Sometimes when I'm lying awake in bed, late at night, looking up at the vaulting cerulean to all the twinkling stars beyond, my consciousness overwhelmed by the vast expanse of space, I wonder about life and death and what it all means. What in essence are we? The other thing that concerns me is where the f*ck has my ceiling gone? Which brings us to The Pogues and an English public school boy singing punk songs in an adopted Irish accent, backed by traditional Irish folk instrumentation. It is all wrong. But in the great scheme of things, it just doesn't matter. It works.
Compared to the more traditional Irishness found in "Rum, Sodomy and The Lash" or the transatlantic feel of "If I Should Fall From Grace With God", their debut album "Red Roses For Me" works in particular because it deals with the experience of the economic Irish emigrant abroad, mainly in London's dark streets, but also around the UK on the railways, in prison, even working in Greenland and seeking their fortune in America.
But it is the spectre of London especially that looms over this record. The first song Transmetropolitan
reads like a monopoly board (Kings Cross, Brixton, Hammersmith, Camden, Whitehall, Surrey Docks, Somers Town, Soho, Tottenham Court Road, Mill Lane and Pentonville Road) as Shane MacGowan rampages drunkenly like a tornado through "this town I love so well", as well as threatening to storm its institutions such as the GLC (Greater London Council), the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) and the BBC. It is a gloriously vivid opening to the album, sustained throughout by a booming bass drum played faster than a machine gun.
These songs capture perfectly a moment in time; London in the early 80s, still reeling from its recent encounter with punk, swirls full of anger and energy, but also almost at war with itself as it struggles economically with record high unemployment. MacGowan revisits his time at a homeless hostel at Arlington House in Camden, lambasting "this town that has bled us dry" and threatens to "burn this city down". But there is always an ambivalence here. In Sea Shanty
he croons sentimentally of "dear dirty London in the pouring rain"; in Dark Streets Of London
he eulogises "dear dirty old drunken delightful old London"; and in Down In The Ground Where Dead Men Lay
he returns to Hammersmith after a trip to the old country as if returning to a sanctuary.
In the riotously exhilarating Streams Of Whisky
MacGowan dreams of drinking with Brendan Behan (an Irish playwright and notorious carouser) and relates being carried out drunk from Chelsea football club. If these songs read as if they could have been scripted by Behan himself, The Auld Triangle
about wasting your life in prison was. Like Behan, MacGowan treads close to the stereotype of the drunken Irish paddy with his tales of drinking, fighting and erm more drinking: "lend me ten pounds and I'll buy you a pint" he begs in Boys From The County Hell
; "I'll walk into a bar and drink 15 pints of beer" he boasts in Streams of Whisky
; "I drank 10 pints of beer and cursed all the people there" he snarls in Waxie's Dargle
. Perhaps he saves himself from the stereotype with his literary pretensions, with nods not just to Brendan Behan, but Sean O'Casey, Flann O'Brien and James Joyce. The wit and humour help as well. In Sea Shanty
he confesses acerbically "a man's ambition must indeed be small/To write his name upon a sh*thouse wall/But before I die I'll add my regal scrawl/To show the world I'm left with sweet f*ck all".
It says much that despite numerous traditional songs (Waxie's Dargle, Poor Paddy, Greenland Whale Fisheries and Kitty
) it is MacGowan's own compositions that captivate with his lowlife tales of pubs, bookies, drugs, pimps and whores. The Pogues chose to reflect this world not by some quaint outmoded arrangements, but made it their business to give traditional Irish music some much needed balls, sounding like The Dubliners thrown into a blender with The Clash. As for MacGowan, an ugly man with rotten stumps for teeth, bat ears and a general air of dishevelment, the sheer force of his personality forced the media and the music business to re-evaluate its obsession with beauty and elevated him into somewhat of an alternative and unlikely icon.