Red Roses for Me may have received praise for its literate lyrics, but the following year’s Rum, Sodomy & the Lash was the moment where the Pogues’ songcraft truly blossomed. From post-modern character realignment to minutely-detailed narratives, the many facets of Irish literature are explored and amalgamated into a work that reads like an overview of the canon.
Depiction of CÃºchulainn by John Duncan
As the opening track for the album, “Sickbed of Cúchulainn” is a significant song in more than one respect. Not only does it demonstrate the cleaner production and more thought-out arrangements of the record as a whole, but most importantly the progression of MacGowan’s songwriting. As a character, Cúchulainn (a legendary Celtic warrior and son of the god Lugh) was a towering figure in Irish storytelling, regularly recurring in stories up to and including the Celtic Revival of the late 19th century. While The Pogues stick to this tradition, the song that bears his name is a sober modernisation of the monolith; a demonstration of the continuity held with preceding Irish literature, but a strong statement of realist rather than mythic characterisation.
This approach to the protagonist is similar to the proto-postmodernism of Flann O’Brien in novels such as The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, which dragged characters such as the mythic Fionn MacCumhaill into a contemporary setting. Thus “Sickbed of Cúchulainn” styles the character not as a demi-god, but in the flawed guise of the socialist IRA leader Frank Ryan. Appearing alongside the singers John McCormack and Richard Tauber, Cuchulainn is an unacknowledged hero, a participant on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War (as was Frank Ryan in reality.) Cuchulainn’s illustrious status in Celtic folklore is contrasted with the more human heroism of the unacknowledged Ryan, an anti-fascist who later faced the ignominy of death in a Nazi submarine. “You decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids” and “We’ll sing a song of liberty for blacks and paks and jocks” serve as MacGowan’s tribute to a man whose heroism was to stand against the fascist tide in an Irish nation still in thrall to the Catholic Church, which had displayed blatant pro-Fascist sympathies in regard to the war in Spain.
That this depiction is in complete contrast to the Cúchulainn of William Butler Yeats may not be coincidental. MacGowan’s opinion of Yeats is derisory at best: “[Yeats wrote] a few classics…but there’s a mammoth amount of work…there’s like books and books and books of his stuff, and there’s about three or four good poems.” (A Drink with Shane MacGowan) The negative sentiments might also be inspired by Yeats’s championing of aristocratic ideas and (later retracted, as the Second World War approached) support for Irish and European fascism, something that was later also criticised by George Orwell.
First Person Narrative & Autobiography
Eerily slow-burning after the preceding frenzy, “The Old Main Drag” is a torrid narrative recounting the struggles of a male prostitute in seedy London. MacGowan’s evolution as a lyricist may have been obvious on “The Sickbed of Cúchulainn”, but only a truly adept wordsmith could forge the themes of drugs, prostitution, and police brutality into such an easily engrossing story. Accompanied by almost hypnotic musical repetitions, “The Old Main Drag” is replete with characteristic attention to detail:
One evening as I was lying down by Leicester Square
I was picked up by the coppers and kicked in the balls
Between the metal doors at Vine Street I was beaten and mauled
And they ruined my good looks for the old main drag.
In later years, this song would be offered as “evidence” that MacGowan had worked as a hustler. Although it may be a common assumption that realist first person narratives must be based on something experienced by the author, in MacGowan’s case the supposition could have been caused by the debt his style owed to writers like Frank O’Connor. A short story author of great magnitude, O’Connor wrote essentially autobiographical stories in the guise of characters like Larry Delaney, recounting childhood events rich in detail and evocative of the conservative Ireland of the early 20th century.
MacGowan similarly recounted stories heavy on minutia, but as far removed from bucolic rural Ireland as could be possible. When people read the lyrics of songs like “The Old Main Drag”, the easy interpretation was that due to the attention to detail inherited from writers like O’Connor, MacGowan was channelling his real life experiences through the characters in his writing. As with many issues surrounding the Pogues, though, there is no firm answer regarding the truth of these rumours. The sheer number of contradictions is similar to the fog around MacGowan’s eventual dismissal by the group.
Building an Identity
Another highlight from the album is the quixotic ballad “A Pair of Brown Eyes”, one of the more sentimental songs performed by the band. However, like everything MacGowan wrote in this period, it is laced with the typical dark elements that prevent it from becoming merely saccharine. Therefore, while the song laments the “streams, the rolling hills, where his brown eyes were waiting” or “The birds whistling in the trees / Where the wind was gently laughing”, the protagonist is also “drunk to hell”, the setting filled with men who “prayed, cursed, and bled some more”.
In this moment, Shane MacGowan established an identity—one adapted from past writers (the contrast between sweet sentimentality and darker elements, humour intercepting both, a hallmark of Irish writing from Behan to Beckett), but an identity nonetheless. This proved a blessing and a curse, for while the positive comparisons were no doubt welcome, others were beginning to wonder if the Pogues, and Shane MacGowan in particular, had inherited the predisposition for alcohol held by the writers they admired. Press attention would lead to the stereotyping of the band as alcoholic Irishmen (particularly in an infamous Sounds article written around the release of “A Pair of Brown Eyes” as a single), a perception made even more believable by other songs, including “Sally MacLennane”. Similar to older folk songs about the return of a person to their hometown (a theme also touched upon in “The Boys Are Back in Town”, written by the Irish literature-influenced Phil Lynott), the song is an ode to the joys of alcohol with nearly every verse containing a reference to drinking.
Much of the band’s catalogue is the same, and with their love for writers who also enjoyed a drink (not forgetting their Irish background), it was inevitable that they would be included in the “drunken Irish artist” stratum. In the Sounds article mentioned above, Spider Stacy remarked, “I drink to blot out drunkenness”. A quick retort to an over-bearing journalist it may have been, but in the years to come such excesses would prove to be the undoing of the band. But before that point, there was much glory and still more ignominy to come.
Rum, Sodomy & the Lash was a crucial step forward for the group. Moving on from the lyrically-constrained Red Roses for Me, which had been somewhat straightforward in its subject matter, the incorporation of differing stylistic approaches made this album a milestone for the incorporation of literary methods into modern Irish folk music. Over the coming years, the subjects would become more expansive, the music more extravagant. Here, the Pogues would achieve the perfect balance of tradition and innovation in their songwriting, the democratic ideal prominent since the beginning would finally flourish, and commercial success would be assured.