This phase began with the release of the Poguetry in Motion EP in 1986. Comprised of 4 wildly varying tracks, the EP worked as a bridge between the boisterous folk of before and a new, heavily-orchestrated style embodied by “A Rainy Night in Soho” (significantly, in all respects a masterpiece). Both styles would be followed up on proceeding albums, but the EP is interesting as a microcosm of the band’s musical past and future—and their sense of humour, with the instrumental “Planxty Noel Hill” a swipe at the eponymous musician and member of the folk aristocracy in Ireland.
Taking part in a radio debate with the Pogues, Hill had referred to their music as a “terrible abortion” and as disrespectful to traditional norms. The “planxty” in the title is a traditionally honourific prefix dating back to the 1600s, and serves as a rejoinder to Hill, a tongue-in-cheek espousal of the ultimate traditionalist form. “London Girl” and “Body of an American” rounded off the release and are notable because of their respective connotations of Red Roses for Me and Rum, Sodomy & the Lash-era material. Clamorous, intelligent, romantic, iconoclastic—the EP was a bookend for what had come before, and a torch-bearer for what was to come next.
Two years later, 1988 saw the release of If I Should Fall from Grace with God, a new departure in several areas. The lyrics are more far-reaching than Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash, yet remain within the realms of Irish tradition. From the pleasures of a win at the dog tracks to the laments of the Irish diaspora in America, and even the first overtly political songs of the band’s discography, the subjects expand far beyond the character studies and narratives of the first two releases. It even sounds more sprawling, the appearance of a full drum kit and session accompaniment seeming like sheer opulence compared to the thriftiness of before. Two new members make their debuts: multi-instrumentalist Terry Woods (formerly of the legendary folk-rock bands Sweeney’s Men and Steeleye Span) and Daryl Hunt (replacing the outgoing Cait O’Riordan). The inclusion of jazz and indigenous Spanish and Middle-Eastern folk would sound more shocking had they not been woven so brilliantly into Irish music forms—the mock-sitars of “Turkish Song of the Damned” countered by “The Lark in the Morning”, a traditional jig that ended the song, and the faux-jazz “Metropolis” and its prominent horns disarmed by mid-tempo folk verses.
Commercial success was confirmed with the release of “Fairytale of New York”. Written by MacGowan and Jem Finer, it shares both a title and subject with J.P. Donleavy’s novel A Fairytale of New York, both works regarding the pursuit of the American dream and, tentatively, the experiences of the Irish diaspora. The merits of the song lie in its exploration of relationships and their intricacies, how they span place and era and how external bickering can mask deep affection. MacGowan is accompanied on the track by Kirsty MacColl, in the guise of a woman whose hopes for a life of prosperity lie dead, shattered by the very person who embodied them. The duet examines the dreams, the shattering, and finally the redemption, like a short story where a monumental topic is condensed, and benefits as a result. A technicolour version of “A Pair of Brown Eyes”, a romantic song that remains solidly realist (as the input of MacGowan ensured), the song was only kept off the top spot by the poor “Always on My Mind” cover by the Pet Shop Boys. It has since become a Christmas standard, and the most well-known demonstration of the Pogues’ songwriting skill.
The subject of Irish Republicanism and the conflict in Ireland was a popular focus for folk groups during the ‘80s, a contemporary issue of great importance socially and culturally. The Pogues explicitly explored this for the first time on If I Should Fall. Grounded in personal conviction and a long literary tradition, the Pogues were unashamedly Republican, and indeed at an early stage held the moniker the New Republicans. These beliefs manifest themselves in the medley “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six”. Musically, little links the two songs, but the subject matter is related through its exploration of the ongoing war between the IRA and British forces in Ireland.
“Streets of Sorrow”, a stark, emotional lament for the war-torn streets of cities like Belfast and Derry, urban areas scarred by the trauma of ongoing war, is immediately followed by the passionate anger of “Birmingham Six”, despondency exploding into rage against a Government viewed as oppressive and racist:
There were six men in Birmingham
In Guildford there’s four,
They were picked up and tortured
And framed by the law.
And the filth got promotion,
But they’re still doing time
For being Irish in the wrong place
And at the wrong time.
The Loughgall Martyrs
Naturally enough, the song was banned by the BBC, continuing a torrid relationship between the band and the corporation. As a medley, the song works perfectly: A distillation of the anguish caused by the Irish conflict and the unbridled anger at a British Government the Republicans viewed as the cause of their problems. That the Pogues held controversial opinions was not in doubt. At the time, the only mainstream voices were those of outright condemnation of the IRA on the one hand, or outright silence on the other. In that spirit, there is more than mere protest in “Birmingham Six”, with the final verse containing a reference to the Loughgall Martyrs, eight IRA volunteers killed while attacking a Royal Ulster Constabulary police barracks:
May the whores of the empire lie awake in their beds
And sweat as they count out the sins on their heads,
While over in Ireland eight more men lie dead
Kicked down and shot in the back of the head.
Again, there was a literary precedent for the group’s political views, with Brendan Behan, Frank O’Connor, and Ernie O’Malley among the writers who had actively participated in the IRA and expounded upon their views in writing. The theme would be taken up again in later songs like “Young Ned of the Hill” and “Rainbow Man”.
Another new topic for the band was the role of mythology in Irish life. “Sit Down by the Fire” is a comic take on this tradition:
Sit down by the fire, and I’ll tell you a story
To send you away to your bed.
Of the things you hear creeping
When everyone’s sleeping
And you wish you were out here instead.
The Riders of the Sidhe, by John Duncan
Lyrically, the focus is on the fairies, or sidhe, that haunted Irish imagination for centuries, and still persist in popular superstition. MacGowan has long found the idea of parents telling these terrifying stories to children at bedtime as comical, an absurdity built into Irish life for centuries.
The song’s subject matter is interesting because it shows the group exploring the area of folklore (despite its monolithic status pre-20th century, folklore had never been a big concern for the band) while also stepping back from it. This separates such an exploration from the misty-eyed renderings of other more literal folk-rock acts like the Horslips, who had created concept albums based around Celtic mythology. It also continues the motif of postmodernism from MacGowan, the song being a meta-narrative about the telling of a folk tale rather than a simple rendition.
While it may have been expected that the band would bask in the critical acclaim of If I Should Fall from Grace with God, this wasn’t to be the case. MacGowan’s alcoholism had progressed beyond being a mere nuisance, and the other members were becoming disgruntled. Worried that MacGowan was hitting the gutter, just as Behan had before, and more willing to take advantage of the democratic songwriting ideals the band had been founded upon, the songwriting representation from the rest of the band would increase on future albums.
This process was immediately visible on 1989’s Peace & Love. MacGowan’s declining influence was indicated by the (comparatively) paltry six songs he contributed to the 14-track record. The new songwriting arrangements made for instant change, the first surprise coming with the introductory instrumental “Gridlock”. An exploration of hard bop jazz and an uncompromising repudiation of folk, the song differs thematically from anything performed by the band before. However, the song that defines the negative side of this experimentation best is the bizarre Celtic-Caribbean fusion of “Blue Heaven”—a reprehensible song with the Calypso pretensions suffocating any melodic inventiveness; a situation that occurs with saddening periodicity in the band’s later catalogue. Even the Irish folk songs sound bland and enervated—an alarming regression from the band’s original desire to invigorate the style.
Despite portraying himself as the arch traditionalist during this era, Shane MacGowan was not, in fact, conducting a one man crusade against the pretentious designs of his fellow band members. He had likewise introduced extraneous influences into the pure folk of before. As noted by Simon Reynolds in Generation Ecstasy, rumors abound that, having become immersed in the acid house scene, he wished to include a 20-minute appropriation of the genre (titled “You’ve Got to Contact Yourself”) onto Peace & Love. Whether there is any truth to this is again unknown, but what is audible fact is the bizarre Motown stomp of “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah”, released as an EP following Peace & Love. While two collaborations with the legendary Dubliners are included, this appears to be an almost apologetic move. Unfortunately, the cover of “Honky Tonk Women” would require much greater atonement than that.
Engrossed in Europe
Hell’s Ditch seemed like the final break with the Pogues of before. Although containing some fine songs grounded in the same folk stylings (“Sunnyside of the Street”, “Hell’s Ditch”), it sounds uninspiring and even conventional in parts—as pedestrian as the “Celtic fusion” peddled by acts like the Saw Doctors or the Waterboys, and not helped by the sterile production courtesy of Joe Strummer. Most substantially, the Irish element was downplayed massively; it was simply another amongst the other myriad styles of ‘world music’.
This extended to the lyrical elements, too, but in a vastly more positive way. MacGowan’s contributions were fresh and informed by a different aesthetic from the Irish folk of before, transporting the narrative style to exotic characters and locales from further afield on the European continent. The title track’s debt to Jean Genet manifested itself in a snapshot narrative, stark prison imagery wrapped in an overtly-sexual veneer:
The killer’s hands are bound with chains
At six o’clock it starts to rain
He’ll never see the dawn again
Our lady of the flowers
Verses describing death and squalor (like those above) are juxtaposed with others like:
Genet’s feeling Ramon’s dick
The guy in the bunk above gets sick
This is a structural trick that jars the listener and underlines the debt to the novel Our Lady of the Flowers. In common with the Irish influences of before, Genet celebrated the lowlife, the disenfranchised, and those who refused to conform to societal norms, but in a more explicit manner that questioned the values society encouraged and celebrated.
Federico Garcia Lorca
Aside from Jean Genet, the spectre of Federico Garcia Lorca also informed the album. Like “Sickbed of Cuchulainn”, “Lorca’s Novena” deals with modern heroism against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Backed by an eerie, dread-inducing combination of heavy bass and martial drums, the song tells of how the homosexual poet met his death at the hands of Franco’s nationalists. It’s not only the horrific circumstances of the poet’s death that justify the sinister vibes, but the wider context of a fascist victory that would ensure the legitimisation of such reprehensible deeds.
The final song of Hell’s Ditch, “Six to Go”, is an aural tombstone to the MacGowan Pogues, a condensed form of all the musical and conceptual contradictions that would contribute to its demise. Concerned with the six counties of Ireland which remain under the political control of Britain, it includes what sounds alarmingly like clichéd tribal chanting, an Africa found by way of The Lion King rather than anti-colonial solidarity. In common with other songs of this era (“Blue Heaven”, “Summer in Siam”, “Five Green Queens & Jean”), the solid core ends up ruined rather than enhanced by its exotic trappings.
The positive impact of the international influences on Hell’s Ditch is confined solely to the lyrics, which flourish and give the Hibernian focus of the first three albums a sense of context, placing Ireland amongst the other great literary nations of the world, rather than resorting to the Irish chauvinism jokingly played up (particularly by MacGowan) in interviews. If the music had gone the same way, perhaps the culmination of stylistic disparity and substance abuse wouldn’t have led to the decision to kick MacGowan from the band as a whole.
After the disintegration of the original line up, the remaining members regrouped to make two further albums: 1993’s Waiting for Herb and 1996’s Pogue Mahone). Yet without MacGowan at the lyrical helm, the collective lacked the cutting edge they had once possessed. Hence, while the two discs have their moments, they lack charisma and the sense of energy that defines the earlier albums—not to mention that they continue the terrible world music flirtations that marred the last two MacGowan albums. However, by the time of the band’s official demise in 1996, their influence was beginning to be felt in a big way.