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The Pogues - Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

2009-12-22 11:35
Rum, Sodomy & the Lash
The song may be track two on Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, but it is a more fitting chronological starting point for its overall themes. Physical, cultural and emotional displacement runs through the centre of the album like a deep gash runs across a vinyl record. Beautiful as the music is, you can’t ignore the brup…brup…brup… of that gash on the needle. This is a violent and dark record wrapped up in a big green happy bow.

The Pogues' second album is by far their most charismatic. Universally regarded in the top 500 albums of all time, and likewise one of the top 100 of the eighties, it has remained immune to the ravages of the 25 years since release. This is partly due to its traditional music foundations, but also undeniably to its lyrical invention and ruffian, pseudo-punk attitude.

Produced by New Wave legend Elvis Costello, it captures the wild and energetic musicianship of The Pogues' live performances and particularly the antics of their frontman Shane MacGowan.

MacGowan's public persona of a hard-drinking punk in decline is deceiving. He is a dense and engaging storyteller with a true gift for blending traditional and modernist values. Likewise, the jolly and uptempo nature of the music contradicts the snarling "f**k you" under the surface. These are songs with hard ideas about marginalisation and isolation; about racism and fascism.

The music and lyrics tell of a struggle of culture and memory against modern, strange, political reality. The movement of people en masse and its resulting backlash; the struggle to maintain a unique identity; in effect the oppression of space… these things lie underneath the stories and characters of the Lash.

Album opener "The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn" sets the mood with an acid rejection of fascism and racism ("Now you'll sing a song of liberty for blacks and paks and jocks"); aforementioned "The Old Main Drag" narrates individual isolation and despair and so on....

Even the covers and trad songs chosen suit the mood perfectly: there's "Navigator" and it's take on immigrant labour ("They died in their hundreds with no sign to mark where / Save the brass in the pocket of the entrepreneur"); "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" is about the Australian soldier in Gallipolli; and so on....

These "traditional-sounding" songs aren’t about singing and drinking anymore (as if trad songs ever really were). They're about the overwhelming forces that drive people to drunken singing.

On another level, the album is also extremely subversive in its lyricism and ambiguity. Here's just one example from "Sally Maclennane":
Well Jimmy played harmonica in the pub where I was born
He played it from the night time to the peaceful early morn
He soothed the souls of psychos and the men who had the horn
And they all looked very happy in the morning

Played uptempo, at first glance this depicts a typical Irish pub scene. But, as the annotator on suggests: "Given the title of this release, and the lyrical bent of 'Old Main Drag' it's probably worth considering the nature of the 'harmonica' Jimmy played.... Obviously, it could be the instrument, which is also known as a 'mouth organ,' and which you play by blowing or sucking air through it. Given that reality, it's not surprising that the term also came to refer to the male sex organ. If this read is right, then it certainly could be one way to 'soothe the souls' of both the psychos and the horny men in the bar, and also might account for the happy expressions come the morning after."

All in all, The Pogues successfully argued that crazy, whisky-drink louts weren't necessarily so crazy after all. Wearing your political loyalty as a badge is not a foreign concept, but only the Irish seem to know how to fight to the bitter end and have fun doing it.


The most well-remembered song off the album, "Dirty Old Town" was not written by MacGowan. It is in fact credited to Ewan MacColl, father of singer Kirsty MacColl, who collaborated on The Pogues' most famous single "Fairytale of New York" off the album If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988).

"When I first came to London I was only sixteen / With a fiver in my pocket and me ol' dancing bag/ I went down to the Dilly to check out the scene / And I soon ended up on the old main drag." sings Shane MacGowan on "The Old Main Drag".

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