Back in the day, back in the midst’s of the turn of the millennium when The Duke was soaked to the back of the balls in whisky and brandy and gin, back when I was drinking the liver out my guts and shitting it recklessly away in the wake of a hangover (The Guinness Clap, don’t you know?), back then, the soundtrack to my every waking belch was the music of Shane MacGowan.
Whether solo, or with The Nipple Erectors, or fronting The Pogues, A.K.A The Greatest Fucking Band Of All Time, Shane’s rasping cackle kept a fella high when the purse permitted, or melancholic when the purse demanded.
Drinking and smoking St. Patrick’s Day into a puke sodden haze, and Streams Of Whiskey blaring out my face. On the backs of buses, folks who were the year below me in High School leaving said establishment with their blazers pressed and school-bags bulging with the weight of toss they couldn’t care less about, and I roaring on the back seat, with the brown paper bag, and the falling over and the puking and the “Thanks and praises, thanks to Jesus, I bet on a Bottle of Smoke.”
Staring at a reflection and saying you filthy, useless cunt, and meaning every word, and then track 1, Transmetropolitan, and it’s drinking the rat’s piss and kicking the shite, and I’m not going home tonight.
And so on and so fourth.
A fella sobers up, and finds that fuck, man, I don’t know that I wanna deal much more with the kinda shit I surrounded myself with back then. There ain’t no atmosphere in bars, I deduced. The atmosphere was proportional to the intoxication, and when the intoxication is removed, the atmosphere is revealed as unpleasant, dull, cripplingly morbid. The parks I sang in, the streets I fell on, the nightclubs where I pissed into a glass and drank it for the sake of a laugh, that shit suddenly seemed suffocating and lifeless and oppressive and a motherfucking waste of an afternoon that could be spent waxing on and off about wanking.
Stands to reason that a fella might associate the music of Shane MacGowan with those days spent depressed and fucked in the mentals on account of the gin. Stands to reason a fella might not wanna relive those memories, man.
Two years sober and confident and more worried about that gorgeous lady I so want for to touch on the back of the hand, whose shoulder I beg to breathe on, a man finds he can approach these things once more, knowledgeable, full of wisdom, respectful of the toxins, but obsessed no longer with their promises of Bohemian adventure.
And what better time, then, for to pick up the re-mastered editions of those fucking stunning Pogues albums.
Back in the day, what I picked up from the lyrics of Shane MacGowan and the music of The Pogues, was that drunkards, alcoholics, fans of the falling to fuck, they were romantic, charismatic, spiritual, haunted and haunting. What a fella discovers now, is that it is in fact said lyrics and music that are romantic, charismatic, spiritual, haunted and haunting. There’s a difference, is the motherfucking truth of the facts of the case.
So what this incisive critical assessment will reveal to your very eyes is that If I Should Fall From Grace With God by The Pogues is a motherfucking masterpiece, and I know sometimes I throw that word around with a touch too much enthusiasm, and pretty much that old “masterpiece” tag can hit any motherfucker provided they snag The Duke on a good day, but this is one of those times when I mean it, man, and if you ain’t ever picked it up, now that it’s been digitally spruced-up and expanded, ain’t a motherfucking reason in the world to pass it by.
I’ve discussed, many many times, with friends both old and young, exactly how one goes about defining a masterpiece, or more to the point, how one can claim one piece to be a masterpiece, even if there are other pieces by the same artist that are equally masterful? Can there be more than one? What the fuck’s the etiquette surrounding this whole get-up, anyhow?
If you can have multiple masterpieces, then why didn’t Bob Dylan pluralize his song accordingly? Why wasn’t it When I Paint My Masterpieces? Dylan seems to imply that it’s a one-off, the outstanding work amidst a sea of lesser scribblings.
In case you didn’t know, Bob Dylan ain’t the sorta motherfucker who’ll fling off a word or six without prior consideration.
In terms of artistic worth, I gotta say, man, there ain’t a whole hell of a lot to separate Red Roses For Me, Rum, Sodomy And The Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace With God, in so far as picking apart the merits of The Pogues recorded output is concerned. If a fella put a gun to my head and said that unless I picked the absolute best of the three he would shoot my nuts out my face, I’d be sweating like all hell, let The Duke state for the vinyl.
Well, probably I’d lie and pick the first one came to my mind, but inside I’d be burning in my own fabricated cack.
Away from the threat of having my nuts shot out my face, I’d weep like a motherfucker, knowing full well that there ain’t a damn justification in the world for picking one of those records over the others.
I’m just gonna go with gut instincts and say that those three albums, the first three no less, are flawless, peerless, soaking in the lukewarm piss of perfection. Three masterpieces. A man couldn’t pick just one of them, not even if he had the biggest moustache in all art history.
So, then, to recap, If I Should Fall From Grace With God is one of three masterpieces what have the name The Pogues stuck on the front.
Take note, Dylan, you craggy faced old git.
What the album concerns itself with, is flitting between the melancholic and the boisterous and the introspective and the vulgar with a dizzying lack of regard for a fella’s comfort. It opens with three numbers that grab a fella by the collar and head-butt him repeatedly in the face, stopping only for to dig their heels into his shins, and then next thing you know “It was Christmas Eve babe, in the drunk tank“, and before you know what’s happened you’re weeping and singing along and you’ve forgotten all about the blood and the teeth and the broken nose.
Musically, the record is a glorious melding of folk, punk and pop, influences dragged from a staggeringly diverse geographical palette, from the Middle East to Middle England, from the bar-rooms of New York to the pub-floors of Wexford.
It’s world music, not World Music. For sure, the Celtic Folk straddles the record like some black-haired misty-eyed mistress, legs from here to Venus, but influences and ideas too broad to be caged within such a prohibitive confine rise and dissipate and rise again throughout the whole motherfucking thing.
The piano-led verses of Fairytale Of New York, and then the uproariously infectious waltz of the choruses; the brass-led drunken riot of Fiesta, and then the acoustic, mournful Streets Of Sorrow. The frantic Bottle Of Smoke, the instrumentation matching the galloping of the horses that provide the subject matter, and then the wheezing accordion staggering through Worms.
It’s as eclectic and diverse a record as London Calling, and dig the fuck outta this, it’s a fucking better album.
Musically, the band are on fire. Lyrically, Shane MacGowan is reaching out and touching the face of some bearded deity with puke and fag-ash and broken biscuits caught in the whiskers, grabbing words out the clouds and spinning stories and analogies and poems that are so uncommonly profound and deeply affecting, and yet blessed with the humility to shrug their shoulders and smile whilst far lesser troubadours whittle on about their latest composition is the best thing ever fucking etched in biro.
Fuck you, various lyricists, is what Shane announces to the world, except he doesn’t. He just passes these odes to humanity and debauchery and love and degradation into our ungrateful hands and let us reach our own conclusions.
Here’s a hint; Fuck you, various lyricists.
Fairytale Of New York is one of dozens of stories contained herein detailing the crippling plight of a fella intent on marrying the empty promises of the high with the monochrome reality greeting the hungover eyes. Not only is “It was Christmas Eve babe, in the drunk tank” one of the very best opening lines to any song written by any motherfucker from Brecht to Bragg, from Lennon / McCartney to Morrissey / Marr, it also encapsulates that overriding tragedy in so many of Shane’s compositions; the magical taunting the mundane.
There’s a reason Fairytale Of New York is the best Christmas song ever written, and mostly it’s on account of how little Christmas has to do with it all. The bells ringing out for Christmas Day could just as easily be the sight of Fred Astaire dancing on a cinema screen, or the sun flinging barbed strands of red across the sky, it’s the magical and the romantic going about its business whilst this most wretched of human dramas continues undaunted.
The rousing, euphoric reel rising, and yet the bitter exchanges between Shane and Kirsty MacColl clinging to its notes;
“You’re a bum, you’re a punk,
You’re an old slut on junk,
Laying there almost dead on a drip in that bed,
You scumbag you maggot,
You cheap lousy faggot,
Happy Christmas your arse,
I pray God it’s our last”
There’s something horribly amusing about watching drunken revelers fling these lines back and forward at Christmas parties, pissed-up smiles all around.
The male character in Fairytale could easily be the narrator in the preceding Bottle Of Smoke, a drunken gambler at a horse race, lost in frantic delirium as his number comes up.
“The day being clear,
The sky being bright,
He came up on the left,
Like a streak of light,
Like a drunken fuck on a Saturday night,
Up come the Bottle Of Smoke”
Bottle Of Smoke is among my very favorite of all Shane’s lyrics. The elation of the protagonist, the wranglings with the bookies, the debauchery and celebration afterwards;
“Priests and maidens,
Drunk as pagans,
They had the Bottle Of Smoke,
Sins forgiven and celebrations,
They had the Bottle Of Smoke,
Fuck the yanks and drink their wives,
The moon is clear the sky is bright,
I’m happy as the horse’s shite,
Up came the Bottle Of Smoke.”
And, of course, at home his wife and children sleep sound, their demands kept at bay with a handful of the green.
“Slip a fifty to the wife,
And for each brat a crisp new five,
To give me a break on a Saturday night,
When I had the Bottle Of Smoke”
The musical arrangement is just as awe-inspiring, replicating beat for beat the slap of the hooves on the race-track, Shane occasionally screaming over the racket, pleading; “Come on you bastard!”
I ain’t ever bet on a horse, at least not that I know of. Certainly one of the bars I used to frequent was next door to the bookies, a steady stream of whiskey-soaked old timers wandering through with their battered newspapers and chewed-up biros, lips grown around a roll-up that hasn’t been lit for weeks. Chances are I might’ve stumbled in of an occasion, flung down a few quid on some race or some game or some pish of some sort, but I don’t remember doing it. Going on Bottle Of Smoke, though, you’d imagine it to be the most intense, invigorating experience a fella could feasibly imagine.
If the kids are shunted to the background for Bottle Of Smoke, they’re hoisted up on the knee for Sit Down By The Fire, an evocative, unsettling jaunt that instills in the listener the sense of awe and excitement flooding the youngsters to whom the tale is being related. It’s that peculiarly Irish phenomenon of feeding a child’s head with tales of horror and spirits before bedtime, as opposed to the much more pleasant relating of Disney-esque fairy stories or maybe something about that motherfucking bear with the tartan scarf.
“Sit down by the fire and I’ll tell you a story to send you away to bed”, announces the narrator.
Next thing the young un’ knows, a bewildering array of supernatural threats, of ghosts and creatures plucked from mythology and Shane’s own skull-gunk, of mystical imagery and horrifying violence, are bounding from the elder’s yap in a breathless torrent.
“They’re the things that you see when you wake up and scream,
The cold things that follow you down the boreen,
They live on the small ring of trees on the hill,
Up at the top of the field
Remember this place,
It is damp and it’s cold,
The best place on Earth,
But it’s dark and it’s old,
So lie near the wall
And cover your head,
Good night and God bless,
Now fuck off to bed.”
By way of contrast, Lullaby Of London is one of the most beautifully tender examples of such, i.e., “The Lullaby”, that you’ll ever hear, is what The Duke would fearlessly propose. For all the yacking about oh, look, Shane’s gone and gotten plastered and fell out a taxi, or look, there he is puking over a snooker table with Johnny Depp, folks all too rarely sit down and fucking look at these beautiful, otherworldly laments he has crafted seemingly with little or no fuss.
“As I walked on with a heavy heart,
Then a stone danced on the tide,
And the song went on though the lights were gone,
And the North Wind gently sighed,
And an evening breeze coming from the East
That kissed the riverside,
So I pray now child that you sleep tonight,
When you hear this lullaby
May the wind that blows from haunted graves,
Never bring you misery,
May the angels bright watch you tonight,
And keep you, while you sleep”
Who the fuck else in pop music is writing lyrics like that, and doing so with no pretension whatso fucking ever?
There’s a reason I have the photo of Shane from the inside of If I Should Fall From Grace With God, where he’s leaning over an acoustic guitar, tattooed onto my left arm. There’s a reason a fella endured the jibes and the taunts of peers who couldn’t care less about the music of The Pogues, who couldn’t see the fucking aching beauty staring them in the motherfucking face. He’s my favorite writer of all time, and that includes writers of novels and screenplays, poems and prose. There ain’t no weighing it up. The magic that just drips from his pen, I ain’t ever heard or read the like of it before or since. There are ones who come close, sure, like your Nick Cave or your Dylan, but scoff all you fucking want, man, much as I love those two morbid sons a bitches, and I love them dearly, Dylan especially, I’d take A Pair Of Brown Eyes or Rainy Night In Soho, Lullaby Of London or Fairytale Of New York, Hell’s Ditch or Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn over anything they have to offer.
Sadly, said photo has been removed in this remastered edition, although the replacement, a variant featuring Shane pointing the guitar at the lens, is delightful as hell.
But amazing as Shane’s words are, If I Should Fall From Grace With God is the work of a band, a fucking incredible band.
Phillip Chevron supplies the gorgeous Thousands Are Sailing, although Shane sings it, a tale of immigration and hope, of optimism in the face of nightmarish circumstances, of oceans that “Are silent now, but the ghosts still haunt the waves”.
Terry Woods, onetime member of Steeleye Span, makes his first recorded appearance with The Pogues on this record, and provides the aching Streets Of Sorrow, an acoustic primer for the furious Birmingham Six that immediately follows.
The extra tracks on this expanded edition were something of a surprise, mainly on account of two of them were part of the album I originally had. The Battle March (medley) and South Australia have both been sent to the Bonus section, and I can only assume that the original CD I had was different again to the original Vinyl release.
In addition, The Irish Rover, the frantic duet with The Dubliners, makes its first appearance on a “proper” Pogues album, alongside the b-side, another Dubliners duet, and another traditional song, Mountain Dew. It’s just as good, is the truth of the case.
I once questioned the offensively sectarian views of a Loyalist friend of mine, a fella who had nonetheless asked me to record some Pogues tracks onto a cassette for him. How can you be so fucking bitter and still ask for a Pogues tape, I enquired, understandably enough.
“I didn’t”, he countered. “I asked for The Irish Rover, and that’s different. It’s about fenians drowning.”
The final two offerings are two more B-sides, both instrumentals; Shanne Bradley, named after Shane’s old band-mate, and alleged love-interest, in The Nips, and a brilliant version of Sketches Of Spain.
The jazz influence would, of course, come to the forefront on the next album, Peace And Love.
So there it is, man. Folks are never done yacking about how the eighties were a terrible decade for music, and I can only assume they’re listening to the wrong fucking compilations. If I Should Fall From Grace With God is among the best albums ever made, and that ain’t hyperbole or a fella jumping to conclusions. Took me all of five minutes to decide, but I ain’t changed my fucking mind once in the years since then.
The Duke resides at Mondo Irlando