So, apparently my editor had what she calls a “run-in” with Spider Stacey from The Pogues a few years ago, which explains the italicized paragraph at the top. Now I’m kind of afraid he’s going to come after me, since the only name on this document is mine. Um, hi Spider Stacey. Just so we’re clear, I don’t have a problem with you. Friends?
I’m a pretty proud person when it comes to music. Proud of my discoveries, proud of my impeccable taste, and proud that I knew “that band’s” name three years before you did. I don’t take suggestions easily, so when the Pogues showed up on a mix made for me by a friend, I was ready to dismiss them. But the track was all right. It was a Christmas mix; the song was “Fairytale of New York.” You may have heard of it.
I’m proud, but I’m cautious. Bands must endure a rigorous screening process before being inducted into my collection. So I took a gamble on 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God. It didn’t impress me, but I hung onto it because the Pogues are everything I should like: They’re loud, they piss people off, and they’re kind of weird. But the album still felt a little dated to me.
I didn’t kick them off the iPod, but I skipped over them pretty much any time they popped up in shuffle. A few years later, I found myself a broke college student spending one lazy late afternoon in the big Rasputin Records off Union Square. On the employee picks rack, for only $4.95, sat Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. There was a sticker affixed to the front with a glowing, handwritten review from a cashier. And if it was good enough for someone in Rasputin’s employ, I thought it would be worth a spin (for $4.95, anything is worth a spin). I brought it back to my dorm, thinking it would help me finally understand why everyone waxed rhapsodic when speaking of the Pogues.
Then one day I had my iPod on shuffle while walking home from the mall next to school, taking my usual shortcut through the forgotten back end of campus, and an unfamiliar banjo intro began playing. “What is this?” I mumbled, momentarily stunned by the beautiful simplicity of the banjo, and looked down. It was “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, the last track on Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. Needless to say, it had caught me off-guard.
Released in 1985 and co-produced by Elvis Costello, one of Britain’s most prized musical exports, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash has risen to classic status in Britain, consistently ranking in “all-time” lists of albums compiled by music magazines. Frontrunners in many of today’s various indie genres are quick to cite it as a major career influence, and its rustic, down-home style is written all over every “folk”-derived movement that has cropped up in the underground since the mid-‘80s.
I say most of what I am about to say with great hesitation, as I don’t feel adequately qualified to extol the virtues of the Pogues. After all, I almost had to force myself into liking them, and I absorbed my appreciation from someone else, which leaves me without the element of discovery and ownership that usually informs fanaticism. But, in my possibly skewed opinion, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash has stood the test of time, and outlasted the majority of music produced by the Pogues’ peers with very good reason. It could be released tomorrow (for $9.99 on iTunes, probably) and still sound like nothing else out there. It’s rooted in heritage and history, and like me, proud to the point of being defiant. Far more flexible and far-reaching than the band’s later recordings, this is Pogues’ mayhem at its finest.
What grounds this record in rock history is not any kind of forward-thinking, “ahead of its time” quality—it’s in the album’s appreciation for songs long gone. Rum Sodomy includes some rare old tunes dressed up in a 20th-century veneer, which are almost indistinguishable from the Pogues’ own work. The Pogues interpret the best in American and Irish folk music, cowboy ballads and sea shantys on Rum Sodomy, spinning two-minute tales of outlaws, rogues, and undesirables. While the band didn’t succeed in making this kind of music relevant again, their newer versions raise just as much hell as they were originally supposed to, possibly more. Popular songs, if they survive at all, have a tendency to lose their original ferocity over time. But with Rum Sodomy, the Pogues succeeded in preserving a kind of folk that may have otherwise been forgotten, in the raucous style it was intended to be heard in.
Making up the majority of the album are the Pogues’ original compositions. All of them are covered with the same film of sagebrush and moonshine, salt water and whiskey, as the old ballads they evolved from, proving that the Pogues can write fantasy folk that is just as forlorn and/or as fuck-all as the real thing. The additional tracks, added to the 2004 re-release, are also excellent. Listen for “A Pistol for Paddy Garcia”, a galloping, dusty-trail anthem that sounds like the end theme to a lost Tarantino project, and “Body of an American”, a song that should be familiar to anyone who has seen Flogging Molly open for stadium-sized acts.
Rum, Sodomy and the Lash proved to be the turning point for the Pogues, the album that established their signature sound—a drunken orchestra of accordions, fiddles, and punk-rock pennywhistles blanketed in earnest, wailing vocals, all shielding a sentimental center. Costello’s production, which coupled his acquired industry know-how with his determination to retain the band’s charmingly sloppy sound, makes the record an essential portrait of the artists as young men (and one young woman). Instead of shying away from settling into such an antiquated sound, they accepted it as their own, making them the epitome of all that is cool without them ever having to try—which, by that age-old logic, is the coolest thing of all.