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