Few bands have captured the exuberance of drinking whiskey in the way The Pogues have. Lew Guthrie III looks back to their first two albums
When The Pogues burst on to the music scene at the end of the punk era, nobody could make head nor tail of them.Fronted by a toothy pug-eared drunk and their ranks swollen by a bunch of sweaty boisterous youths who poured The Clash’s London all over traditional Irish music, the initial view was that they were a fun novelty act with a shelf life of about 10 minutes.It would take them some years and several albums before they would be respected for their musical talents, but by the time they recorded If I Should Fall From Grace With God and the now classic Christmas track AFairytale of New York they had moved off in to all sorts of exotic musical directions and that same pug-eared singer Shane MacGowan was being recognised as one of his generation’s greatest lyricists.Back in the early days though, The Pogues were a drinking band in general and a whiskey drinking band in particular and their music was soaked in it.Sure their second album was called Rum, Sodomy and The Lash, a reference to life in the British navy at the time of Napoleon, but the album’s contents were created in the fields of Ireland, finished off in Kilburn, North West London, and fuelled by Irish whiskey.Where The Pogues differ to some of the other artists we’ve put on these music pages is in the way they celebrate drinking rather than wallow in it. Like all Irish singers and poets they have their moments of course. A Pair of Brown Eyes, for instance, is from the same Irish stable as a million traditional laments, and many of their songs refer back to the times of poverty that have forced the Irish across the world.But the greater part of their early music in particular is a celebration. This is the sound of an Irish pub music session with the volume turned up and the controls on fast forward.Whether bashing each other over the head with beer trays or leading their audience through a rabid knees up, few bands can match them as a party band.The Best of The Pogues is a neat summary of the band’s career. It’s not in chronological order but it does show how the band matured musically from punk-folk roots to Spanish flamenco and Louisiana Cajun influences.By this time democracy had swept through the ranks, not necessarily for the better. And while MacGowan remained an essential element his influence was diminished.But Rum and its predecessor Red Roses For Me remain great drinking albums.Take any of the early whiskey songs and MacGowan almost certainly wrote them alone. Sick Bed of Cuchulainn, for instance, is a irreverent pan-European party romp, Boys From the County Hell, a shanty to poverty and the pub.But The Pogues were at their best when they were at their most celebratory. Take the joyous anthemic chorus of Streams of Whiskey for instance, a romp of a song carried by pipes and fiddles: I am going, I am going, Any which way the wind may be blowing, I am going, I am going Where streams of whiskey are flowing And better still, one of the best odes to a public house ever written, Sally MacLennane: Sad to say, I must be on my way, So buy me beer and whiskey cos I’m going far away (far away) I’d like to think I’ll be returning when I can To the greatest little boozer and to Sally Maclennane.At their best The Pogues were an untouchable live act.Few acts have ever celebrated drinking like them. And despite all the dire predictions, MacGowan remains very much alive and kicking.Bless you Shane.
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