Ah the eighties! Those tumultuous years that saw greed become fashionable and two forms of outlaw music become co-opted. By 1980 punk rock was already turning into new wave (how can you tell a punker from a new waver: a new waver wears pins on their jacket a punker has a pin through her nose) and rap was moving out of the hands of Gil Scott-Herron and Grandmaster Flash into the mitts of Vanilla Ice.
Oh they were heady days alright, so much to celebrate and remember: Oliver North, Tammy Faye and Husband Jim Baker of Pass The Loot our way (All right P.T.L. really stood for Praise The Lord) and Jimmy Swaggert, showing he could be as down and dirty as his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, getting caught with a prostitute in a run down motel.
The Moral Majority was starting to flex their muscles, and they had to shed some of the more “eccentric” of the brethren if they wanted to be taken seriously. Jerry Falwell and friends were quick to distance themselves from Tammy of the blessed eye shadow and Jimmy’s penchant for misunderstanding the meaning of the word proselytising.
It was time for the religious right to start being taken seriously, and to prove it Pat Robertson ran for President, well at least the Republican nomination. It turns out America wasn’t quite ready for what old Pat was selling and after a good showing in Iowa caucuses he fell quickly by the way side. But it was OK because Papa George was there to succeed King Ronnie who, much to Nancy’s chagrin, had to hand over the sceptre of power after eight years.
The eighties were so good that even Great Britain got to pretend it was an empire again. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided to send her armada across the seas and teach the Argentineans who was boss. No wog from South America was going to threaten the British Sheep Farming Industry of the Falkland Islands if Maggie T. had any say in the matter. Which unfortunately for all the people who died in that war she did.
Neither the ghosts of the British and Argentinean sailors who died in that war, nor the soldiers and villagers from the Iran and Iraq war of the same decade, ever seem to get invited to the eighties revival parties and club nights. In fact I sometimes wonder where I was during the eighties because I never recognise any of the music that gets played or the fashions that get worn at these events (Not that I’m very often invited to them either)
I was forcibly reminded of this the other day when my wife came home with the special re issue of the seminal Pogues album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash the other day. Originally released in 1985, the good people at Warner Music re-released it last year with six additional cuts obviously never released before.
When Rum, Sodomy & the Lash was first released it stood the world of Irish folk music firmly on its ear. Even though the boys were using primarily the same old traditional instruments, boron, tin whistle, etc, they imparted a particular punk like sensibility to their tunes that left some blowing bubbles in their Guinness. (If you’ve ever had Guinness you’ll know how hard that is)
It wasn’t just the way they played their instruments, hard and fast, which got up the traditionalist’s noses, and they could probably have lived with Shane MacGowan’s snarling voice and curled lip attitude; the subject matter of their originals was another matter all together. There was no glorification of rebels or Ireland, but songs about rent boys, drugs, and the horrors of war.
“And now I am lying here, I’ve had too much booze/ I’ve been shat on and spat on and raped and abused/I know that I am dying and I wish I could beg/For some money to take me from the old main drag” The Pogues: “The Old Main Drag”, Rum Sodomy & the Lash 1985.
Yes, well welcome to the real world and all everybody. Ireland’s history didn’t end in 1926. This is the new world of heroin, hookers and poverty. Not what you want to hear being sung over the uillean pipe and banjo; could put you off your Guinness and chips. Then when the same boyos, and that lassie, wind up and take a run at “Jessie James”, it’s so hard and fast you don’t know when and if you’ll ever breath again. Well that just doesn’t sit right with some people.
Which could explain why you’re not going to hear very much from the Pogues at any one of those eighties revival meetings where they stand around and worship at the altar of Adam Ant and Rich Ashely. They didn’t have hair that could be flipped back out of their eyes while they doodled cool notes on a keyboard and sang in plumy English boarding school accents about wanting me baby or if you really meant to hurt me.
No, getting the dirt from the back alleys of Belfast and Dublin tossed in your teeth isn’t going to make you sentimental for something you never lived through in the first place and probably wouldn’t sell much beer to the university crowd anyway. Snarling drunk Irish poets tend to frighten suburban North Americans who have been raised on the white bread of Brittany, Brandy, and Backstreet Boys.
Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (the title was take from a Winston Churchill quote: “Don’t talk to me about naval tradition, it’s all rum, sodomy and the lash”) was the Pogues second album, but it was the one that took them beyond bar band status. For starters it was produced by Elvis Costello, who had taken a real shine to the band, and that gave them instant press credibility and attention.
“I saw my task was to capture them in their dilapidated glory before some more professional producer fucked them up” Elvis Costello
That he did. They shine through like rough diamonds on this disc, unfinished but radiant in their strength and power. Not the polished ring you’d give to your sweetheart maybe, but definitely the drill bit you’d use to carve a lasting impression in stone.
For an album that’s awash with songs about death, there is something powerfully life affirming about the Pogues’ Rum Sodomy & the Lash. The fact that they can perform songs like “The Band Played Waltz Matilda”, and “A Pair of Brown Eyes”, which both feature not too pleasant reminders of the reality of war, with passion is what offsets the morbidity of the subject matter. Nobody who cares that much looks like they’re about to give up the ghost.
So if you’re like me and were actually of drinking age during the eighties, and you’re in need of a serious antidote to the schlock of nostalgia nights, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash from the Pogues is just the thing to get you back on your feet. For those who don’t know any better, and think that Boy George was the epitome of eighties rock, please listen to the Pogues, and maybe you won’t think us such wankers after all.