As I mentioned, I’ve been a fan of The Pogues since 1985. They’ve released seven studio albums in that time but that doesn’t really reflect how prolific they were during their active years. I feel like there’s been a seemingly endless stream of “best of” packages, rarity collections and other releases. Every time I think I have everything, I find something new – and I don’t mean “new bootleg,” I mean “new official.” It’s genuinely impressive. Even as I prepared this list, I realize that I’d not heard their contribution to Red Hot + Blue, for example. Talented musicians who clearly loved to perform.
20. Dark Streets Of London
First single from Red Roses for Me (1984), released as a single in 1984
The entire Red Roses for Me album is an example of how The Pogues’ releases trickled into my life. I wasn’t even aware that a pre-Rum, Sodomy and the Lash Pogues album existed until around the time of the release of Waiting for Herb. I was in some record store (probably Tower, but possibly Borders, both gone now) and was looking through the CD stacks when I noticed a Pogues album I’d never seen and pretty much freaked. Honestly, I’d either not read anything about the band that suggested this album existed or I read it and didn’t register it. Both are possible.
I note that for many bands, my knowledge of them started with the first album that I encountered and I almost never dove backwards into their earlier work as a teenager. INXS (who I’ll be posting about shortly) began in my brain with their third album and even through I saw copies of their previous albums on the shelves (probably at Bradley’s or Record World), it never even dawned on me that I might buy an album that didn’t have any songs I knew on it. On the other hand, years of listening to fellow rabid R.E.M. fans led me to purchase their fabled Chronic Town EP without ever having listened to it just so I, too, could sniff about how the band sold out after that release.
Back to The song at hand, “Dark Streets of London” was The Pogues bold début single – bold because they chose to go with an original Shane MacGowan track instead of the comparably safer (and excellent) cover tunes on the album (see “Waxie’s Dargle” below). The lyrics are a great introduction to one of MacGowan’s favorite artistic topics – living down and out in the big city, contrasting the happy days of yore with the dismal present. It might not be as well-known as some of their later songs, but it’s practically the beta version of some of The Pogues’ best tunes.
19. Honky Tonk Women
Third single from the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah EP (1989), released as a single in 1992
Cover of a song originally written and recorded by The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones original is still the unbeaten best version of this song, but The Pogues prove that they can use their musical talents on traditional instruments to create a dirty, rock and roll sound that’s perfect for “Honky Tonk Women.” I’m pretty sure that Spider Stacey sings this one. Looking through some of the set lists of their concerts, I was reminded of how The Pogues were a consummate cover band when they wanted to be (as I mentioned in the opening paragraph here, they clearly love music, which is part of what makes listening to them such a joy).
18. Once Upon A Time
Second single from Waiting for Herb (1993), released as a single in 1993
Waiting for Herb was The Pogues’ first post-Shane MacGowan album and surprised everyone by being really genuinely quite good. The first single from that album – “Tuesday Morning” – was a surprise hit (one of their biggest hits in fact). While “Once Upon A Time” may have been a small hit (#66 in the UK), it’s really a very lovely, 50’s-ish song written by The Pogues remarkable banjo player Jem Finer (it’s really worth reading that Wikipedia article – Finer is kind of bad ass). I first got into The Pogues because of their punk approach to traditional Irish music and this song is about a million miles away from that (as I said, it sounds a bit more like a 50’s pop ballad) but it’s still a nice showcase for the band’s versatility and craftsmanship.
17. Waxie’s Dargle
If you listen to that early cover (by Sweeney’s Men) and then listen to the supercharged Pogues version, you can really hear how The Pogues changed the approach to traditional Irish music. Many of the traditional songs are about drinking, fighting and being a bit of a rogue. The Pogues took the spirit of the song’s lyics and put into their performance. When you hear The Pogues sing this song, the chorus (“What Will You Have? I’ll have A Pint, I’ll Have A Pint With You Sir,” etc) sounds like it’s being shouted by customers in a crowded, rowdy pub (instead of a nice orderly pub). They tear through the song with joy and abandon. I can’t speak for everyone of course, but I was never especially into Irish music growing up – it seemed hopelessly old-fashioned to me as a teen. The Pogues were my window into that world and if I sometimes listen to The Dubliners or The Chieftens, The Irish Rovers or The Clancy Brothers from time to time now, it’s because I first listened to The Pogues in the 80’s and developed an appreciation for the tunes.
16. Miss Otis Regrets / Just One Of Those Things (featuring Kirsty MacColl)
Single from the compilation Red Hot + Blue (1990), released as a single in 1990
Cover of two songs by Irving Berlin
“Miss Otis” first recorded by Alberta Hunter in 1934
“Just One Of Those Things” first recorded by Richard Himber in 1935
KTUH received a copy of Red Hot and Blue (a benefit album featuring top artists of the time recording Cole Porter tunes) in 1990 and I remember playing “Night and Day” by U2 and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” by Annie Lennox at least occasionally. I like most of the artists on the album so I’m not 100% sure why I didn’t drop the needle on a few more tracks. I managed to complete miss the two Pogues songs on the other – one with Kirsty MacColl (who famously dueted with the band on “Fairytale of New York”) and the other featuring just the band themselves. “Miss Otis” was apparently considered by Cole Porter to be something of a joke song – a parody of a particular brand of cowboy tunes. Stripped of its context and performed by MacColl, it comes across as a genuinely affecting ballad (if you’re curious about a more tongue in cheek take, here’s Bette Midler’s version). The Pogues take on “Just One Of Those Things” is not unlike their take on some of the traditional Irish songs they sing – a little loose, a little boozy and you get the sense that whatever happened was pretty great but maybe something that doesn’t make as much sense now that they’re sober again.
15. Boys From The County Hell
Second single from Red Roses From Me (1984), released as a single in 1984
Arguably MacGowan’s finest original song on The Pogues’ debut album, “Boys From County Hell” takes the form of a traditional Irish folk song but sets in firmly in the 80’s (his brother fought in Vietnam). It’s lyrics tell a story of a young hell-raiser and his mates who’ll rob you and kill you for money for more bottles of alcohol (I’m going to guess whiskey – possibly Jameson because of the reference to “green bottles”). Even as a long time fan of The Pogues, when I first heard this song I assumed it was a cover of a traditional song. This both reflects my ignorance of Irish music in general but also (I believe) how much The Pogues respected and honored the music that inspired them. They didn’t come to destroy or mock Irish music – they came to breathe some new life into it. Music (and all art) only thrives when it reinvents itself with the times. Otherwise, it ends up in museums instead of on people’s MP3 players or Spotify lists.
14. White City
Second Single from Peace and Love (1989), released as a single in 1989
I have a sense that I either ordered Peace and Love somehow (which would have been weird in 1989), or I purchased it before moving to Hawaii and then had it mailed out to me with some other stuff after I settled in, or somebody gave it to me as a gift. No matter which of these ways it arrived in my hands, I have a clear memory of taking it our of a box that arrived in the mail. The Pogues started drifting away from Irish music as early as their third album – If I Should Fall From Grace With God – and this album continued their drift towards other musical styles. “White City” is the second track on the album and the first with lyrics. It offers an effective and rousing blend of Irish instrumentation and rock and roll. The title refers to the White City district of London (so named, allegedly, because of the white marble edifices of the area) and its apparent 80’s gentrification. The lyrics specifically lament the loss of the greyhound racing tracks, pondering memories of the betting tickets, the crowds and the pubs. With perhaps a touch of irony, the old White City is referred to as “like Atlantis.” It’s really one of MacGowan’s finest lyrics and deserves a little more prominence in the band’s catalog.
13. London Girl
From the EP Poguetry In Motion (1986)
I played this song several dozen times on the radio between 1986 and 1994 – possibly more than any other Pogues song except “Sally MacLennane.” I still love it even if I feel like some of their other tunes have aged better. Built around a great James Fearnley accordion tune, “London Girl” is a fast paced high-class woman, lower class man themed song. The chorus alludes obliquely to Merchant of Venice (“If you cut me/don’t you think I feel?/Is this body clay?/Is this heart made of steel?”) and the whole lyric is an economical structured look at the singer’s relationship with the titular girl. MacGowan and the gang tear through it with gusto and its hard not to want to sing along with the whole darn thing. “London Girl” was one of the four tracks on Poguetry in Motion and I have no sense if anyone other than me played it on the air.
12. The Sunnyside Of The Street
Second single from Hell’s Ditch (1990), released as a single in 1991
I enjoy hearing songs about libertines (a Shane MacGowan specialty) but I’m not entirely certain that I enjoy spending time around them. The narrator of “The Sunnyside of the Street” has gotten to drink his way around the world and has numerous lovers on the way. Currently, he’s feeling pretty good about himself (this song is one of the most cheerful in the entire Pogues catalog), but there’s also an undercurrent of misogyny, self-loathing, and violence. MacGowan’s misadventures with alcohol are fairly well documented so it’s important for me to remind myself that the singer is not the song. Anyhow, despite some of my misgivings about the character portrayed in the lyrics, this is a great song that paints a pretty vivid and vibrant portrait of that rake.
11. A Rainy Night In SoHo
Originally from the EP Poguetry In Motion (1986), remix released in 1991
“A Rainy Night In Soho” has a complicated history involving an argument between Shane MacGowan and Elvis Costello about whether they should use a cornet or an oboe on the tune. Costello’s preferred version (oboe) won out and was on the original Poguetry in Motion EP but MacGowan’s cornet version of the song was on that EP’s Canadian release. In 1991, a version of the song that mixed both the cornet and the oboe was released as a single and was a respectable hit in the UK. The lyrics suggest this is a love song to drinking, to a specific woman or maybe to both. I didn’t play this one on the radio but I’ve long since fallen in love with the tune, which is a melancholy and a little moving whether it’s about whiskey or a woman, or whether it features a cornet or an oboe. I encourage you to watch this short clip of Nick Cave discussing MacGowan and singing a bit of this song – it’s lovely.
Coming Soon: I’ve surprised myself with my pick for #1.