Ain’t That a ShaneRum? Sodomy? Whipass!
“They are a roaring, stumbling band. These are the Dead End kids for real … they play like soldiers on leave. The songs are epic. It’s whimsical and blasphemous, seasick and sacrilegious.”
That’s Tom Waits, talking to the Observer Music Monthly about albums and bands that’ve changed his life. The album in question is Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, the band is the Pogues, and it’s the best description of Shane MacGowan’s motley crew you’ll ever read.
“Yeah, that sounds pretty good to me,” laughs Philip Chevron, longtime Pogues guitarist, theatrical music director, original Irish punk (with his band the Radiators) and bona fide good guy.
“I’ve always loved Tom’s descriptions of the Pogues. I remember he once described us as ‘a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life.’ I suppose we feel like fellow travelers. We all met up in the same bar and went off in different directions.”
For the young, the uninitiated or the culturally bereft, the Pogues were one of the truly magnificent bands of the ’80s—or any other decade, for that matter. A dissolute gang of Anglo-Irish borderline degenerates, they kicked against the pricks of a vapid English music scene dominated by New Romantic poseurs; dour, young, raincoat-clad Northerners and the dribbling arse-end of punk. They sang songs for the dispossessed and the Irish diaspora; were (initially) criminally unfashionable; played with a splenetic fury that could confound, infuriate and overjoy; and in Shane MacGowan they had a truly iconic frontman whose songwriting and lyrical prowess place him in a long lineage of Irish romantics, rebels and poets stretching from Brendan Behan to Flann O’Brien and beyond.
Look no further than the band’s recently Rhino-reissued and remastered first five albums, a body of work that stands second to none. The songs are things of wonder (“A Pair of Brown Eyes,” “Summer in Siam”) and the sublime (“Fairytale of New York”). They manage to sound utterly contemporary and yet befit that hoary old cliche “timeless classics.” They’re songs that sound as if they’ve been around forever. That’s no mean feat.
“That’s very true,” says Chevron, “although I have to admit, they weren’t terribly good the first time I saw them.” (A close friend and cohort, Chevron joined shortly after the group’s second album.) “But I could see where they were going and didn’t make the mistake of viewing them, as many did, as a novelty act—you know, with the singer with the bad teeth and the banjos playing punk tunes. I could see right away they were deadly serious about what they were doing.”
What the Pogues were doing was what Chevron refers to as “using Irish music and the traditional forms as a template for a new form of Irish punk, an expression of what it was to be second-generation Irish at that time in England.”
Put simply, the Pogues were the missing link between the Chieftains and the Clash, the Dubliners and the Sex Pistols, a booze-and-speed-fueled marriage of tradition and rebellion that connected head on with kids who’d just missed out on punk’s glory days and despised the alternatives on offer. Add to this the oppressive backdrop of Thatcherism, conflict in Northern Ireland and a general English mistrust of the Irish, and you had a pretty volatile mix.
“Yeah, absolutely,” agrees Chevron, “and the Pogues were sticking up two fingers at all that. There was an element of, ‘This is who I am and if you don’t like it, fuck you.’ That rebellion came through in the music and the very nature of the band’s name.” (Which was originally Pogue Mahone—Gaelic for “kiss my arse.”)
The glory days couldn’t last forever. Constant touring and Herculean levels of alcohol consumption put an end to the group and MacGowan in particular. The singer was asked to leave in ’91, the band stumbling to an inglorious end in the mid-’90s. But as is so often the case these days, an offer they couldn’t refuse enticed the Pogues to embark on some festive U.K. dates in 2001, and they’ve remained a sporadic touring unit since.
“For the first time in our lives we get properly paid, we get well-treated and we can tour the way we want to,” says Chevron. “There’s a sense now where we feel we’re the masters of our own destiny.”
And while MacGowan remains an erratic (but still beloved) performer at best, the Pogues remain inspirational thanks to their incomparable body of work. And on a good night they’re unbeatable.
“We always knew it would endure beyond us,” reflects Chevron. “We know the songs are truly great and we know chances are, in 100 years’ time, people will still be singing ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ or whatever. We all survived, and much to our astonishment, we’re still here to tell the tale. There’s an element of celebration about it—it’s almost like the end of the fairy tale. It’s the happy ending—‘and they all survived.’ Albeit they have no hair and their stomachs are bigger … but they’re still rockin’, they’re still cool, they’re still the Pogues and, if anything, we’re playing better than ever.”
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