Bob Geldof on The Pogues.
Note: This essay was written by Bob Geldof for inclusion in the Waiting For Herb reissue liner notes. It’s length prohibited full inclusion with the reissue, but Bob has been gracious enough to allow the full text to be published here.
In Ireland, when I was young, culture was a government enforced obligation. A Celtic kulturkampf. One could pass all the required school examinations but if one failed the Irish language course all other results were invalidated. You failed everything. A chón agus a chón, no university, no civil service career and therefore no pension. General lamentation and despair.
I, along with most of my contemporaries was shite at Irish so standards were set abysmally low to enable ineffectual dullards such as I to scrape through in order to ensure the continued smooth running of the state bureaucracy while simultaneously reinforcing the failed notion of an anachronistic national past and its relevance to the modern present.
I associated the language and its main vehicle of traditional music as been of, not only another time but another world. Not just a parallel universe with the actual living world of the 1960’s being lived everywhere but Ireland, but an ancient one without the glamour of the Romans or Greeks and unfortunately a language as redundant as either of them.
The music was to me repetitive and simplistic. Its messages when not of endlessly re-hashed historic slights or overblown and implausible love dilemmas were of cartoon loss and comic book emotions. I couldn’t stand it.
We were all supposed to be thrilled when some wheezing, arse-scorchingly bad scratch merchant in a báinín sweater cranked up in the corner of a bar and began crapping on about ‘Californ-i-ay’ or some such bollocks or be positively animated in a culturally superior way when at the Fleadh Cheoil, the music festivals, hopeless caterwauling on street corners masqueraded as timeless dance tunes but were in fact tiresomely simple riffs with ridiculous names and which involved embarrassing leaping and cavorting and faces flushed with what was though a becoming, determined and vigorous cultural sanctimony.
But we all sort of knew what was going on. This was a culture brought to the service of a far greater need - the desire and the need to obliterate the awful, poor present of the country with allusions to a richer mythic past by getting ritually drunk with the full smiling benediction of the government, because, let’s face it, this is what it was all about, this is what we were and more this yer acthchel living fucking culture and yis can all go and fuck yerselves.
Keep the Green Curtain drawn so no-one sees that behind the hermetically sealed cultural claustrophobia lay an adolescently immature churchstate, who peeking out from behind the twitching national nets were very afraid. Who instead of competing as equals with this newer world that was forming beyond their borders would retreat behind the cod-culture they insisted upon of blood sacrifice for their nothing causes, the worship of the futile death, the faux misere of imagined loss manifested as disgusting had-done-by self pity, the ripe, dangerous emotionalism of the endlessly rehearsed vengeful national historical narrative. The safety of an imagined mythic past always preferable to a bewildering impoverished present.
This was the culture of cowardice. A cultural inferiority in fact. A fear that what we truly had beyond the basic bollocks, “Yer 40 shades of Green,” are any cunt who could scrape a line from an authentically out-of-tune fiddle wouldn’t add up. They were, of course hopelessly, horribly wrong. But just in case, Ireland was to be kept in its touristic cultural aspic. ‘The sea o the sea, grá gheal ma chroi, Thank God we’re surrounded by water.’ We would bang our bodhrans, blow our penny whistles, and authentically jam our fingers in our ears while we sang, faces screwed in ersatz sincerity, the tuneless maunderings of despair that had, by now, become our national psyche.
But with those fingers in those ears we would also, thankfully, never heard that other world, that increasingly interdependent world a-banging on their own bodhrans. We would cosily, deafly, safely withdraw. A marginal people in an island on the edge. We would shut up and not join in and maybe it would all pass or better pass us by and leave us unthreateningly alone in this one, holy, catholic and apostolic Republic of Silence.
No such luck thank God. The Irish aren’t much good at keeping quiet. What a disappointment we all were to those sad authorities.
There has always been a parallel Ireland. A world outside of Ireland that is always Irish. An alternative Ireland. This is a world inhabited by those whom Ireland has failed or, as in my case, failed as the Irishman Ireland wished us to be. Mostly they had no work or they had ambitions beyond those articulated nightly in the rooms of forgetting, the sensation dulling, world erasing bars whose grand dreams evaporated nightly with the clang of the closing time shutters. Or the Ireland of the escapee, gasping like a recently snared trout wriggling free of the intractably barbed hook of closed minds, suburbia or island fever. These were the engines of what we now romantically call the diaspora. A great wave of unskilled poverty and unbridled intelligence loosed to a world desperate for cheap muscle for deaf to the thick guttural sounds of what they had to say and the demands for inclusion. That would come and when it did it appeared as a vivid literate intelligence wrapped in a sublime musical sense. Ireland would be included by an insistence on its own particular sensibility not learned by fiat, priest or diktat but grafted to a world dulled by musical repetition and startled by this new clarity, passion and mad joy of life.
Long before the happy phenomenon of Ireland’s economic success and the preposterously smug title that has been affixed to it there were lions who left the much vaunted Celtic Tigers mewling feebly in their shade. These were the men and women of the 40’s and 50’s who left Ireland with nothing more than a half decent education, an economic desperation, romantic souls and ‘fanatic hearts.’ Powerful shit.
Back at base the poets, writers and thinkers were being different and later when I and others fulminated through our teenhood and sought and found meaning in Muddy, John Lee, Woody, Dylan, the Stones, Doors, Who etc., others were finding another store - the music hoard that had been almost lost behind the Hibernianistic top-o-the-morning bollocks of Oirelandland with its come-all-ye’s, it’s ballrooms and despair and the almost successful murder of a sublime musicality under a wash of tuneless tripe.
Great scholars and players were mining, delving, searching and collecting, trying to strip back the layers of subsidized ersatz for the forgotten authentic. Some would try and merge this mother hoard with the modern but not too successfully - that would come later. It was in these years that the source of that blend of Irish contemporary and world including music was laid.
But living uncomfortably beside the traditional lay Irish “folk” music. This co-opted something of the romantic and political past (and when most mawkish both together) and could be heard on streets, late at night as drunken yahoos clattered home in time to puke before a pale and groggy Sunday Mass. The “Rebel” song. God spare us.
These Saturday night “rebels” hooting moronically about “bayonets” and “tommy guns” and people they’d never heard of like “Kevin Barry,” appealed to the loser mentality of Christ-like, pointless blood sacrifice as some kind of victory over the actual victor. Oh well.
But the biggest rebels of them all, the ones who hooted loudest, the ones who wailed and smote their hairless chests most viciously were the fearless, be-suited suburban warriors of middle class Dublin and their more feared compatriots of the republican working class. Wild lads whose republicanism usually extended no further than the ritual tin-rattling ostentatious donation to “the Boys” in the Saturday night pubs, their eyes moist with the tawdry emotionalism generated by the high octane mix of a few pints and cheap music.
This “donation” to “the Boys” was so that some Irish people could get the money necessary to continue killing other Irish people while a few hours later yet another donation would be made into yet another rattling tin so that the church could simultaneously, but quietly mind you, bless the killers and the killed. A perfect Irish paradox that satisfied everyone involved and which was wholly reconcilable and perhaps inevitable within the cheap and deadly propaganda of the mindless “rebel” song willfully manipulated by those with an agenda beyond the Saturday night jar.
Things I thought were shite (and still do) did bizarrely influence masters like Dylan who unknowingly sought authenticity in the pastiche and still managed to extract radiance with his mercury mind. Some other musicians were simply bewilderingly good and though everything in me wished to react against the pub or pint bollocks some of these words and voices and a few of those players rang alarmingly true. It was only later that The Pogues allowed me to acknowledge how good were The Dubliners.
But I had rejected it all. I spat my rejection through The Boomtown Rats and deafened myself with my own shrill insistence. I had, exactly like those other earlier ones, (though for different reasons) jammed my own fingers in my ears. Bot then, if I am being truthful, I couldn’t ignore the Chieftains. I couldn’t deny Planxty or The Bothy Band, Clannad etc. This stuff was sublime. This was music from forever. Of profound depth, skill and passion. And this was very unsettling to me in my pop certainties.
Of course the only way i could allow myself to come to it was through the modern and specifically through the singular modern Irish musical spirit of Van Morrison whose intuitive mixing of twin traditional cultures, the Blues and Irish roots, married to a Yeatsian imagery, generated an entirely new musical vernacular. Van allowed me, and I suppose millions of others to hear for the first time the glory of another music hauled seamlessly, timelessly into the present. Not the cod nonsense of my youth but art - true music. It dawned on me that in all those years I had never actually heard true traditional Irish music and I was chastened. And The Pogues did it to me again with all that despised Rebel/Pub guff.
As the immigrants built Britain’s roads, canals and buildings, or sent home the annual equivalent of the Irish health budget, they had spent whatever spare time there was in Irish clubs and bars or making the first generation of Irish/Brits who would grow up uneasily de-racinated, clever in an annoyingly articulate way, inheriting the natural and correct Irish suspicion of authority and by virtue of descent not entirely included or comfortable within the host community. Classic outsider stuff from the marginal peoples.
They were unruly, they had imbibed words and attitudes from their parents and their songs, they had learned a sullen un-cooperativeness and a rebel soul from the old tunes that now made sense beyond the sad twitterings of some tourist trap shamrock bar.
Those songs that had started off as a sort of musical samizdat, broadsheet pamphleteering, replayed nightly in days of opposition, oral history and propaganda that no political power had learned to subject to its will, now seemed to have a newer, more modern pertinence. And the other songs, the stories of a different life, one not of work and poverty and scratching for a living but joyous mad days at the races and battered love and drunken regret. This is what Johnnie Rotten and Elvis Costello and Boy George and Morrissey and Liam and Noel and Shane MacGowan grew up hearing in their Irish homes in England and when it was their turn they changed them into British icons of resistance and change. A great coming in from the cold they just turned up the heat in a smart articulate stylish “fuck you.”
The Pogues were the truest to the original though at the start it didn’t look promising. Calling a band ‘Póg Mo Thóin' could only be considered smart by a first generation immigrant. No Irish band would ever have CONSIDERED calling themselves as lame as ‘Kiss My Arse,’ but Gaelic in Britain was no longer a language but an indecipherable prank code in which one could secretly insult a host culture that looked down upon one. MacGowan had already tried the punk rebel route. A mix of two immigrant outsider groups, first generation West Indians and Paddies mixing it up with fundamental outlaw noise. It was great but I never thought Shane was that convincing.
He was ugly enough to stand out. He was funny enough to be noticed. He was mad enough to fit in. But he always looked a bit of a cunt down the front there. Intriguing certainly. Off his face absolutely. But what the fuck was he doing?
Philip Chevron I knew as a Dublin kid with a Bowiesque theatrical type influence. A recognizable Dublin arty type who sort of fell into the punk thing that was happening. He made the traditional bid for credibility and legitimacy by dissing those that had gone before (i.e. my band), made a couple of decent records and could write and play well. But he definitely had the ‘thing’ and the historic reach and the sure touch. More importantly he looked odd too.
And there there was Terry Woods. An extraordinary musician in depth and fell who carried with him the musichoard. Long reaches back to the great stuff. And the other who I didn’t know, Spider and the boys who if they weren’t Irish didn’t give a fuck cos this thing they had going transcended the narrowness of all that shite. The music was the code. It was the transliteration of the style. It was not giving a bollocks in a thoroughly musical manner. It was fuck this and fuck that and frankly fuck you. A rockety life came with the territory. You didn’t have to be Irish. Their England had been influenced by that Ireland of the 50’s. Behan, Kavanah, O’Brien. Roaring Boys all. Drunken, rackety, genius bores. And Shane could be as drunk and boring and rackety or he could write as beautifully as any of them.
Behind the glorious words, as if they’d been handed directly to MacGowan by some cosmically laughing, Martini swilling Celtic Bacchus came a huge power. At once musical, joyous, rebellious, and vastly, hugely manically danceable and true.
All the Feis Cheoil of my youth, the hotel tourist Oirish acts, the bog-scratchings of musical half-wits, the sanctioned tunes of the Culture czars, were now burning nightly in a huge bonfire of the pertinent present.
The Pogues made great records and played great gigs but the glory are the songs. This is what will last. Old ones lovingly restored to their pristine attitudes, correctly interpreted to the now and originals as timeless as if written in some smoky corner 300 years ago or a piss-stinking bus shelter in London last week.
The words tumble and catch, the tunes grip, the band plays and being Irish in the 21st Century makes a sense denied me in those long years past in Ireland itself. This is the noise of a connected Ireland, not an insular frightened ghetto of the head by a people inside or outside who define themselves within a world that is not a small island off the western shores of Europe. It is everywhere and everybody is welcome to come in. It’s the Ireland I imagines and was desperate for a long time ago now. It is the noise of the always outside who have no desire to come in save on their terms. It’s cultural revolution stuff. A great reclaiming from those who made it by those whom it was made for. Great words. Great music. Great band. Great art.
Bob Geldof, August 2004
Copyright © 2004, Bob Geldof
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