August 11th 2012
The ongoing story of the Pogues seems to be writing itself another chaotic and brilliant chapter.
Last year there had been talk that is was all over. Grinding to halt. That there was nowhere left to run. That it was closing time for the piratical crew. That the merrie vagabonds had stumbled into the last chance saloon and rather liked it and stayed there and given up the playing gigs thing.
But here we are in Hungary watching them brilliantly stumble through their back catalogue again. Most groups playing the old hits would be pretty perfunctory but there is something of the devil about the Pogues and they make these old songs sound constantly exciting. Maybe it’s the idea that they may not quite get to the end of the set that gives everything its edge, maybe it’s because the years of playing have dug out new nuances and meanings in the complex and brilliant lyrics.
Shane MaGowan’s dissolute lifestyle has been well documented but he is still standing, albeit in a shuffling manner, and his delivery is still perfect in his own idiosyncratic way. His cracked and gnarled voice sounds better with the years adding to the songs feral, booze soaked mystique and the way he warps himself around those brilliant words is still as, er, intoxicating as it ever was.
The Pogues never sounded modern. Their moment of genius was realising that punk rock was another folk music and marrying it with the ribald form that they had grown up with, Irish music. When Jem Finner met Sean MacGowan in the late seventies and they stumbled into this concept they created something that was so timeless and so powerful that it has sustained throughout the decades transcending time and all the normal rules of rock n roll.
This was the sound of the pubs and clubs at the heart of many British cities- the boozer, the irish pub, after hours and the stories and myths that flatted around the ether. The warm drinking songs and the dark stories of mayhem and murder with God standing at the middle. With a deep intelligence and a brilliant sensitivity Shane MacGowan wrote those amazing lyrics and songs that defined the band over a clutch of albums before everything invariably unwound with the drink and the dissolute madness taking its toll.
Somehow they managed to reconvene a decade or so ago and their Christmas tours were legendary bacchanalian affairs and it’s this version of the Pogues that’s playing today at the Sziget festival, a festival with its own backdrop of Gypsy musicians in the nearby Roma tent that perfectly frames the same centuries old tradion that the Pogues operate in.
MacGown shuffles on and of stage, sharing his vocal duties with the charismatic Spider Stacey and with every return the roar of the crowd gets louder. He is loved for simply being here but his voice, no matter how battered, can cut through the night air and connect with the swaying audience who dance at a Pogues gig like no other show. With the mass swaying from side to side during the heart breaking ballads and then swaying a bit faster for the ribald dancing on bones faster tunes.
It’s doubtful whether Shane notices any of this. He is locked in his own world and his own space, one of the last great survivors of the punk class of ’76, an innovator working in a centuries old tradition backed by a band of brilliant musicians whose ability to make sense of these shamanic ramblings is part of their genius.
Even if you don’t drink the Pogues make you feel drunk. These songs have that flowing looseness and mind fuck, staggering quality about them. They are the devil’s own poetry and sound greater as the decades role by.
God knows what the future of the band is. They could make a great elder statesmen record if they could ever get everyone into the studio. They could also keep playing this set, digging out new meanings in these battered and brilliant standards and this is precisely what they do tonight in this packed field in Hungary.
The Pogues, somehow against all the odds, not only survive but move forward…