PUNK NOT PROPER BROGUE AROUND THE POGUES
When the British music press hails a new group as "the best punk band since the Sex Pistols" and said punk band (called the Pogues, short for a Gaelic vulgarity) entitles its debut album "Rum, Sodomy & the Lash," the casual observer could be forgiven for coming to some very hasty and definite conclusions about what might be expected from these folks in the way of music and ambiance.
This doesn't sound like the kind of band, for instance, that a prudent person would book to play a church ice cream social or a folk festival.
It's true enough that the Pogues, who have a reputation as heavy drinkers, probably wouldn't go over so well at the ice cream social. The folk festival might be a different story because, despite the "punk" tag that's been hung around their scruffy necks, the Pogues' most marked influence isn't the Sex Pistols at all.
Instead, it's Irish folk music, the hardcore, traditional stuff. And they perform it accompanied by acoustic guitar, bass, tin whistle, accordion, fiddle, uileann pipes and a two-piece drum kit.
So why were the Pogues, currently trying to crack the U.S. market with two new records and a tour that will bring them to the Vic on July 12, being hailed as Britain's punk darlings?
It didn't hurt, of course, that respected longtime Angry Young Man Elvis Costello produced the band's impressive American debut album on MCA Records, as well as a so-so companion four-song EP, "Poguetry in Motion." (Costello happens to be the current main squeeze of Cait O'Riordan, the lone female in the current eight-person Pogues' line-up.) But while an established musical mentor can draw attention to a new band, ultimately the group stands or falls on its own merits, and the Pogues don't need any help in that department.
Led by the cheerfully loopy-looking Shane MacGowan, who looks as if he tossed away his toothbrush around the time the Pistols tossed in the towel, the band plays music rooted in tradition, but their rebellious stance, harshly urgent delivery and rummy passion are as contemporary as you can get--adding an exhilarating, raucous edge to songs that frequently are timeless in their depiction of the more brutal sides of life and death.
"Rum, Sodomy & the Lash," for instance, features "Dirty Old Town," noted Scottish folk musician Ewan MacColl's ballad about life in a gritty industrial town; "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," an antiwar song by Eric Bogle that has become a contemporary folk classic; the American folk song "Jesse James"; and five original songs by MacGowan, including one about a teenage male prostitute who laments the fact that the mauling he got during a stay in jail ruined his looks and took away his market value on "The Old Main Drag."
(Meanwhile, in a punk-style nod to artistic classicism, the album jacket depicts a slightly altered version of a famous and controversial 19th-Century French painting by Theodore Gericault, titled "The Raft of the Frigate Medusa.")
Lead vocalist and songwriter MacGowan, who grew up listening to Irish music, notes that he always liked traditional fare, but he doesn't see the Pogues' songs as "traditional." His own songs, he says, are written "about being Irish in London, about people I meet, the pubs and getting drunk. London is a hole, and the country is going to the dogs, but I love the seamy side of life.
"I want to get rich and rise above the squalor," he adds, "but I don't suppose I will."
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