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Music Review: The Pogues — If I Should Fall From Grace With God

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If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988) is what sometimes happens when you mix whiskey, heroin, punk rock, and traditional Irish music. Such a fortuitous confluence of musical synchronicity rarely occurs with such a volatile mixture, but on this album the Pogues stumbled into their magnum opus, and in the process created an entirely new subgenre of music. Certainly, The Pogues had used this lethal concoction previously, such as on the highly entertaining Rum Sodomy and the Lash (1985), but the band and their infamous leader, Irish poet of the gutter Shane MacGowan, crested a creative peak with If I Should Fall From Grace With God that they would never reach again, given that what fueled the album is what is generally credited with their sad demise.

But rather than focus on Shane MacGowan’s manic insistence on assuming the mantle of the stereotypical tortured Irish artist in search of a besotted Gaelic muse  — following, like Brendan Behan before him, a wanton path to an early death — let us instead focus on the music. Because, after all, MacGowan is not dead yet, and perhaps he, along with Keith Richards and cockroaches, will survive global warming, nuclear detonations, or whatever disaster will consume the rest of humanity.

This album is, indeed, The Pogues’ masterpiece, and certainly one of the best albums to come out of the miserably sterile 1980s. The 1970s ended with the stunning finality of Neil Young pounding the last nails in the coffin of 70s hard rock on Rust Never Sleeps (1979) and the 80s began with the bright promise and breathtaking intensity of Peter Gabriel’s Melt (1980), but with the onset of new wave, power pop, rap and made-for-MTV big-haired bands, there is very little to commend from this commercially canned, vilely pretentious, and compositionally vacuous decade. Music from the 1980s was, for the most part, like drinking lite beer and eating rice cakes: empty calories and no taste — as insubstantial as a fart in the wind.

But thank Bacchus that Shane MacGowan had better songwriting skills than dental hygiene! Few bands, punk or otherwise, were as original as The Pogues; in fact, you can count them on MacGowan’s teeth — if he has any left. And what goes better with traditional Gaelic music than drunken English Punks? Okay, I am being facetious, most  of The Pogues were Brits with a few scattered Irish expatriates added in (for instance, MacGowan was born in Kent but spent his youth in Tipperary); yet the influential manner in which The Pogues combined the snarling, nihilistic ‘punk ethic’ (a mutually exclusive term, I know) with the robust and rebellious nature of the Irish jig and reel, was the creative bedrock upon which later bands such as Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, Black 47, and Young Dubliners based their own assorted (or sordid) brands of rock in raucuous imitation of their brash exemplar.

Shane MacGowan’s poetic prowess is nowhere more apparent than on If I Should Fall From Grace With God. Now, I will issue a caveat regarding MacGowan’s vocal abilities: they are an acquired taste; after all, he does come from the Bob Dylan-Leonard Cohen-Tom Waits-Lou Reed school of grating non-singers who sing anyway. But he uses his drunken slurring and inebriate growls to such marvelous effect that his voice becomes transcendent, and an important aspect in the tales he tells. In a duet with the late Kirsty MacColl on “Fairytale of New York”, MacGowan created an enthralling, if morose, reflection on the effects of drugs and alcohol on a once-promising relationship.

The internal monologue of the down-and-out junkie sitting in a drunk tank on Christmas Eve recalling his lost love is painful and full of regret. This is definitely not your mother’s idea of a Christmas carol, but it is perhaps the greatest Christmas song ever written, particularly when one considers that although the Yuletide season is full of “dreaming of White Christmases” and “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, it is actually a tragic time as far as increased suicides and domestic turmoil.

The Pogues, long established as political rebels, voice their Irish Republican furor and dismay in such songs as “Streets of Sorrow”, sung by lute and banjo player Terry Woods, which details Northern Ireland during the time of The Troubles, while “The Birmingham Six” (sung by MacGowan) tells of the plight of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, Irish Nationals who were unjustly arrested and framed for murder and terrorism in Britain. The song was banned by Britain’s Independent Broadcasting Authority, until the two alleged terror groups’ convictions were overturned, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair was forced to offer a public apology. You may recognize the story of the Guildford Four if you’ve seen Daniel Day-Lewis in the Oscar-nominated In the Name of the Father.

Other highlights on If I Should Fall From Grace With God are “Turkish Song of the Damned”, “Medley” (“The Recruiting Sergeant”/”The Rocky Road to Dublin”/”The Galway Races”), the rousing “South Australia” (another sung by Terry Woods), and the manic sing-a-long “Bottle of Smoke”, which is about as hard-rocking a song as you can get, given the acoustic instrumentation. I suppose someone should have mentioned to Shane MacGowan that this spastic tune has no electric guitars, and that the leads are performed on an accordion. Never mind, I am sure Shane was too drunk to even notice that there was music playing behind him. For an added bit of pub-crawling trivia fun, count how many times MacGowan drops the F-bomb in the song.

But for sheer poeticism, listen to “The Broad Majestic Shannon”, “Sit Down by the Fire” and “Lullaby of London”, wherein Shane MacGowan drops the garish and garrulous exterior garb of a drunken Brendan Behan and instead offers the lilt and lyrical lushness of W.B. Yeats: “May the ghosts that howled ‘round the house that night/Never keep you from your sleep/May they all sleep tight down in Hell tonight/Or wherever they may be.”

Unfortunately, after If I Should Fall From Grace With God the band’s decline was precipitous. The on-again, off-again nature of the Pogues, with ex-Clash guitarist Joe Strummer or longtime Pogue member Spider Stacy handling the vocal chores for the band when MacGowan’s substance abuse became even too outrageous for the hard-partying Pogues to handle, made for uneven and unsatisfying recordings, and The Popes, the abortive Shane MacGowan-led imitation of The Pogues, did not have the marvelous musicality, depth of instrumentation or esprit de corps evident in Rum Sodomy and the Lash or If I Should Fall From Grace With God. But greatness in rock and roll is not measured in longevity. Few bands can offer more than a handful of stellar albums, burning brightly, and then inevitably fading away. However, as this album makes abundantly clear, The Pogues burned brighter than most before burning out.

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