Here's a timely post, considering the day . . .
During my junior (Second Class) year at the Naval Academy, there was a guy in my company named John, who lived across the hall from me that year. John was sort of short and wiry, but strong and smart as shit, and the dude could run like a gazelle for miles. His one aim in life was to become a Marine Corps officer, and during his time at the Academy he focused on that goal with steely concentration. He was in no way a party hound or a 'good-time guy' - he spent almost all of his time either studying, running or reading Marine manuals and other things related to the Corps. Through his stern demeanor and the way he carried himself, he earned the respect of most of his classmates. And although I never heard him raise his voice or flip out on anyone, the plebes under his tutelage quickly learned not to be unprepared in his presence, and trembled under his gaze.
Just about the only thing John did outside of his academic and athletic pursuits that could remotely be called "recreation" or "relaxation" was listen to traditional Irish folk music. He was nuts for the stuff, and had stacks of it on cassettes which he kept in a special drawer in his desk. Now for me (and I think for most other people), a little bit of that music goes a long way - yet John would sometimes play his Irish tunes for hours, driving his roommates and others in nearby rooms straight up the wall. But people never got on him about it, due of that aura of respect the guy had around him. I DID make attempts to 'counter-program' on occasion, playing selections from my rapidly-growing collection of punk and New Wave cassettes to drown out the mournful Celtic wailing and tin whistle tooting coming out of his room. This no doubt painted me as some kind of music freak/weirdo in John's eyes. He was a pretty hard guy to get to know on a personal level, and we weren't really buddies, per se - more like nodding acquaintances. So for a while there, I couldn't figure out any way to break the ice and convince him to play something different every once in a while . . . until I hit upon a plan. And that plan involved The Pogues.
The Pogues had their origins in The Nipple Erectors (aka The Nips), a band formed near the very dawning of the English punk movement. The band, fronted by vocalist Shane MacGowan, released four singles and a live album between 1977 and 1981 (one song, "Gabrielle", is featured on the 1-2-3-4: Punk & New Wave 1976-1979 compilation I posted here last month). In the late 70s, MacGowan also played with a pickup band called The Millwall Chainsaws, which included banjoist Jem Finer and Spider Stacy on tin whistle. Near the tail end of The Nips' existence, the group shifted its musical direction, becoming less of a straight-ahead rock/punk band and incorporating Cretan and Irish folk into their music. This new focus didn't last, as the band fell apart within six months.
After The Nips broke up, MacGowan began concentrating more on The Millwell Chainsaws, who changed their name to The New Republicans. In 1982, he convinced his old Nips bandmate James Fearnley to join the group on accordian, and the quartet, newly christened Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for "kiss my ass") played their first gig at The Pindar of Wakefield in London in October, 1982.
Over the next year or so, the group added drummer Andrew Ranken and Cait O'Riordan on bass, and began building up a fan base in and around London, appearing at various local clubs and releasing a self-financed single, "Dark Streets of London". Pogue Mahone began receiving their first national attention in early 1984, when they opened for "The Clash" (and I use those quotation marks deliberately, as "The Clash" at this time consisted of Strummer, Vince White, Nick Sheppard and Pete Howard - the same lineup that would record and release the abysmal and much-maligned Cut The Crap a year later) during their Out Of Control Tour that winter. MacGowan and Co. signed
I didn't hear about The Pogues until the late spring of 1985, when I began seeing articles about them in the British music mags I read at the time. Their follow-up to Red Roses For Me was slated for release later that year, and as I recall, the stories I read seemed to downplay the punk side of the band's output, focusing more on the folk aspects of their sound. I wasn't quite sure how I felt about purchasing a hardcore Irish music disc . . . but at the time, I trusted the reviews and opinions these magazines offered, so I decided to give it a try. The Pogues' second album, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, was released that August; I recall picking my copy up at a record store in Pensacola, Florida while down there doing a short summer training session.
Overall, I enjoyed the album very much. It's remarkable how well this punk/folk mashup works; the former genre intensifies the passion and the meaning of the latter. The Pogues storm through raucous, authentic-sound originals like "The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn" and "Sally MacLennane", and provide different takes on traditional folk tunes like "The Gentleman Soldier" and "I'm A Man You Don't Meet Everyday". But my two favorites off of this disc are a cover of Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town" and the album highlight "A Pair Of Brown Eyes", penned by MacGowan himself:
I bumped into him in the hall one day and engaged him in conversation, steering the chat towards music, especially towards his beloved Irish tunes. I casually mentioned that I had recently begun listening to Irish music, and offered to loan him my new Pogues cassette. John was initially skeptical - he KNEW what sort of stuff I was normally into, and couldn't believe that I enjoyed the same tunes that he did; he undoubtedly suspected that I was taking the piss out of him. His suspicions were somewhat alleviated when I went to my room and quickly returned with the tape, but he still had a weird look on his face as he sauntered away, promising to have a listen to it sometime soon.
A few days went by, and I hadn't seen much of John during that time - we were both off just doing out respective things. On the positive side of that, however, I hadn't heard much traditional Irish music coming from him room during that period, which was a blessing. I finally ran into him one afternoon out in the Yard on the way to class.
"Hey John - what's been happening?", I asked.
"Not much," he replied, taciturn as always.
"Did you have a chance to listen to that tape I lent you?"
"What did you think?"
John paused for a moment, then broke into a rare and uncharacteristic smile. "It's the greatest stuff I've ever heard!"
So I made The Pogues a new fan that day!
After graduation, I lost touch with John for several years. But I saw him again at the 20th Class Reunion six or seven years ago. He'd loosened up a lot since our Academy days, and we had a good time reminiscing about old times. I was surprised when he brought up my loan of that album to him; apparently, it affected him a lot more than he let on at the time. Not only did it lead him to become a Pogues fan for several years afterwards, it also expanded his music tastes beyond what he was used to, and he learned to appreciate groups that he was blind to before, like The Clash, The Smiths and The Jam. So I guess for once I did something right.
And with that, here's something right for you all: The Pogues' Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, produced by Elvis Costello (who ended up later marrying Cait O'Riordan for a few years) and released by Stiff Records in the UK in August 1985, and by MCA Records in the U.S. that same month. Enjoy your St. Patrick's Day, and as always, let me know what you think.
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