Eight Lads Putting on Airs
The birth of a band: at a London flat some eight years ago, Shane MacGowan, who had more of his teeth back then, picked up a guitar and started to play an old Irish tune, Paddy Worked at the Railways. He played it fast; he played it very fast, in the best postpunk, frontal-assault style. His pal Spider Stacy clocked MacGowan's hands at "940 light-years an hour." That time, of course, was unofficial. But looking back now, it has become the official beginning of the Pogues.
This aggregation landed its first gig two weeks later. "Hey," MacGowan said to a local club owner, "we're in a band that plays Irish Republican songs. Can we do a set here?" The club owner agreed, and MacGowan, Stacy and three friends were soon doing a 20-minute set of "mutilated Irish rebel songs" that was frequently interrupted, according to Stacy, "by chit- throwing British soldiers, who displayed far greater musical taste than the rest of the audience."
A prototypical punk moment. It was loud, adventurous, untutored and self- destructive. Something may have been kindled that night, but it took 18 months to work it into a flame. Now the Pogues burn reckless and bright, working weird wonders on old Irish airs, giving errant folk melodies a strong bracing of rock. The new Pogues album has the kind of title that makes a sucker out of anyone who doesn't know the band; Peace and Love is full of spunk and sass, unreconstructed punk attitude hiding a hard social conscience. Chits will no longer be tossed.
The Pogues muscled mainstream folk music out of its rut. Their raucous, carefully heedless style opened the way for the Hothouse Flowers, the Proclaimers and the Waterboys, three of the best bands working the newly fertile field of electric folk. The Pogues redirected and redefined a tradition that even such disparate talents as Tracy Chapman, the Indigo Girls and Suzanne Vega are working to excellent effect. Mind you, listening to MacGowan blister his way through Young Ned of the Hill or White City will not bring a fond smile to folkies who prefer their music mild, like a cup of chamomile, or foursquare, like a sermon on a six-string. MacGowan sing-snarls like a saloon rowdy. His mouth, missing several prominent teeth, has attracted almost as much press attention as his voice, perhaps because they make such a perfect match. There is nothing pretty about a MacGowan vocal; the beauty comes later, after he has given the ear a good boxing, and the lyrics settle -- very gently, really -- on the heart.
MacGowan onstage is restless, perhaps combustible. If the other seven band members do a tune in which his involvement is minimal, he will take a hike into the wings. "It's embarrassing," he says. "I'm sitting on my bloody hands." Even when he's not in the thick of things, he is the Pogues' charismatic center. It was MacGowan and his writing that got Terry Woods out of retirement. At 42, Woods is older by a decade than the rest of the band, and he played with such mid-'70s English electric-folk groups as Steeleye Span, on whose influence the Pogues have drawn extensively. "I've been through the folk revival; I've been through the decline of the revival," he says. "But I liked MacGowan's writing. A lot of Irish music had been parlorized by the English. The Pogues took it back to the streets. They were attacking it."
The Pogues are not a postmodern incarnation of the Clancy Brothers, however. Only half of them are Irish (MacGowan, 31, was born in Ireland but moved to ! London when he was six), and it quickly became apparent back in the formative days that working up a repertoire of Irish music exclusively, even punked and pulverized, was a dead end. "It was patronizing," says Stacy simply. So instead of the raw Irish musical tradition itself, the band took the spirit of the tradition, which Stacy compares convincingly with rhythm and blues and reggae.
Rooted in Ireland (where only Woods and guitarist Philip Chevron live) but centered in London, where they are an enduring force in a music scene that changes with tidal regularity, the band members still live close by one another, most of them in the same working-class neighborhoods where they grew up. "We are not the sort of people," says MacGowan, "who like to be snotty bastards, out in space." They just finished playing a few dates in the States, to get Peace and Love off to a strong start, and will return next month for a lengthier series of concerts, both opening for Bob Dylan and performing on their own.
The Pogues are doing well enough, and remain enterprising enough, to explore some unlikely avenues of musical inspiration. "There are eight really strong personalities in the band," MacGowan comments. "Everybody writes." Jem Finer, who plays banjo, sax and hurdy-gurdy and who pulled the Pogues together in the early days, has written, with the aid of a "very old Italian phrase book," an aria. "We've rehearsed it," he reveals, "but it wasn't recorded for the album. Various factions thought it was pushing things a bit far. But opera is one of our secret desires." Unlike British soldiers on a pub crawl, opera fans have been known to throw objects somewhat heftier than chits. But after nearly a decade, the Pogues still dote on stirring things up. The best rock comes right from the firing line, and the very best from bands, like the Pogues, that keep on shooting back.
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