Best albums of 1988: #1 The Pogues “If I should fall from grace with god”

Yeah. These guys. You know them. You love them.

Though it’s likely they didn’t actually invent the whole Celtic folk punk genre, The Pogues certainly popularized it, inspiring a whole boatload of next generation musicians to form bands like Flogging Molly, The Dropkick Murphys, and The Mahones. Interesting, then, that the group was formed in London, rather than Dublin, and only ever included two Irish born members in their large and rotating contingent.

Getting started in 1982 with original members Shane MacGowan, Spider Stacy, and Jem Finer, their name evolved out of an anglicisation of ‘póg mo thóin’, celtic for ‘kiss my arse’. The Pogues released a total of seven studio albums before calling it quits in 1996. However, for many, there’s only two albums in their catalogue (their second and third) that really mattered and between those two, the debate rages on over which is the superior.

For me, “If I should fall from grace with god” only just wins out over “Rum sodomy and the lash” and it is the mere presence of one great, transcendent song that will surely be discussed a little later that does the trick. Both albums are solid and complete albums. Where “Rum” is slightly more focused on the Celtic folk punk sound, however, “If I should fall from grace” branches out quite a bit more, dabbling and cavorting around the world of music. Many of the band’s contingent have also pointed to this album as their favourite and best, agreeing that nowhere else were they as on their game. And it’s true that as varied as the songs are across the track listing, nothing feels amiss or disjointed. An amazing feat considering the varied sounds and instrumentation that make up its whole and the contributions that included an additional eight musicians to the eight players that made up the band at that particular time.

There are fifteen tracks in total on “If I should fall from grace with god” from which I could have chosen my three picks for you, and one was a given, leaving me two. It was an onerous task but I perservered. You’re welcome.


“If I should fall from grace with god”: From what I’ve read, the title track on the album was originally recorded for the “Straight to hell” soundtrack, albeit at a slower speed. I’ve never heard it but don’t think I’d want to. The pace of the version on the album seems perfect to me, a rousing bar number that feels precariously close to shambles. And that’s the beauty of The Pogues, especially on this album, where the musicianship is so tight it feels loose and free. And I feel a lot of the credit has to go to the frontman at the time, the notorious Shane MacGowan, a deceptively great songwriter whose growling and screaming vocals create an energy all of their own. The rest of The Pogues’ cast can only help but follow along, navigating such speeds by the seats of their pants. “If I’m buried ‘neath the sod but the angels won’t receive me, let me go, boys.” Indeed, Shane, indeed.

“Thousands are sailing”: Starts off haunting with a pluck on the banjo and a hollow, echoing flute, sounding like they’re being played by the ghosts in the profound depths of the coffin ship’s hull. The music gets more spritely from there, gentle on the verses, just enough to urge MacGowan along with accordion melodies and incidental drumming, but picks up substantially at the choruses, drumming heavy handed and accordion, mandolin, and banjo becoming a hootenanny, almost drowning out the singing. Phil Chevron’s words as sung by MacGowan, though, never stray from the heartbreak, sowing the tale of thousands of Irish immigrants and of those who never actually survived the trip to the US shores. “Ah, no, says he, ’twas not to be. On a coffin ship I came here. And I never even got so far that they could change my name.”

“Fairytale of New York”: Not only is this now considered one of the all-time great Christmas tunes, ranking up there with Nat King Cole’s iconic “Christmas song”, Bing Crosby’s ubiquitous “Little Drummer Boy” duet with David Bowie, and Band Aid’s fundraising theme “Do they know it’s Christmas time”, but it’s also one of my all-time favourite Pogues tunes. At it’s heart, it’s a story of love that’s lost and found again on Christmas day, all brought to life by the excellent imagery of characters created in the juxtaposition of the rough and raucous voice of Shane MacGowan against the beautiful pipes of guest vocalist Kirsty MacColl. Her call and response banter, matching MacGowan’s snarl and rasp with just the right degree of attitude and defiance, really makes this song the classic that it is. Her disillusioned muse ‘character’ holds nothing back, even the love that she unbelievable still feels for the character of her drunken partner in MacGowan. The lyrics are grittier here than you would normally expect from a heartwarming Christmas tune but these just make the softer moments all the more mind blowing. Witness below:

Kirsty:
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you…

Shane:
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can’t make it all alone
I’ve built my dreams around you

Indeed, my wife Victoria loved these lyrics and the sentiment of building your dreams around someone you love so much that she insisted we work them into our own wedding vows almost 10 years ago. Who was I to argue?


In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”
9. Erasure “The innocents”
8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”
6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”
5. R.E.M. “Green”
4. Pixies “Surfer rosa”
3. The Waterboys “Fisherman’s blues”
2. The Wonder Stuff “The eight legged groove machine”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

100 best covers: #75 Madness “Lola”

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Madness were at the forefront of the so-called second wave ska/2-tone movement during the late 70s and early 80s. They quite possibly had the most hits of the lot and made the best go of it through the 80s, surviving until 1986 when they finally called it quits. The original lineup re-formed six years later but mainly as a live outfit, not recording any new material until 1999.

Then, in the early part of the 2000s, after more than two decades in existence, the group decided to refresh things a bit by doing shows that didn’t include any of their hits. Instead, they performed under the name The Dangermen, doing sets of only covers, songs that had inspired them, some of which they would do in their earliest days before any of their hits. In 2005, they put their favourite of these covers to tape, calling the ensuing album “The Dangermen sessions, volume 1”. The album was actually very good and has become one of my favourite by Madness. It captures the same energy and humour that exuded from a lot of their early work and produced many tracks that could have easily appeared on this very list.

The cover of The Kinks’ classic “Lola” is one of the examples on the album of songs that you almost can’t believe weren’t originally conceived as ska songs. It just works so seamlessly. Of course, the original does have that boppy and almost rocksteady rhythm, starting off so innocent like a young man, vocals wide-eyed, his first time in the city, but quickly becoming wild and swanky, a real party tune. Ray Davies’ humorous tale of a young man going home with a transvestite, albeit shocking and fodder for radio bans in some circles in the early 70s, fits almost right in with the subject matter of early songs by the jokesters of Madness.

Where the original alternates between plucking guitars and heavy handed drumming, Madness throws its whole arsenal at it. Horns and keyboards and backbone rumbling bass. Suggs keeps his own vocals even, not pushing the envelope, save for the final verse, where he switches to spoken word for the big reveal, making plain the section of the song that might have been faded out by radio stations on the original.

All in all, it’s a cover I’d be hard-pressed to say is better than the original but one that is great nonetheless.

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.

Best tunes of 1992: #28 The Stairs “Weed bus”

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My memory of this particular evening is even foggier than most of the ones from around that time. It could be that it’s from at least twenty five years ago now and that some of those nights out with friends and music sometimes blend together and I would hazard that perhaps there was some alcohol involved.* To be honest, I’m not even sure what year it was exactly (I am guessing ‘93 or ‘94) or even what season of the year, though I am thinking winter because I am remembering wearing cold sneakers and winter jackets piled high on chairs.

My friend Andrew Rodriguez was there because it was surely him that dragged us to that spot that night, and perhaps so was Tim or John, someone with wheels to bring us in to the big city. As to the where, that might be the foggiest of all because I haven’t a clue of the destination that night. Indeed, it was a ‘night’ that had migrated to a few places, the DJ bringing his dancers to wherever he landed. I think it might’ve been ‘Blow up’ or a precursor to it, one of those ‘dos that started late, say 11, and went even later. The venue for this particular event, though it goes nameless to me to this day, I remember as being off for a dance party, lots of tables and very little dance space, like it was a restaurant by day, lots of windows to look out at the city streets beyond.

At some point that night, I heard the shaking of the maracas (or what sounds to me like maracas) and placed this song from wherever I was and ended whatever conversation with whomever it was with and joined Rodriguez, who was already out on the tiny raised platform that served as a dancing space. I had to be quick because the song is a short one, clocking in at just over two minutes. Rodriguez and I jumped and jostled all over the place, matching the bass line and the arpeggiating and repetitive guitar hook, always being careful not to spill our beers. And at the same time, using said bottle to join the lead vocalist in channeling Mick Jagger in our minds. Of course, to everyone else it probably sounded more like yelling and screaming.

It was with this night in mind that I went back to the internets a decade or so ago to track down “The weed bus” by The Stairs. It was a song that I loved but had never, ever heard anything else by the group. With further digging, I learned that The Stairs were the trio of Edgar John, Ged Lynn, and Paul Maguire that held cult status in many circles and of course, I also unearthed the group’s lone album, 1992’s “Mexican R’n’B”.** And this whole album is wonderful stuff to me. The production is purposely lo-fi and recorded in Mono to capture the feel of all that 60s garage and psych rock that influenced them. And yeah, yeah, yeah, some might say that the virtual name-checking is too in-your-face but to that I say balderdash! The energy is just so great, how can you not but love it?

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.

* Before you start making some connections that aren’t there, the fuzzy memory had nothing to do with another stimulant not so subtly referred to in this song’s title.

** Those select few who are familiar with the group will already know that “Weed bus” was actually released on an EP of the same name in 1991 but I’m still including it here for 1992 because well, it’s my rules.