PUNK-ROCK FINDS A HOMELAND IN IRELAND
"The Raggle Taggle Gypsy," a traditional Irish folk tune several centuries old, tells the story of a young bride who leaves home at the beckoning of a gypsy. When her husband finds her gone, he sets out to search for her, and finally comes across her in a meadow with the gypsy. "How could you leave your goose feather bed/ Your blankets strewn so comely?" he asks her, and she replies, "What care I for my goose feather bed/ With blankets strewn so comely?/ Tonight I lie in a wide-open field/ In the arms of a raggle taggle gypsy."
The song is a classic tale not only of love, but of the desire for freedom, for authenticity; it's a succinct assertion of an Irish ethic that values personal and spiritual freedom above money, possessions and other trappings of society. The fact that the Waterboys, a contemporary Dublin-based rock band, have included a version of "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy" on their fifth and latest album, "Room to Roam" (Chrysalis/Ensign F2 21768; CD and cassette), is as much a statement of purpose as a homage to musical roots. And the Waterboys are just one of a current generation of rock bands, including the Pogues and the Men They Couldn't Hang, that has chosen the freedom and authenticity of traditional Irish music over the stale dogma of rock-and-roll.
All three groups play a feisty, rock-flavored Irish folk music. They've kept the standard rock lineup of guitar, bass and drums, but the sound is more acoustic-based than electric, and they augment the lineup with folk instruments like mandolin, banjo, bodhran, tin whistle, flute, accordion, bouzouki and cittern. They alternate rock's backbeat with the stomping jig rhythms and reels of Irish music, and the songs can work themselves into a pub-crawler's frenzy of shouts, hollers and stamping feet. The sound is unmistakably Irish, yet these bands aren't purists like the famed Celtic ensemble the Chieftains; the Pogues, the Waterboys and the Men They Couldn't Hang mix in generous doses of punk energy and enough of a pop sensibility to make the music accessible to contemporary rock audiences.
Both the Waterboys and the Pogues came to Irish music secondhand. The Pogues began as a punk band in the late 70's, then adopted Irish music as the punk movement was petering out. The Waterboys made an abrupt shift from pompous, arty pop-rock to Irish music with their 1988 album "Fisherman's Blues." And not one of these groups is originally from Ireland. The Pogues and the Men They Couldn't Hang are from London; the Waterboys' founder, lead singer and songwriter Mike Scott grew up in Scotland and lived in London before relocating to Dublin in 1985.
Yet this musical and geographical displacement doesn't detract from these bands' authenticity. Since the 60's, some of the best rock music has derived from bands' interpretations of native folk styles, such as the Beatles' and Rolling Stones' appropriation of American rhythm and blues on their early records. Throughout the 80's, rock musicians in search of authenticity have gone back to their roots. John Cougar Mellencamp took up the acoustic guitar and fiddle on his albums "Scarecrow" and "Big Daddy," and Jon Bon Jovi wrote about cowboys on his recent "Blaze of Glory" album.
On their fifth album, "The Domino Club" (Silvertone/RCA 1391; all three formats), the Men They Couldn't Hang write almost exclusively about the mythology of Irish living: drinking, fighting, blue-collar work. In the narrative style of "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy," they tell tales of debauchery and struggle; almost every song is set in some poor industrial town. In "Great Expectations," a character dreams of what he'll achieve when he gets out of prison ("I've got an idea to start a company/ Fish 'n' chip shops in Greece and Hungary"). "On the Razzle" is a slice of pub life: "Whisky chasers, downhill racers/ Talking 'bout the good old days."
The Pogues don't simply write about that way of living; they seem to be a product of it. On the group's fifth album, "Hell's Ditch" (Island 422-846 999; all three formats), the voice of the lead singer Shane MacGowan is so slurred he barely enunciates. Luckily the album includes a lyric sheet, because Mr. MacGowan is a vivid and poignant lyricist. His language is plain, his metaphors jarring; his songs articulate a precarious balance of hope, desperation and too much alcohol. "I walked into the nearest bar/ I sat and gazed across the sea/ I wandered drunken on the beach/ The waves just whispered misery," he rasps in "Sayonara"; in the opening track, a man who's lost everything still tries to convince himself that he's on "The Sunnyside of the Street."
On the Waterboys' "Room to Roam," Mike Scott has a more positive outlook. He seems as content to write about the weather ("Spring Comes to Spiddal") as romance ("A Man Is in Love"), and he can slip easily into a soft, folky ballad accompanied only by mandolin and violin. Except for a few spirited instrumental jigs and the group's version of "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy," "Room to Roam" is a gentle, reflective record that branches out from traditional Irish influences into psychedelic rock and even slick, Burt Bacharach-style pop in the ballad "Something That Is Gone."
This overambitious stylizing eventually weakens "Room to Roam." Mr.
Scott's discovery of Irish music on the album "Fisherman's Blues" led to
a complete regeneration of his songwriting and musical vision; that album
is as poetically simple as a rose, and on it Mr. Scott sang like a man
in love with music.
Your intrepid maintainer is DzM.