Album of the Week, August 30: Rum Sodomy and the Lash by the Pogues
August 30, 2015 Leave a comment
The Pogues formed in London in the fading days of Britain’s punk explosion. Vocalist Shane MacGowan, tin whistle player Spider Stacy, and multi-instrumentalists Jem Finer and James Fearnley had worked together in a couple of punk bands before creating their own unique sound. Drawing on MacGowan’s Irish roots and a shared love of traditional Celtic music, they became Pogue Mahone. Gaelic for “kiss my ass”, the name clearly established their mission: take DIY punk spirit and deep musical traditions and smash them together into something fresh. They added a rhythm section composed of Cait O’Riordan and Andrew Ranken, released an independent single, toured with the Clash, and landed on Stiff records, shortening their name to avoid problems with the BBC censors. After a solid debut that mixed MacGowan’s “gutter hymns” and a nice variety of traditional songs, they added guitarist Philip Chevron and headed back into the studio. With Stiff label-mate Elvis Costello producing, they created the defining moment in their tumultuous career.
|Album||Rum Sodomy & the Lash
|Label||Stiff||Release Date||August 5, 1985|
|U.S. Chart||n/c||U.K. Chart||#13|
The album opens with a blast of Pogue energy. MacGowan takes the Celtic legend of Cuchulainn and turns it on its ear, celebrating the punk ethic as a reborn spirit of the Irish warrior. It’s fun, compelling, and memorable, one of the best moments in British punk and perhaps the band’s defining moment. The Old Main Drag is a more meditative song, blending quieter Celtic instrumentation with a look at the down side of modern urban life. Rising from that gutter hymn is another Pogues masterpiece, the instrumental whirlwind Wild Cats of Kilkenny. An Irish dance band trapped on a speeding train, it mixes brilliant playing and animal howls in a perfect, crazy track.
O’Riordan turns in a fine vocal on I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Everyday, a smart traditional choice that shows off the band’s chops. Bold and quietly sure of itself, it continues the smart journey through all lands Pouge. A Pair of Brown Eyes is an unsually sweet love song, showing off a different side of MacGowan’s famously rough voice. Sally MacLennane wraps up side one with the singer showing off his traditional roots nicely and the band surging behind him enthusiastically.
Originally an outtake, A Pistol For Paddy Garcia is a smart transition — think spaghetti western instrumental as played by an Irish covers band. It hints at the international musical palette that would creep into later Pogues albums and works as a nice bridge to side two. Dirty Old Town is a stunning cover. The Pogues take Ewan MacColl’s bitter ode to a dying hometown and make it their own, a rare example of a cover that comes close to exceeing its origins. It features one of MacGowan’s best vocals and some of the band’s finest restrained playing.
Jesse James reflects a minor obsession with the old west in a fun, unexpected traditional turn. It’s a bit of a sidetrack, but provides a glimpse at more of the band’s diversity. Navigator picks up the nautical theme that also runs through much of the band’s music with another solid performance. Billy’s Bones is a psychotic pirate song, another blast of energy that propels the disc along. MacGowan has some vocal fun channeling the various characters in the traditional The Gentleman Soldier, a bit of a lark before the stirring closer.
Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda has become a folk standard anti-war song. The Pogues make it their own, with a stately martial beat, sad accordion, and a painfully straightforward vocal. With this subtle epic, the band wrap up a fascinating, heady musical journey. They would achieve greater commercial success and turn out many wonderful songs in the years to come, but nothing matches the messy beauty of their second disc.
FURTHER LISTENING: O’Riordan promptly left the band (and married Costello), replaced by Darryl Hunt. Irish trad-folk musician Terry Woods, once a member of Steeleye Span, came on board, rounding out the band’s most famous lineup. The next two albums — If I Should Fall From Grace With God and Peace and Love — are remarkable fun with song contributions from more band members and a more varied set of folk influences. They are both solid discs, suffering only slightly from slicker production that loses some of the chaos that make the Pogues who they are. After one more mediocre album, the band fired MacGowan, who had become increasingly erratic and unreliable. With a stable but less inspired lineup, they released two more albums, including the solid alt-folk-rock Waiting For Herb, then broke up. The classic lineup — minus Chevron, who died in 2013 — are back together now, performing live but clearly indicating they don’t plan to record another album. For a quick, solid overview of the Pogues’ impressive output, Shout! Factory’s 2013 Very Best of the Pogues is a nice summary.