not have five hundred miles of uninterrupted road - then it is not necessary to walk for such a distance, indeed walking is actively discouraged in the USA, the inhabitants preferring to drive.
How far did the Proclaimers walk? On the face of it this seems an obvious question; they walked a thousand miles. But where does 'they' come from, in this context? The delivery of the chorus suggests that each member of the group walks an individual five hundred miles, which leaves five hundred miles unaccounted for. Two men walking for five hundred miles does not equal a total traversal of one thousand miles; it still equals five hundred miles, unless we are to assume that one of the Proclaimers carried the other for five hundred miles, rather like a human baton or a miniature submarine. Of course the key word here is 'more'. The second Proclaimer is stating that he will walk five hundred more miles than the first, i.e. a thousand miles, giving the Proclaimers a collective total of 1,500 miles. Yet both Proclaimers join in for the final two lines of the chorus, suggesting otherwise; and it is 'the man' which falls down at 'your door' rather than 'the men' or simply 'men'.
We have to assume, therefore, that the Proclaimers are adopting a unified fraternal persona, each of the twins presented alternately as an individual and as a component of a greater whole, one capable - but only just - of walking one thousand miles. It is an old statistic that an army marches at a speed of, on average, 2.5 miles per hour, and thus it would take a full working week to walk for five hundred miles, slightly more in France where there is a thirty-five hour week, five hours less than the situation in that country circa 1937, which goes some way towards illustrating the lamentable lack of progress made by the working class during the twentieth century. We should by now work for six hours a week, earning all the money we need, but no, we slave and slave at our work for less, whilst the oppressors feed on our sweat. Fuck the collective ownership of the means of production; just give me a rifle and I'll show you production, I'll show you how to redistribute human misery. From Me to You, to paraphrase the Beatles. Helter Skelter.
Of course, the lyrics are not a realistic declaration of intent. Rather they are a metaphor, an expression of the Proclaimers' commitment to winning the heart of the lady they desire. They propose to achieve this goal through physical exertion, pain, the ultimate obliteration of the self. This is not a unique strategy in the pop music world. The Beatles, in their classic album track 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road?', proposed vehicular obliteration in the name of love, whilst Phil Collins' classic 'Tomorrow Never Knows', from his 1981 album 'Face Value', proposed actual obliteration of the self in explicit terms. What sets 'Five Hundred Miles' apart from most pop singles is its frank willingness to embrace non-traditional romantic combinations, the two Proclaimers being inseparable components of a romantic triangle.
There is however another possibility, one which does not raise the spectre of the two Proclaimers engaging in a relationship with one woman. It is possible that the first Proclaimer walks five hundred miles, and that the second Proclaimer then walks five hundred miles to catch up with the first; therefore, the 'thousand miles' are walked by the Proclaimers collectively, whilst the 'you' to whose metaphorical door the collective Proclaimers will fall down upon represents the other Proclaimer, such that the final two lines of the chorus are not sung in unison to a third party, but rather sung individually by each Proclaimer, simultaneously, to the other Proclaimer. 'Five Hundred Miles' is therefore a song about brotherly love, with no sinister connotations of group sex.
For a moment there I thought that the moon had blown up, without telling me. But as I looked again I saw that what I took to be the moon's disintegrated form was in fact a cloud.