Friday, 19 April 2013

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 20 - Rum, Sodomy and the Lash

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"

The freedom that McGowan's characters seem to embody seems often to lead to another trap, that of drinking. There is a bruised romanticism to McGowan's work, a worldview in which damage becomes a badge of  authenticity and drinking an entrance fee. I've drank with Shane once upon a time and even drank like him for a while. However, I don't look for answers or examples in music, but emotions that feel true, musical inventiveness and emotional impact. They are all here, and allied with a lyrical flow that has rarely been matched. And that radical disgust, which fuels the fire. Listening to this is as close as I come to getting drunk these days. It's close enough.


  1. When this came out, I asked my mother to get this for me from Freebird. She found it very amusing, a little old lady amongst the punks and metalheads asking politely for the Pogue's Rum, Sodomy and the Lash.
    Hard to choose between this and If I Should Fall from Grace. Shane whenever he's asked about RSL, laments the production work of Elvis Costello.

    The CD reissue has off the cuff words of praise from Tom Waits and Poguetry in Motion tagged on. This would be my Number One EP. Good piece here on how Body of an American was used so well in the Wire.


    1. Brendan, In my mind I can hear If I Should Fall From Grace as if the planned production by Tom Waits had gone ahead. It strikes me that some of the songs were written with him in mind. I always found the production a little too smooth, too rock or something. I imagined something handmade, anarchic. However, I still love the album, and Poguetry in Motion.

    2. Wow, I was not aware of that! Tantalising thinking about it. Tom may well have fallen back off the wagon if it came to pass.

  2. Tom and Shane!
    Who'd win the gurning contest?
    I watched a documentary on Shane a good 10 years ago.
    His life was threatened daily by tossers feeding him booze and poking him for stories and/or a 'Shane Moment'.
    He was being kept alive by a beautiful red head.
    I hope to god that he still has her. Amazed that he still stands to be honest.
    Literally 'a wasted talent'...
    Heartbreaking or pathetic?

    1. i have to go for heartbreak, Trevor. Unfortunately his genius and his pain seem too entwined to be disentangled. He wears his disintegration like a badge of authenticity. I remember watching a documentary on him where he talked up his periods of happy childhood in his native Tipperary, a memory that seemed hugely at variance with his younger self in photographs, who looked anything but happy.
      The time I talked to him he nursed a glass of beer for over an hour and was perfectly lucid but when a crowd of assholes started talking to him he sunk beneath an unintelligible mumble and played his part. He seemed to be hiding in plain view.

  3. This takes me back to many a night at the poly bop ( weds and sat nights) I saw them live re Grace of God but agree this one nudges it due to its lack of polish

    1. I saw them at the time of this while still ensconced in my own version of the McGowan shuffle, drunk and disordered. They were fantastic. I still want to shake a leg when I hear certain tracks, although in my physical condition that could be fatal.

  4. When I saw them I was full of whisky and flu in equal measures - it made he whole evening a bit of a hazy blur