Irish Group Reframes Traditional Celtic Music
This past summer, I made my first trip to Ireland.
Coming from a family that is 100 percent Irish Catholic, my siblings and I were programmed from very early on that we’d all have to make our own personal hajj to visit the home country. Sometime, somehow, we’d all have to visit a place for which the connection remains subtle and yet very real.
Being that one side of my family has been kicking around this side of the Atlantic for at least two generations (and the other side for far longer), I’d assumed growing up that many of the unique Irish attributes that we had were essentially beltsanded off through assimilation into American life.
Our links to Ireland, while given much lip service in the family, often seemed far removed and sometimes tenuous for me. It was an identity that I struggled to identify with.
So, my two weeks criss-crossing Ireland offered more than just adventure and history lessons. It offered me a chance to engage a form of Irish culture that I’d always struggled with in particular: Irish music.
My mission was important to me, but it was a nebulous one. Of course, I knew I’d hear the music in all the pubs. While I knew that I could say that I’d seen it and heard it, the greater question I put to myself was what else I would take back with me.
I knew and loved this stuff already — Ireland’s gifts to rock and pop. Your Sinead O’Connors, Thin Lizzies, Cranberries or Corrs. But, traditional Irish music was my main stumbling block. My understanding of Irish music was formed by the New Age-y sounding, pseudo-Celtic crap that my mother used to put on when us kiddies went off to bed. With eerie tin whistles playing ghoulishly in our dreams, the music was a psychological torture very similar to the Marines who played heavy metal tunes to drive Manuel Noreiga out of an embassy. This was the stuff that the Chieftains or Tommy Makem would find kind of weird.
So, it was during my trip that I found my long-sought-after answer. I discovered the Pogues. Sure, I was 20 years after the fact, but it was all new to me. Sometime and somewhere during the trip, I heard a hook of a song by these largely forgotten post-punk heroes of the ’80s and I was mesmerized. All memories of my mother’s freaky music were drowned out. Here was a group that could weave core components of Irish music — traditional instruments, ragtag melodies sung with slurred accents and mischievous spirit — with an Anglo-American thrust and rhythm of rock that I could relate to. The Pogues offered a bridge between the traditional and the modern and between the Irish and the American (where punk was really born). No greater an authority than Bob Geldof has said much the same thing, albeit much more stridently.
The man chiefly responsible for this compelling hybrid is singer Shane MacGowan. A legendary figure, MacGowan is a charismatic frontman with an unusual physical appearance (missing teeth, once super skinny, but now bloated) and drink and drug-addled reputation. MacGowan was a scenster at Year One of English punk, giving him credentials few others can boast. All of this serves to obscure the fact that MacGowan is above everything, a songwriter and storyteller of the first order. The Pogues have had a number of important contributors come through its volatile lineup (Spider Stacy, Jem Finer and Philip Chevron, among others), but MacGowan has always been perceived as the group’s central focus.
The group’s best albums — “Rum Sodomy & The Lash” and “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” — are their earliest because they most feverishly articulate MacGowan’s musical and lyrical ideas.
As most musicologists and historians have pointed out, folk songs from the British Isles played a crucial role in the development of American music forms (blues, folk, country and rock). In the Pogues’ music, you can hear the distinct elements that birthed new genres merged together with their descendants. For music fans, these are the kind of tunes that inspire curiosity because it muddies the water so that one can’t tell if MacGowan and company are taking those aspects from traditional songs or recycling something that they heard on a Clash record.
A prime example is “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” which is a spry, locomotive rhythm of accordions and fiddles that lunges forth as MacGowan plays the kind of howling hellraiser that a young Johnny Cash would drink with. MacGowan is equally overflowing with punkish attitude during the fast-paced “Sunny Side Of The Street” despite the presence of a tin whistle and mandolin. Not very punk rock, but it’s wild and brilliant.
The Pogues were also capable of conjuring music of stunning beauty. There’s the lovely ballad, “A Pair Of Brown Eyes,” in which MacGowan sings as a bereaved and traumatized soldier haunted by a vanished love while the sounds of a wheezy accordion, tin whistle and banjo give him some support. The song deftly avoids sounding syrupy and yet has the emotional sting that should put a lump in your throat if you’ve ever known a lass with a pair that you can’t escape.
At the same time, the group’s most famous song is “Fairytale Of New York,” a boozy, screwball song about immigrants that celebrates the Yuletide and love in all its un-glamorousness.
The reaction that the band received at the time was wildly enthusiastic. The group was a legendary live act (if for MacGowan’s inebriated carousing as well as musical transcendency) and several singles had a noticeable impact on the British charts (to a lesser extent in the U.S.). The Pogues also drew the attention from other master songwriters like Elvis Costello and the Clash’s Joe Strummer. Both made important contributions to the band’s career (Costello produced “Rum Sodomy & The Lash” before marrying the group’s bass player and Strummer replaced MacGowan for a spell when he proved too erratic.)
It was MacGowan’s demons that eventually sank the group’s fortunes. According to reports, his unreliability caused the band to muff a number of high-profile opportunities. More importantly, his songwriting seemed to lack the spark of early days by decade’s end.
MacGowan eventually was dismissed or left (take your pick) in the early ’90s and the rest of the Pogues unwisely decided to continue recording and touring. The band did achieve limited success for a while but eventually retired in the mid-’90s.
The Pogues themselves seem determined to fight that perception. The group members, who first reunited with MacGowan in 2001, are right now in the middle of a string of sold-out club dates along the East Coast (Could it be a coincidence between this week-long reunion and St. Patrick’s Day?)
Despite the obvious opportunism involved, perhaps, there’s no better time than on St. Patrick’s Day for the band to reach out to the American audience. With their Irishness uppermost on their mind (even if that literally means a plastic, green leprechaun derby on their head), fans will surely get value in seeing the Pogues play their old songs. The band is still bridging a clear disconnect, giving a musical introduction and reintroduction that, in my case, helped me connect things in a way I never thought possible: They connected my American life with my Irish roots.
Note: For an introduction into the Pogues’ music, I would recommend early albums like “If I Should Fall From Grace With Good” or “Rum Sodomy & The Lash” — both of which have recently been re-released in remastered form. For a good overview of the band’s catalog, check out “The Essential Pogues” or the double-disc “The Ultimate Collection.”
For More Info:
- The Pogues: In The Wake Of Medusa (Official Site)
- Paddy Rolling Stone: The Official Shane MacGowan Website
- Jer’s Pogues Pub (Unofficial)
- The Parting Glass: An Annotated Pogues Lyrics Page (Unofficial)
- Irish Soul Stew: The Pogues (Unofficial)
- The Pogues (Unofficial)
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.