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THE POGUES: THE REST OF THE BEST ALBUM
Being as I reviewed The Best Of The Pogues recently (and thanks so much to all for your lovely comments, nominations - and for the crown!), I feel it only honourable to talk about their other "best of" CD, namely "The Rest Of The Best". I can't make a list of who sings and plays what, as the information doesn't appear anywhere on my CD sleeve. It's possible that more recent issues/printings of the CD/DVD sleeve may contain that information, but my own copy is around ten years old. I think Shane's voice is pretty distinctive though, so there's little or no need to mention that he's the lead singer.
As with the first Pogues' collection, this second offering is of a very high standard, mostly Shane MacGowan enchanting us with his sometimes heartfelt, sometimes raw, sometimes deep - but always poetic observations which are mostly on life, love, relationships, London, religion, Ireland, death, street life, violence and alcohol.
Here follows my own descriptions and feelings of all 16 tracks on the CD/DVD.....a longer review than the previous one, as there are more songs.
1. IF I SHOULD FALL FROM GRACE WITH GOD
This is an up-tempo, energetic offering with some skilfully played Irish instrumental backing, in reel-style, with a very strong banjo and accordion sound. There is a sharp, definite beat and Shane puts on an even stronger Irish accent than he does with most of his other stuff (even though in "real life" he doesn't have an Irish accent). The mood of the tune is very "up", and in parts speaks of being proud of a land that always belonged to "our fathers" - I assume it means Ireland - combined with a request that if he, the subject of the song, should fall from grace with God....where the angels can't retrieve him....he wants to be buried at sea where no murdered ghost can haunt him....if he rocks upon the sea then no corpse can lie upon him, just let him go. Shane's voice is, though very forward, a little slurred here and there - but I think that's to be expected of him. He does deliver a huge whoop in the middle of the song though, and it's a very appropriately placed whoop too. The arrangement and tune of this song actually says more to me than the words do - the whole band is very tight, together and the musicians have a great connection with one another - via their instruments with Shane's voice over the top, they blend into themselves and create a musical language which delivers a message that can't be put into words.
2. THE SICK BED OF CUCHULAINN
This song starts off with a dire description (sung quite slowly) of a bunch of drunks drinking themselves stupid - then, it launches into a very fast Irish reel style song that rolls along like a train on a track, interspersed with slow pieces. The whole song is about a group of individuals just boozing, boozing, boozing, while travelling the world. There are a couple of lines in the song which I feel are superb...rather hard-hitting, but coming down on the side of fairness and humanitarianism - I won't type those lines out, because although they contain no Anglo-Saxon expletives, they are rather direct in their description of certain groups of people and I wouldn't want to offend, or have what I type to be misinterpreted, even though in the song Shane intends his words to be favourable as regards his own opinion. Cuchulainn** is an Irish ancient mythical hero character and I can't quite understand Shane's reference to him or his "sick bed" in this song - I assume it's an analogy of some kind, but unless anybody can enlighten me, I have no idea what it is.
**(About 15 years ago, Van Morrison released a very rare album of himself reading the long poem Cuchulainn - I did have it on cassette, but it got lost in a house move, and I've never seen a CD or DVD of it since - nor any information on it, despite fervent hunting.)
3. THE OLD MAIN DRAG
This song starts on a single note played on an aeolian pipe, with soft accordion and banjo joining in, creating a very Irish-sounding, quiet tune - Shane's voice then slots in, and sings of the situation many young runaways to London find themselves falling into. The words of this song are very hard-hitting and describe a young person getting caught up in the world of drugs, being raped, abused, arrested and beaten up whilst in custody - generally sinking further down into the dark and seedy life of the "main drag" (an expression used to describe teen runaway street life in places like King's Cross and Leicester Square) - the young person ends up wishing he were dead, and turns to drink to try and blot out what is happening to him. This song has a very simple, but catchy tune and is rather slow....ending with the lines "I know that I am dying, and I wish I could beg for some money to take me from the old main drag". The song closes on a long, very soft note played on an aeolian pipe. I personally feel that if this song had been written by Shane but never recorded by him, yet someone else had done a cover of it, that someone else would have dramatised the song to such a point that it would lose its gritty sense of reality. Shane's very matter-of-fact, down to earth rendition delivers the message in a much more realistic way than I'd imagine anyone else could - well, after all, he did write it!
4. BOYS FROM THE COUNTY HELL
The most prominent instrument in this song is a tin whistle....and it has a brilliant tune....something reminiscent almost of an ancient sea-shanty (of course with a very Irish flavour). The "F" word appears quite a lot in this song - and it is again, like The Old Main Drag, very much about getting inextricably caught up in London's darker side of life, with the emphasis being put upon the trials and tribulations suffered by the Irish in London (hence the title Boys From The County Hell). The song rolls along at quite a pace, and is largely about drinking heavily in order to cope with all the darkness of day to day life spent trying to get a grip when everything is totally against you. This is one of Shane's most hard-hitting songs where he's pretty much sticking two fingers up at the world - the images contained within the words are of frustration, burning anger, and retaliatory violence. Some people could find the words of this song and the statements described therein rather offensive, and for those people, luck has it that Shane doesn't always enunciate too clearly - so it's likely that apart from the "F" word which is prominent, they'd not be fully aware of them, until and unless they read the words which are printed on the CD/DVD sleeve
5. YOUNG NED OF THE HILL
I'm not sure if Shane wrote this song, or another member of The Pogues - or, if it is actually a traditional Irish song. Shane doesn't sing on this one, but there is no information on the CD sleeve which says who the singer is....but I do believe it is another member of The Pogues. The mood of this song is dual in that via the instrumentals, and the first few opening words ("....Have you ever walked the lonesome hills and heard the curlews cry, or seen the raven black as night upon the windswept sky...to walk the purple heather and hear the west wind cry...."), you can almost feel yourself standing on a cold, dark, wintry Irish moor somewhere - getting in touch with nature and history, almost feeling the battles that took place down the vast avenues of history (a bit like if you stand in the field at Culloden in Scotland, as I have done personally, you can almost hear, see and feel the battle). The words of this song are very much about Ireland's historic struggle to maintain its national identity and independence, pointing the finger of blame firmly at Oliver Cromwell ("....curse upon you Oliver Cromwell, you raped our mother land...."). I'm not sure if Ned of the Hill was a real Irish freedom fighter, or if he is just a character in the story of this song, but he dies a martyr as the song winds down to a close.
6. DARK STREETS OF LONDON
Another very Irish sounding song, with tin whistle, banjo, guitar and accordion in full flow, creating a rather fast tempo, with the words bemoaning the situation of being lost, homeless, and wandering in mid-winter, through the dark streets of London. Again Shane goes down the road of using alcohol as a buffer against a cruel world, singing of pub crawls - also having had ECT treatment somewhere.
7. THE AULD TRIANGLE
Correct me if I am wrong someone, but I believe this is a traditional Irish song. Performed here by The Pogues, it is largely Shane's rather harsh voice backed by a tin whistle and an occasional very quiet chord on an instrument that I can't identify. This song is about a man lying in his prison cell, listening to what's going on outside - the noises of life, plus the weather, wishing he were either outside or in the women's prison. I'm not sure exactly what "The Auld Triangle" is, but I'm assuming it's a boat, as the words say it's going "jingle jangle" down the old canal - or, it could be an analogy for a man's todger that won't stay down! Quite a nice, very simple tune, well sung by Shane.
8. REPEAL OF THE LICENSING LAWS
This is a rather jolly sounding instrumental, written by somebody called "Stacy". It's very short, and full of Irishness...banjo, tin whistle, and played in true Irish reel style. The only vocal bit of this track is a resounding "Oyyyyy!" by Shane MacGowan in the middle.
9. YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH
This song is more pop/rock than the most of the offerings by The Pogues. It has a decidedly 60s feel to it, and the subject matter of the song is about Shane loving a girl since their schooldays, but he never showed it....he now regrets his mistake and via the song, is apologising, asking for forgiveness. There is a lovely sax solo in the middle of this song, and heavy brass section accompaniment throughout. There's something about the tune which really gets to me, and I can't quite put my finger on why. Even though the subject matter of the song is a little sad and wistful, as I get the impression the girl isn't "hearing" the apologies and pleas for forgiveness, the tune is very happy-sounding, up-tempo. There are a lot of "Yeah Yeah Yeahs" and "Woo Oooh Ooohs" throughout the song...taking up at least 50% of the lyrical content, but the written lyrics in between are as skilful as what would be expected from Shane - my opinion is that he always gives 100%. This would be a great song for driving along open country lanes on a baking hot sunny day, with a hunky man at the wheel, and the car top down. This song stimulates something bright & sunshiney inside of me.
10. LONDON GIRL
This song is, as the title suggests, about a London girl....Shane taking his last chance with a London girl in a room in Camden Town. I personally find the words of this song - not romantic exactly, but gently impassioned - Shane intersperses his claims of this possibly being his last chance of he and the girl making it, with poetic images of the seedier side of London life..the tower blocks....cold winds blowing....the back streets and alleyways. The instrumentals are very Irish, even though the song itself is rock/pop orientated, quite up-tempo, with the accordion sound very prominent.
11. HONKEY TONK WOMEN
Wow! This is not only the best cover version of The Stones' Honky Tonk Women I've heard....it's actually one of the overall best cover versions of any song I've ever heard. Gritty and harsh-voiced, Shane belts out this Stones' all-time classic, with the backing instrumentals giving the song a slightly Irish flavour. When I very first heard this Pogues' collection of "Best Of" music, this was the track that stood out for me the most. Stones' songs aren't easy to cover, as you can't improve on perfection....Shane hasn't set out to do that, nor has he managed it, but there's only a cigarette-paper's worth of difference between the quality of this version and The Stones' original. The backing instrumentals have a slightly Irish feel, with the banjo being very prominent, and I love the way the track ends on a slightly wobbly note accompanied by a crashing drumbeat.
12. SUMMER IN SIAM
Well! They had to do it eventually....come up with a track that I actually don't like. This is a soft and gentle song with a nice, quiet piano backing up Shane's voice, and a soft sax solo for the middle-eight - but, the song doesn't hit my spot at all. I find the words rather clumsy, and the song words-wise, only consists of 8 lines. One of those lines is well written, but overall I don't think Shane is anywhere near at his best here. To me the song sounds like one of those easy-listening pieces of music which used to be played on BBC's Light Programme back in the 1950s....a bit James Last-ish. I think I would like this track better if it were completely instrumental....forget about the words/singing.
13. TURKISH SONG OF THE DAMNED
This track opens with accordion and Shane screaming his head off. The tune is fairly fast, urgent, and has a touch of a middle-Eastern sound, before it launches into a very Irish stretch with lots of accordion, twiddling back and forth between Irish and Eastern, tin whistle coming to the fore on the Irish-sounding bits - and it alternates that way, between the two genres of music. I feel that the blending of those two definite sounds is interesting, and they go together well. This song appears to be about ghosts or zombies or something similar coming back after having been killed in a shipwreck, to claim their dues. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be about some kind of strange fantasy or set of delirium tremens experienced whilst going through the hangover from hell, or whether it's a just a nice, creepy story. Shane conjours up some wonderful images in this song, using his skilful way of creating almost a visual picture....and in this song, it's a nightmarish picture. I LOVE the ending.....the whole band go full pelt into wonderful Irish jig mode...winding down with a superb piece of strummed guitar, right down to an abrupt chord at the end.
14. LULLABY OF LONDON
Ohh Owww Ohhhh.....this song has such a sad and poignant, yet relaxing and reassuring tune! That for me is one of Shane's greatest, and possibly even unique skills, in that he can, with his words, combine light and dark together, making them blend and enhance one another rather than clash or cancel one another out. This song is true poetry....Shane describing walking the streets of London late at night, comparing the sounds of the traffic, noises of people enjoying themselves in bars, fighting in pubs, to the sounds of nature which presumably refer to reminiscing about Ireland - such as the corncrake's cry. As the man wanders the streets of London, he homes in on everything that is not only current, but historic too - absorbing the atmosphere of the present, and the past. I would dearly love to type out all the words of this song, as from a poetic point of view, I feel this is Shane's very best offering - the images are so very tender yet sharp too, and conjour up all sorts of atmospheres that you feel as if you can almost see and touch whilst listening to the song....but, I don't want to flout any copyright rules. This is a moderately slow song, strongly Irish in mood, with an accordion/banjo harmony being the most prominent sound.
15. THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET
This in my opinion is not just the best tune on this collection, but is one of the very best tunes every written!!! It is an exceptionally happy tune, very up-tempo, Irish in flavour, with mandolin, tin whistle and accordion out in full force, blending together to make a beautifully rolling along song that is quite poignant in mood, as well as being happy....maybe wistful is a better word than poignant. I think Shane had had a few bevvies before (and possibly during!) in the studio whilst recording this song, which unfortunately makes him slur his way through the words....but they are printed on the CD sleeve, which helps. I wouldn't say that the words of this song are Shane's best offering, but they aren't his worst...they speak of travelling to places such as Rome, Bombay, Nepal and the USA...witnessing the dark side of life...poverty, hatred jail, death..and, choosing to remain on the sunny side of the street and life. Alongside Bruce Springsteen, Shane has this incredible skill of shining bright lights into dark corners....turning negative into positive, and always injecting a huge ray of hope into the darkest of scenarios.
16. HELL'S DITCH
The beginning of this track sounds like Zorba's dance....well, it's the same style, blended in with Irish instrumentals, accordion and mandolin being the most prominent. The mood of the intro is a little hesitant...even a little fearful, as if teetering on the edge of something dark. The opening lines are...... "Life's a bitch, then you die...black hell!" Though I'm not 100% sure, I believe this song is about being in a Spanish prison, and there are references to torture in the words. This is another song where I want to type out all the words, but don't want to get done for copyright, so I shall just say that this is one of those songs where Shane uses very sharp verbal imagery, borderline dark poetry, to put across what to me is a rather surreal point. There is something very direct and hard-hitting about this song....almost as if he's saying "this is how it is...get on with it!!!" I'm not mad on the tune, but the words are exquisite, even though I'm not absolutely sure what they are about.
Well that brings to a close my overall Pogues review. I won't be writing anything about their albums "proper", because all of the above tracks (including those on "The Best Of The Pogues") are distributed evenly amongst them, and I'd just be repeating myself.
One thing I will possibly go into repeat mode over though, is how gifted Shane MacGowan is with words and conveying the darker side of life. Maybe he drinks so much because he feels the pain of living too deeply? Who knows? If that is the case, then I am very thankful he's found an additional outlet, in the form of his - by me and I'm sure others - much cherished songs.
Thanks for reading!
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 If I Should Fall From Grace With God
2 Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn
3 Old Main Drag
4 Boys From The County Hell
5 Young Ned Of The Hill
6 Dark Streets Of London
7 Repeal Of The Licensing Laws
8 Yeah Yeah Yeah
9 London Girl
10 Honky Tonk Women
11 Summer In Siam
12 Turkish Song Of The Damned
13 On The Sunny Side Of The Street
14 Hell's Ditch