Rum Sodomy And The Lash (1985), 7/10
If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988), 6.5/10
Peace And Love (1989), 6.5/10
Hell's Ditch , 6/10
Waiting For Herb , 5/10
Shane MacGowan: The Snake , 5/10
Pogue Mahone , 4/10
(Translated from my original Italian text by DeepL)
The Pogues were the progenitors of "rogue-folk," the folk-rock of punks, irreverent and fractious. Their jigs and reels played with the Sex Pistols' jaw-dropping panache and their tales of urban violence impressed the first significant turn to British folk since Donovan.
Lead singer Shane MacGowan was its "voice" in every sense of the word (musical and political), and unfortunately his personal vices (alcohol in particular) had a devastating effect on the course of the project. Those vices were certainly the reserve of energy, however, that energized first their live performances and then their records. The group evoked the style of Celtic folk quadrilles and saltarellos by sticking to the traditional instrumentation of acoustic guitars, banjo, mandolin, concertina, and bagpipes. Then they dynamited everything with the heinous flair of drunken hooligans.
The lineup included James Fearnley (accordion), Cait O'Riordan (bass), Peter "Spider" Stacy (singing and whistling), Jeremy Max Finer (guitar and banjo), and Andrew Ranken (drums). MacGowan, Fearnley, and Stacy had met in London pubs and formed the band there, which was therefore Irish only genetically speaking. Although the group rarely performed traditional tunes, the Pogues actually assimilated the authentic spirit of that music, as raw and wild as elegant and polished was English folk (which eventually imposed its own aesthetic code on Celtic folk as well). The Pogues recaptured centuries-old rage and irreverence, as well as heavy doses of alcohol, sex, and good humor (somewhat as rock and roll had recaptured those of the blues, another music of an oppressed and colonized people).
The EP Red Roses For Me (Stiff, 1984) foreshadowed the shocks to come especially in Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go, Boys From The County Hell, Dark Streets Of London.
Rum Sodomy And The Lash (Stiff, 1985) unleashed the luciferous spirit of the lineup, but at the same time showcased the melodic talents of the leader and the tight, spectacular arrangements of the others. The group scampered with ease between ballads (A Pair Of Brown Eyes and The Old Main Drag) and dances (the festive Sally MacLennane, the almost tribal instrumental Wild Cats Of Kilkenny, and especially the wildly wild The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn).
The EP Poguetry In Motion (Stiff, 1986) demonstrated the eclecticism of their dramaturgy, capable of ranging from the jovial (the Cajun nursery rhyme of London Girl, complete with accordion) to the martial (the saltarello of A Rainy Night In Soho, which begins with a waltz) and the epic (the ballad Body Of An American, with orchestral arrangement). The Pogues were now eight strong and spared no instruments. O'Riordan had left the group to marry Elvis Costello, but Terry Woods had taken over on banjo and Darryl Hunt had replaced O'Riordan.
If I Should Fall From Grace With God (Pogue Mahone, 1988) also excels as much on the tragic side as on the comic. The group chisels out as much in the solemn piano and violin psalm of Fairytale Of New York (a duet with Kirsty MacColl) and the epic ballad Thousands Are Sailing (which could become the anthem of immigrants everywhere) as in the martial fanfare of the title track, the wild Tex-Mex of Fiesta, the Middle Eastern mazurka of Turkish Song Of The Damned, the jazzy instrumental Metropolis. In almost every track there is at least an echo of the characteristic "military" flute fanfare.
Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, a 1988 single, represented a novelty in that it imitated Tamla Motown soul classics, complete with horns and choruses.
Peace And Love (Island, 1989) took advantage of the group's state of grace and broadened the stylistic front even further. The record is thus a collage that includes as much the "televised" instrumental of Gridlock as the calypso of Blue Heaven, and culminates perhaps in the poignant waltz of Misty Morning Albert Bridge (written by Jem Finer). In general, jigs and reels are better blended into a rock structure this season, which produces harmonies in keeping with the folkrock sensibility of the 1960s. White City and Lorelei are two of the best ballads of their career.
This is where the group's classic season effectively ended. Hell's Ditch (Island, 1990) still boasts some fun cues (the pretty flute and accordion refrains that enliven Sunny Side Of The Street and Rain Street), but it is played in a distracted manner, as if the musicians had recorded it in separate venues. The eclecticism is always disruptive, capable of marrying soundtracks for westerns (Hell's Ditch), cocktail lounge jazzrock (Summer In Siam, nostalgic saxophone and dreamy piano), world-music and folk-rock in a somewhat haphazard way, but without finding the right balance. A few years earlier it would have been a masterpiece.
Confirming the crisis, the group ousts MacGowan. That MacGowan was the mastermind (albeit drunk) of the operation is evidenced by the first album without him, Waiting For Herb (Chameleon, 1993), which flounders in unfunny world music (Girl From The Wadi Hammamat, Drunken Boat), almost accidentally stumbling upon the memorable refrain (Tuesday Morning). Perhaps the Pogues feel squeezed into a dead end and are trying to get out of it by broadening their genre from Irish folk to world folk.
Instead, Shane MacGowan releases The Snake (ZTT, 1994 - WB, 1995), which, without being a masterpiece, makes it clear who had the genius in the Pogues. Indeed, the album is a typical unrepentant Pogues-esque rambling, hymning a blissfully unhinged existence. What holds sway is the character's wit (rather than the musician's talent), which runs rampant from the vitriolic rampage of Church Of The Holy Spook to the unworthy shenanigans of A Mexican Funeral In Paris. That Woman's Got Me Drinking and Song With No Name do not make the old group regret its existence. MacGowan sports the same insight to compose the folk ballad as a chronic drunk to find the whiskey bottle.
The Pogues' lineup changes again with the departure of accordionist James Fearnley and banjo player Terry Woods. Pogue Mahone (Warner, 1995 - Mesa, 1996) promotes Spider Stacey to vocals (to replace Shane MacGowan).
Streams of Whiskey (Castle Music, 2002) is a live album.
MacGowan died in 2023 at the age of 65.