Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sunday Music: The Pogues

The Pogues. "The Body of an American." Studio version in lieu of the classic SNL performance. Lyrics here.

If I did a chronologically ordered series on the bands that changed my life (or at least my conception of music), R.E.M. would beat out The Pogues by a few years. If it was ordered by importance of effect, my current obsession with American roots music of the 1920s and 30s would probably force me to place some other artists higher on the list. But there is absolutely no question that the first time I heard If I Should Fall From Grace With God left an incredible and probably permanent impression on me that colored my last years in high school and first few years of my undergraduate days. I would study Irish mythology, write papers on the likes of Joyce and Donleavy, and even start my own celtic punk band, The Sods, all as a result of semi-randomly checking out IISFFGWG from the local library.

So bear this as warning that my characterization of The Pogues and their importance in the Grand History of Everything might be slightly overstated.

Despite the literary references of MacGowan's lyrics and the eight-person arrangements of their middle period, The Pogues made the (still newly named) celtic music scene seem far less cerebral and "artsy" than the 70s folk-rockers which I had rediscovered in my parents' record collection. The Pogues were at once intellectual and yet stubbornly low-brow. Like a pub quiz penned by Behan.

Although polls on email lists and message boards tend to favor Red Roses for Me and Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, the lineup that recorded "Body" and IISFFGWG was my favorite. They went on to record two subpar albums (although there really are some hidden gems inside Peace and Love), but I'm willing to defend their experimentation and excesses as the very same aspects that made them great. At the time considered one of their faults by folk purists, that they worked with nontraditional instruments (piano accordion, five string banjo, drum set) only added to their originality. Even when they tried on other genres ("Fiesta", "If I Should Fall...", "London Girl") it rarely felt like they were falling into the trap of doing things the way they've always been done. (Well, except for throwaway recordings like the Sex Pistols knock-off "Hot Dogs with Everything"...) Each album, each song, the band reinvented itself. Much unlike many "pure" folk bands, the interplay between Finer, Fearnley, and Woods in particular stands out as the three seemed to negotiate their roles song-by-song rather than filling parts by rote. (And if the SNL version were available, one would be able to hear Woods' characteristic cittern noodling around the melody as he reinvented his part once again in live performance.)

These days, there are many Pogues imitators with neither the passionate genius of MacGowan nor the musical skill of the other members. Brutish, cartoonish meldings of generic celtic melodies with generic punk bands are no strangers to stages at places like the Warped tour. So much did the jock-rock version of "paddy punk" disillusion me that I more-or-less abandoned playing any sort of celtic music for years once I quit The Sods (and although there were other issues, it probably had some effect on my lack of motivation for finishing the second album).

When I began playing accordion with The Staggerers this summer, I rediscovered how much I loved The Pogues. Even after ten years of fandom, I'm still able to learn from them. The St Pat's day ruckus and "Fairy Tale of New York" karaoke at Christmas time really does the band no justice.

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