The Pogues - If I Should Fall From Grace With God, 1988, Warner
If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Turkish Song of the Damned
Bottle of Smoke
Fairytale of New York
Thousands are Sailing
Medley: The Recruiting Sergeant / Rocky Road to Dublin / Galway Races
Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six
Lullaby of London
The Battle March Medley
Sit Down by the Fire
The Broad Majestic Shannon
The Pogues got together in north London in 1982. Although people usually think of them as an Irish band, most members were actually born in England and their experience as “London Irish” was pivotal to both their lyrics and musical style. Their name comes from the anglicisation of the Gaelic phrase “póg mo thóin”, anglicised as "Pogue Mahone", the name of their final album. It translates as “kiss my arse” A very apt name for a band with such strong punk roots. They started out doing punk covers of traditional Irish songs and later branched out into writing their own material. This was their third album and their best selling, reaching number 3 in the album chart.
The title track opens the album at breakneck speed. I think this is for the uninitiated, who might have seen the array of instruments on the album cover and thought they were buying a gentle folk album. Turkish Song of the Damned continues the pace with the tin whistle coming to the fore, use of more intricate guitar and a definite feel of malevolence. It’s a perfect mix of punk sensibility and folk musicality. Bottle of Smoke comes across as a firey, drunken rant, there’s a lot of lead singer Shane MacGowan’s trademark screaming, which you’ll have noticed in the first two songs as well. It’s brilliant, but relentless. If you’re ready for a breather here it is with the best Christmas song ever, Fairytale of New York with a gorgeous string and piano accompaniment, Shane and Kirsty MacColl take us on a journey of two Irish immigrants to New York City. Although their dreams don’t come to fruition, they still have each other (for all their faults) and the song ends on a hopeful note. This song returns to the UK singles chart every December, so it clearly taps into something in the British psyche, even if it is just as an antidote to the majority of horrific Christmas pop music we are subjected to every year, after all, not everyone is happy at Christmas. After instrumental Metropolis, the first of two, The Battle March Medley is later on the album, comes the brooding Thousands are Sailing another song on the theme of Irish emigration. This song brilliantly distills the immigrant experience, the risk, the hope, (“In Manhattan's desert twilight, In the death of afternoon, We stepped hand in hand on Broadway, Like the first man on the moon”) the struggle, the desire to put on a good face to show the people back home that you made the right decision even if things are harder than you anticipated (“Postcards we're mailing of sky-blue skies and oceans, from rooms the daylight never sees”), and the difficult tightrope every immigrant walks: (“Wherever we go we celebrate the land that makes us refugees”) Fairytale may (rightly) get all the plaudits, but this is an incredibly well constructed song that truly shows the skill level of this band. Fiesta which is based on a Spanish fairground melody is a complete change of pace. It’s fun and highlights the diversity of the instrumentalists in the group. The Recruiting Sergeant / Rocky Road to Dublin / Galway Races is a medley of three traditional Irish songs, a nod to the tradition of music played in Irish pubs where songs are picked up, put down, adapted and changed to suit the mood of the evening. Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six starts with Terry Woods (usually to be found playing a string instrument) on vocals. It’s a lament to people wrongly imprisoned in both England and Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the gentle start gives way to Shane’s angry howl, cursing the propensity of the rest of Britain to view any Irish person as a terrorist during the height of the Troubles in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This song was actually banned in the UK until the late 1990s when the convictions mentioned in the song were proved to be unsafe and the men convicted were freed from prison. He’s calmed down again for Lullaby of London a love song to our rough, dirty city. Sit Down by the Fire is another punky one, all about nightmares with an oppressive beat to match the dark lyrics. The Broad Majestic Shannon is more of a standard love song, you’ll be unsurprised to learn it’s my least favourite on the album, but that’s not because it’s bad, it’s just that I enjoy the more uptempo stuff more. Worms is a slightly weird, funereal end to the album that could have been left out.
I’ve been a Pogues fan since I was very young so I need to recognise my bias here, but this is a truly great album. It’s a bit of a whirlwind at the start and you need the change of pace after the first three songs before it ramps up again. The addition of different styles of music from outside Britain and Ireland really adds to the whole and shows the ability of the musicians in the band. With lyrics that are at times dark and poignant and always well observed, it gives the listener something to think about as well as making you want to dance. It really represents the best of one of the most fun bands to ever come out of London. The variety of instruments and style is something you don’t see so much of in the later bands that they influenced like Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, The Rumjacks and Black 47, although you could include any rock band with celtic leanings in this list.
Although they have not released anything since Pogue Mahone, they did reform in 2001 to play gigs and played regularly for a few years after that, but their live shows eventually became sporadic and they have not played live together since 2014.
The Pogues were a phenomenal band but their hard partying, substance abusing lifestyle was always going to be unsustainable. If I Should Fall From Grace With God represents them at their absolute peak. In my opinion there isn’t a bad Pogues album, though many would disagree with me, especially about Pogue Mahone, but this is the absolute pinnacle. As a live band, they were an incredible force, even in their second incarnation by which point Shane MacGowan’s voice was ravaged beyond repair and Spider Stacy was taking on much of the vocal work.
If all you know of The Pogues is Fairytale of New York I’d encourage you to check this album out, because there is so much more to this band than “the best Christmas number one that never was”.