Off the Charts

The Pogues

When a band’s original name – Pogue Mahone – is an English spelling of the Irish for “Kiss My Arse,” you can expect some attitude. The concept was a unique combination of punk style and Irish traditional instrumentation. Who’d have guessed that an anti-establishment vocal snarl could go so well with banjo and tin whistle?

Punk singer Shane MacGowan famously met tin whistle player Spider Stacy in the bathroom at a Ramones concert in 1977. Stacy had a band called the Millwall Chainsaws, which MacGowan joined informally. In 1982, along with banjo player Jem Finer, they started Pogue Mahone. James Fearnley came on board with his accordion, having been the guitarist for MacGowan’s band The Nips. A year later, they hired Cait O’Riordan on bass and Andrew Rankin on drums.

The band gigged enough to get a solid reputation in the British punk scene and found themselves opening for the Clash on tour in 1984. That’s when they landed a record deal with Stiff Records and put out their first album. They were also required to change their name to the less incendiary “Pogues.”

While the debut release, Red Roses for Me (1984), gave a taste of the raging sarcasm fans would come to adore, about half the tracks were Irish trad songs in punk arrangements. British critics loved it, interpreting the raunchy energy as a profound understanding of the raw power of traditional tunes and a poke in the eye to the commercial establishment.

All the non-trad songs on the album are credited to MacGowan. (If you’re a fan of the hilariously twisted Warren Ellis/Darick Robertson comic book series Transmetropolitan, you’ll find the song that inspired it here. No accident that the comic’s main character is named Spider.)

“Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go” is another MacGowan composition. The eerie chime-like percussion that opens the track leaves you surprised when the song itself seems to be a cheery pub raise-the-roofer. But keep listening for the chilling screams at the end.

 

The Pogues were joined by a friend, guitarist Phil Chevron, at the Red Roses for Me sessions, although, ironically, only a little of his piano playing and none of his guitar licks made it onto the album. For their second endeavor, Rum Sodomy & the Lash (1985), Chevron was made a full member of the band. The unusual title is a snide recasting of a Winston Churchill quote, who once described naval tradition as “nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.”

This record, which was produced by Elvis Costello, is important as the source of what became a Pogues signature number, “Dirty Old Town” by Ewan MacColl, a Scots songwriter who specialized in devastating commentary on social reality. And if that’s not a tragic enough song for you, the Pogues kindly included Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” sung from the point of view of a soldier who loses both legs in battle.

And then there’s “Billy’s Bones,” by McGowan. It’s a frantic polka (a common tune type played in Irish pub sessions), sung so fast that you might miss what a strong anti-war statement it contains.

 

Both Chevron and MacGowan struggled with substance abuse, and neither made it through the 1987-88 band tour. The band temporarily fired Chevron, but let MacGowan’s no-show habit slide for the moment. Joe Strummer, of the Clash, stepped into the tour to replace both musicians at once, as guitarist and singer.

Chevron got his job back for the album If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988), which also saw bass player Darryl Hunt replace Cait O’Riordan. Terry Woods, of the innovative folk band Steeleye Span, joined the lineup, contributing virtuosic work on mandolin and cittern.

The biggest hit from the record was “Fairytale of New York,” which features guest vocals from Kirsty MacColl. Banjo player Jem Finer contributed more to the songwriting than in the past, including the high-octane instrumental march, “Metropolis”:

 

The band seemed to be longing to expand their influences, and the album Peace and Love (1989) shows them experimenting with music outside the trad Irish realm. The opening song, “Gridlock,” by Finer and Ranken, uses jazz harmonies. But maybe the most interesting offering is “Cotton Fields,” a MacGowan song inspired by American bluesman Leadbelly’s song with the same title. But one is hardly just an arrangement of the other.

Here’s the Leadbelly:

 

And here’s the re-conception by the Pogues, who turned it into an angry rant against society and an Irish/Cajun stylistic mashup. All they keep from the original is a line of the chorus:

 

Hell’s Ditch (1990) was the last album with MacGowan. His drinking had grown out of control, and when he missed some tour dates the band fired him. For the 1991-92 tour, lead singing duties were again handed over to Strummer. He never did record with the Pogues, however, and following the tour Stacy became the band’s singer.

It’s interesting to hear Terry Woods’ contribution, “Rainbow Man,” which is in a markedly different style from the rest of the album. The Pogues’ uniquely frenetic energy is still there, but it’s skewed now toward a bluegrass sound and a country-rock sensibility.

 

Waiting for Herb (1993) is the only album not to include any traditional Irish songs. Irish trad had birthed them, so maybe it’s fitting that their creative years were numbered once they left their musical mother behind.

Again they were on the hunt for other sounds. Bassist Hunt wrote a couple of songs on the album, including “Modern World” with its Middle Eastern riffs.

 

Sensing that it was the end, the band chose to name their 1996 album Pogue Mahone after their original band name, in defiant memory of being forced to change their name by Stiff Records back in 1984. (The record company had worried that the BBC wouldn’t risk offending Irish-speaking listeners with such coarse language.)

Defiance notwithstanding, the band was falling apart. For one thing, Jem Finer was itching to move on to other projects. The fans must have sensed the melt-down too, since this album tanked commercially.

Still, it’s an interesting piece of history as the final Pogues album. The most charming – and surprising — thing on it is this cover of Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In.”

 

While Pogue Mahone was the last Pogues album, it was not the end of the Pogues. In 2001 they regrouped, including MacGowan, and did on-again, off-again tours for the next decade and change. It might not have been pleasant, but it was lucrative. As McGowan once put it, “We’re friends as long as we don’t tour together.” They parked the tour trucks in the garage permanently in 2014.