Kiss my ass, or in U.K. terms, kiss my arse. The phrase was the calling card that introduced the world of radio to The Pogues. The band formed in 1982 under the band banner of Pogue Mahone, the phrase was an Anglicized version of the Gaelic Póg mo thóin. Censorship from the BBC after listener complaints forced shortening to The Pogues. The new name and music from the group’s career are represented with the honor they deserve on the ShoutFactory release, The Very Best of The Pogues.
The first single to hit the airwaves was the band’s self-released “Dark Streets of London”. Punk, the attitude and lifestyle, not the three chord electric attack of punk rock, has always been at the heart of The Pogues sound and delivery. History began to take shape in 1977 when group members Shane McGowan (vocals) and Spider Stacy (tin whistle) met in the men’s room of The Roundhouse in London during a Ramones gig. The pair played in an occasional band, The Millwall Chainsaws, in the late 70’s with Pogue member Jem Finer (banjo). James Fearnley (accordion) was added for live shows and Pogue Mahone took to the stage for the first time on October 4, 1982 at The Pindar of Wakefield in Kings Cross, London. “Streams of Whiskey”, included on The Very Best of The Pogues was the first song the group played live. The group’s line-up expanded for the first single with Cait O’Riordan (bass) and Andrew Rankin (drums) coming on board. The group moved from pubs and clubs in Central London to an opening slot on The Clash 1984 tour. Stiff Records was impressed and Red Roses for Me was released as the band’s first album effort.
Phillip Chevron (guitar) came into The Pogues for their second album; the Elvis Costello produced Rum, Sodomy & The Lash. The title was a nod to the supposed Winston Churchill comment used to describe the true traditions of the British Royal Navy. The album was a commercial success, taking the band across the ocean to America where they were equally embraced by fans of traditional Irish music and U.S. punks, making for very interesting mosh pits. Rum, Sodomy & the Lash brought more original material into The Pogues repertoire, thanks in great part to the word skills of lead vocalist Shane McGowan. The disc offered music that started the deep, deep love that Pogue fans would carry to their collective graves. Songs like “The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn”, The Old Main Drag”, “A Pair of Brown Eyes”, “Dirty Old Town” and “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” were favorites on first listen.
Relations with Stiff Records stalled when The Pogues refused to record a follow-up, offering the E.P. Poguetry in Motion. Artist’s career decisions can swing momentum in either direction, good or bad. Add an Irishman’s alcohol intake to the mix and the decisions become more momentaryreactions rather than a calculated plan. The Pogues frontman, and main songwriter, Shane MacGowan was a man whose demons did as much to tip him over the edge as they guided his pen.
In early Gaelic and British culture, a bard was the term used to describe a professional poet. William Shakespeare became known as The Immortal Bard. The Irish writing traditions were original lyric poetry and versions of ancient prose tales. William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw are hallmarks of the Irish literary output but Shane MacGowan’s natural writing talent seemed to use authors such as James Joyce, who developed the stream of consciousness writing that makes its way into the songs of The Pogues, and Brendan Behan, whose poetry and short stories brought IRA politics into his verse and tales.
The characters and story lines that Shane MacGowan created are full of life. The lives laid bare in his songs have demons and dreams rolled together. “Streams of Whiskey” was a dream where Shane met his literary hero Brendan Behan. “The Boys From County Hell” and “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” are tales rife with a characterization of Irish pub life as seen through the Irish of a punk. The words are fast paced and direct. Alcohol flows through the songs of The Pogues, and its characters partake in amber poison as if every day brought a ghost to toast at a Wake. Though still possessed of a mighty dose of liquid refreshments, tenderness finds its way into The Pogues songs through Shane’s pen and growl on songs such as “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and “Rainy Night in Soho”. Pain is a part of the Irish spirit and the nations spirits fuel the sadness as much as inspire and Shane tunes like “The Sunny Side of the Street” and the Christmas duet with Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale of New York” manage to balance the hard times and inherent survival gene shared by Irish expatriates worldwide. “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” brings the other Irish brand that serves to take down the nation not unlike alcohol, Catholicism.
Shane MacGowan owns the bulk of the words in the songs of The Pogues but he shares writing credits with other band members on a number of the groups more famous tunes. A mournful guitar and harmonica open “Dirty Old Town”, a 1949 track written by Ewan MacColl, father of “Fairytale of New York” duet partner Kirsty MacColl. Group members Spider Stacy (“Tuesday Morning”), Jem Finer (“Misty Morning, Albert Bridge”) and Philip Chevron (“Thousands Are Sailing”) all have tracks included on The Very Best of The Pogues.
“Thousands Are Sailing” is a history lesson that boards ships in Dublin, Galway, Cork, Limerick, Belfast, Londonderry, Waterford, and Liverpool. Estimates tell that close one and one-half million Irish left their native soil between 1845 and 1851. “Coffin ships” were the cheapest way to cross the Atlantic; mortality rates of 30% aboard the vessels were common. The Pogues honor both those that lost their lives and the ones that made it through in “Thousands Are Sailing”. The combination of trial and triumph again weaves in and around the lyric content.
“Thousands Are Sailing” is one of the tentacles that The Pogues continue to wrap around the world. DC Comics recently launched a graphic novel, Gone to Amerikay. Written by Derek McCulloch and illustrated by Colleen Doran, Gone to Amerikay was inspired by Thousands Are Sailing, Philip Chevron's ballad about generations of Irish emigrants travelling "across the western ocean to a land of opportunity. "What I think Gone To Amerikay does well is set an interconnecting tale, a sort of ghost story, in three separate eras," said Chevron. "It's a fairly audacious undertaking and I'm delighted to have helped inspire or influence it."
Musically, The Pogues have never really stopped the sound that first has continues to be important from those notes that hit back in 1982. The band recently celebrated a 30th year anniversary at the Olympia Theatre in Paris with a live DVD of the show. James Fearnley has written the memoir Here Comes Everybody – The Story of The Pogues, and continues to release solo music. Spider Stacy can be seen in the role of Slim Jim on HBO’s Treme, Shane MacGowanpops up at numerous guest appearances and Philip Chevron’s musical project, Radiators from Outer Space, has recently released an album honoring the rock, blues and beat tunes from Irish artists in the 1960’s. Jem Finer follows a path to art’s cutting edge with a recent art installationwith a giant screen projection of 18,000 images taken in a forest using a solar-powered camera and recorded through a specially designed computer program. Musically, he has conceived and composed Mobile Sinfonia, an indeterminate musical composition scored for mobile phones. It is propagated through the free distribution of especially composed ringtones. Each ringtone is a ‘voice’ in the composition, and together they make a global orchestra of electronic instruments.
The Very Best of The Pogues will be released on SoundFactory on January 22, 2013. The album fully captures the excitement that The Pogues weave into every song. That feeling is not diminished by the passing of years, the songs whine like freshly minted.