Let’s set the record straight first of all. The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York is without a doubt the best Christmas song there’s ever been, and likely ever will be. The 1987 classic is often highlighted for its dry, humorously dark take on Christmas, full of alcoholism and drug addiction, and features the most fractious relationship in pop duet history. “Happy Christmas your arse / I pray God it’s our last” may be the line that everyone remembers, but it’s the crushingly down-to-earth, cynical regrets of call-and-response line “I could have been someone / Well so could anyone!” that really tugs the heartstrings. It’s a beautiful song, perfectly produced and arranged and is rightfully on track to compete for this year’s Christmas number one, 25 years after it narrowly and wrongly missed out on the title to a vapid Elvis cover by the Pet Shop Boys.
But for many, Fairytale of New York is where their knowledge of The Pogues begins and ends. Skewed by the stereotype-enforcing image of sometimes drunken, shambling and warbling frontman Shane MacGowan, many miss the beauty, poetry and keen political charge of The Pogues’ wonderful back catalogue. MacGowan may well be an alcoholic, but at his best, he’s also a genius.
When The Pogues first appeared on the scene in the early 1980s, they arrived like a hurricane. MacGowan, an Irish punk living in London, pulled together a band whose ability as technically marvellous traditional folk musicians was matched by their raucous live energy and politically astute punk ethics. Teetering on the brink of collapse with every note, The Pogues’ working class liberalism was a perfect match for their punk-infused-folk tunes, a stark contrast to the safe, sanitised synth-pop that dominated the airwaves that decade.
While banjo runs and tin whistle airs collided heroically against punk rock screams, MacGowan’s unique, wry lyrics are where the real magic of The Pogues lays. It’s often overlooked how evocative a storyteller MacGowan can be. Whether documenting a surreally drunken, liberating dream encounter with Irish Republican Brendan Behan in Streams of Whiskey to the solemn, seedy dissolution of big city life in The Old Main Drag, MacGowan’s romantic style deserves to be as revered as Bob Dylan’s lyrical work.
MacGowan’s alcoholism and drug addiction would eventually lead to the band’s demise in 1996, and while the albums Waiting for the Herb and Pogue Mahone (written following MacGowan’s 1992 departure) are still wonderful, they lack the bite and vitriol of MacGowan-era Pogues, a spark the band only reclaimed once they began reuniting with the troubled frontman once more for their shows since 2001.
The Pogues first three albums however (1984’s Red Roses for Me, 1985’s Rum Sodomy & the Lash and 1987‘s If I Should Fall from Grace with God) are absolute gems. Fairytale of New York may well be the hit, but no self-confessed punk or folk fan’s record collection is complete without those choice Pogues cuts. Likewise, as a live band The Pogues are still a force to be reckoned with; even as men of advancing years, their annual Christmas and St Patrick’s Day shows are the stuff of legend, joyous riots that all fans of live music should experience at least once.
If you’re still not sure where to start, here’s a handful of our favourite Pogues songs.
If I Should Fall From Grace With God
“If I should fall from grace with God where no doctor can relieve me / If I’m buried ‘neath the sod but the angels won’t receive me / Let me go boys”
The Pogues at their very finest in our opinion: a wild song of proud Irish nationalism and rebellion, there’s anger, hope and euphoria all scrunched tight as a fist as MacGowan decries centuries old British influence over Northern Ireland, and highlights the little-known plight of Irish slaves during the colonisation of America. A live highlight.
The Old Main Drag
“In the cold winter nights the old town it was chill / There were boys in the cafes who’d give you cheap pills / If you didn’t have the money you’d cajole and you’d beg / There was always lots of tuinol on the old main drag”
A sad, reflective (arguably autobiographical) tune from MacGowan documenting an Irish immigrant’s disillusionment and decline upon arriving in London’s “Big Smoke”. The Old Main Drag in question is the Red Light District of Soho and/or Kings Cross, areas of the capital that even today are where you end up when you fall through the cracks of London society. Keep an ear out for that sustained, discordant note at the end; chilling stuff.
The Body of an American
“He fought the champ in Pittsburgh and he slashed him to the ground / He took on Tiny Tartanella and it only went one round”
Perhaps best known now for appearing at the close of hit TV show The Wire, The Body of an American sees MacGowan tearing through one his fastest, funniest and also saddest lyrics. Describing the manic attempts to have an Irish national repatriated upon his death in the USA, it turns to farce as the mourners get a bit too “piskey”. Jim Dwyer, the dead man in question, lead a troubled life that saw him pulled from his native Ireland to become a pro boxer, making loads of cash before having his reputation ruined for refusing to throw a match. It’s riveting stuff if you can keep up with MacGowan’s fast-paced delivery.
“”Come on you rambling boys of pleasure and ladies of easy leisure / We must say adios until we see Almeria once again!”
Written in tribute to a four day party in the middle of a desert the band had while filming the movie Straight to Hell (incidentally one of the maddest films of all time), it’s the sort of soundtrack few parties can ever live up to. To have been on that particular four day bender would have been quite an experience, if this song is anything to go by.
“We walked him to the station in the rain / We kissed him as we put him on the train / And we sang a song of times long gone / Though we knew that we’d seeing him again”
A bit more ambiguous this one, describing the life and times of both a pub and a guy named Jimmy, who goes off to seek his fortune only to return home to find his his old way of life (and those who inhabited it) no longer exist. It also sings of some of the best qualities of the Irish people, not least the hope they’re able to express even upon the loss of someone dear. With the whole song able to be viewed as a metaphor for an Irish wake, it’s joyful rather than sorrowful.
Thousands Are Sailing
“Ah, no says he twas not to be, on a coffin ship I came here / And I never even got so that they could change my name”
We’ll throw this one in as a bonus, as it’s not written by MacGowan, but by Pogues guitarist Phil Chevron. Another beautifully evocative tale and tune, it tells of “the ghosts” of the Irish that “haunt the waves” following the mass migration to the United States over the centuries.