College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 10

pogues peace

10. The Pogues, Peace and Love

There’s a picture of the Pogues on the back cover of the soundtrack to the 1987 Alex Cox movie Straight to Hell. In the photo, the members of the band are dressed in bandito garb and lead singer Shane MacGowan sits right in the middle, with a pistol pressed against his temple as if he’s about to pull the trigger and kill himself. My friend Colin, an aficionado of all things Pogue, once remarked that the picture would be far more accurate if MacGowan were holding a whiskey bottle to his skull, since that was the weapon he was really using to do himself in. Of course, my friend made that observation over twenty years ago, and Shane MacGowan endured.

Still, MacGowan’s consumption levels were astounding and fodder for endless stories. When Robyn Hitchcock discussed the first time he saw the Pogues play live, he naturally focused on MacGowan: “”I remember going to the Hope and Anchor [a punk venue in London]. The Pogues were all on stage and ready, it was a full house, but they hadn’t started yet. Then this character shambled in through the door and shambled downstairs. I thought, ‘Jesus, you’re not letting that guy in are you?’. Then he walked on stage. That guy was Shane MacGowan.” When my friends and I gathered in the dorm building basement to watch MTV’s 120 Minutes, we were always excited to see the video for the Pogues song “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah,” in circulation at the time, because it offered evidence that MacGowan couldn’t even make it through a fairly simple video shoot without descending into physical uselessness. The director seems to completely give up on the notion that MacGowan should lip-sync the song with any level of accuracy, taking advantage of the conceit of the video to absolutely bury the singer behind psychedelic visual effects in the second half of the video, presumably shot later in the day, after a couple more bottles were emptied.

None of this stopped the Pogues from making terrific records, though. If anything, the boozy legend of Shane probably added to their appeal, or at least the sense of rousing Irish authenticity. The band was formed in London in the early nineteen-eighties, but it was the shared Irish heritage of the band members that clearly informed their music. They built their songs with punk attitude (MacGowan got his start in the proper punk band the Nips), but played them with instruments more closely associated with Irish folk. Tin whistle, banjo and brass filled in the music on their records. At the time of their fourth full-length studio album, 1989’s Peace and Love, the band numbered eight members, and every song had the fullness and soaring spirit of a jubilant jig with no end. There was a sense, however, that they were ready to branch out a bit with Peace and Love. Their previous album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God, often bore a sound that was just as likely to be favored by the old-timers in the Dublin pubs as the rowdy kids. The very first song on Peace and Love announced that a slightly different approach was afoot. “Gridlock” is a three-and-half-minute instrumental that owes more to American jazz than Irish folk. The band’s exemplary musicianship is on display and the song’s brisk pace has an engrossing quality, but this was also clearly going to be a different sort of Pogues album.

Surely, it was a recalibration rather than a full-scale abandonment of their sound and heritage. “Down All the Days,” about writer Christy Brown (the subject of the film My Left Foot, released that same year to resounding acclaim and Oscar wins) is as Irish as can be. Similarly, no one was going to doubt the nationality of songs like “Young Ned of the Hill” or “Boat Train.” Still, when I think of this album, I think of its additional latitude, the way the band’s well-established sound expands a bit on “White City” or the spectacular “Blue Heaven.” The Pogues were right on the precipice of being forever pigeonholed and they seem to buck against that, happily with splendid results. The history of popular music is littered with performers who made essentially the same album over and over again until they decidedly established their insignificance. It’s a far more satisfying tale when a band proves their artistry and the resilience of their collective voice while also demonstrating a capacity to grow. That’s one of the great pleasures of Peace and Love.

Except that it didn’t wind up being the first stride in an interesting new direction that would last for years. MacGowan’s prodigious alcohol and drug use was turning into a significant issue for his bandmates, and his increasing lack of reliability was started become untenable. They released the mediocre Hell’s Ditch in 1990 and parted ways with MacGowan shortly thereafter. Joe Strummer from the Clash produced the album and he was briefly recruited to take MacGowan’s place before the band settled on founding member Spider Stacy as the man to stand out front. It turned out that the Pogues only had a couple more albums in them anyway, and they split after the release of Pogue Mahone in 1996. Reunions did happen, with the band embarking on brief tours periodically ever since 2001. Shane MacGowan is typically part of the band on these tours, and he remains as unpredictable and woozy as ever. That’s part of the appeal, after all, and MacGowan, for all his potential disaster, is the embodiment of the very character of the music that the band plays. His ragged baritone carries within it the authenticity of the hard luck songs. Sure, the vocals might get a little slurry, but that’s part of the charm, and sometimes those collapsing syllables hold more true poetry than the actual words on the lyric sheet. That’s certainly something that Shane MacGowan has proved over and over again.

20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
13. The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
12. The Godfathers, More Songs About Love & Hate
11. Guadalcanal Diary, Flip Flop