I used to hate The Pogues. There’s only two reasons why you would hate The Pogues. Firstly, you’ve not really ever listened to any of their music – beyond Fairytale Of New York (aka “that Christmas song”), Dirty Old Town (aka “that I met my love song!”) and The Irish Rover (aka “that Irish Rover Song”). Secondly, and this is really an either/or situation – you’ve played in an Irish band, or other such pub band (performing some covers) and you’ve been bombarded for requests to “play some fucking Pogues man!” And of course you did just that. Sometimes you even played the same Pogues song more than once a night.
So, let me backtrack – I liked The Pogues, loved them even, for a long time before I hated them. This classic compilation was my primer.
And then I joined a pub covers band and started playing Fairytale Of New York and sometimes Dirty Old Town. Then, things got even worse. I joined an Irish band. I made my living for a few years playing “some fucking Pogues man!” Though the truth is we only ever played those three songs I mentioned. The three strikes. Enough to rule The Pogues out. (We also played Sally MacLennane and Fiesta from time to time, A Pair Of Brown Eyes too. But not enough for it to ever be an issue).
I hadn’t thought about The Pogues for a long time. I hadn’t played any of their music.
And then I (re)discovered my copy of the band’s Peace And Love album (from 1989). As soon as the needle dropped on Gridlock I started having flashbacks to so many pained memories where drunk bar patrons would call out for The Pogues. As if it is them that get to decide what songs will be ruined? That was our job!
But I also thought, instantly, of how The Pogues suffer – as do so many bands of course – for their best known “hits”. Even other songs from that very brilliant best of – The Broad Majestic Shannon, Thousands Are Sailing – are somewhat forgotten in the scheme of things. Ignored in favour of repeat plays of “The Christmas Song”, the “I met my love song” and “that Irish Rover Song”, again and again – there’s only so much tin-whistle a person can take in one life.
I’ve read A Drink With Shane MacGowan – twice. Great book. I’ve watched the film-version, If I Should Fall From Grace: The Shane MacGowan Story – twice. Great documentary. But there’s nothing like getting lost in the music.
To my ears The Pogues are worthy for a hat-trick of albums: Rum, Sodomy & The Lash (1985), If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988) and the following year’s Peace And Love (which I mentioned and linked to earlier).
I’d also tag in the 1984 debut, Red Roses For Me and though it’s possibly cheating (well it was really, it was MacGowan cheating on his other band) I’d toss in the 1994 debut from Shane MacGowan & The Popes – The Snake. Great album.
But hey, we’re all busy people and this is a band that’s been ruined for many by bands like the one I played in – meeting demand with the supply of one, two or three fudged Pogues covers per set – so I know you don’t want three, four, or four-and-a-half Pogues/Popes albums to work through now. Not unless you have them buried in your collection and you have nothing to do all day tomorrow…
If you sincerely do not want to give The Pogues that much of a chance but wish, still, to offer some lip-service to the band then you must get that compilation I linked to before, The Best Of The Pogues (from 1991) and the following year’s round-up, The Rest Of The Best. There have been double-disc compilations since then and long-playing single disc compilations – they are not as good. Get those two – and you’ll be away. It’s all you need (and maybe just a little bit more than you need but that’s okay). Or perhaps it’s not quite enough. You’ll whet your appetite the correct way with those two – and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find out that the band was never for you (if you didn’t know that already).
Shane MacGowan’s myth seems to be based, mostly, around his incredible appetite for drink and drugs. And the dichotomy that stems from that – an animal capable of surviving horse-tranquiliser doses of booze and smack can then go on to write and act out poetic love songs; to recontextualise a culture, updating the traditional via part of punk’s ethos. There is something that has made Shane MacGowan hang on. There is something remarkable about his soul. He might be repugnant in so many ways but listen to him preach – this guy can write a lyric and a melody even if he ends up too drunk to sing it.
There are stories – apocryphal, often – of The Pogues being too boozed to play, of the audience being too sober to enjoy or accept it but don’t just fall in line with the cliché.
Spend some time listening to the work, taking it in and you will hear a band in support of a visionary – MacGowan’s drunk(en) angel angle is something, sure. But it took sublime musicianship to push it into place.
I thought about The Pogues a lot this week. After I found that album, re-watched a documentary and listened to some of my favourite tracks from the band.
I played with an Irish band full time for many years – it meant that for most of a decade I could not approach The Pogues, Van Morrison, The Chieftains or The Waterboys. A great shame of course. But a fact nonetheless.
So – do you hate The Pogues? Or are you (still) a big fan? Have you ever given them a
chance? Or have you never given them a chance?
What are your favourite Pogues songs? And do you agree that there is so much more to this band than just the obvious hits?
And remember, when it comes to The Pogues, know them – go deep into the albums – before you judge them.