Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, frustrated that there was no antonym for the word “catastrophe”, invented the term “eucatastrophe”, something that would describe an explosion of good. Still, I think there is another term: The Pogues.
The late lamented neo-trad group burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s, and long-time fans would not be surprised that the Irish-English band had its origins in the bathroom of a London concert hall during a show by the Ramones. The initial meeting of several core members that night eventually channeled the exuberance of punk through the folk instruments and songs that accompanied innumerable pints of Guinness in working-class pubs for decades.
Fronted by Shane MacGowan, who embodied the band’s spirit of gulping down life like the first pint on a Friday night, the Pogues growled and played the shit out of their instruments, whether it was a beaten bass drum or a tin whistle. They rollicked through songs that lifted the timeless stories of downtrodden hard-working, hard-living sods.
This compilation of 23 songs is culled from British television appearances by the Pogues and represents the big bang of the band’s early years from 1984 through 1986. The first few songs are from an appearance the band made with its original name: Pogue Mahone, which translates from the Gaelic as “Kiss My Ass”. The band’s label pressured them after Gaelic speakers lodged complaints, so they changed their name to the Pogues.
It’s not hard to believe that the same ecstatic fire that propelled the band’s collective ascent could lead to its crack-up. Unfortunately, MacGowan’s growing erratic behavior led to his split from the band he helped found and spearhead. The band sputtered but then stopped, picking up again in 2001 without recording.
By the time the group released their third album, their high-water mark If I Should Fall From Grace, they proved that they could master any style – from mariachi to jazz. Though this compilation has a couple of songs from that expansive album, this is mostly from 1984’s Red Roses for Me, and 1985’s Rum Sodomy and the Lash, where they nailed down their hybrid punk-trad sound. Throughout, they demonstrate again and again that despite their ragtag, insouciant appearance, they played with eye-opening precision, speed and synchronization.
The good and bad news is that all the cuts hew remarkably close to the studio versions with no audience noise or even patter from the band. There are a couple of unreleased songs, but mostly this is familiar – and most likely beloved – territory for dedicated fans. There are a couple of songs that appear twice, though not drastically different from each other. For newbies or those only slightly familiar, this is an excellent introduction to this singular band.
While the focus of popular songs is usually love and sex, the songs here are like a book of folk tales limning the difficult lives of the working or barely working class, with an occasional foray into the mixed blessings of alcohol, such as the chanting opening cut “Streams of Whiskey”. “When the world is too dark / And I need the light inside of me / I’ll walk into a bar / And drink 15 pints of beer.”
“Poor Paddy on the Railway” tells the story of Irish workers in the 1840s working to build rail tracks.”Navigator” is about miners dying accidentally, while the traditional song “Greenland Whale Fisheries” talks about sailors battling to capture whales. “The losing of those five jolly men / It grieved the captain sore / But the losing of that fine whalefish / Now it grieved him ten times more.”
This high-energy collection slows down occasionally — for the classic “Danny Boy” and “Dirty Old Town”, with its doleful plucked banjo, fiddles, and harmonica, mixing a grudging but wistful appreciation with biting anger. In “The Auld Triangle”, from a play by Brendan Behan, MacGowan sings of the daily life in a rodent-infested prison cell.
This collection is another welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.