“And it’s lend me 10 pounds, I’ll buy you a drink and Mother wake me early in the morning…”
It was because of this chorus I fell head over heels in love with The Pogues. I was 16, freshly kicked out of school and in the beginnings of a rut that continued into my early 20s. As brilliant as the chorus of Boys from the County Hell is, it was on the second listen that I fell truly, madly deeply in with this group of Irish vagabonds. To me Shropshire, and the town I lived in, was the county hell. Shite travel services, no jobs, no ambition and pubs littered with landlords who fitted the description of ‘miserable bollocks and bitches, bastards whore’ perfectly.
Sitting here now some 18 years later listening to Red Roses for Me, the love affair hasn’t just continued it has intensified with every listen. The sheer poetry of Shane, the blood-curdling howls, the bastard punk/folk fusion of the musical arrangements, the emotion, despair, social commentary and sheer horror, joy and madness can either lift me from whatever funk I’m in and make me feel like ten men, or accompany me when things have taken a turn for the worst and assist me while I drown my sorrows.
There’s a great anecdote about Shane. Apparently Nick Cave, who knows a thing or two about lyrics, went round to Shane’s one day and spied a pile of crumpled sheets of paper in the corner. Enquiring as to what they were, he was met with a derisory answer. Smoothing them back to life, he was stunned at their brilliance, shocked that MacGowan could toss away what he reckoned were stone cold classics, every last one of them. We’ll never hear those songs, which could be viewed as a great shame, but when he has given us so many cracking songs it’s worth focusing on the positive rather than lamenting what could’ve been. Here, in no particular order, are a load of his lyrics I love. I’ll have missed some, misheard others and no doubt picked what different ones to you. But that’s the beauty of music, and I would love to hear yours in the comments.
The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn
The last time I saw them play this live, in 2008, I lost an arm off my jacket and parts of my sanity. As with all of Shane’s songs it’s a masterpiece from beginning to end, but I’ve picked this eight line section from the second half of the song. The final song on my funeral list.
“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…
TWO, THREE, FOUR…
“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"
The Old Main Drag
The whole song, with references to she-males, quick ones off the wrist and kickings is truly horrifying, but he last verse is all of that and more.
“And now I'm lying here I've had too much booze
I've been spat on and shat on and raped and abused
I know that I am dying and I wish I could beg
For some money to take me from the old main drag”
A Rainy Night In Soho
One of the finest love songs of all-time, one that could honestly be to lover, mother, father or friend. The opening sums it all up beautifully.
“I've been loving you a long time
Down all the years, down all the days
And I've cried for all your troubles
Smiled at your funny little ways”
A Pair of Brown Eyes
It’s to my continued chagrin that I’ve never stood with a group of Pogues fans in a sawdust boozer and belted this out. Often makes me cry. The imagery this bit conjures up is incredible.
“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”
Hell’s Ditch gets a lot of shit, mostly from fuckwits with no ears, and I’ll be back to it. Love the way the song kicks up a level here.
“She had a red red scarf around her neck
Her eyes were green, her hair was black
Ooh she gave me mekong whiskey
Ooh she gave me hong kong flu
Ooh she gave me mekong whiskey
Put me on a breeze to katmandu”
Turkish Song of the Damned
No band of pirates had a shanty as fine as this, and I’ve gone with the chorus because, well, it’s one of the finest choruses in history.
“Did you keep a watch for the dead man's wind
Did you see the woman with the comb in her hand
Wailing away on the wall on the strand
As you danced to the Turkish song of the damned”
The Body of an American
A close run thing, but probably the most cinematic of all Pogues songs.
“He fought the champ in Pittsburgh and he slashed him to the ground
He took on Tiny Tartanella and it only went one round
He never had no time for reds for drink or dice or whores
And he never threw a fight unless the fight was right
So they sent him to the war”
One of Shane’s more traditional vocal performances. The verse before is probably better than the bit I’ve chosen, but I listened to this over and over when my own London girl binned me years ago.
“This could be our final dance, this could be our very last chance
And if you cut me don't you think I feel
Is this body made of clay, is this heart made of steel”
Streams of Whiskey
Two separate lyrics from this song, both which sum up being young, flush and with either zero responsibilities or a broken heart.
“And now that I've a pile, I'll go down to the Chelsea
I'll walk in on my feet but I'll leave there on my back”
“When the world is too dark and I need the light inside of me
I'll walk into a bar and drink fifteen pints of beer”
Dark Streets of London
A fairly cheery number with a great high-pitched vocal, then this verse turns it on its head.
“Every time that I look on the first day of summer
Takes me back to the place where they gave ECT
And the drugged up psychos
With death in their eyes
And how all of this really
Means nothing to me”
One for all of the poor Irish workers who built the railways.
“Navigator, Navigator rise up and be strong
The morning is here and there's work to be done.
Take your pick and your shovel and the bold dynamite
For to shift a few tons of this earthly delight
Yes to shift a few tons of this earthly delight”
The brooding instrumental of this that builds and builds can barely hint at the horrors within, the last verse a masterpiece of grim brilliance.
“I could hear the screams from up above
If it ain't a fist it isn't love
As for our lady she kneels down
Her neck is bent, the blade comes down
Doing! There goes the breakfast bell
Back from heaven, back to hell
Naked howling freedom - Hell's Ditch”
Not only a brilliant ode to the old stadium, but a lament at the swapping of pubs for car parks, real life for manufactured capitalist cock.
“Oh sweet city of my dreams
Of speed and skill and schemes
Like Atlantis you just disappeared from view
And the hare upon the wire
Has been burnt upon your pyre
Like the black dog that once raced out from trap two”
Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six
Here’s how to write about police injustice.
“There were six men in Birmingham
In Guildford there's four
That were picked up and tortured
And framed by the law
And the filth got promotion
But they're still doing time
For being Irish in the wrong place
And at the wrong time”
London You’re a Lady
One of many odes to the world’s greatest city, but this gets me every time.
“Your architects were madmen
Your builders sane but drunk
Among your faded jewels
Shine acid house and punk”
Fairytale of New York
Be easy not to include it, but this line cuts down most of us.
“I could’ve been someone
Well so could anyone…”
One of the first Pogues songs I loved.
“Father McGreer buys an ice cold beer
And a short for Father Loyola
Father Joe's got the clap again
He's drinking Coca-Cola
Down on Rain Street”
The Broad Majestic Shannon
Like a letter to your mate. Ace.
“I sat for a while by the gap in the wall
Found a rusty tin can and an old hurley ball
Heard the cards being dealt, and the rosary called
And a fiddle playing Sean Dun na nGall
And the next time I see you we'll be down at the Greeks
There'll be whiskey on Sunday and tears on our cheeks
For it's stupid to laugh and it's useless to bawl
About a rusty tin can and an old hurley ball”
It probably takes about 50 listens before you can singalong to the first half of the song, so for that reason alone here’s the first bit I understood, and you know it’s true.
“A man's ambition must indeed be small
To write his name upon a shithouse wall
But before I die I'll add my regal scrawl
To show the world I'm left with sweet fuck all”
Bottle of Smoke
Along with Sick Bed of Cuchulainn and Turkish Song of the Damned my favourite live song, it’s about winning on a horse.
“Slip a fifty to the wife
And for each brat a crisp new five
To give me a break on a Saturday night
When I had the Bottle of Smoke”
Boys from the County Hell
Not much I can say about this song that I haven’t already, the last verse rounds it all off perfectly.
“The boys and me are drunk and looking for you
We'll eat your frigging entrails and we won't give a damn
Me daddy was a blue shirt and my mother a madam
And my brother earned his medals at Mai Lei in Vietnam”
I could’ve probably gone on and on with this, but in the interests of earning a living and not listening to them all day every day for a week, I capped it here. It’s a shame that I couldn’t put in The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and other covers, and some of Shane’s lyrics on his first album with The Popes and also Spider’s, particularly on Waiting For Herd, are also great. And if you don’t agree, then I’ll just look you in the eyes and shout POGUE MAHONE…