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Ok. So it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted one for this series, well over three months for sure. And this is another that I didn’t know was a cover for the longest time. The Pogues recorded “Dirty old town” for their second album, 1985’s “Rum, sodomy, and the lash”, and it’s here that I’ve heard and sung along to these words countless times.
It was originally written in 1949 by actor, poet, playwright and songwriter, Ewan MacColl, who is, incidentally, the father of Kirsty MacColl. (I’m sure you all see the connection.) He wrote it for one his plays, “Landscape with chimneys”, as an ode of sorts to Salford, the town of his birth. He later recorded it in 1952 and it has become a folk classic, apparently covered dozens and dozens of times. Perhaps it was most famously done by The Dubliners in 1976, whose version (check it here) was upbeat and raucous, with banjos, fiddles, and shout along vocals, and likely influenced that of The Pogues.
MacColl’s original, at least the recording in the video below, is by contrast scratchy and hissing and full of cobwebs, sounding forgotten in the darkest corner of your grandparents’ attic. It is a soft strum on the guitars, almost an afterthought to the sorrowful vocals, MacColl warbling all over the place. It is only 2 minutes 45 but feels a whole lot longer.
The Pogues’ cover is also sad but decidedly more upbeat. It is not hoarse and roaring like The Dubliners do it, nor as punk-influenced as other tunes in The Pogues back catalogue. It is a song to sway to with a frothy pint in hand, the band off in the pub’s corner, a harmonica crying sadly, the mandolin waffling and sniffling, the fiddles creaking like a squeaky old door, and Pogues’ vocalist Shane MacGowan slurring roughly, as he is wont to do. All in all, there’s plenty of memories and regret in each note and tap on the drums.
So in sum, I think all three of the versions here are great but the one by The Pogues is my preference. Thoughts?
For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.