Top 102 Albums⁺ No 20
Rum, Sodomy and the Lash - The Pogues
"the ghosts are rattling at the door and the devil's in the chair"
The Pogues were a rattlin', rollicking shot in the arm to the whole idea of Irish music and folk music in general. One of the best live bands I have ever seen, they performed with passion and intensity but also wildness and a devil may care attitude which erased any sense of their music being a revival of anything. This was a new beast, a mutation rather than a revival.
Their first album had captured this excitement while hinting that McGowan might be a bit special in the songwriting department, particularly his reimagining of the Irish Ballad in the world of alcoholism and asylums in The Dark Streets of London. Right from the off Rum, Sodomy and the Lash confirmed this. The first song, The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn, is a drunken stagger through Irish myth, republicanism, music and cliche. It draws on the associations between one form of Irish republicanism and the fight against fascism, racism and all forms of prejudice and control. It uses the idea of the mythic warrior, Cuchulainn and the radical republican Frank Ryan, the tenor Richard Tauber who left his native Austria when the Nazis came to power. But all this information is external to the song, which works with or without it, driven by a radical disgust for how power and repression can crush the human spirit.
"You remember that foul evening when you heard the banshees howl
There was lousy drunken bastards singing billy is in the bowl
They took you up to midnight mass and left you in the lurch
So you dropped a button in the plate and spewed up in the church
Now you'll sing a song of liberty for blacks and paks and jocks
And they'll take you from this dump you're in and stick you in a box
Then they'll take you to Cloughprior and shove you in the ground
But you'll stick your head back out and shout "we'll have another round" "
And after one masterclass comes another, and my favourite, The Old Main Drag. It is the story of a young teenager who arrives in London with fuck all and has it and more besides taken from him. He becomes up a rent boy and an addict, and in the final verse he knows "that I am dying." It is a harrowing song and pulls no punches, with McGowan creating for himself the aura of an alcoholic, Londoon-Irish Genet, on speed.
"There the he-males and the she-males paraded in style
And the old man with the money would flash you a smile
In the dark of an alley you'd work for a fiver
For a swift one off the wrist down on the old main drag
In the cold winter nights the old town it was chill
But there were boys in the cafes who'd give you cheap pills
If you didn't have the money you'd cajole or you'd beg
There was always lots of tuinol on the old main drag"
These two songs set a pretty high standard but they don't overshadow the album. There is a mix of covers and further McGowan songs. Covers include Ewan McColl's Dirty Old Town and Eric Bogle's And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda. They indicate an empathy for the working man, for lives wasted in war but yet lives that can be lit up by love, even in the grim shadows of factory walls. A version of Jesse James helps to further cement The Pogues outlaw edge.
The pick of the remainder is A Pair of Brown Eyes which mixes images of a bloody war in the trenches with scenes apparently in Irish pubs. Are they flashbacks or cartoons of Friday night fisticuffs? Who knows? Who cares? Another classic minted.
"In blood and death 'neath a screaming sky
I lay down on the ground
And the arms and legs of other men
Were scattered all around
Some cursed, some prayed, some prayed then cursed
Then prayed and bled some more
And the only thing that I could see
Was a pair of brown eyes that was looking at me
But when we got back, labeled parts one to three
There was no pair of brown eyes waiting for me"