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Wax Lyrical: The Pogues are for life, not just for Christmas

Wax Lyrical: The Pogues are for life, not just for Christmas

by Lucie Grace, 16 January 2012

December is over, which means it is more than likely that you will not hear any music by The Pogues for another eleven months. If I’m preaching to the converted please excuse me, but by and large, the magic woven by Shane and the boys is criminally overlooked once Christmas has passed us. Yes 'Fairytale of New York' is a grand old song, but it’s the tip of the Titanic’s iceberg. So I’ve decided that this edition of Wax Lyrical will look at a few of the words that spout through that marvelous set of teeth.

Lyrics can pull you into their story on all sorts of different levels and in all sorts of ways. The Pogues repertoire really covers all bases. Sadly a lot of us see Shane McGowan as a bit of a joke. But where now lives an old drunk once dwelled a young punk. We can’t give Shane all the credit though, as other band members contributed to his songwriting turn over the years, particularly Jem Finer the banjoist.

They were a socially and politically conscious band. Coming from anarchic punk beginnings, their music grew into the brilliant orchestrated shambles that drew from folk and jazz influences as well as their own Celtic heritage. They tell stories, they provide knees ups, they sing the (anti) love songs. There is a reason that they still sell out shows for nights on end in London every December and in Boston on St Patrick’s Day. Their lyrics jump up and nut you.

'Thousands are Sailing'

How this track doesn’t even make it to their ‘Best of…’ album always completely bewilders me. Quite obviously about Irish immigration to the USA, the lyrics, as The Pogues lyrics so often do, tell stories of your every day average folks and the folks that time forgot. The policemen. The engineers. The politicians. The guys who made society turn. And the impoverished who starved on the boat over – who couldn’t even make it to Ellis Island where they would change names before being spat in to Manhattan. The best lines are in the first chorus, as we hear the characters, despite any poverty or misfortune, are dancing, heads held high.

  • The island it is silent now
  • But the ghosts still haunt the waves
  • And the torch lights up a famished man
  • Who fortune could not save
  • Did you work upon the railroad
  • Did you rid the streets of crime
  • Were your dollars from the white house
  • Were they from the five and dime
  • Did the old songs taunt or cheer you
  • And did they still make you cry
  • Did you count the months and years
  • Or did your teardrops quickly dry
  • Ah, no, says he, 'twas not to be
  • On a coffin ship I came here
  • And I never even got so far
  • That they could change my name
  • Thousands are sailing
  • Across the western ocean
  • To a land of opportunity
  • That some of them will never see
  • Fortune prevailing
  • Across the western ocean
  • Their bellies full
  • Their spirits free
  • They'll break the chains of poverty
  • And they'll dance

'If I Should Fall from Grace With God'

If you ever have need of any encouragement to knock back some whisky, this is your track. The one thing The Pogues excel at is getting to, is the bottom of the booze lover’s heart. This tune hears a man pushed to the point of hedonism where everything else goes out the window. It screams: to hell with it all, LET ME GO to hell if that’s where I’m going. Get me another drink. Not without giving us a subtle reminder though, of the brutality of their history. By just using the briefest mention of the ‘proud land of their fathers’ that was for so long oppressed, they quickly explain away this vice. Here are the first two verses.

    • If I should fall from grace with God
    • Where no doctor can relieve me
    • If I'm buried 'neath the sand
    • Let me go, boys
    • Let me go, boys
    • Let me go down in the mud
    • Where the rivers all run dry
    • This land was always ours
    • Was the proud land of our fathers
    • It belongs to us and them
    • Not to any of the others
    • Let them go, boys
    • Let them go, boys
    • Let them go down in the mud
    • Where the rivers all run dry

    Joe Strummer said back in the late 80s, that when on tour with The Pogues, he had to retrain himself from jumping on stage and joining in. The camaraderie that their music and lyrics inspire is unmistakable and there hasn’t been a band before or like them since. Now, I’m off to the pub for a Guinness.

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