The Pogue's Celtic Sound with a Dash of Punk

Publication: The New York Times
Date Printed: March 16, 1990, Friday, Late Edition
By: Karen Schoemer

''I've never been to New York on St. Patrick's Day before,'' said Shane MacGowan, lead singer for the Irish band the Pogues, in a recent telephone interview from London. ''I've got mates who've been there, and they say it's mad.''

Expect a healthy dose of madness and revelry tonight at the Palladium, where the Pogues will perform in celebration of St. Patrick's Day. Loud, rowdy and spirited, the Pogues play traditional Irish music with the unruly fervor of punk. They slap a rock backbeat onto old-style Irish instruments like the tin whistle and accordion, and their rousing hybrid has crossed over to both hard-core Irish and mainstream rock audiences with a success known to few other ethnic bands.

The Pogues are actually based in London, and only two of the members reside in Ireland. Mr. MacGowan was born in England - ''on Christmas Day, when my mother was on holiday,'' he said - but lived in the Irish countryside until the age of 6, when his parents settled permanently in England. He grew up listening to Irish folk music, then quit school in his teens to join the punk movement in the late 1970's.

One of his first bands, the Nips, played songs by Lou Reed and the New York Dolls, but by the early 80's, he was ready to switch gears. The reason, he said, was simple: ''Punk died out.'' London had a strong Irish music scene, so he gathered some friends, and under a rude Gaelic moniker they started bashing out traditional Irish jigs, reels and folk tunes at warp speed. When the media caught on to the meaning of the band's name, it was shortened to the Pogues. ''The Pogues were formed as a band that played a mixture of Irish music, country music, rock, punk -well, rock and punk are the same to me,'' Mr. MacGowan explained. ''The basis was traditional Irish music. We electrified it a bit and played in rock clubs.''

Ever-Broadening Vision

The group's first album, ''Red Roses for Me,'' is split between traditional songs and originals by Mr. MacGowan. His dark and grisly narratives (full of voyages to hell, dismembered bodies and soggy nights in seedy pubs) perfectly suited his gin-soaked growl. The songwriter Elvis Costello became a fan and signed on to produce the Pogues' 1985 album, ''Rum Sodomy and the Lash,'' as well as a 1986 extended-play record, ''Poguetry in Motion.'' Under Mr. Costello's guidance, the group began to diversify into soul-tinged rock and string-laden pop ballads, but even when Mr. MacGowan's lyrics grew sentimental, they retained a striking and poignant realism that seems equal parts desperation and blind hope. ''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,'' he sings in ''A Rainy Night in Soho.''

The Pogues and Mr. Costello subsequently had a falling out - ''musical differences,'' Mr. MacGowan said with a raspy chuckle - and the band's two recent albums, ''If I Should Fall From Grace With God'' in 1988 and ''Peace and Love'' in 1989, show the group broadening its vision even further, with stabs at brass-embellished jazz, Spanish fiesta music, calypso and straight-ahead rock. Mr. MacGowan, once the focus of the band, now takes a lesser role in a more democratic setup; on ''Peace and Love,'' the band members Jem Finer (on banjo and saxophone), Terry Woods (on guitar, mandola and cittern, among other instruments), Philip Chevron (on guitar) and Darryl Hunt (on bass) each contributes songs and/or lead vocals.

This change seems to reflect the band's desire to be recognized by the mainstream audience as more than a novelty act that played really fast and sang songs about getting drunk. (A flip through ''Poguetry,'' a book of Mr. MacGowan's collected lyrics, will uncover references to alchohol on virtually every page.) But it also has to do with Mr. MacGowan's well-being. Last fall, he collapsed from exhaustion and had to miss some tour dates opening for Bob Dylan. Mr. MacGowan's simple explanation is ''I got ill.''

Illness aside, the group's increased diversity pleases him. Even when the Pogues started, he recalled: ''I was listening to Jimi Hendrix. I was also listening to soul. I was also listening to reggae. Music's music.'' As the band has matured (growing from five members to eight), Mr. MacGowan and the others have become more confident and adept at the Irish material as well. Once jittery and sparse, the traditional Irish songs are now full-blooded, celebratory stomps that have skillfully harnessed the raw energy of rock-and-roll.

Like Blues or Country Mr. MacGowan's characters still alternately find salvation and damnation in drink. In ''Boat Train,'' a man boards the train, becomes raving drunk, plays a game of chance and loses every penny he owns. ''Next thing that I knew I was in London in the rain/Staggering up the platform off the Boat Train,'' he sobs.

The desperation in Mr. MacGowan's lyrics is 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 is at the heart of the Pogues' music. ''Irish music is like blues or country to me,'' Mr. MacGowan said. ''We could identify with it, particularly in London, the way blues moved to Chicago and country moved to the city. Irish music is brilliant dance music. It's melodic; it's unpretentious; it hits you straight in the gut - straight in the soul.''

Copyright 1990 The New York Times Company, The New York Times
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