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Best Pogues Songs: 20 Of The Best From Shane MacGowan’s Crew
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Best Pogues Songs: 20 Of The Best From Shane MacGowan’s Crew

They were rowdy, rebellious and volatile, but Shane MacGowan and co built their catalogue to last – as the best Pogues songs attest.


Distilling a moonshine mix from the Irish folk tradition and the energy of punk, The Pogues hit upon something with a uniquely fiery taste. To se how well their potent elixir has matured, we sample the best Pogues songs and find that they still go down a treat…

Listen to the best of The Pogues here, and check out our 20 best Pogues songs, below.

20: Tuesday Morning (from ‘Waiting For Herb’, 1993)

Even The Pogues’ staunchest supporters struggled to believe that the group could exist without frontman Shane MacGowan. However, the band proved the doubters wrong with Tuesday Morning. The first single from their sixth album, Waiting For Herb, it went Top 20 in the UK and also caused a stir on US radio. Though something of a stylistic departure, with its jangling guitars and Spider Stacy’s plaintive vocals, Tuesday Morning was a radio-friendly pop song that won acceptance on its own terms and more than holds its own among the best Pogues songs.

19: Lorca’s Novena (from ‘Hell’s Ditch’, 1990)

Shane MacGowan developed a fondness for Spain when The Pogues joined director Alex Cox on the Straight To Hell film shoot in Andalusia in 1986. The country’s history and its landscape later informed one of Hell’s Ditch’s most successful songs, Lorca’s Novena, in which MacGowan related the story of how the famous Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was murdered by Francisco Franco’s Nationalist supporters during the Spanish Civil War.

The Pogues worked up a fantastic arrangement for the song, and their music’s atmospheric dread was matched by MacGowan’s vivid lyric (“But Lorca’s corpse, as he had prophesied, just walked away”), which reflected on the oft-repeated folk tale that Lorca – whose body was never recovered – actually survived execution and simply wandered off into legend.

18: White City (from ‘Peace And Love’, 1989)

Shane MacGowan’s love of horse racing informed If I Should Fall From Grace With God’s Bottle Of Smoke, but he arguably bettered that song while reporting on another of his favourite sports-related pastimes – betting on the greyhounds – on White City. MacGowan’s lyric related directly to the then recent demolition of the titular West London greyhound track (“Oh sweet city of my dreams/Of speed and skill and schemes/Like Atlantis, you just disappeared from view”) and the band matched it with a rousing melody loosely based on the traditional Irish song The Curragh Of Kildare.

17: Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah (single A-side, 1988)

The Pogues’ classic Christmas hit, Fairytale Of New York, is now so omnipresent that it’s often forgotten the band had a second, less publicised crack at scoring a UK Christmas No.1 the following year with a completely different song. With hindsight, Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah had little chance of grabbing the festive glory, as it was a significant stylistic departure (James Fearnley accurately describes it as “an unrepentant soul song, heavy with onbeat” in his memoir, Here Comes Everybody) and it pledged no real allegiance to seasonality. The single peaked at No.43, but it remains a cracking 60s-style pop pastiche. While it’s atypical of the group’s output, it still demands inclusion among the best Pogues songs.

16: Dark Streets Of London (from ‘Red Roses For Me’, 1984)

The Pogues’ debut single, Dark Streets Of London, was originally self-released in a limited run of under 300 copies, but after BBC Radio 1 DJ David “Kid” Jensen picked up on it, Stiff Records signed the band, and the single became more widely available.

A potent taster of things to come among the best Pogues songs, Dark Streets Of London was a rambunctious ode to immigrant-level living in Thatcher’s Britain (“I’m buggered to damnation/And I haven’t got a penny/To wander the dark streets of London”), and its devil-may-care attitude and catchy Irish folk-imbued lilt suggested its creators were onto something special. Dark Streets Of London’s release wasn’t without incident (the band were still called Pogue Mahone at this stage, until the BBC were informed this translated as “Kiss My Arse” in English), but the controversy did The Pogues little harm and, over time, arguably enhanced their legacy.

15: Boat Train (from ‘Peace And Love’, 1989)

Stylistically, The Pogues began to stretch beyond their trademark Celtic folk sound on their fourth album, Peace And Love, with songs such as USA, My Blue Heaven and Lorelei edging towards a straighter pop-rock sound. The album did feature several of the best Pogues songs, however, of which Shane MacGowan’s Boat Train was arguably the highlight. A vivid recollection of an excess-all-areas journey by ferry and rail from Ireland to London via Holyhead, made by Wolfe Tone associate Napper Tandy during the 1798 Irish Rebellion, it was suitably bawdy but brilliantly observed (“First I drank the whiskey/Then I drank the gin/I tried to make the toilet/And I broke my fuckin’ shin”), and it was dextrously executed by the band.

14: The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn (from ‘Rum Sodomy & The Lash’, 1985)

An example of Shane MacGowan at his most imaginative as a lyricist, The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn conjured images of the famous Irish tenor John McCormack and his Australian counterpart Richard Tauber attending the bedside of (in Gaelic mythology) the Irish equivalent of Achilles. It never happened in real life, of course, but it made for a hell of a scene-setter for The Pogues’ magnificent second album, Rum Sodomy & The Lash. Full of drama and debauchery, The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn was the sound of a singular band at full tilt, and it is undoubtedly up there with the very best Pogues songs.

13: Streams Of Whiskey (from ‘Red Roses For Me’, 1984)

Arguably the greatest Pogues drinking song of them all, Red Roses For Me highlight Streams Of Whiskey encapsulated what NME called “the raucous surge and evocative noise” of the band during their imperious first phase, when they played countless wild and brilliant gigs all over London. Shane MacGowan’s clarion call to dedicated boozers everywhere, the song connected with both fans and the band alike, with James Fearnley later recalling that, “Like no other song, it made me want to drink, and drink like Shane drank!”

12: Streets Of Sorrow/Birmingham Six (from ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, 1988)

Shane MacGowan and multi-instrumentalist Terry Woods were both working on songs relating to the Birmingham Six (the six Irish men sentenced to life imprisonment for the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974) as The Pogues began recording their classic third album, If I Should Fall From Grace From God. Considering them both too good to sideline, The Pogues and producer Steve Lillywhite spliced them together, with Woods’ plaintive Streets Of Sorrow acting as the ideal prologue for MacGowan’s full-bore protest song in tribute to the six men wrongly imprisoned “for being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time”. The accused men’s convictions were subsequently quashed in 1991.

11: Dirty Old Town (from ‘Rum Sodomy & The Lash’, 1985)

Dirty Old Town was written by English folk pioneer Ewan MacColl (father of singer-songwriter Kirsty) and also recorded by The Dubliners. Yet despite its obvious pedigree, this vivid paean to MacColl’s hometown of Salford, Lancashire, really came into its own when The Pogues took it on. The band didn’t do anything all that radical with the song, but its earthy nostalgia provoked Shane MacGowan into one of his most heartfelt vocal performances, and drummer Andrew Ranken’s lonesome harmonica added a decisive hook. The fact that Salford City FC have since adopted The Pogues’ version of the song as their walk-on music only adds credence to the widely-held belief that MacGowan and co’s take on Dirty Old Town is definitive.

10: Transmetropolitan (from ‘Red Roses For Me’, 1984)

Transmetropolitan was a feature of The Pogues’ early shows, and the obvious song with which to open their debut album, 1984’s Red Roses For Me. Rich in Shane MacGowan’s London-centric imagery (the lyrics referred to favoured Pogues hangouts such as Valtaro Snack Bar and Arlington House, where iconic Irish writer Brendan Behan once lived), the song was very much the band’s mission statement. “It brought us all together in our second-hand suits and outdated instruments,” James Fearnley wrote in Here Comes Everybody. “It pressed us to march across London, following Shane like the children following the Pied Piper Of Hamelin.”

9: The Old Main Drag (from ‘Rum Sodomy & The Lash’, 1985)

The Pogues started working on The Old Main Drag during their earliest rehearsals, but only knocked it into shape with help from producer Elvis Costello during the sessions for their second album, Rum Sodomy & The Lash. Even then, the song’s backdrop (built around the low drone from the bass buttons on James Fearnley’s accordion) remained sparse, but its starkness was the ideal vehicle for one of Shane MacGowan’s most harrowing lyrics. Effectively a portrait of a teenage Irish boy in London who discovers the streets filled with degradation rather than gold, it pulls precious few punches (“And now I’m lying here I’ve had too much booze/I’ve been shat on and spat on and raped and abused”), but while it’s one of the best Pogues songs, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

8: The Broad Majestic Shannon (from ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, 1988)

A nigh-on perfect combination of ancient Irish melodies and strident modern pop, The Broad Majestic Shannon caught The Pogues at the very top of their game. The glorious sweep of the melody clearly tugged at Shane MacGowan’s heartstrings, for it goaded him into writing an atypically romantic lyric, full of nostalgia for the Ireland of times past, and rich with references to real places such as Glenaveigh and Shinrone that he knew well from time spent with his family in their native County Tipperary.

7: Sally MacLennane (from ‘Rum Sodomy & The Lash’, 1985)

Another quintessential drinking tune among the best Pogues songs, the rip-roaring Sally MacLennane was at least partly influenced by the Irish diaspora and also the legendary sessions Shane MacGowan and his close friends would indulge in before he hopped on the boat train via Holyhead on his journeys back to Ireland. Its rousing choruses and shouts of “Far away!” ensured it soon established itself as a live favourite, though its lyrics threw a curveball – the titular Sally MacLennane that Shane longs for isn’t a special girlfriend but actually an Irish-style stout brewed in Florida.

6: And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda (from ‘Rum Sodomy & The Lash’, 1985)

Rather like Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town, The Pogues came to Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda via The Dubliners, who covered the song on their Together Again album, from 1979. Once again, though, Shane MacGowan and company arguably trumped Ronnie Drew’s crew, for The Pogues’ stark, yet quite beautiful rendition of this magnificent anti-war lament was – and remains – truly mesmeric.

The lyrics make no bones about the plight of a young soldier who loses both his legs during the Gallipoli campaign of World War One (“Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head/And when I woke up in me hospital bed/And saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead/Never knew there was worse things than dyin’”), and The Pogues played it straight, true and plaintive. The song brought the Rum Sodomy & The Lash album to a close, and it had to – you simply couldn’t follow that.

5: Thousands Are Sailing (from ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, 1988)

The Pogues’ first US tour of 1986 influenced the writing of their signature hit, Fairytale Of New York, but also another of the best Pogues songs, Thousands Are Sailing. Penned by guitarist Phil Chevron, this emotive number dealt with the age-old passage of Irish emigrants to New York, with its first verse making direct reference to Ellis Island (“The island it is silent now”), where an estimated 12 million immigrants are believed to have been processed by the US authorities. This journey delivered many to a much better life, but as the references to “coffin ships” and “ghosts still haunting the waves” remind us, plenty more perished in their quest to reach the land of the free.

4: A Pair Of Brown Eyes (from ‘Rum Sodomy & The Lash’, 1985)

The tunes Shane MacGowan turned in for The Pogues’ debut album, Red Roses For Me, contain many vivid and memorable contenders among the best Pogues songs, but Rum Sodomy & The Lash’s lead single, A Pair Of Brown Eyes, showed that he was maturing into a writer of real substance. The song’s wistful melody was loosely based upon the traditional staple Wild Mountain Thyme, but it had something special of its own. As James Fearnley later recalled, “There was a delicacy about the chord progression that I hadn’t heard in Shane’s writing before… it was so reminiscent of songs immemorially older than this one, it nearly brought tears to my eyes.”

3: A Rainy Night In Soho (from ‘Poguetry In Motion’ EP, 1986)

A Rainy Night In Soho featured on the band’s UK Top 40 breakthrough, the Poguetry In Motion EP, but as that record’s lead track was the atypically poppy London Girl, A Rainy Night In Soho didn’t receive significant exposure at the time. It’s since become something of a fan favourite, however, and is definitely one of Shane MacGowan’s most finely wrought ballads, with its piano-framed melodies and yearning, cinematic imagery (“Now the song is nearly over/We may never find out what it means/Still there’s a light I hold before me/You’re the measure of my dreams”) conspiring to place it right up there with the very best Pogues songs.

2: If I Should Fall From Grace With God (from ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, 1988)

The Pogues are often cited for cross-fertilising traditional Irish folk with the energy and attitude of punk, and they certainly did so in spectacular fashion with the title track from their landmark third album. Often the opening song in their live set, If I Should Fall From Grace With God barrelled out of the traps with the entire band racing to keep up, and drummer Andrew Ranken’s rockabilly-style drumming somehow keeping things on the rails. Throw in Shane MacGowan’s wild, afterlife-eschewing lyric (“Bury me at sea/Where no murdered ghost can haunt me/If I rock upon the waves/No corpse shall lie upon me”) and you’ve got something which embodies the very spirit of The Pogues.

1: Fairytale Of New York (featuring Kirsty MacColl) (from ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, 1988)

It’s rare for critics and fans alike to cite a Christmas song as the peak of a band’s achievements – but then Fairytale Of New York is not your average festive singalong. Indeed, it spent well over two years in gestation before the band finally nailed it – with help from a decisive vocal from Kirsty MacColl – on the hottest day of the summer of 1987.

Topping our list of the best Pogues songs, Fairytale Of New York is one of a number of bestselling Christmas songs that never made it to No.1 (it was famously held off by Pet Shop Boys’ Always On My Mind), but this bittersweet beauty of a ballad ultimately had the last laugh. It’s gone on to become the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century and moved well over two million copies in the UK alone – a more than deserved result for what’s now regarded as one of the best Christmas songs of all time.

Buy Pogues coloured vinyl and more at the Dig! store.

Original article: 2 December 2021

Republished: 30 November 2023

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