Traditional Irish folk music collides with punk-rock grit and shamelessness in The Pogues. Led by sparingly-toothed and grumbling singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan, the London-based octet specializes in highly-charged songs bespeaking tales of alcohol over-indulgence, illicit love, death, urban blight, and political protest, all set to music recalling the folk melodies of Irish ballads, jigs, drinking songs, and sailor chantys. Comprised of English and Irish musicians, The Pogues sport a largely acoustical sound, wielding an array of various folk and modern instruments. On the surface, their sound bears echoes of traditional Irish folk groups such as The Clancy Brothers or The Dubliners, yet, as Richard Grabel wrote in Creem, The Pogues are easily distinguished: "The Pogues... infuse... traditional music with punkish energy and abandon, an anarchic spirit, and a hard, aggressive, stomping instrumental approach. Then they hook it up with MacGowan's lyricsales of universal soldiers and wayward London boys and revolutionary dreams and ordinary people full of life and hopeextraordinary lyrics that turn these wild jigs into resonant epics."
The hard-drinking bard figure of Dublin, Ireland-born MacGowan has been the focal point of The Pogues since their formation in the early 1980s. His acclaimed lyrics, laced with "Joycean melancholy and a candid preoccupation with mortality," according to Steph Paynes in Rolling Stone, movingly evoke outcasts of London society. Raised in Dublin until he moved with his parents to London at the age of six, MacGowan was expelled from a prominent English school when he was fourteen, and drifted through a number of odd jobs before becoming a punk musician in the late 1970s. MacGowan has recounted in interviews of beginning to drink heavily and unabated from his early teens on, and the characters of his songs are similarly well-acquainted with alcohol. Mark Peel in Stereo Review commented that "the wastrels and drunkards, the profligates and rebels who populate MacGowan's songs are the victims of demons beyond their controlocial, economic, political, and psychological demons along with the evil spirits that come tumbling out of a bottle. Yet even at their most profane they fight back with defiant dignity." MacGowan sings in a grumbling and gruff voice which is perfectly matched to his tales of woe. Elizabeth L. Bland wrote in Time: "MacGowan sing-snarls like a saloon rowdy. . . . There is nothing pretty about a MacGowan vocal; the beauty comes later, after he has given the ear a good boxing, and the lyrics settleery gently, reallyn the heart."
The Pogues rose out of the North London punk scene of the early 1980s when MacGowan, who had founded the punk-group Nipple Erectors (a.k.a. The Nips), joined English tin whistle player Spider Stacey to sing Irish folk songs in a popular London rock club. Disgruntled with a dying-out punk scene, the musicians began performing old standards at pubs in a highly-revved and furious fashion. They were soon joined in their musical venture by ex-Nips guitarist Jim Fearnley, and the group initially named itself Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for "kiss my ass"). Pogue Mahone began performing their energized folk alongside MacGowan originals throughout London, and three other musicians were recruited for a sextet, including drummer Andrew Ranken, banjo player Jem Finer, and female bass guitarist Cait O'Riordan. Acoustic instruments such as the accordion and fiddle were added, and as Stacey recalled to Lisa Russell in People, "we'd pick up instruments we couldn't play and do Irish folk songs at 140 miles an hour, playing them badly, but with spirit." Alcohol was a frequent accessory of the group, and Pogue Mahone soon became famous for drunken and boisterous stage performances, while steadily gaining recognition among the London music scene as innovative musicians. Paynes noted that "musically, Pogue Mahone concocted an ingenious new recipe of punk-infused Irish traditional musicitties with a vengeance."
Signed to Stiff
The group came to the attention of the rock group The Clash, who hired them in 1984 as the opening act for a musical tour. The same year, The Pogueseaturing a shortened, less outrageous, nameere signed to a recording contract with Stiff Records, which in 1984 released the group's first album, Red Roses for Me. Their second album, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash/ taken from an expression of Winston Churchill describing life in the Royal Navyas produced by singer-songwriter Elvis Costello and brought them wider attention in both Britain and the United States. The album also spawned their first British hit single, "A Pair of Brown Eyes." Phil Chevron, formerly of the punk group Radiators from Space, joined The Pogues after their first album, and Terry Woods, a multi-instrumentalist, came on board after their second. O'Riordan married Costello and left the group in 1986, and was replaced by Darryl Hunt, who had been a roadie of The Pogues.
Appealed to Fans and Critics
Many critics consider The Pogues' million-selling 1988 album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God, to be their finest effort. Peel describes it as "a riotous, whirling, reeling brawl of tavern ribaldry, pock-marked love songs, boozy prayers, gutter balladry, Thatcher-bashing, and, above all, Joycean romanticism." Among the tracks is MacGowan's and Finer's "Fairytale of New York," a duet featuring singer Kirsty MacColl, which recounts a soured romance that began among the bliss of a previous Christmas season. "You scumbag, you maggot/You cheap, lousy faggot," the lovers howl, "Happy Christmas, your ass/I pray God it's our last." Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone notes the song's "combination of seasonal buoyancy (conveyed by the arrangement's Gaelic pipes and lush strings) and personal disillusionment is unlike anything else in recent pop." Chevron's "Thousands Are Sailing" is a moving song of modern-day Irish immigration to the United States, while MacGowan's "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six," one of The Pogues' more overt political songs, protests the imprisonment of six Irishmen for a bombing in England. The convicted men's only crime, the song goes, was "being Irish in the wrong place/and at the wrong time." Loder notes that "the anger here seems very real," while "the music puts it across like a punch in the face."
The Pogues' 1989 album, Peace and Love, was worked on more fully in the recording studio and as a result, features a more polished sound. Some reviewers, like Down Beat's Frank Alkyer, felt the album suffered from an overproduction of MacGowan's vocals, yet according to Bland, Peace and Love is still "full of spunk and sass." The album features a broader sampling of writing and vocal contributions by other group members, including Chevron's desperate and driving love song, "Lorelei," Finer and Ranken's jazz instrumental entitled "Gridlock," and Finer's solo, "Misty Morning, Albert Bridge," which deals with being separated from his family. Elizabeth Wurtzel noted in People, however, that the "best material still comes from MacGowan," concluding that "no one else mixes the usual Pogue style drinking jigs with shots of joy and anger the way he can." David Handelman in Rolling Stone found the ensemble effect of The Pogues particularly impressive in Peace and Love, commenting that "the playing, which encompasses such diverse instruments as the hurdy-gurdy, the cittern and the mandola, is faultless and stirring."
Music Celebrates Contradiction
The lyrics of The Pogues' songs, particularly MacGowan's contributions, express what Karen Schoemer in the New York Times called "desperation," yet they are "almost always pitted against the jubilant fast tempos and merry accordion whirl of Irish music, and that conflict between the insanely joyful and the intoxicatingly sad." MacGowan commented to Grabel that The Pogues' music reflects "the way life is.. . . One minute you're up, the next minute you're down" and similarly noted to Russell that he simply feels "there's lots of good in this world and lots of ugliness. Can't have one without the other." An additional dichotomy surrounding The Pogues is their reputation as drunken boozehounds versus their acclaimed accomplishments as musicians. They continually strive against the conception of themselves as a drunken group of hoodlum musicians. Some people think the band lives "ina lake full of Guinness, " Finer complained to Russell, and while the band does not deny its fondness of alcohol, the image of drunks is, as Finer told Russell, "the Irish stereotype being put on this band because of the type of music we play." Chevron commented to Handelman that The Pogues "represent the people who don't get the breaks. Ne'er-do-wells with all sorts of quirks and foibles, the least likely pop stars. People can look at us and say, 'My God, if that bunch of tumbledown wrecks can do it, so can I.'"
Red Roses for Me, Stiff, 1984.
Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, Stiff, 1985.
Poguetry in Motion (EP), Stiff, 1986.
If I Should Fall from Grace with God, Island, 1988.
(Contributors) Live for Ireland, MCA, 1988.
Peace and Love, Island, 1989.
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah (EP), Island, 1990.
(Contributors) Red, Hot & Blue, Chrysalis, 1990.
Hell's Ditch, Island, 1991.
Group also contributed songs to the film Sid & Nancy, Samuel Goldwyn Co., 1986, and appeared in the film Straight To Hell, Island Pictures, 1987, and in the film Completely Pogued, 1988. Also appeared on television show Saturday Night Live, NBC-TV, 1990.
MacGowan, Shane, Poguetry: The Lyrics of Shane MacGowan, Faber, 1989.
Scanlon, Ann, The Pogues: The Lost Decade, Omnibus, 1989.
Creem, September 1986.
Down Beat, February 1991.
Folk Roots, June 1989.
High Fidelity, May 1988.
Melody Maker, October 27,1984; May 11,1985; December 21-25, 1988; November 18, 1989; November 25, 1989.
Musician, May 1986.
New York Times, June 25, 1988; August 20, 1989; March 16, 1990.
People, August 8, 1988; October 16, 1989; January 28, 1991.
Rolling Stone, November 21,1985; February 25, 1988; October 6, 1988; November 16, 1989.
Stereo Review, May 1988; November 1988.
Time, August 21, 1989.
Michael E. Mueller
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