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Troubled Songs of Home and War

I used to work at a vintage guitar store, and I learned to be able to tell the difference between American made guitars and their Japanese and Chinese knock-offs. Sure the contours were the same, and the lacquer looked pretty similar, but there is something about a Gibson that sounds and feels very different from an Epiphone. The Pogues prove that music is the same way. They’re the kind of band whose roots show in everything they do. Not because they sing about their home, or because they use traditional Irish instrumentation, but because the emotion their music portrays sounds like the world from which they emerged.

In 1985 Ireland was almost twenty years deep into the Troubles. Constant protest and upheaval had made northern Ireland a battleground, and the whole country was suffering. The Pogues released Rum, Sodomy and the Lash amid this confusion and devastation, as an honest portrayal of how it felt to be in the Irish working class during all this deadly strife. You can hear it in songs like “The Old Main Drag”, the story of a young man living on the street after moving to a cruel city, or it’s counterpart “Sally Maclennane”, which evokes the lives of the people who stay at home. “Dirty Old Town” sketches the experience of growing up and then dying in the same town, and the closeness between nostalgia and regret.

For the most part, the songs on Rum, Sodomy and the Lash can be divided into two categories, songs about home and songs about war. What could be more appropriate knowing Ireland’s political situation? Up-tempo romps like “Gentleman Soldier” or “Billy’s Bones” try to make horrible situations easier, by using humor, but by the last song all of the pleasantries have been extinquished. “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, originally by Eric Bogle, starts with just a banjo and Shane McGowan’s despondent vocals. You begin to piece together the story of a young carefree man who’s drafted into the Australian army to fight in the Battle Of Gallipoli. After weeks in the trenches he’s hit by a Turkish shell and loses his legs. It’s not just a physical wound, however, his whole outlook is changed:

As our ship pulled into circular quay,
I looked at the place where my legs used to be,
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
To grieve and to mourn and to pity.

Time passes and the last image we have of him is as an old man, sitting on his porch watching the ANZAC parades:

I see the old men, all twisted and torn,
The forgotten heroes of a forgotten war,
And the young people ask me what are they marching for,
And I ask myself the same question

While Eric Bogle wrote the song to be about the veterans of the First World War, the Pogues have made it distinctly Irish. It’s impossible to hear this song without thinking of the Troubles, and the people who lived through them. So critics will say the lacquer is faded or the contours are off, but you can’t argue that this album isn’t authentic.

LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: lorenzowolff@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

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