Wednesday, February 09, 2005


It's come to my attention that schoolchildren may be logging into this 'site', as a bit of light relief from carrying out extensive online research into how the Ancient Egyptians used to wash their hair. I'd like to point out that you slimey little brats have it easy. Surfing for porn, beating up your teachers, getting paid £20 just to turn up after lunchbreak - it's the life of riley for you. You should have been in school in 1987, in one of our "IT" classes. I don't know why it wasn't just called "Computers", cos there was zero information and the technology was just a few notches above Donkey Kong 2. We were told that computers were the thing of the future, that if we applied ourselves, we'd be raking it in and living on sushi and champagne in Silicon Valley by the year 1999. We were then grouped off into twos and made to type in commands to operate an onscreen 'crane', moving and dropping blocky graphic containers from one side of the screen to the other.

Unsurprisingly, IT became a doss subject, alongside Art , Maths and PE, where you'd deliberately mess around, typing in 'Command - FUCK' , merely to get thrown outside, and excused from having to sit inside that smelly, over-heated room, eyes bleeding from the pixellated bright yellows and reds. But I ask you - have you ever seen someone hit by a shit bomb? It's an incredible invention that really packs a punch. Perfected by an arch-dosser called Steven Daly, who was eventually kicked out of school, it basically involves stretching a roll of toilet paper under your arse, shitting onto it, then wrapping the whole thing into a small bundle. Aimed at your target's face, the crap explodes everywhere, and will mentally scar them forever. I never got hit by one but I've seen it happen, and it's bad.

Also, when I spent one lunch break on bin duty, a fight broke out between one nasty piece of work and a kid he'd been bullying (for being Turkish and overweight). This Turkish kid dropped his bin, and lunged for the nearest object - which happened to be a dead seagull - and twatted the bully across the face with it. What I remember vividly was the bird's wingspan opened up as he swung it through the air by the claws. It was an awesome sight. He got left alone after that too.

Shit and disease and decay - effective weapons indeed. Bruises heal, but the memory of a maggot-stuffed, eyeless bird's head careering into your snout can really work wonders in shutting some people up -

"When you pissed yourself in Frankfurt and got syph down in Cologne
And you heard those rattling death trains as you lay there all alone
Frank Ryan brought you whiskey in a brothel in Madrid
And you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids
At the sick bed of Cuchulainn we’ll kneel and say a prayer
And the ghosts are rattling at the door and the devil’s in the chair"

If the Pogues' 84 debut "Red Roses For Me" had been a speed-freak psychogeographical tour of fist fights, public toilet sex, cruel NHS shock treatment procedures, drunkenness and riotous anger, all played out against a CCTV-free, grimey and self-bankrupting London, "Rum Sodomy and the Lash" was the comedown - prostitutes dying in the streets, war vet cripples hobbling back to murky shores, the absence of old friends and loves, yearning for less shitty days, the slow death of the London Irish.

It's an album that captures the filthy black soot that used to cling to tube station signs, the overflowing GLC issue wheelybins, Thatcher's Britain as a "will we / won't we nuke" sickbed with the mongrels relegated to mopping up the patient's puke for a pittance. Even as far back as the 1950s, cops used to dangle jemmy bars from bridges in Kilburn, in the hope that pissed-up Micks would grab them to have a look on their way home from the pub, more out of curiosity than anything else. With a fresh set of fingerprints, it was easier to then haul them in and pin XYZ local robberies on the blokes who were rebuilding the war-torn capital. In the 1980s, the IRA's civil war at its height, Irish Londoners were aliens. Wearing a Celtic top in the wrong area carried a high risk of being run in for questioning or nutted by bootboys.

"One evening as I was lying down in Leicester Square
I was picked up by the coppers and kicked in the balls
Between the metal doors at Vine Street I was beaten and mauled
And they ruined my good looks down the Old Main Drag"

Just as I'm glad that Oi! bands were around to document the scummy side of 80s Britain, so too I'm glad that the Pogues rattled the cages of those who wish to categorise the decade as having had something to do with "subversion through style" and the fucking Groucho Club. RS&TL" has its moments of release ; the upbeat "Sally Mac Lenanne" is a thumping Celtpunk tune which, despite the lyrical excesses, only just masks the recurring theme of loss that cuts through this disc like a razor -

"When Jimmy came back home he was surprised that they were gone
He asked me all the details of the train that they went on
Some people they are scared to croak but Jimmy drank until he choked
And took the road for heaven in the morning"

You want surreal crossover? How about "The Wild Cats of Kilkenny", which sounds like the Gallowglass Ceiligh Band romping through the "Dr Who" theme tune. Gender subversion? Try Cait O' Riordan's booze-cracked take on the ballad "I'm A Man You Don't Meet Everyday". Indiscriminate aggro?

"Billy went away with the peace-keeping force
Cos he liked a bloody good fight of course
Went away in an old khaki van
To the banks of the River Jordan
Billy saw the arabs and he had ’em on the run
When he got ’em in the range of his sub-machine gun
Then he had the Israelis in his sights
Went a ra-ta-ta and they ran like Shi-ites "

The characters on this album all die, all fall apart. A cover of Eric Bogle's ballad "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" closes the album, the story of a happy-go-lucky young rambler who gets drafted and sent off to Gallipoli, then shipped back with stumps for legs, no girl waiting for him, no hope of disappearing with a tent into the Outback ever again. It's one of Shane Mac Gowan's best ever performances.

"Navigator" is probably the most under-rated Pogues song on here -

"The canals and the bridges, the embankments and cuts,
They blasted and dug with their sweat and their guts
They never drank water but whiskey by pints
And the shanty towns rang with their songs and their fights.
Navigator, navigator rise up and be strong
The morning is here and there’s work to be done.
Take your pick and your shovel and the bold dynamite
For to shift a few tons of this earthly delight
They died in their hundreds with no sign to mark where
Save the brass in the pocket of the entrepreneur.
By landslide and rockblast they got buried so deep
That in death if not life they’ll have peace while they sleep."

The Pogues' anti-authoritarian streak is maybe better heard on "Red Roses..." and the third '87 LP, the almighty "If I Should Fall From Grace With God". Sandwiched inbetween, "Rum.." is lacerated with self-doubt, plagued by visions of squalor and death, as if the protagonist, the navvy, is aware that lashing out against his tormentors with fists and boots can only go so far, that his time is running out and it's mere years before he's squashed inside the trash compactor of commerce.

In 1985, my dad appeared on the evening ITV news, when a work colleague and family friend, Pat Hanley, died after going down the pit at their West London construction plant. He called for action to be taken against the site managers for providing inadequate safety equipment, as his mate's gas-bloated corpse was whisked down the morgue. Nothing happened. Everyone had a whip-round for Pat's wife and kid (serious money too, one of the codes of 'London Irish' was closing ranks when the shit hit the fan), and they came around our house a lot. The wife started drinking heavily. There was a definite mood change around that time, a feeling that once it had merely taken force of numbers and resolute will to break down and defeat highfalutin bureaucratic apathy. My dad seethed inside - he was unable to comprehend how fat cat bosses enjoyed immunity from their crimes of irresponsibility, left baffled at what had happened to union power, what a waste it had all seemed as union-bashing became the norm. Strikers at Wapping fled police batons on TV, our next door neighbour was burgled and threatened with rape, and arthritis had already begun to set into my father's hands and wrists. The gig was fucked, and the bastards could close down any pit, hospital ward or work-related death inquiry without fear of recrimination, they just kept on winning.

The accompanying video to "A Pair of Brown Eyes", one of the most powerful tracks on "RS&TL", looks comically dated now, but at the same time retains a strange sort of power. A rasta leaving a club is thrown up against a wall and frisked by cops ; mutant, dead-faced domesticated couples sit in front of the goggle box, doing exercises ; young derelicts spray red paint over photos of Thatcher on the train. The video ends with a bizarre scene that could be modelled on "The Wickerman", strange harlequin forms prancing through a forest, free of the city, the camera finally fading out on a grinning pantomime horse's head. Lyrically, it's another anti-war song, but the words zig-zag between pent up anger ("I looked at him, he looked at me, all I could do was hate him"), drunken chat up lines ("And it's how're ya kid, and what's your name, and how'd you bloody know?") and stark romanticism -

"So drunk to hell I left the place
Sometimes crawling sometimes walking
A hungry sound came across the breeze
So I gave the walls a talking
And I heard the sounds of long ago
From the old canal
And the birds were whistling in the trees
Where the wind was gently laughing"

It's apt that the insert sleeve of the record featured a shot of the Pogues sailing past Traitor's Gate on the Thames. Rebellious and raucous, but stricken with a nagging sense of grief that demands to be drunken away, this is the band's dark, decaying masterpiece, the sound of an old way of life gurgling as it sinks into the quagmire...

As will your school days, kids, I promise. Don't worry, it all gets exciting and funny at 17.
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