The Pogues

TrackAlbum / EP 
Streams Of WhiskeyRed Roses For Me
The Old Main DragRum Sodomy & The Lash
A Pair Of Brown EyesRum Sodomy & The Lash
Sally MacLennaneRum Sodomy & The Lash
A Rainy Night in SohoPoguetry In Motion EP
Fairytale Of New YorkIf I Should Fall From Grace With God
Thousands Are SailingIf I Should Fall From Grace With God
The Broad Majestic ShannonIf I Should Fall From Grace With God
White CityPeace And Love
Summer In SiamHell's Ditch
Bonus Track
The Irish RoverThe Late Late Show Tribute
To The Dubliners

The Pogues photo 1

The Pogues (l-r): Andrew Ranken, James Fearnley, Jem Finer, Cait O’Riordan, Spider Stacy, Shane MacGowan

 

 

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Pogues playlist

 

 

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

One of the major achievements of the Pogues was to revitalise the Irish folk music tradition by combining it with the raw energy, sense of abandon and anarchic edge which they – and their founder and chief songwriter Shane MacGowan – had found in punk. In MacGowan, who is a far more complex character than the one-dimensional portrayal of him in the press often suggests, the group also had one of the greatest lyricists in contemporary music. The band’s music was also steeped in the Irish emigrant experience, with MacGowan’s world view having been very much shaped by his London-Irish origins. His songs also skilfully walked the line between romanticism and realism. Like the late great Jackie Leven, he also had a superb skill at writing about people whose lives had not gone in the way that they had planned in an empathetic and non-judgemental way.

Like many of the children of Irish emigrants who grew up in England in the 1960s and 1970s MacGowan always had a strong sense of having something of a split identity. This sense was reinforced by the family’s regular trips to his mother’s family home in Carney in County Tipperary. These visits occurred during the summer holidays, and they left Shane with a strongly idealised view of Ireland. Over time this identification with the Irish part of his identity became increasingly strong. This was partly inspired by the strength of the family connections he found there (for those wanting to find out more about Shane’s background, Richard Balls’ excellent new biography, “A Furious Devotion”, is strongly recommended). During his time there, MacGowan also discovered Irish traditional music as played in its natural setting (as it were). He also claimed that his mother knew most of the repertoire of female artists like the ballad singers Delia Murphy and Margaret Barry. If this immersion in Irish music sowed the seeds for his later career, the first real musical enthusiasm he exhibited as a teenager was for punk and for the Sex Pistols in particular. Indeed, Johnny Rotten provided a perfect role model for a disenchanted young second-generation Irish person to follow. Eventually Shane progressed from being a ‘face’ on the punk scene – and a frequently photographed one at that – to fronting his own band the Nipple Erectors, However, he only really came into his own after the formation of the Pogues in 1982.

In the other members of the original group (Spider Stacy on tin whistle, Jem Finer on banjo and James Fearnley on accordion), MacGowan found the perfect foils for his own musical vision. He later described this vision as being to play Irish music mixed with “country and pop and rock ‘n’ roll”. At the outset, they were known as Pogue Mahone (which in Irish meant ‘Kiss My Arse’). Eventually, they settled on the shorter and more accessible version, The Pogues. They gradually developed a reputation as an excellent live band. This reputation grew when Cait O’Riordan (on bass) and Andrew Ranken (on drums) joined the group. It was this line-up of the Pogues which recorded their first album, Red Roses For Me, first released in 1984. The album reflected MacGowan’s disparate range of influences, which went all the way from literary figures like James Clarence Mangan, Sean O’Casey and Brendan Behan, through Irish ‘ballad’ groups like the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers, and on to punk bands like Sex Pistols and the Clash. Later, MacGowan was to display some of the same talent for using vernacular dialogue in his songs that O’Casey and Behan had displayed in their plays.

Of these diverse influences, the Dubliners occupied a special place for MacGowan. Four of the tracks on the album had close connections with the earlier band (Waxie’s Dargle, Poor Paddy, The Auld Triangle, Greenland Whale Fisheries). Shane often drew connections between their anti-Establishment stance in relation to both church and state in Ireland and the rebellious attitudes which had drawn him to the Sex Pistols. Indeed, the Pogues themselves represented, in a sense, Shane’s attempt to develop a fusion of these disparate influences. Behan’s life and literary career also embodied the same kind of unconstrained rebelliousness and taste for hard living which characterised the group from its inception. These traits in the writer’s character are celebrated in my first choice, Streams Of Whiskey.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan on Roscoe Holcomb, the track exemplified the ramshackle “untamed sense of control” of the group in their early days. It is also one of the very best of Shane’s early songs. Unfortunately, Shane also displayed some of the self-destructive traits which had been a key part of Behan’s character.

 

While Red Roses also featured some other fine MacGowan compositions it was clear that he had not yet fully come into his own as a songwriter. This changed with the release of the Pogues second album, Rum Sodomy & The Lash. His songs on it show a greater maturity and a new depth of feeling when compared with those on the band’s first record. The CD also demonstrated MacGowan’s willingness to take on subject matter which very few other songwriters were willing to do. The Old Main Drag – my next pick – is a good example of this bravery on Shane’s part. In James Murphy’s words it chronicles a “nihilistic descent into homelessness, drug addiction, and sex work” on the part of a young Irish migrant to London. Murphy’s analysis of the song is excellent (it can be read here and is highly recommended). By contrast, A Pair Of Brown Eyes is a beautifully observed depiction of an encounter between a war veteran and someone who has recently broken up with his girlfriend. It also shows up the selfishness and self-absorption of the younger narrator. Musically, it also shows a sophistication and melodic sense which had not been not been as noticeable in the group’s work up to then. It has been well described by Shane as a sort of “mini-Irish symphony”.

Sally MacLennane is a return to the more rumbunctious side of the group which predominated in their earliest days. Although its lyric has stimulated a good deal of debate on Pogues websites (an example can be found here), it is probably best to view it as evoking a mood rather than being tied down to any particular set of events. As a song, it also epitomises the kind of manic energy which the Pogues brought to their take on Irish traditional music.

A Rainy Night In Soho – the next choice which appeared on the group’s 1986 EP Poguetry In Motion – is my favourite of Shane’s love songs. It is also featuring a beautiful melody and a carefully honed and very finely structured lyric.

 

By the time of their third album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, Cait O’Riordan had left the band and been replaced on bass by Darryl Hunt. Two excellent Irish musicians, Phil Chevron, who had made his name with the early Irish punk band, the Radiators From Space, and Terry Woods, who had been active on the Irish folk and rock scene since the late 1960s, had also joined the group. They were also both extremely talented songwriters, so their addition gave an added range to the group’s work. Their contribution to the band’s sound was clear on If I Should Fall From Grace With God. It is probably not worth saying too much about Fairytale Of New York as most people who read this will undoubtedly know its merits by now. Suffice it to say that is probably both the greatest Christmas song written in modern times and the best anti-Christmas song written (at least in its sentimental guise) in modern times. It is also one of the best demonstrations of MacGowan’s ear for realistic dialogue. I should also draw attention to the brilliant contribution which the late great Kirsty MacColl made to the song.

Throughout their musical career, the Pogues were among the great chroniclers of the Irish emigrant experience. This was particularly the case in relation to Irish diaspora in London. In Thousands Are Sailing, however, Phil Chevron managed to achieve something similar for Irish-Americans and more particularly for those living in cities like New York, Boston and Chicago. Along with the Radiators classic album Ghostown, this ranks as Phil’s greatest contribution to Irish music. He also managed to include a reference to Behan, who was a touchstone both for him and for Shane. The song’s stately melody also shows how far the band moved away in the course of their existence from the primitivism – as it were – which had marked their early records. There is a similar musical elegance to MacGowan’s classic song, The Broad Majestic Shannon, which is the next pick. It also is a good example of MacGowan’s ability to rework elements from other pieces of music (in this case a hint of the melody from Ruaidhrí Dáll Ó Catháin’s Tabhair Dom Do Lámh and a line from the Dubliners version of Will You Come To The Bower) into something entirely fresh and new.

 

Shane MacGowan’s talent for finding poetry in unexpected places is clearly demonstrated in the next choice, his lament for the demolition of the White City dog track. It is also another example of his brilliant ability to evoke the London-Irish experience. In a sense, MacGowan was the first writer of real quality to describe that experience from the inside. Some commentators have suggested that the geography of the London-Irish (which encompassed places like Camden, Cricklewood, King’s Cross and Kilburn, pubs like the Archway Tavern on Holloway Road, and dance halls such as the Galtymore in Cricklewood, the National in Kilburn and the Hibernian on Fulham Broadway) could be reconstructed through the lyrics of his songs. Many of the emigrants living there led hard lives; many working either on the buildings – if they were men – or as teachers or in the National Health Service – if they were women. Drinking frequently was an integral part of their lifestyle. They often also felt a sense of ambivalence towards their host country, an alienation which reinforced their sense of identification with their home land. Pleasures such as the visits to the greyhound races described in White City were also often hard-won.

The song also features some of MacGowan’s most brilliantly crafted lines, including the superb opening ones:

Here a tower shinning bright
Once stood gleaming in the night

And the brilliant closing verse:

Oh sweet city of my dreams
Of speed and skill and schemes
Like Atlantis you just disappeared from view
And the hare upon the wire
Has been burnt upon your pyre
Like the black dog that once raced
Out from trap two

 

My final pick, Summer In Siam, has a lovely dream-like feel to it. It also shows the sensitive side to Shane’s nature. Unfortunately, this is one which he has often hidden from public view particularly in more recent years.

As his best work shows, however, Shane MacGowan’s songwriting was fuelled by a keen empathy with those living on the margins. He is also a lyricist of the very first rank who, in the other members of the Pogues, found the perfect vehicle through which to achieve his visionary ideas about the future of Irish music. While his claim that he was the heir to Seán Ó Riada in composing new tunes “in the Irish tradition” – and that in addition his lyrics to them brought in “modern subjects” in a way not previously seen – might at first glance appear exaggerated, in reality it was nothing more than the truth. His, and the Pogues, contribution to Irish music remains immense and the best of it has a timeless quality which very few other bands can match.

 

Bonus Track

As noted above, the Pogues frequently acknowledged the debt they owed to the Dubliners. In consequence, it was unsurprising when the two bands decided to collaborate during the celebrations for the older group’s 25th anniversary in 1987. What was surprising, though, was how refreshing that collaboration would be and the reinvigorating effect it would have on the older band’s career. This is the brilliantly ramshackle or ramshackley (if there is such a word) brilliant appearance they made together on Irish television in that year (which I remember watching at the time). If I were asked to show one video to illustrate the joy which can be involved in making music, this is the one I would choose.

 

 

After Shane MacGowan left the Pogues in 1991, the rest of the band continued, with Spider Stacy on vocals, releasing ‘Waiting For Herb’ in 1993 – gaining a #18 hit with the opener Tuesday Morning (video below) – and ‘Pogue Mahone’ in 1996.

 

 

The Pogues photo 2

 

 

The Pogues poster 1

 

 

 

The Wire, Season 3, Ray Cole memorial, The Body Of An American

 

The Pogues live @ the Town and Country Club London ’88

 

The Wake Of The Medusa: Pogues info site

The official Shane MacGowan website

The Parting Glass: An Annotated Pogues Lyrics Page

The Pogues & related discography

A Furious Devotion: The Life Of Shane MacGowan
Richard Balls (Omnibus Press 2021)

“A Drink With Shane MacGowan”
Victoria Mary Clarke (Sidgwick & Jackson 2014)

“Here Comes Everybody: The Story Of The Pogues”
James Fearnley (Faber & Faber 2013)

“Shane MacGowan: London Irish Punk Life And Music”
Joe Merrick (Omnibus Press 2012)

“The Great Hunger: The Life & Songs Of Shane MacGowan”
(BBC documentary 1997)

“Crock Of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan” (film trailer)

Bruised, bloody but unbowed: the songs of Shane MacGowan …
Sean O’Hagan (The Guardian 2018)

Rockin Boppin Lunatic: Shane MacGowan Archives

Unofficial site dedicated to The Nips

The Pogues biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs.

TopperPost #1,000

9 Comments

  1. Cal Taylor
    Dec 17, 2021

    Another well written and informative Toppermost written by Andrew.
    Congratulations Toppermost on reaching 1000 posts. Merric has done a fantastic job in overseeing this venture since he launched it in 2013. 1000 posts in a little over 3000 days, covering a very wide range of music – well done. It has brightened up many people’s lives. Long may it continue.
    Covering many musical genres Andrew has made a remarkable contribution over the last eight years, writing around 85 Toppermosts (a few jointly) and a couple of those never mentioned any Irish connection!

  2. Keith Shackleton
    Dec 17, 2021

    No arguments here, it’s all great. Poguetry in Motion I think is my favourite Pogues artefact, the toppermost, everything is perfect. The Pogue Pop of London Girl, tremendous storytelling in Rainy Night in Soho and The Body of an American, and the poke in the eye of Planxty Noel Hill (yes, we can play, yes, we can observe traditional forms and still do what we do). I too saw them on that 1988 tour, at the Brighton Centre, two days before the Town and Country, where they came on stage carrying half an off-licence and tore the place to pieces. In my top ten gigs.
    And the 1000th post.. onward and upward!

  3. Gary Gahan
    Dec 18, 2021

    GREAT JOB. I suspect that this is an intentional typo, “Sally MacLennane is a return to the more >>rumbunctious<< side of the group" — and if it is NOT an intentional typo, I insist that you do not change it!

  4. Andrew Shields
    Dec 20, 2021

    First things first – I should thank our esteemed editor for the opportunity to contribute to this great site. And 1000 posts is such a remarkable achievement.
    Cal, Keith and Gary – thanks for the kind words. And, Cal, I am sure I did write two at least in which there was absolutely no Irish reference.
    Keith – agree that Poguetry is Shane working at close to his peak as a songwriter.

  5. Dave Stephens
    Dec 21, 2021

    What a way to start the 1000th Topper – “raw energy, sense of abandon and anarchic edge” – and what a writer. Andrew you have consistently surprised with your choice of subject matter, and consistently pleased with your delicacy of touch. This one is no exception. Keep them coming.
    And to The Editor, here’s to another “Rumbunctious thousand” with wording coined by Andrew and spotted by Gary.

  6. Andrew Shields
    Dec 23, 2021

    Thanks for this Dave. One of the great things about this site is discovering so much great music through the articles by other contributors. In this regard, there are very few from whom I have found out about more music than you.
    Also, as you say, here’s to the next thousand.

  7. Colin Duncan
    Dec 23, 2021

    Another great article, Andrew. Shane MacGowan is a great writer, great lyricist, but I really only know the greatest hits, which I play from time to time. There were a couple of things that did put me off. Firstly compared to the Chieftains (I love the Chieftains and was lucky to have seen them in Dublin) and other great Irish bands at the time, I found the Pogues music rougher, less refined, you know what I mean, not realising that was the attraction to their fans. Then I found out that he was an English public schoolboy and wondered if he was genuine. The Irish colonies in London are interesting and recently I read that a lot of Irish emigrated to London desperate for work after Irish independence, the article being written in relation to the divided nation Scotland is just now. Anecdotally, about fifty years ago I was a bin man in London, working with a few elderly Irish, all desperate to get back to Ireland. I have learned much in this article. Shane has written some really great songs and I’ll need to get back to them. Thanks again for this well researched, well written article, Andrew.

  8. Andrew Shields
    Dec 24, 2021

    Thanks for the kind words Colin. Came across this quote from Shane when researching this piece – the full interview is here:
    “If anybody thinks that what we are trying to do is pure Irish music, then they are way out of line. We’ve all got far too much respect for that form of music to even try to and get close to it in terms of playing. What we are doing is much closer to a group like the Dubliners, than to somebody like say, Seamus Ennis. I mean we are not even in the same, the same universe as him, you know? We only play stuff that we really like and stuff we know we can play. And that tends to be drinking songs from the country and Irish pubs of North London.”
    Far too modest of course but it shows Shane’s respect for the older masters of the Irish tradition like Seamus and Joe Heaney.

    • Colin Duncan
      Dec 24, 2021

      Thanks, Andrew. But was he personally from that North London country and Irish background, maybe he had to find it? He is complex – I knew traditional musicians who revered his songs. There was a harrowing interview with his very fit and loving girlfriend on Radio Scotland about his lifestyle quite a few years ago – and the only reason I can think of, for her doing the interview was to save him. He is a great songwriter. Great article, Andrew. You need to get all those articles shaped into a book. Thanks again, Andrew.
      Thanks, Merric for Toppermost. Brilliant website.
      P.S. I’ve just played Sergeant Peppers seven times in a row over the last couple of days.

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