Easing my way through my ten favorite Pogues songs. Shane MacGowan released a good deal of solo work (notably his album The Snake with The Popes) and the band briefly reunited in the zeds with the full original line-up. Sadly, gifted lead guitarist Philip Chevron passed away in 2013 but the band soldiered on through 2014 after which they seem to have broken up for good.
I, for one, don’t just listen to them on March 17, but I always include a few of their songs in my St. Patrick’s day mix. Pour one out for The Pogues. A whole one – I don’t drink so just pour it out.
10. If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Second single from If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988), released as a single in 1988
Between the release of Rum, Sodomy and the Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace With God, The Pogues were involved in the film Straight to Hell. This is important because some of the songs on Grace With God seem to have a bit of a western film influence. The title track, for example, sounds a bit more like a barn burner and a bit less like an Irish folk song. There’s nothing particular in the lyrics that suggests this, but when I first heard the song, I imagined a cowboy not wanting to die with his boots on. That’s a similar sentiment, right? This is, appropriately, the first song on its parent album and I was completely sold on the record by the first chorus.
9. Tuesday Morning
First single from Waiting for Herb (1993), released as a single in 1993
When they parted way with Shane MacGowan, we fans had every reason to believe that The Pogues were done as a unit. Granted, they’d been sharing song writing duties for a number of years (and my number one pick is no a Shane MacGowan song) but his distinct voice and signature song writing style were kind of the heart of the band for the first part of their existence. Then, suddenly, “Tuesday Morning” was released and was a pretty big hit (it was played a bunch out here on Radio Free Hawaii and I also saw it a number of times on MTV and reached #11 on the Billboard Modern Rock charts making it their biggest US hit) and it was like ‘Ok, I guess there’s a lot more to The Pogues than we thought.” Written by Spider Stacy, “Tuesday Morning” has a bit of Irish flavor to the phrasing of the lyrics (particularly the chorus, starting with “And I know that you…”) but otherwise its a fairly standard “I’m separated from my lover and hope to be reunited with her soon” theme. Well, heck, there’s a reason there are dozens of songs on that subject and that’s because the experience of separation is one that most lovers go through and we like to hear songs about that when we’re longing for our loved one(s). Well played, post-Shane MacGowan Pogues!
8. Dirty Old Town
Third single from Rum, Sodomy and The Lash (1985), released as a single in 1985
Cover of a song originally written and recorded by Ewan MacColl (1949)
I am a bit surprised that this isn’t a Pogues original but that might be because its similar in theme to MacGowan’s “Old Main Drag.” Folk singer, playwright and activist Ewan MacColl wrote “Dirty Old Town” for his 1949 play Landscape with Chimneys and it became a folk standard. The Pogues embrace the portrait of this dirty (as in literally dirty) old town with great affection – MacGowan’s vocal delivery is especially affecting. By the time he gets to the fourth verse – about chopping the town to bits – and then returns to the opening nostalgic verse at the end, you really get a sense of the complex feeling the lyrics express. You can love and hate a place at the same time. No, this isn’t a Pogues original, but they made it their own and MacGowan has been known to correct interviewers who try to attribute the song to him. It’s a gorgeous performance.
Single from the Sid and Nancy Soundtrack (1986), released as a single in 1986
Bassist Cait O’Riordan left The Pogues before If I Should Fall From Grace With God. I’ve read that this was because she was just plain sick of touring. Her marriage to Elvis Costello has occasionally been offered as a reason why she left (there was some tension between Costello and MacGowan when the latter was producing Rum, Sodomy and The Lash and perhaps she chose sides) but her own testimony supports the “sick of touring” rationale. Regardless, she sang lead on a number of The Pogues songs – notably the lovely “I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day.” She also sings lead on this powerful track from the soundtrack to the film Sid and Nancy. Shane MacGowan later remade the track as a duet with Sinead O’Connor which is lovely but (to my ear) lacks the edge of the O’Riordan vocal on the original. I wish this song had received more airplay (I did my part) but we can’t have everything we wish for.
6. Misty Morning, Albert Bridge
First single from Peace and Love (1989), released as a single in 1989
Banjo player Jen Finer wrote this lovely ballad for Peace and Love. While it’s not my absolutely favorite track on that album (that would probably be the raucous, Spider Stacey-sung “Gartlony Rats”), it’s a sad and haunting piece set at (no surprise here) London’s Albert Bridge. The whole band summons up the sound of elegant heartbreak and MacGowan’s earnest vocal really makes the song ache. The lyrics are about a dream about being reunited with a lover at the titular bridge coupled with the hope that a reunion may happen someday. Apparently, this is a feeling that bands that tour extensively know all about.
5. Fairytale Of New York
First single from If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988), released as a single in 1987
Oh, you know, it’s hard not to rank this higher, but I’m going to rank it here and it’s largely because of the f-bomb when Kirsty MacColl is cursing out MacGowan in the second to last verse. I realize that the whole point of that verse is to reveal how ugly this couple has become to each other and that the word choice is deliberately nasty, but I also know a good number of LGBTQ folks who (quite correctly) take offense to the verse. Yes, times were different in 1987, but it ain’t 1987 anymore. Every time this song comes on the radio, the f-bomb as an insult is dragged up again and given airtime and that’s a crappy thing. Indeed, the s-bomb in MacGowan’s lyrics is also pretty hurtful. Like I wrote, I get that that’s the whole point of this verse – the couple has started having hurtful, awful yelling matches with each other – but that doesn’t change how giving it radio play in this century reinforces the slurs. In 1990, MacColl even sang it different – she sang “you’re cheap and you’re haggard” which might not have the punch of the original line, but captures the spirit and doesn’t normalize the slur.
The song is also a beautiful, painful look at the dissolution of a couple’s love from joy to bitterness to longing for the past to (if you loop back to the first verse at the end) optimism that things might get better. Its one of Shane MacGowan’s finest achievements both lyrically and musically as well as one of the late Kirsty MacColl’s great vocal performances. In 1987, the song ripped my heart out and still does when I listen to it as a piece of 80’s literature instead of a pop song (I think Huckleberry Finn, for example, shouldn’t be censored when read in class, but I also think it shouldn’t be read aloud on the radio every year at Christmas – know what I mean? Context is important).
Anyhow, part of me wants to rank this lower because I really am bothered by the word choices in 2018, but part of me also is still emotionally effected by this tale of love gone wrong. Thus, #5.
4. The Body of an American
From the Poguetry in Motion EP (1986)
“The Body of an American” is my favorite song from Poguetry in Motion and one of my top favorite Pogues songs ever. Indeed, this and the next three songs are among my favorite songs by any band. The three verse structure – in my reading – follow the life and death of the titular American (a boxer named “Big” Jim Dwyer) backwards from his wake, to his life in the United States, to his love and longing for Ireland. I believe that Dwyer was an Irish immigrant who longed to return home but ultimately wasn’t able to come back until he was sent home to be buried. The song starts at a funeral march pace and then turns into a raucous wake before ending a little more solemnly. It’s an uplifting, moving journey that captures quite a bit about the Irish immigrant experience in the United States. The context of the song suggests to me that it occurs during the first World War, but that’s just based on hints about the Irish-American immigrant experience.
3. A Pair of Brown Eyes
First single from Rum, Sodomy and The Lash (1985), released as a single in 1985
While there’s one MacGowan composition that I like more than “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” I also think that this is possibly McGowan’s greatest lyric. A young man has been jilted by his brown-eyed lover and he gets into a conversation with an old man who went through a war. The old man makes a connection between the brown eyes of a man who died next to him on the battlefield and the eyes of his own lover who didn’t wait for him while he was at war. At first the young man hates the old soldier, but once he realizes what they have in common, he gets falling-down drunk with the man and leaves the bar, almost unable to walk, the beautiful day reinforcing his sadness. My summary doesn’t do the lyric justice but I’m sharing it to point out what a perfect elegy for lost love MacGowan created here. The young man doesn’t necessarily sympathize with the old man’s war story, but their shared longing for lost love unites them. The order in which the old man tells his story suggests that losing his love was worse than all the other awful things that happened to him in the war. The men have very different life experiences but they’re united in heartbreak. The world doesn’t care about either of their experiences and the sun is going to keep on rising, I’m rambling. This song is gorgeous.
2. Sally MacLennane
Second single from Rum, Sodomy and The Lash (1985), released as a single in 1985
I closed almost every one of my radio shows with this song while I was a DJ at WRBC. It was the first song by the band that I feel in love with and remains one of my favorite songs to this day, Like “The Body of An American,” this track is about a man named Jimmy who leaves his hometown and returns alive but with the intent to die. Indeed, Jimmy literally drinks himself to death. “Sally MacLennane” is either a kind of stout or a woman and this is left deliberately up to the listener (not unlike in “Rainy Night in Soho – #11). The song is a joyous celebration of leave-taking – again, like in “The Body of An American.” The whole pub (the whole town?) is going to drink, sing and celebrate their departing friend. The sorrow of saying goodbye is mixed with the love of company and good times. Plus, there’s this great drum fill in the pre-chorus that I can listen to forever. Stone cold classic.
1. Thousands Are Sailing
U.S. only promo single from If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988), released as a single in 1988
When I finally realized what was happening in the first verse of this song, I couldn’t stop crying. I’m not going to spoil it, but it break my heart and makes me think not just of my ancestors journey from famine to the United States, but the journey of all immigrants and refuges who seek out the United States in the hopes of a better life for themselves. The second verse takes us more into the world of a modern Irish immigrant who celebrates his arrival in New York but is also alone. There’s a moment where they raise a glass to JFK and I can’t help but reflect on how the first Irish president was assassinated. By the time I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I never encountered anti-Irish sentiment except in old movies and TV shows, but that was only because of how several generations of Irish immigrants suffered and fought to be part of mainstream America. Don’t all immigrants to our shores deserve the same chance our ancestors received? We were hated for our religion, hated for our culture and hated for any other reason people wanted to hate us. We were taking jobs from them, we were doing the jobs they didn’t want to do. Our experience – our ancestor’s experience – was the same of that as immigrants in this century. Anyhow, this song invites us to reflect on that experience and ask if the United States really has ever been a welcoming country to those seeking freedom and a chance to create a better life. The answer, I think, is yes we do, but we’ve never offered paradise. That first verse, though…
Coming Soon: Maybe a little INXS, maybe a little ABC