|The Pogues - If I Should Fall from Grace with God|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by John Sutton-Smith|
|Thursday, 01 February 2007|
performance: 8 (If I Should Fall)
• If I Should Fall from Grace (88)
reviewer by: John Sutton-Smith
The original Pogues, Shane MacGowan, James Fearnley (accordion) and Spider Stacy (tin whistle), busked on the streets of London, and were initially influenced by a local pub band's amped-up version of “The Wild Rover.” In the presence of Spider Stacy, Shane played a breakneck version of an Irish ballad; Stacy thought this was a really good idea – and the band began, later adding Jeremy “Jem” Finer (guitar, banjo), Cait O'Riordan (bass) and Andrew Ranken (drums). They rapidly developed a reputation, started releasing independent work, and ended up opening for the Clash on tour in 1984, releasing their debut record shortly thereafter. On Red Roses For Me, the pioneering Anglo-Irish, folk-punk collective’s soulful, ragged disposition and the unruly antics and compelling storytelling ability of singer MacGowan were quickly emerging from beneath the determinedly rough and ready musicianship: they were punks yearning to be folk.
The ability of MacGowan's booze-laced growl to put an edge on the most simple of melodies, and to write some of the finest folk songs of his generation, would turn the Pogues from a crude pub band into one of the most exciting and inimitable groups of the ‘80s. Already the defining presence on this wonderful first album was MacGowan’s extraordinary songwriting and his vocal delivery. Although this 1984 release contains a number of traditional folk tunes, it is MacGowan's originals, like the early "Boys from the County Hell," "Streams of Whiskey," soon to become a live staple, the manic ghost tale "Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go" and "Transmetropolitan," that confirmed the Pogues as more than a motley and mischievous crew of pub-folk-thrashers. The Pogues' fierce poetics straddled their raging cover versions of old Irish standards with MacGowan's rousing revival-styled originals. And yet amid the convivial rowdiness, there are ballads that stand out, like "Kitty," a sorrowful lament, and a memorable rendition of Irish bard Brendan Behan's "The Auld Triangle." A favorite album of the late great UK punk era, probably more for its simple and unabashed embrace of folk music traditions to convey a politic as true as the Clash’s, material as rich as Stephen Foster’s, and rhythms as pure and fancy-free as the Clancys’ and all who came before them.
Most of the Pogues were veterans of the UK punk scene, so it was little surprise that New Wave ubermeister Elvis Costello, well into his eclectic explorations himself, would gravitate towards the folk-punk conglomerate, directing the recording of their second album, 1985’s Rum Sodomy & the Lash. The title, a typically sardonic description of life in Her Majesty’s Navy – often attributed to Winston Churchill, but certainly of much earlier provenance – sums up in its imagery of piracy and rebellion the place of punk and working class bravado in the historical tradition of shanty songs, pub crawls and political protest.
Once noted by no less an authority than Rolling Stone as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and who am I to argue, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash shows the Pogues, and in particular Shane MacGowan, really developing as songwriters. Guitarist Jem Finer co-wrote the instrumental “Wild Cats of Kilkenny” with him, proving to be the start of a prolific collaboration over the years. Original members Fearnley on accordion and Spider Stacy on the tin whistle were now joined by Finer, guitarist Phil Chevron, bassist Cait O'Riordan and Andrew Ranken on drums, adding musical heft to a band that was growing by leaps and bounds, both in popularity and creative confidence. MacGowan’s innate sense of poetic storytelling is immediately evident on the first two tracks, the righteously angry "The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn" and "The Old Main Drag," plus the haunting and wondrous “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” while the cosmic connection between Celtic melody and punk rhythm is well evident on the irrepressible “Sally MacLennane” and the darkly comical “The Gentleman Soldier.” And yet MacGowan also demonstrates his remarkable interpretative instincts with singular performances on Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town" and Eric Bogle's "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," an epic anti-war masterpiece which has become more popular than the original recording, and both of which have become definitive interpretations of these signature folk pieces. The raw power and vulnerability of the Pogues and MacGowan are both most evident on this album. If ever one was to really hear MacGowan’s soulful, plaintive social protests, sharp and sardonic, seething beneath the punked-up rhythms of old Celtic melodies, then here is the place to begin.
As the breakthrough Rum, Sodomy and the Lash announced the Pogues as possessing more depth and potency than your average pub-folk band, it was 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God that was perhaps the peak of their success, both commercially and creatively. The Steve Lillywhite-produced album reached #3 on the U.K. charts and boasted some of MacGowan's finest songwriting, with songs like the title track, "Bottle of Smoke," "Lullaby of London” and “The Broad Majestic Shannon." Phil Chevron's song "Thousands Are Sailing," about the Irish diaspora, proved that MacGowan wasn't the only talented songwriter in the band. The album also included what has arguably become the band’s biggest song, the MacGowan/Finer "Fairytale of New York,” the darkly comic Christmas duet with the late Kirsty MacColl (recently voted the best Christmas song ever in a U.K. VH1 poll). The Pogues also started to push their stylistic envelope on this album, adding jazz ("Metropolis"), flamenco ("Fiesta") and Middle Eastern tunes ("Turkish Song of the Damned") to their repertoire still predominant with raucous Celtic shanties and rollicking folk/punk. "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six" shows MacGowan tackling political issues, while "Sit Down by the Fire" is a slower, softer take, and “The Broad Majestic Shannon” is just that, MacGowan as songwriter and singer at his superlative best.
For a band whose energy and message never relied upon meticulous technical attention, the Pogues actually created some incredible-sounding records, full of atmosphere and intrigue as well as rollicking good times. These albums have undergone a nice remastering job, noticeably cleaning up the often rough and ready performances. The band sounds full and in-your-face, as they should, while Shane’s voice pierces through as one of the great untrammeled vocal organs of modern music. The tracks are raw, lively and brimming with emotion. The earlier recordings sound at times like they were recorded in the back of a pub; there’s a roughness that is hard to erase, and thankfully that sense of early discovery remains in these remastered recordings.
Sonically, If I Should Fall from Grace with God is the Pogues on the crest, and as victims, of their early success. Upgraded production, bigger sound and some undoubtedly fine songs find a band at their creative peak, one which sadly they would not reach again. Steve Lillywhite certainly did what he was paid, no doubt handsomely, to do. But the Pogues were a woolly bear and not about to be put in a cage. Although many consider it to be the Pogues’ finest hour and final album of cohesive worth, the band soon fell victim to MacGowan’s demons and the changing vicissitudes of the music business.
There are six bonus tracks included on each album – Red Roses has early versions of Pogues essentials, "Muirshin Durkin" and the classic Dubliners foot-stomper "The Wild Rover." An expanded booklet contains complete lyrics, an intro essay by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, and liner notes by Gavin Martin. On Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, tracks include the Poguetry in Motion EP tracks, notably “London Girl” and “Rainy Night in Soho,” plus "A Pistol for Paddy Garcia" and "The Parting Glass." The new booklet begins with a poetic endorsement by Tom Waits and liner notes by David Quantick, and includes a generous gallery of photos, and complete lyrics. The extra cuts on If I Fall are highlighted by the rousing old traditional "South Australia," MacGowan's beautiful instrumental "Shanne Bradley," and the Pogues duets with the Dubliners on “The Irish Rover” and “Mountain Dew." Jem Finer's "Sketches of Spain," along with the Terry Woods’ "The Battle March Medley” instrumental, round out the extras. An expanded booklet contains opening recollections by Steve Earle and liner notes by Gavin Martin, plus a full set of lyrics.