So, who here knew that there was currently a global vote going on to determine the “New 7 Wonders of the World”? In all honesty I was pretty ambivalent when I first found about it. Leaving aside the fact that I don’t really trust a majority vote to determine the 7 new cultural site that best represent our planet, it also seems more than a little bit forced: fundamentally people know what they consider to be the true wonders of the world already, so “formalising” it is really little more than a PR gimmick, as well as being a godawful waste of time and money. Then I had a thought. On January 1, 2007, how about 6 architectural wonders get announced, with the surprise 7th wonder of the modern world being none other than Shane MacGowan, frontman of iconic Irish band, The Pogues. OK, so at first hearing it sounds a little far-fetched. But let’s look at some of the man’s qualifications.
1. He’s absolutely synonymous with modern Irish music. U2 may be better known, and Bob Geldof may be a better stereotype of the pissed of Irishman railing against the world, but The Pogues have contained more elements of Irish folk music in their albums over the years than any other band with a comparable level of success.
2. While he may not be as old as the Pyramids of Giza, those Easter Island statues or the Colosseum, he’s in a similar condition. He’s got very few teeth, has been drinking since age 5, when his aunt made a deal with him whereby he then wouldn’t worship the devil (the boat may have sailed on that one, although such allegations remain unsubstantiated).
3. In spite of this he retains a certain grandeur, and he’s certainly one of the great modern anti-icons. In an era when appearance and packaging has regrettably become ever more important in popular music, he’s the last man standing fighting for the right to look terrible, have what could politely be described as an occasionally tuneless voice, and behave shockingly.
4. The guy, to all intents and purposes, simply is the stereotype of Ireland. Ask someone what they think when they hear “Ireland”, and if you don’t hear “alcohol” within 5 seconds then you’ve probably found someone who got confused with Iceland or something.
You’ll notice that this is allegedly a review of an album by The Pogues, meaning that in some of your eyes I may have missed the point in talking about Shane MacGowan. While that may seem like a valid argument, the fact is that MacGowan is inseparable from his band, just as his band are inseparable from Ireland (which is ironic, as he was in fact born in England). Rum, Sodomy and The Lash
is widely regarded as being the band’s best work, with If I Should Fall From Grace With God
being the only other album by the band that even comes close. The first crucial thing to note about the album is the quality of MacGowan’s songwriting on it. Although 6 out of the 12 songs are either written by contemporary artists or taken from traditional Irish music, songs such as the frenzied The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn
feature the band at their very best, bringing the smoke-filled atmosphere of the Irish pubs of the past straight out of your speakers. Like many of the other highlights on the album, the music provides a perfect counterpart to MacGowan’s near-snarled lyrics, with all sorts of fiddles making the choruses eminently danceable. While the opening track sees The Pogues in fighting mood, however, it would be completely wrong to say that it epitomises the album. A Pair of Brown Eyes
is comfortably one of the most famous songs that the band have ever made, and sees MacGowan crooning in a way that is more reminiscent of Tom Waits than anyone else. While it may be stretching the point to call MacGowan the Irish equivalent of Bob Dylan, not to mention the fact that it breaks the first commandment of sputnikmusic, “Thou shalt not call anyone the new Bob Dylan”, it’s a comparison that often gets made, and listening to songs such as this and Dirty Old Town
it’s not overly hard to see why, although Dylan’s music tends not to be used in pub sing-alongs.
When MacGowan does take a break from lead vocals, it comes not so much as a surprise as a reminder that the late Kirsty MacColl, most famous for her singing on Fairtyale Of New York
was an exceptionally fine singer in her own right. I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day
is an outstanding example of this, even if the lyrics, including “So be easy and free when you're drinking with me, I'm a man you don't meet every day” take the central theme of the band’s music to a level that would perhaps verge on parody if it didn’t work so exceptionally well. In spite of the fact that MacGowan can often sound so gruff, what differentiates this album from the rest of their back catalogue is the fact that their music here can be genuinely quite touching for a lot of the time, contrary to the popular image of them. Indeed, on Dirty Old Town
this nostalgic atmosphere becomes elevated to new heights, with the simple chorus bringing remarkable melancholy into the centre of a quite remarkable album.
With Elvis Costello on production duties for Rum, Sodomy and The Lash
, it was inevitable that there were going to be punk influences running as a central theme to the music found here. On the version of traditional song Jesse James
, the constant string section provides a perfect setting for the hoarse rendition of the story of the Irish bandit shot in the back after a life of crime. With MacGowan stepping away from the microphone again, the song is loaned further impetus, as a younger man condemns “those dirty little cowards” for killing the noble Jesse James. Although it’s always tempting to portray Irish culture as being perpetually occupied with the troubles that have blighted the country, it really is quite challenging to read the combination of the band’s version of the song combined with Costello’s production as not serving as some sort of commentary.
and The Gentleman Soldier
both fall into the category of The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn
with the second of these featuring MacGowan singing in at least three different personas, including one that is presumably meant to be a middle-aged woman (and believe me, that is something you want to hear). Billy’s Bones
is more of a straightforward romp with the band’s punk/folk leanings being very firmly, and quite undeniably, on display. Like several of the songs on the album MacGowan’s lyrics somehow manage the trick of being near indecipherable, and yet perfectly conveying the message that he’s trying to get across. Not an achievement that many people can pull off, and certainly not one that can normally done while conveying the same sense of wilful exuberance. The album’s final track, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda
, however, is utterly different. The most obvious comparison is with the 13 minute ending to Highway 61 Revisited
, Desolation Row
, and there’s really no higher praise that can be offered except to say that the comparison is valid. More so than any other song on the album, it’s pretty much entirely carried by MacGowan, expounding on the utter futility of war, particularly the infamous battle at Gallipoli in the First World War. While he never had the biggest range, or the best technical voice, in terms of bitter frustration there are few vocal performances that better the 8 minute epic album-closer.
Having thought about it, it really isn’t such a hare-brained idea to make Mr. MacGowan one of the 7 new wonders of the world. I outlined some of the key reasons earlier, but the most crucial reason can be found in this album. With the exception of the atrocious instrumental, Wild Cats of Kilkenny
, there are few, if any, flaws that can be pointed to with Rum, Sodomy and The Lash
. More varied than many people give it (and the band) credit for, and yet containing the wit and nostalgia that The Pogues are renowned for, it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s one of the great albums ever to come out of the British Isles.