I met the Pogues in London, in EMI Abbey Road studios in 1986 while they were recording demos for what would become "If I Should Fall from Grace with God". They were trying to get out of their publishing deal at the time and had booked themselves into the third floor "penthouse" studio under the pseudo-pseudonym "The Terry Woods Quartet" …
It was late, well after midnight and the journey out to St. John's Wood through an impossibly proverbial London fog took on the air of a secret mission in a B&W spy movie, all very hush-hush and deliciously clandestine.
I presented myself to the uniformed security guard and I actually caught myself whispering as I announced "Steve Earle to see the Terry Woods Quartet in the penthouse." The elderly uniformed guard looked at me like I was a fucking idiot.
"Oh, the Pogues? Top of the stairs turn right. You can't miss it. Half of fuckin' London's up there."
For the next couple of years we bumped into each other now and again in the middle of the night on one side of the pond or the other. Well, okay, sometimes it was a little harder than a bump. By the time we recorded "Johnny Come Lately" together (for my "Copperhead Road" Album),"If I Should Fall from Grace with God" was out and the boys were playing six nights during the week of St. Patricks Day at the old Town and Country club in Kentish Town. It was a magical week. Kirsty MacColl was there to sing "Fairytale of New York" with Shane every night and the encores included "Message to Rudy ", featuring the Specials horn section and "I Fought the Law" with Joe Strummer himself fronting the band. I went out and sang "Johnny" with the band on each of the first three shows and then, on the morning of the fourth day, having worked out most of the kinks in front of 6000 people we recorded the track at Livingstone studios. We stayed up all night that night (like every other night) and the next morning Spider poured me into a cab for Heathrow and I only just made my flight home to the States. That night was the big St. Paddy's finale at Town and Country. Somehow, in the confusion, no one bothered to inform Terry Woods, who had insisted on introducing me every night, that I was no longer in the country.
"Please Welcome" he rasped, "a good friend of ours from the great State of Texas — STEVE EARLE!
And fuckin' nothin' happened because I was already halfway across the Atlantic nursing a hangover that registered about a 7.4 on the Richter scale. It took me about a week to recover and I'm sure some of the damage that I sustained that week was structural and permanent.
But it was worth it. For four minutes on four consecutive nights in the Spring of 1987 I had been a Pogue.
Fairview, TN — May 2004
At the point they began to make this, their third album, there was no respite from the cut and thrust of rock 'n' roll battle for The Pogues. If I Should Fall From Grace With God would capture the group at their highest and finest point — chemically, spiritually and musically. Yet in the period leading up to it being made, their front man Shane MacGowan had suffered injuries in a road accident and their bass player Cait O'Riordan had left to marry Elvis Costello, to be replaced by roadie Daryl Hunt. New member Philip Chevron had a battle with depression and the band had spent an exhausting period in the baking heat of Spain's Sierra Nevada filming their roles in Alex Cox's surreal spaghetti western Straight To Hell.
As if that wasn't all energy sapping enough mounting financial problems with their troubled record company Stiff meant the onus was on The Pogues to assert themselves as a live band. Under the stewardship of manager Frank Murray they undertook a frantic schedule to pay their bills — and further their reputation. It was a test of will and their ability to endure. Thankfully the group, united on an "all for one and one for all" basis, proved up to the task.
Their short history had already shown that The Pogues were not the sort of band to buckle under. They had pioneered the Irish folk punk crossover, they had rode a Cajun rockabilly express train and developed many other lusty but unfashionable hybrids.
Until their arrival the 80s were set to be the exclusive domain of men with blow dried hairdos, Day-Glo designer threads and synthesisers. The Pogues had come along and staked their claim to a whole new territory. They were, on one level, a throwback to the troubadour creed in the era of fops, chancers and knob twiddling charlatans.
That they had captured the hearts of so many away from the fashionistas was remarkable enough, but their ability to survive the rigours of their lifestyle made The Pogues a singular outfit.
It would often be said — then and now — that the group's front man and major songwriter MacGowan had a constitution that would shame an ox. Travelling to meet the band on an American tour ahead of this album's release I had first hand experience of how troubled said constitution was. Before boarding the plane in London I was given a large container filled with a thick pink liquid and several other prescribed medical supplies, to be delivered to MacGowan, essentials to get him through the tour.
Despite his condition Shane was seemingly able to throw all manner of substances into his body — and still come up with songs that could shake the floors of hell or break your heart clean in two.
Try the title track here for an example of the former, The Broad Majestic Shannon' for that heartbroken in two effect and the classic 'Fairytale of New York' to experience both sensations in one song.
But equally important as Shane's constitution and song writing genius was the entire band's ability to bring his ideas to life. It wasn't easy to fit around his often-haphazard working methods and the inevitable mishaps that went with his lifestyle. But The Pogues alone were capable of allowing Shane's star to shine.
From their inception the band had been a unique undertaking, a brave and possibly foolhardy attempt to unleash a new vibrant realism in the post-punk firmament. Shane MacGowan, Jem Finer, Spider Stacy, James Fearnley, Cait O'Riordan and Andrew Ranken nurtured it from knockabout early shambles, days when they stood on the periphery of pop, until by 1988 all manner of people, public and celebrities including Hollywood stars like Matt Dillon and Faye Dunaway, Irish greats like Van Morrison and Christy Moore had begun to take note.
Their debut album Red Roses For Me, its triumphant follow up Rum Sodomy And The Lash and the truly majestic Poguetry In Motion EP had captured The Pogues worldview in all its manifestations — defiant and unrelenting; deep wounds soothed by bejewelled poetry, their musical daring matched by deftness of touch.
The Pogues may have been forced to change their name from Pogue Mahone, because an outraged Gaelic speaker leapt on the waggish insult (it meant "kiss my arse"), but that's where the compromise ceased. Together they had defied all expectations by taking their sound from out of the underground and into the mainstream.
Confirmation of the group's standing with the musicians who had influenced them and their new commercial standing came with the release of The Irish Rover' their duet with Irish fold legends The Dubliners. The song was a contribution to The Dubliners 25th anniversary album and, released after The Pogues appearance on an Irish television's Late Late Show Dubliners Special, it gave the band their biggest hit to date, peaking at number 8 in the UK charts that April.
The victory was indeed sweet and enhanced by the fact that Ben Elton — the stand up comedian and scriptwriter who had earlier declared the band unlikely to make it off the pub circuit — now showered them with praise. As they hit the Top 10 in Britain The Pogues brought The Dubliners to Top Of The Pops for the first time since 1967. The song itself, a 19th century traditional sea faring ballad, was the perfect place for the new and old faces of rebel Irish folk to meet. The riproaring tale concerned the story of a boat setting sail from Cork to New York on Independence Day 1806. Laden down with all sorts of essentially useless cargo, and a colourful crew not particularly noted for their seafaring abilities, The Irish Rover sails for 7 years. Although it seems to court disaster at every turn and comes to a tragic end, all who sail her live life to the full. Like I said, a perfect meeting place for both bands.
Filled with the sort of colourful language in which Shane MacGowan was fluent, the song was delivered at such a furious pace that Dubliners front man Ronnie Drew remarked "I never had to sing anything as fast in my life."
Indeed the heightened pace could be why such sailing argot as "he longs for the shore and a charming young whore" went unnoticed by the censorious broadcasters who had already caused Pogue Mahone to change their name.
Those censors had not yet finished having a direct impact on The Pogues career. And neither had The Pogues finished with the subject matter of the Irish in America, a backdrop that inspired two of If I Should Fall From Grace With God's finest songs.
Self financed, so that the band could keep control of the record away from Stiff, recording for the album began at the Rak studio, in London's St John's Wood, on May 9th. The decision to deploy Steve Lilywhite as the album's producer was significant. Hired as a result of a chance meeting with Frank Murray, while he was in Dublin re-mixing material for U2's The Joshua Tree album, Lilywhite had commercial clout through his work with Simple Minds, MacGowan faves Big Country and Pogues fans U2 and his professionalism was eagerly welcomed by the band.
"Without slagging off our previous producers, having an actual producer rather than a musician producing made an incredible difference. Steve didn't mess around with the arrangements, he just got them to sound the best that they possibly could," said Jem Finer.
It was with Lilywhite at the controls and his wife, the late Kirsty McColl, performing a vocal duet with Shane, that Finer and MacGowan finally saw their most renowned song come to life, the Christmas perennial fave 'A Fairytale Of New York'. This song, which Finer had worked on for years, became an instant classic with its depiction of an old Irish immigrant couple viewing their past from a Christmas Eve NYC drunk tank, swapping endearments and choice insults.
Borne on a melody beautifully gilded by string arranger extraordinaire Fiachra Trench the single was the best-selling Christmas themed single of the 1987 seasonal period. Although held off the top spot by The Pet Shop Boys cover of 'Always on My Mind' it insured that when If I Should Fall from Grace with God was finally released in January 1988 The Pogues were at their commercial peak.
They were now a different, more expansive band from the one that had made Red Roses for Me and Rum Sodomy and The Lash. Kirsty brought the female element lacking after Cait's departure. Terry Woods, a seasoned veteran of the Irish folk scene but a Pogues newcomer, had found his new spiritual home.
Along with The Pogues other multi-instrumentalist, the increasingly versatile James Fearnley, Woods gave the band an enhanced instrumental and stylistic variety. This was entirely appropriate as, emboldened by jaunts across Europe and America, the band's world music with attitude stance was evident in Turkish Song of The Damned', 'Fiesta' and the traditional 'South Australia'.
The dispute with Stiff, finally settled when the band signed to ZTT, may have actually worked in their favour. The album's title track, Turkish Song of The Damned' and 'South Australia' had all been in The Pogues live set since earlier '87 so had been thoroughly road-tested when the time came to record them.
The title song was drawn deep from Shane's Catholic soul, the prodigal son taking a grim but raucous look at his own wake, the band stomping several banjo and accordion fueled dances on his grave. Elsewhere Jem Finer proved an essential song writing foil for MacGowan, who had begun composing several of the new songs on a recently purchased bouzouki. "You can play it three times as fast as a guitar player, so it takes all the bullshit out of being a guitarist," he said excitedly, "I found I could play anything on it." One of Shane's bouzouki composed tunes, the instrumental 'Shanne Bradley', named after his old girlfriend and The Nips bass player, would turn up on the b side of the 'Fairytale' 12 inch.
Another of the album's key songs came from Phil Chevron, the Dubliner and one-time member of the Radiators from Space, who had joined the band when Finer took maternity leave in September 1985. The Pogues being an ever-expanding musical family Chevron stayed around even after Finer had returned from his time away.
Chevron's first Pogues composition concerned the historic and contemporary flight of young Irish men and women to America. Thousands Are Sailing' was thus assured of becoming a key song for the band's ever-increasing American audience. But this graceful anthem was no triumphalist manifesto. Chevron's carefully weighted lyric bemoaned the circumstances that caused his countrymen to flee their homeland and cast an unflinching eye at the reality that awaited many on arrival in the land of the Yankee dollar.
Perhaps it is the sheer scope — of emotion and subject matter — that makes If I Should Fall from Grace with God the jewel in the crown of The Pogues superb opening hat trick of albums. There was the bi-lingual all-out jazzed-up Spanish party vibe of 'Fiesta' (where the band's road crew provided a homemade horn section) and the fearsome ghosts unearthed with relish in 'Sit Down by The Fire' ("a typical Irish bedtime story," cackled MacGowan). This album provided what others dared not — eastern and Latin flavours, the scourge of War, famine, pestilence, disease, "a drunken fuck", a lonely hell, an old rusty can and an old Hurley ball. The blood of Christ, a bottle of smoke, brandy and half corona, calamari and macaroni.
Keeping with the persistent death's head theme in Shane's songs the album proper ended with Andrew Ranken's Tom Waits' style 45-second secret track 'Worms'. But that was only after Shane had delivered his masterpiece of unrequited love The Broad Majestic Shannon'. This song, hung on a gorgeous yearning melody and rich in its pared allusive lines made comparisons between Shane and Irish poets such as Patrick Kavanagh now seem perfectly appropriate, not farfetched at all.
If I Should Fall from Grace with God entered the UK album charts at number 3 on its release in January 1988. By this time Joe Strummer, a substitute for the ailing Phil Chevron, had joined the band on tour. When they came to play London's Town and Country Club that March, a week-long run before a total of 17,000 fans, they were also joined by Kirsty MacColl, Steve Earle and former Specials man Lynval Golding.
But not everyone wanted to party with The Pogues, in November 1988 the band became the first group to fall foul of a government ban on broadcasting statements by terrorists or their supporters.
The song that caused the group to be blacklisted by the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority) was 'Birmingham Six', a withering condemnation of the justice system that had incarcerated, what would soon prove to be the wrong men for the Birmingham pub bombings. Via Frank Murray the band issued a statement calling the ban "hilarious" and maintaining that: "Irish people are disadvantaged in British courts of law. The Pogues will continue to write about what they want, and we hope every other artist do the same."
It was small comfort to the wrongly accused subjects of the song, but with the success of the Birmingham 6's appeal The Pogues unrepentant stance was soon justified. And time now shows that the power and vitality of their greatest music — much of it on this very album — has not dimmed either.