Ian Worpole never managed to be in the right place at the right time to catch The Pogues live, but there’s always next year, and in the meantime there’s the re-release of all of the band’s CDs.
Back in the early ’80’s I’d been resident in America for a few years, and, as happens, was starting to lose touch with my old English roots a bit. Sure, I would go back and visit each year, always promising my Mum I’d never lose my cockney accent (so far, so good, Mum). I’d spend a couple of weeks reconnecting with family, old friends and haunts, catching up with the art and music scene; but even as an ardent folkie, or maybe because of, there was one straw in the wind I missed, brought to my attention by my brother holding the fort in London. He’d discovered a certain band in a pub one night and was following them closely, enthralled by their leader, one Shane MacGowan, an odd character who belted out wild and erratic songs through broken and gapped teeth, while a band of maniacal punk Irish rockers furiously played away behind him.
My bro was certain that they were the next big thing; a daunting task in the world of Maggie Thatcher’s England and the stony dullness she had engineered. Well, he was almost right — they were never quite the biggest thing, but The Pogues, for it was they, did become one of the most loved, hated, lauded, and occasionally frustrating bands for the rest of that decade.
Originally called Pogue Mahone until an outraged Gaelic speaker pointed out that the translation read “Kiss my arse,” The Pogues were founded somewhere around King’s Cross Road, London, although almost all the band members were of direct Irish origin. I missed their ﬁrst release, Red Roses for Me, picking up, at my brother’s insistence, at Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, widely considered their ﬁnest, followed by, and peaking with, If I Should Fall from Grace with God.
Peace and Love followed in 1989, and Hell’s Ditch, their ﬁnal offering, at least with Shane MacGowan at the helm, in 1990. These ﬁve albums, ranging from good to sheer genius, have now been reissued on the Rhino records label, and what a revelation they are.
Remastered, with four or ﬁve bonus tracks on each and extensive sleeve notes and effusive introductions from the likes of Steve Earle, Tom Waits and Jim Jarmusch, even the lesser works have gems tucked in there that were lost in the shufﬂe back then, and I’ve been randomly playing all ﬁve over and over.
Let’s start at the beginning, which of course means Shane MacGowan, founder, lead singer, songwriter and all-around legend. Few people expected him to still be around in this 21st century, let alone performing. Notorious for onstage boozing, off-stage drugs, propping himself up with the mic stand, cigarette ever-present, MacGowan’s slurred London-Irish accent belting out super-fast traditional and original songs caused the likes of Planxty’s Noel Hill to call his work “an abomination of Irish music.” As a huge fan of Planxty, and all things traditional, I hope these new releases will cause Noel to come around, for what he missed was the lyrical beauty of Shane’s original compositions, which was sometimes lost in the sea of frenetic, albeit brilliant, musicality of the band.
Indeed, at the time, it would have been hard to take seriously a band that included co-founder Spider Stacy playing whistle and beating a tin tray over his head, and it can sometimes take a leap of faith to get beyond the stereotypical drop-down-drunk Irish persona MacGowan revels in.
But from the ﬁrst notes of Red Roses for Me, it was obvious that these guys (and one gal, Cait O’Riordan, an early member who married, and left the band to tour with Elvis Costello) had something unique to offer. By taking a fairly traditional lineup of whistles, banjo, accordion and mandolin and adding electric bass, guitars and drums, an occasional horn section and then usually doubling the speed of any song or traditional tune, The Pogues took Irish music into a whole new, weird and wonderful world, and you either loved it or hated it.
Red Roses for Me, with bonus tracks on the new reissue such as “Leaving of Liverpool” and “Wild Irish Rover,” show a band discovering itself, with three or four original MacGowan tunes as an indicator of the great material to come.
With Rum, Sodomy and the Lash the band was at its peak, with classic MacGowan original songs such as “The Sickbed of Cuchulainn,” “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and “The Old Main Drag” mixed with inspired covers of the likes of Ewan McColl’s “Dirty Old Town” and Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” The Rhino reissue also includes the deﬁnitive “Rainy Night in Soho,” originally released on an EP.
Consider the qualities of a few lines from this particular song, sung over an achingly beautiful melody: “We watched our friends grow up together/and we saw them as they fell/Some of them fell into Heaven/Some of them fell into Hell” concluding with “Now the Song is nearly over/We may never ﬁnd out what it means/Still there’s a light I hold before me/ You’re the Measure of my Dreams/the Measure of my Dreams.”
Shane usually introduces that one with the words: “This one’s for all you f…….g romantics out there.”
A muddled period followed the release of Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, in which multi-instrumentalist Terry Woods joined the band and helped keep it all together for the recording of If I Should Fall from Grace with God, which included, along with mostly superlative material, the classic “Fairy Tale of New York,” a tortured love-hate saga of Christmas Eve in the drunk tank, a duet sung with the sadly missed Kirsty McColl (tragically killed in a boating accident). The song regularly makes the top of the English charts at Christmas and was recently voted the best Christmas song ever in the UK.
Not for the faint of heart, and typical of MacGowan’s lyrics, with a verse such as: “You’re a bum/You’re a punk/You’re an old slut on junk/Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed/You scumbag you maggot/you cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it’s our last” seguing into the glorious chorus “The boys of the NYPD choir/still singing Galway Bay/And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.” Amazing stuff.
MacGowan’s romanticism takes some wild rides. And with the brilliance of these songs, and the virtuoso dynamics of the band, fame did indeed ﬁnd The Pogues, and as is so often the case, took its huge toll in all the usual ways. Various band members were given months to live, caused by every substance abuse known to man; constant touring took its toll on relationships both on and off stage, and of course Shane was ever at the center of the worst abuses. Gradually he failed to make gigs and struggled with recording sessions. Rumors of raging ﬁghts were rife; and so it went.
Bandmember Terry Woods, whom I spoke to recently, insisted there were few arguments — everyone looked out for each other, everyone understood that Shane was a genuine tortured genius and helped him as best they could. “The problem with the band,” Woods said, “was that we were really big, but kept acting like we were really small.” Indeed, such was the band’s acclaim that the likes of Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and Steve Lillywhite began to produce The Pogues albums, and Strummer often ﬁlled in on vocals for the ailing MacGowan. But eventually nothing could save the whole enterprise from imploding, and after their 1990 release Hell’s Ditch, which is a truly ﬁne album, Shane and the band parted ways.
The Pogues recorded two more moderately well received albums, and Shane formed a new band, The Popes, also moderately, albeit intermittently, successful. Over the next ten years or so the band members went through varying degrees of rehab, and, against all odds, re-formed to do a few gigs in 2004 (including a reunion with Cait O’Riordan) and again in 2005. So successful was the reunion, a short American tour was undertaken in 2006, to great acclaim, and so to 2007.
I never managed to be in the right place at the right time to catch The Pogues live. Named by Q magazine as one of the “50 Bands to See Before You Die,” imagine the thrill when, in my capacity as music columnist for this magazine, I was handed two tickets for The Pogues at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, two days before St. Paddy’s, 2007.
Terry Woods assured me Shane was in great shape, the best in ages. A new studio album is rumored; the band is sober and playing up a storm. My girlfriend and I trot happily along to Roseland for the night of a lifetime, turn the corner to meet a scattered group of sad faces. Security is handing out a small, terse, printed sheet that says, “Tonight’s concert is canceled due to Mr. MacGowan sustaining an injury.”
Aaargh, the pain!
The problem with achieving legendary status is that in the process all sorts of casualties are left behind. Shane MacGowan is a byword in missed gigs, and being on the receiving end truly sucks. But we went off to a session at Paddy Reilly’s and drowned our sorrows. We later learned that Shane was brilliant the night before, until he happened to fall off the stage, and was brilliant again after a night, my night, of recuperation, bless him. Maybe, just maybe, next year . . . keep the faith, and go out and buy the reissues, all ﬁve if possible. You won’t be sorry.