Saturday, 7 September 2013

THE POGUES Hell's Ditch


I've been listening to The Pogues' fifth LP a lot recently. As regular readers will know, my favourite work by Shane MacGowan's rag-taggle gang is Peace and Love. Hell's Ditch is currently joint favourite. For this release, long-time Pogues champion Sir Joe Strummer pared the production back from the bombastic electric guitars of the album's predecessor and went back to emphasising the acoustic instruments.

The result is an enduring work of melancholic beauty. Despite Shane disowning the album in later years, he's on form with the songwriting here. 'Rain Street', originally opening side two back when music appeared on vinyl, features some of his funniest lyrics and enjoyably earthy imagery:

'There's a Tesco on the sacred ground
Where I pulled her knickers down
While Judas took his measly price
And St Anthony gazed in awe at Christ
Down on rain street

'I gave my love a goodnight kiss
I tried to take a late night piss
But the toiled moved so again I missed
Down rain street' 

In accordion player James Fearnley's excellent memoir Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues, he movingly describes the wearying circumstances around the making of the record. Strummer was consistently upbeat but the band were almost worn out by the increasingly erratic behaviour of their lead singer. Throughout, Shane sounds as if someone is holding him and, perhaps, moving his mouth. 

But, as is often the case in rock and roll, this creative tension works to the benefit of the music. Hell's Ditch isn't musically very similar, but for some reason I'm reminded of The Doors' last Jim Morrison LP LA Woman. On that album's songs - coincidentally, their fifth LP too - and on The Pogues', there's the sense of an imminent ending powering the grooves. 

Philip Chevron, James Fearnley and Shane.

The stumbling, gradually speeding up accordion introduction to the title track and the slowly building drama and ominous key changes of 'Lorca's Novena', the best Spaghetti Western that Sergio Leone never made, perfectly complement Shane's broken vocals (painstakingly pieced together from various recording sessions). On 'Five Green Queens and Jean', the last song on Hell's Ditch with Shane's singing so, poignantly, the last in The Pogues' recording career to feature him, the worn out poet pines for simpler days, before the band's career took off, when 'five green queens on a black bin bag meant all the world to me.' In his book, Fearnley writes, 'a tender song, it reminded me of Eyeore's happiness with the gifts of a popped balloon and an empty honey jar which Pooh and Piglet brought to Eyeore's Gloomy Place on his birthday.' As the song abruptly ends, you can almost hear Shane slump over the microphone, finally defeated.

In another curious Doors coincidence, The Pogues recorded two more LPs, Waiting for Herb and Pogue Mahone without their original singer. Interestingly, Fearnley's book doesn't cover those albums and he'd left by the time of the last one. Although the band came back with a mighty, valedictory single in 'Tuesday Morning' after Shane had been dismissed, their time was really up. I saw them on the same bill as the Manic Street Preachers when both bands performed a benefit gig honouring the Manics' manager Philip Hall, who died of cancer. Fearnley and Terry Woods weren't there and it was all rather apologetic. They literally weren't the same band who'd performed those era-defining concerts on the If I Should Fall from Grace with God tour.

The Pogues should have called it a day after Hell's Ditch - it would have been the perfect place to end. The last song, 'Six to Go', sounds like the lights have come up and their taxis are waiting.

Sometimes, falling apart can be beautiful.

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