Anyone who has caught “Reeling in the Years,” RTE’s knock-off of the BBC’s “The Rock’n'Roll Years”, in which contemporary music is spliced in with archive news footage would quickly be reminded that Ireland in the 1980s was a basket case. Moving statues, hunger strikes, mass emigration, and Miami Vice-style jackets all featured prominently in the nation’s tortured psyche. An ineffable sense of shame pervaded as it seemed that anybody with any ambition or education was heading for the airport. Even the music seemed to aspire to be elsewhere: U2, which I remember as being an ineluctable soundtrack of my teenage years, were deep into their American Sublime period at the time, with Bono hollering about desert landscapes and Martin Luther King. We would gladly have joined him, if only we could get a Green Card.
And then the Pogues came along and told us to get over ourselves.
“Rum Sodomy & the Lash”, which emerged in the middle of the decade, represents the creative peak of the Pogues, which hinged on the talent of the band’s musicians and the genius of Shane MacGowan. The title of genius is a bedraggled laurel at this stage, but it rests easy on MacGowan’s head. What he achieved was to create, or recreate, a particular atmosphere, a bastard hybrid of Brendan Behan’s offhand learning and Irish traditional music’s love of tragedy and sentiment. This world encompassed the piss-soaked streets of Kilburn and Soho, the shell-pocked shores of Gallipoli, and hazy memories of a pastoral Ireland that may never have existed. Despite the diversity of their locations (and the fact that some of the songs were written by others), MacGowan imbued each song with his own death-haunted bravado, in which the skull can be clearly seen behind the drunken grin.
The cover, one of the last great works of LP art before the diminutions of the CD age, set the tone for the content by reworking The Raft of the Medusa, Gericault’s mythical reinterpretation of the true story of shipwrecked survivors reduced to cannibalism. The original figures have been replaced by the band members in various states of distress, with a sepulchral MacGowan presiding over the mayhem. Like the music itself, the image can be interpreted at two levels. There’s the obvious joke in the portrayal of the ultimate hangover. However, with the theme of cannibalism suggested by the source, the picture of the children of emigrants also brings to mind Joyce’s dictum that “Ireland is the sow that eats its own farrow.”
And the shipwreck imagery is appropriate to the stories of abandonment, struggle, and the eventual disappearance of many of MacGowan’s protagonists. In “The Old Main Drag,” MacGowan’s opening line evokes a dark antithesis to the Dick Whittington tale: “When I first came to London I was only 16/With a fiver in my pocket and my ole dancing bag” What is brilliant about this line is the economy with which a character is evoked, especially with the enigmatic reference to the “ole dancing bag.” There’s an allusion to a certain grace bestowed to even the grimmest of scenarios by retaining a sense of aesthetics. Similarly, the hero in “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” is granted, courtesy of delirium tremens, a swansong worthy of a duke: “McCormack and Richard Tauber are singing by the bed”
Despite the degradation and the squalor, the characters’ humanity never disappears. This is partly through the judicious weaving of adapted traditional songs and original material. (The unassuming musical skill of the rest of the Pogues on these tracks works both ways–lending an authentic, almost diastolic rhythm to Pogue-penned songs while punching-up the traditional ballads–“Jesse James”, for example–into something that would keep the band’s notoriously raucous audiences stoked). Such tracks, whether about the plight of immigrant workers in “Navigator” or the abandoned pregnant girl in “The Gentleman Soldier,” work because their folk qualities make the suffering they describe seem authentic. And MacGowan’s sureness with lyrics allowed him to mirror these emotions, whether exuberant or melancholy, without it ever seeming a pose. The final lines from A Pair of Brown Eyes sound as though they were written by some obscure soldier-poet in the wake of the Great War–they’re at once vivid and distant:
And I heard the sounds of long agoFrom the old canalAnd the birds were whistling in the treesWhere the wind was gently laughing And a rovin’ a rovin’ a rovin’ I’ll goFor a pair of brown eyes
The album’s bipolar behaviour, shifting between different moods and tenses was what struck so many when it was released in the 1980s. In one way it was out of sync with the surrounding music scene (Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits was the bestselling album of that year) yet it captured something subterranean that was being picked up by a handful of other artists (The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead would be released six months later). Economics and the market were telling us we would have to clean up our act; respectability and affluence would become our polestars in the 1990s. But the Pogues were here to tell us they wouldn’t forget what we were really like:
And they’ll take you from this dump you’re in and stick you in a boxThen they’ll take you to Cloughprior and shove you in the groundBut you’ll stick your head back out and shout “we’ll have another round” [The Sickbed of Cuchulainn]