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Class ?

Main Category: Folk Rock
Also applicable: Pop Rock, Punk/Grunge
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Pogues fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Pogues fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1984

Red roses? What the... Hell, this just might be one of the greatest drinking albums of all time, and all you're asking for on the front cover is red roses?

Anyway, this may or may not be the best Pogues album ever, but what it is is definitely their own version of The Clash: a big fuck-you to pretty much everything on the planet - establishment, conservative tradition, law and order, sterility and rigidness - except for, well, you know, the good stuff. More than everything else, though, this is Shane McGowan and Co.'s inspired answer to the "codification" and clean-cut college-boy surgery of traditional Irish music. Now you won't ever catch me saying that, for instance, Clannad are a bunch of romantic sissies idealizing folk music to vomit-inducing point, while these guys are the real thing, since I sincerely believe both approaches have a perfect right to exist, even if they're hardly compatible. But goshdarnit, at this point I'm listening to the Pogues, and I'm pretty much ready to fuck the rest of the world with 'em and go 'where streams of whiskey are flowing'.

One thing that can be said for sure is that Red Roses For Me is no stinkin' phoney record (at the least, not any more phoney than those early Dylan acoustic albums - in the sense that the early Dylan acoustic albums might as well be phoney, you just never realize that until you start reading about them and Dylan and the time in which they were made, and that has nothing to do with the emotional response to the music itself). The energy, inspiration, and just plain fun that these guys are having while playing their dirty jigs and poorly produced ballads, are so contagious it's almost maddening.

At this time, the songs are more or less split in half between covers (of traditional songs mostly; one tune is credited to McGowan's idol Brendon Behan, though) and McGowan originals, and it's often impossible to tell between the two without looking at the lyrics, since McGowan's songwriting is so obviously derivative of the covers - not that it should surprise or annoy you, because that's to be expected, after all, Shane is struggling for stylistic unity here. The lyrics, of course, set the two groups apart: the traditional covers deal with things of days long gone by, while McGowan's lyrics mostly deal with present day concerns, such as loading yourself till you're 'chucked out of the boozer'. Well, okay, he does touch upon a lot of additional subjects upon the way, but it's always back to booze, booze, and booze regardless of whatever else might be concerned. And what's wrong with a good pint o' beer, might I ask?

The band, meanwhile, faithfully follows McGowan whenever and wherever necessary (sometimes actually forming drunken vocal duets and trios with the guy) - it's not that this record is very attractive and unique instrumentally, but hey, neither was the Clash. The guitars, accordeons, banjoes, pipes and drums are all in perfect form, just enough to sound authentic and stable enough to back up all the green devil stuff.

And then there's the songs - most of which rule. Many are actually built on the exact same melody, but who the hell cares? It's BOOZIN' time! In the catchiest and most endearing way possible, 'Transmetropolitan' kicks the record open with Shane's honest statement that 'we'll drink the rat piss, kick the shite, and I'm not going home tonight, yip-ay-aye!'. The rest of the song has Shane elaborating on a detailed plan to browse through all of London's seedy places and then going home with a satisfied "mission accomplished" sense. So, the message is pretty much set, in a rough and rowdy way that can't even be topped by no 'Clash City Rockers'.

Don't you go around thinkin' I'm only ravin' about those guys because they like the hot stuff so much. They also have a great sense of humour, and if you spot a tiny speckle of unjustified (or, in fact, any) pretentiousness anywhere 'round the corner, just give it to me so I can publically swallow it together with this review. And this stuff is goddamn catchy! If you only manage to get the lyrics to the chorus of 'Waxie's Dargle' right, you'll never want to let them go again! And 'Streams Of Whiskey' might just be the best song about drinking ever written on this planet (in a positive key, at least) - actually, it is also dedicated to Behan (probably the only Irish gentleman of some renown whose drinking potential could ever be compared to Shane's), and culminates in the greatest refrain of all time: 'I am going, I am going/Any which way the wind may be blowing/I am going, I am going/Where streams of whiskey are flowing'.

Another great highlight is 'Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go', where Shane sings in a duet with either Jeremy Finer or Spider Stacy (hard to tell 'em boozers apart, you know), about the protagonist's imaginary journey to Hell and back which ends in the band playing their jig at a frenetic pace with tons and tons of terrified (or maybe just drunk?) screaming all around them. But really, all the songs are good, it's just that it's hard to tell one from another unless you're an expert in all the hard-to-perceive subtleties of Irish music. Even the instrumentals like 'Battle Of Brisbane' sound cool - just like your average generic rockabilly number, performed with verve and inspiration by any competent band, would sound cool. I guess when Shane starts singing slow ballads (like 'The Auld Triangle'), the reaction can seriously differ - after all, he's got a great pair of chords for a boozer, but at this time at least, his balladeering isn't particularly inspiring - still, it ain't half-bad either. And it certainly is heartfelt.

So yeah, bring on dem mugs o' beer, mates! Party time with the Pogues! Never in the history of mankind (or, well, rock music at least) has there been a more concise and consistent tribute to whiskey'n'beer made as on this here album. That one's for sure.



Year Of Release: 1985

Elvis Costello produced this one, and actually made a great deal out of it, up to marrying the Pogues' bass player Cait O'Riordan several years later. Which, maybe, is why it's so reknown - for my money, it ain't an ounce better than the debut, but somehow it's always been pegged as the band's high point. Well - if you wanna, you gotta, I guess. I actually think it's a bit boring in spots, but maybe that's just because I was expecting even more rowdy fast rockers than last time around. I didn't get what I wanted, so it kinda brought me down... for a moment.

The Pogues aren't exactly diversifying their sonic assault (except for a couple instrumentals that don't sound exactly like the instrumentals on the previous album), they're just digging somewhat deeper. And they're actually taking more risks, what with the eight-minute epic 'The Band Played Waltzing Matilda', McGowan's interpretation of Eric Bogle's traditionalist anti-war song. It's definitely draggy, but McGowan's saving grace is that he has this "vocal charisma" that lets you sit through eight minutes of even the most tedious, slow-moving tortoise-paced song without flinching. Kinda like Dylan. Or maybe kinda like Neil Young? Hmm, well, it all depends on extremely subjective preferences. They recorded that stuff well, and the accordeon, banjo, and lazy-blowin' brass section, as usual, provide tremendous backing for McGowan, but I don't think I'd want to listen to the song too often. Especially since pretty much the same atmosphere (not counting the completely different lyrics) is found on the much more compact three-minute McGowan original 'The Old Main Drag'. Which is a drag, but sounds good anyway. Definitely authentic, and definitely non-whiney.

The real classics, though, are the ones where the melody is somewhat more fleshed out. The "sex, drink and S&M" album title is immediately justified on the very first song - 'The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn', which, once again, deals with the imminent opposition between a life of ravaging, debauchery, and beverage abuse, and a sad and mournful agonizing death... but who cares about agonizing death when 'Frank Ryan brought you whiskey in a brothel in Madrid'? The classic "fuck Hell, we're all goners anyway, so let's make life one big rotten boozin' party" motto of so many a folk song is, once again, perfectly bottled by these guys as led by Mr Costello. Kudos to you, Mr Costello.

There are other magnificent originals as well. 'A Pair Of Brown Eyes', for instance, shows how well McGowan can fare in the Majestic Epic genre as well, with a powerful, convincing vocal track and an overlay of banjos, accordeons, pipes, and what-not so dense and so thick and so superficially clumsy (but in fact very, very skillful) you could almost mistake this for Art Rock... well, in certain ways, it is. The chorus - 'and a-rovin' a-rovin' a-rovin' I'll go for a pair of brown eyes' - is just about the pinnacle of Shane's Quintessential Irish Malt, if you get me a-driftin', mate. But don't forget 'Sally McLellane' either, which will send you a-jiggin' and a-pumpin' and a-bumpin' your knees all around the room. And the cover of Ewan McColl's 'Dirty Old Town', though more a generic country tune than anything purely Irish in nature, is still wonderfully made. No overproduction, no formulaic Nashville crap, just a minimal old banjo and a couple mandolins and pipes, and Shane's grizzly authentic vocal. I could do without the fiddle solo, tho', I mean, you don't need to remind us this is country, right?

The guys also have some rowdy fun on the instrumental 'Wild Cats Of Kilkenny', punctuated by the band's violent miauwing and screeching, even if the song itself isn't violent - just a tasty little instrumental showcasing the band members' skills at their inventory. Another mild surprise is Cait O'Riordan taking lead vocals on the band's take on the traditional 'I'm A Man You Don't Meet Every Day', not to mention they didn't bother to even change the lyrics to adapt the song to her voice. More shocking Pogues behaviour? Or was it Mr Costello promoting his newfound love? In any case, she's got a lovely voice, just a little bit out-of-tune on some of the notes, and actually somewhat masculine (which makes me wonder if the lady's boozing habits at the time were that much more restrained than McGowan's), and she does a great job of "personalizing" the song - remember, with folk songs it's not the melody that counts (because you can count all the different folk melodies on the fingers of your two hands), it's the interpretation.

It is a bit more 'serious-sounding' in general, I'd say, with fewer songs directly dealing with booze and more and more songs dealing with other topics (love, war, nostalgia, whatever), which I don't necessarily see as an improvement - but apparently, many people do, so it's up to you whether you want to start your Pogues experience with the insane barroom-celebration of Red Roses or the more rationalistic folk-serving of RSL. Me, I'd personally swap the titles.


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