The Pogues (formerly Pogue Mahone—Irish Gaelic for “kiss my arse”) were formed in 1982 by a group of London Irish musicians eager to drag Irish folk into a musical world that had been changed and redefined by the advent of punk. This mission was to be marked by success and failure, but by 1996 when they officially disbanded, they had permanently left their mark on both folk and mainstream music.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the band through those years was the extensive influence literature had on their lyrics. Rather than simply drawing on certain works for inspiration, almost every lyric in the Pogues’ extensive repertoire can be traced to a certain area of the written word.
Leading this literary charge was main songwriter and ideologue Shane MacGowan, who’d come through punk emboldened by its ideals, but distraught by its mainstream assimilation. The catalogue of songs penned by MacGowan regularly evokes previous writers and styles, often twisted and placed in new frameworks. Indeed, most of his lyrics are as intellectually stimulating when read as poems and stories as when performed as full songs.
From the moment he began penning songs, MacGowan was artistically indebted to his Irish homeland, a fact reflected in both music and lyrics. Literary touchstones spanned the Irish spectrum—Brendan Behan, James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, Flann O’Brien, Sean O’Casey, Frank O’Connor, and James Stephens were drawn from and their influence incorporated into his burgeoning songbook. While the idea of the songwriter-as-poet is often evoked in a clichéd (even insulting) manner to give certain artists ‘credibility’, MacGowan’s awareness and adaptation of trends in the literary world, along with the narrative quality and structural experimentation of his work, should cement his status as both a musical and literary figure.
As the band gained further success and the other members began to substantially contribute to the lyrics, concerted attempts were made to avoid stagnancy. Eventually, the collective focus fundamentally changed in ways that would have massive effects on the group. Extraneous reference points began to dominate, with the music switching to a menagerie of world music styles, and the lyrics drawing from non-Irish, less literary sources. This fragmentation would afterward be cited by MacGowan as one of the biggest reasons for his estrangement from the other members of the band.
Going back to the band’s formative years, an important reason for the band’s very existence was a fervent desire to reiterate the aspects of Irish folk music that ran contrary to the sophisticate persona espoused by the dominant elements of ‘80s music. From the stale by-products of ‘70s AOR who had somehow got through the post-punk safety net (Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel) to the New Romantics with their synthetic music and lifestyle, the Pogues sought to challenge the status quo by injecting a sense of danger into Irish folk, thereby returning Irish folk to the mainstream. This was to be achieved through a heady mix of punk and folk, filtered through a coarse, unrefined aesthetic. And with virtually no electric instruments (Cait O’Riordan’s bass guitar was a notable exception) and a minimalist bass/snare drum kit, the contrast with mainstream instrumentation was glaring.
Despite this, perhaps the freshest aspect of the re-named Pogues was the literary quality of their original songs. Amongst volatile renditions of traditional standards nestled originals composed in the same style, infused with a punk-derived radicalism that brought the band beyond mere rehashed folk. The London-Irish composition of the group meant that its Irish influences were viewed through the lens of cosmopolitan London, and the city would go on to be the focus of numerous songs by the band.
Gaining a reputation through relentless touring, they signed to the independent Stiff Records in 1984. The first album, Red Roses for Me, was released in October of that year, and was an underground success despite its poor mainstream showing. Critical attention focused on the burgeoning lyrical talents of Shane MacGowan as much as on the music. Taking its title from a late-era Sean O’Casey play, the album offered a demonstration of MacGowan’s continuity with Irish writers past. The Irish identification was even carried onto the album art: A portrait of the band members seated around a painting of John F. Kennedy, a symbol of solidarity with the Irish diaspora across the world.
O’Casey & Socialism
Aside from bestowing the album with a name, O’Casey was influential stylistically. The lyrics on Red Roses for Me focused on the lives of the 1980s working class in the same way O’Casey portrayed the proletariat of the early 1900s. A lifelong communist and Republican dissident, his portrayals were combined with his socialist beliefs to demonstrate the inherently political nature of working class life. Similarly, the debut Pogues LP illustrates the impact of wider political processes on mundane reality.
While avoiding overt left-wing sloganeering, the anti-authoritarian approach evident in certain tracks was intensified by the experience of Thatcherite Britain, where harsh monetarism had led to the working class feeling persecuted by the ruling Conservative Party. This sense of injustice was given credence by the Miner’s Strike occurring the same year the album was released, an event that embodied opposition to the implementation of profit-driven neo-liberalism. Under such circumstances, the sense of anger present in Red Roses for Me is easily read as a reflection of the labour class’s embittered undercurrent, manifesting itself in several songs on the album.
The opening song, “Transmetropolitan”, is a conspicuous example of this attitude. Both tribute to and attack on the city of London, the composition is a contradiction. The music is frenetically gleeful, while the lyrics veer from a celebration of London life to a bitter attack on the pillars of the British establishment:
There’s lechers up in Whitehall
And queers in the GLC
And when we’ve done those bastards in
We’ll storm the BBC.
Whitehall (a metonym for the British government), the GLC (Greater London Council), and the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) represented the stale powers-that-be, a focus for bitter resentment. That the enemy was the suitably vague “establishment” was a by-product of the band’s punk roots, a recurring and pervasive influence that sat comfortably alongside the anti-authority stance of the writers inspiring the group.
Behan & Black Comedy
Despite the O’Casey reference in the title and the similarities shared in the portrayal of working class existence, it is clear that Brendan Behan is the dominant influence on Red Roses for Me. “The Auld Triangle”, an Irish standard adapted from the introduction to the Behan play The Quare Fellow, is the third track on the album and a marked contrast to the rest of what is an ultimately raucous record. It’s stark, skeletal, and relies primarily on MacGowan’s vocals. The mood is despondent and the lyrics wistful, but lightened by occasionally humourous lines (a literary technique MacGowan adopted in his own writing, which often includes comedic moments in the midst of squalor). This aspect of his songcraft would later be explored and refined on Rum, Sodomy & the Lash.
“The Boys from the County Hell” is the most precise example of punk’s influence on the album. Upping the ante on “Transmetropolitan”, it’s a vicious exploration of the alcohol-fuelled violence of the urban London lifestyle (the city termed “County Hell” in a translation bearing the mark of Irish geographical terminology), and a further fleshing out of MacGowan’s songwriting, recalling the unflinching portrayal of violence in Irish tradition. Coming from that lineage, it contains one of his most blackly humourous couplets:
My daddy was a Blueshirt and my mother a madam.
My brother earned his medals at My Lai in Vietnam.
“Streams of Whiskey” carries the Behan obsession to new heights, encapsulating MacGowan’s adoration of the man in one song. The lyrics depict a conversation held with Behan in a dream. When asked about his views on the “crux of life’s philosophies”, he answers: “I am going where streams of whiskey are flowing”. This “philosophy” manages to make alcoholism sound almost idealistic—after all, it concerns a person who once quipped “I’m a drinker with a writing problem.”
“Streams of Whiskey” is also a buried reference to Flann O’Brien—a pseudonym for Brian O’Nolan, who MacGowan cited as one of his favourite authors in A Drink with Shane MacGowan. O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth (originally published in Gaelic as An Beal Bocht) includes a story regarding a mountain with two streams of whiskey flowing at its summit. A brilliant satire of Ireland’s victim mentality, the novel is built on—as with most of O’Brien’s works —an absurdly funny plot and writing style that Shane MacGowan emulated throughout his time in the Pogues.
// Notes from the Road
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