15th December 2013
THE second tour in the three years since their not unsurprisingly disingenuous ‘Farewell Tour’, the Pogues are tonight beginning a short December airing of their seminal sophomore album ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’ to an audience that largely resembles the cast of MacGowan’s own writing. For some, the Pogues have long become nothing more than a novelty; a barely upright casualty at the helm of an annual cash cow every December, but for many the continued existence of the Pogues is cause for celebration enough, especially when on the promise of hearing a record as exhilarating as this in full.
Literary, hedonistic, riotous and brimming with romance, 1985’s ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’ marks not only the peak of the Pogues’ powers but a high watermark of song-writing that’s lost nothing of its haunting power. This celebration of ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’ is not without something of a sadness – though often rightly heralded as one of the great Irish poets, MacGowan never again lived up to his role as great Irish poet and instead chose the no less fascinating path of professional self-abuse. By ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’, MacGowan was writing songs that brought high poetry to low existence, dense with imagery and melodies that felt as though they had been conjured fully-formed from the ether. Though the eternal ‘Fairytale of New York’, their biggest hit and reason why the Pogues continue to do this sort of thing every December, would come two years later, ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’ would go forever unbettered, with Shane MacGowan was already making considerable progress in his descent into the oblivion of self-abuse. The emergence of acid house at the end of the 1980’s would have a profound effect on the size and the scope of MacGowan’s already colossal drug consumption, the physical and mental effects of which would sabotage capacity to shine anywhere near as bright as ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’ again irreversibly.
Tonight, the shuffling Shane MacGowan is received onto the stage with adulation and riotous applause, though this to him appears much less significant than the glowing cigarette between his yellowed fingers. Stoic at the microphone in black shirt and black sunglasses, he mutters something unintelligible and the band launch into a bombastic ‘The Sickbed of Cuchulainn’; namechecking the Irish Republican Frank Ryan and 18th century criminal Billy Davis.
There’s great delight from the audience in shouting back the more vivid of MacGowan’s lyrics, at few places other than a Pogues concert would a lyric about vomiting in midnight mass become a communal singalong. The musical intelligence of ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’ is striking – with unrivalled sophistication the Pogues were doing with Irish folk music what Jerry Dammers had done with ska and Kevin Rowland had done with Motown and Stax soul.
As a band, the Pogues are virtuosos of their craft, enough punk sensibility is retained within what they do to ensure their brand of folk never strays into the earnest or the self-indulgent – indeed, on the furious instrumental ‘The Wild Cats of Kilkenny’ the band soar to heights not even captured initially on ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’. The album’s producer Elvis Costello explained his duty “to capture them in their dilapidated glory before some more professional producer fucked them up”, a prophecy which turned out to be not unfounded, though MacGowan would do much more to destroy the Pogues than any producer could ever hope.
No plunging from mortality at twenty seven for Shane MacGowan, this coming Christmas Day will mark the fifty-sixth birthday of a man who, like Ziggy Stardust’s leper messiah, exists as a sort of perennial flipside to the glamour of rock’n’roll mythology. That said, MacGowan still carries an extraordinary magnitude; all eyes are transfixed on MacGowan for every second he spends onstage, especially from his band-mates. Vocally, he tonight seldom offers more than a long, nasal wheeze; the band playing catch-up as his delivery pre-empts the beat by some distance but never straying completely out of time. Fortunately, Shane seems to wake up somewhere in the middle of ‘The Old Main Draig’, and the vocals begin to resemble what once they were. Indeed, it’s ‘The Old Main Draig’ that tonight finds a peculiar significance; the mid-fifties Shane MacGowan now perfect casting for the song’s dying rent boy narrator, every last whiskey and cigarette crackles and fizzes from the back of his throat. Like Christmas itself, absences are especially noticeable – guitarist Philip Chevron passed away in October and his beautiful ‘Thousands are Sailing’ is aired tonight in tribute. For ‘Fairytale of New York’, Camille O’Sullivan steps into Kirsty MacColl’s formidable shoes with much of MacColl’s spirit and humour, few songs can withstand the multitude of listens weathered by ‘Fairytale of New York’ and still convey such poignant, whiskey sodden humanity.
As the set comes to a close with ‘Fiesta’ – rapturously received but still something of a Pogues caricature – it’s hard to come to any conclusions about the previous hour and a half. There’s something of a hypocrisy to the idea that Shane MacGowan is all well and good when singing about drunkenness and decrepitude but when he’s actually embodying it then it’s somehow unprofessional – thus the eternal dilemma of the Pogues, held ransom by an individual who can on a whim bring into crashing disarray even this most strongest of musical outfits or elevate them to enthralling poetic heights previously unseen in pop. When MacGowan was sacked and replaced by Joe Strummer in the early nineties, Strummer found living up to Shane MacGowan immensely difficult – tonight it’s Shane MacGowan himself that appears to have that problem.