Celtic Swingers

Publication: Melody Maker
Date Printed: ?
By: Barry McIlheney

Rallying behind the battlecry 'Lend me £10 and I'll buy you a drink', The Pogues are leading the forward commando unit dedicated to destroying the new Toryism of pop. Eulogising the Dubliners and threatening to drink the entire world under the table, they are currently demolishing preconceptions on the Elvis Costello tour. Barry McIlheney joins them as they go over the top.

Absolute horror. That, friends, is the only description that can be applied to the expression on the face of the very young Anglo-Saxon chap standing at the bar of Brighton's Top Rank Club. There he was, having forked out the precious readies for a ticket to a concert given by one Elvis Costello, and now he had arrived at the scene of the big show, hoping no doubt to sink a pleasant few pints while his feet were being warmed by the usual anonymous support act.

Instead, his face now began to go through a whole range of contortions. What on earth is that noise coming from the direction of the stage? That, sir, is an absolutely rip-roaring version of a song called "Transmetropolitan", a drunken diddley-eye bash of quite massive proportions, giving everyone, yourself included, a chance to join in on the crucial yip-aye-ehs in the chorus.

And those people up there, what's going on, this meant to be a pop concert, not some riotous Irish ceilidh, who can it possibly be? They, sir, are just about the best thing to have burst out of the woodwork in the last few months, a supreme blend of...ah, stuff it mate, they're called The Pogues, so why not just shut up and dance?

All this, you must remeber, took place a good seven days before even the whiff of an Irish accent in Brighton had the boys in blue whisking you off for some serious interrogation. Tonight, just 200 yards from the once-Grand Hotel, the talk was not of shadows on the skin of democracy, one into touch, but the much more pressing problem of where to slake a truly massive thirst.

This, perhaps, is one of The Pogues stranger features, the fact that just watching them, and listening to all those songs about shady bars and the demon drink, actually makes the attentive member of the audience seriously contemplate a rather huge bender. God only knows what the effect must be on the band themselves, but one look at the table we are now sitting around does give some credence to this half-pickled theory. These boys - and let's not forget Rocky, the far from-token-female-are all very fond of their sauce. So, with a suitable amount of fire in the beer belly, it is surely time to consider the little we know about Stiff's latest heroes and take a brisk walk through the miles and miles of untapped territory.

The story to date is a fairly brief one: basically a tale of how one Shane MacGowan survived the now legendary attack on his ear way back in punkier days, sought refuge in his old Irish music collection, and decided to make a go of peddling this strange mixture of drunken nights and tearful goodbyes around the London pubs. He met up with a few of his old mates who also liked that sort of stuff, and they formed a funny group called Pogue Mahone. This when translated into coloquial tongue, meant kiss a nether region old boy, not really the sort of thing that goes down well in Playlist House. It was soon changed to the fairly inoffensive Pogues, a recording deal was signed, and the debut album, "Red Roses For Me", duly arrived on the doorstep last week with a surprising lack of attendant chaos.

It is, of course, a hard record to describe in cold print, by virtue of its sheer emotional appeal, but let's just say that it provoked a big enough reaction round this part of the world for at least one landlord to serve his long threatened eviction order. Still, the floor caving in to a particularly hectic stomp through side on cannot really have helped the hapless tenant's case. That then is the past, now updated to include the current guest spot on the Elvis Costello tour. The uncharted regions take just a little bit longer to explain.

To begin with, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, these Pogues people talk a lot about the Emerald Isle, fairly wear their shamrocks on their sleeves and all that, yet one fact, must here be taken into account. None of them, with the exception of the exceptional Mr. MacGowan, have actually spent more than a few days residing in that fair country. I rest my parochial case, only to find the aforementioned MacGowan steaming in the defence.

"You see, to us, none of that really matters. If you don't live in Ireland, then the next best thing is to live in North London or Hammersmith where you hear the same sort of Country and Irish music in all the bars. Anyway, nobody says that UB40 can't play reggae just because they weren't born in Jamaica. There's a lot of snobbery in that sort of attitude, and it doesn't really bother us too much."

This talk of snobbery and blatant confessions of about the lack of Celtic blood leads on naturally enough to another standard accusation leveled against The Pogues. They can't play.

"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 to 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 sameuniverse 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."

Not Seamus Ennis, then, but perhaps a more temporal association with the rest of the burgeoning countrybilly scene in the capital?"

"No, we've always been totally separate, and in fairness all those bands are very different from one another. Like the Boothills are nothing like the Skiff Skats, who are nothing like The Men They Couldn't Hang, and so on. And the basic, difference between us and all of them is that we play music exclusively from these islands while they tend to go more for the American influences."

The music of these islands played by The Pogues is certainly a unique and joyous experience, especially when the atmosphere is just right. In other words, whenever the room is small enough for the sweat to peel off the walls, and sufficient Guinness has been taken to make even the baddest of bad times seem good. Wembley Arena might not be such a beer barrel of laughs. Young Spider, he of the tin whistle and headbanging antics, is very quick to kick this one into touch.

"Wembley is obviously an extreme example, and I can't really see us ever playing that sort of place. But yeah, I suppose that some people might think that as soon as we leave the Hope & Anchor, we lose our appeal. I reckon that Costello has shown a good example here, playing five nights at the Palais, instead of just one huge concert arena where nobody can see him. It's much better doing that than asking people to pay £12 or £13 to see some arsehole who doesn't give a shit about them in the first place. Basically, we'll just treat the bigger halls as one huge bar." Dirty talk Spider, but wonderfully put.

Naturally, we could talk about such drink related matters all night, but sooner or later the small matter of politics just has to raise its ugly head. With The Pogues, it is perhaps even more vital than usual that they really state their case, as quite a few of the Rockin Rev. Paisley's fans might be rather quick to point the green finger of nationalism at Shane and the gang. I mean, Brendan Behan songs, that sort of thing. I think, Spider, that a few words of explanation might not be a bad idea.

"Yeah, well, the first thing to say is that just because you sing Irish songs, that doesn't mean you have to side with one particular set of extremists.I mean, I reckon the best song written about the current troubles is Phil Coulter's 'Town I Love So Well.' That tackles the most important issue, which is the life of the ordinary people, stuck in the middle of fanatics from both sides. And I don't really feel that we have got a right to do songs like that cos we're not local boys. I mean, I come from bloody Eastbourne.

"Shane has already been beaten up over this thing, which is really stupid, cos we have no truck with any of the terrorist stuff. In something like 'The Auld Triangle', Behan's writing about prison life in general, not a specific Irish theme. We're not trying to back off the subject, its just that we don't feel happy making big statements about something we have no experience of. You've got more right than us."

Well now that you mention it chaps, my theory on the Irish problem goes something like this. Way back in...

"The thing is," says Shane, putting a quick end to such homespun philosophy, "the people who tar us with this big nationalist thing and the people who beat us up over it are really the ones with the problem. At the same time, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I don't believe in a 32 county Irish Republic. But that's got absolutely nothing to do with The Pogues, or what happens when we are up on stage. It's nothing at all to do with the music.

"Yet despite that, we have to run all these risks. The risk of being called posers, the risk of being seen as Paddy parodies, the danger of being labeled some sort of IRA support team. God only knows where people get those sorts of ideas. What we are is a good night out, something that's anti-establishment for sure, and a threat to the new Toryism of the Duran Durans of this world.

"Musically, we're playing an urban representation of a really brilliant form of music that has been ignored for far too long. And lyrically, it's a form of humanism, expressing the belief in the right of every human being to lead a decent life, without anyone else shitting down on them. And that goes just the same for a protestant Orangeman as it does for a black in Soweto. We are not putting forward any big solution to the Irish problem, because the only people who do that are people who just don't think."

And, with a rather huge sigh of relief, I will most certainly drink to all that.

That brief reference in there to the new Tory Duran hides a much deeper resentment in The Pogue camp of a lot of today's pop music.

"Me and Spider are both ex-punks from 1976," says Shane, "and I suppose we still retain that spirit to a large extent in what we are doing now. Only today, that spirit has been tempered by realism, or to be more accurate, by drink. But we still play more to the human emotions than the intellectual side of things. We still try to hit people straight between the eyes. And obviously, the stuff in the charts at present just eggs you on, because it gives you that much more to kick against." Spider intervenes here, perhaps to add a note of caution? No, I didn't really think so.

"We have nothing against most of these people personally, but musically a lot of them are just really crap. Like U2. They are a rock band and I really hate rock bands. To me U2 sound like what would have happened if William Blake had been exposed to lead pollution as a small boy, and then been given an electric guitar on his 14th birthday."

Spider, if that is not the quote of the year, then, like you say, there really is no justice in this world of ours.

And finally of course we must return to the demon drink, that fuel which seems to lie behind the very essence of The Pogues' greatest moments. That jungle-juice-inspired racket which results in the appalled face of Mr. England standing at the bar of the Brighton Top Rank Club. Suitably enough, it's Shane's turn to talk.

"Basically, the way we perform depends on entirely on how pissed we all are. We are trying now to reach that perfect state where we are pissed enough to play well and enjoy ourselves, but not so out of it that we don't know what we're doing. We're getting close to it, and when we get there, we'll really be going full steam."

Lock up your drink cabinets and clean out your ears. Here come The Pogues.

by. Barry McIlheney

Copyright Barry McIlheney
All rights reserved

Note: I'm not sure if this is a Melody Maker article, nor do I know the publication date (it's obviously sometime around 1985, but I'd like some more detail if possible). Can anyone help me flesh in the details here?

Your intrepid maintainer is DzM.