A Religious ExperienceAugust 8, 2016
1985. 15 years old. Too young for pubs (I looked about 12) and too old for weans’ stuff like skating and swimming at the Magnum, it was the worst of times. My pals and I started going to a youth club every Sunday night at the church. There was table tennis and pool and a cheap tuck shop. Nice-looking girls went and everything. Now and again you’d have a hormone-filled and hormone-fueled shaky game of pool with a lassie you had absolutely no chance of getting anywhere with, but it certainly brightened the times.
There was one stipulation to attending Youth Fellowship: once a year you had to represent the church in the area Bible quiz. For 50 weeks of the year you got cheap Cola and stilted access to fanciable girls as long as you agreed to mug up on the finer points of the Good Book and answer questions in front of an audience. My one and only participation in this was a truly enlightening moment, though probably not for the reasons the church would have liked.
The quiz always took place in one of the ante-rooms or small halls upstairs above the Grand Hall in Kilmarnock. This particular year, the quiz took place the same night as The Pogues were playing downstairs. I had never heard of The Pogues, didn’t know they were playing until we arrived in the church mini bus, but when I saw the queue snaking round the corner, I knew where I’d rather be going. All manner of youth tribes were there; pasty-faced, back-combed goths (I recognised one girl from school who looked nothing like she did on an ordinary day. The guy she was with looked at least 17 years old and she pretended not to see me. Pfffft), old punks with daft-looking triple-pronged mohicans and bondage trousers, a couple of teddy boys and a whole army of Docs ‘n leather and denim jackets, interspersed with the odd Celtic top. I had no idea why folk would wear a football top to a gig, but it wouldn’t be long until I made the connection between the green and white hoops with MacGowan and co.
Anyway, we shambled upstairs into the stuffy confines of the small hall where we’d be quizzing that night. After a few formal introductions from a tweedy man who looked as old as the Bible itself, we got underway. It was all fairly straightforward to begin with; “Who cut Samson’s hair and deprived him of strength?“, “Which Sea did Moses part?“, “What occupation did St Andrew have?“, all that sort of stuff. Then, as the wheat began to separate from the chaff and the questions got tougher, The Pogues took the stage.
“In which Book of the Bible….”
“Kscscscscshhh..thump thump thump….”
(Raising his voice a little) “…meet the Lion?”
(cue nervous giggling and shuffling of feet).
This Pogues lot sounded like just the thing I’d been looking for. The rest of the quiz was punctuated by a whole host of punky, rootsy, rebel shouting, banshee wailing and liberal swearing coming from the floor below, slightly dulled and muffled, but clear enough for all of an offended nature to hear. It was this event that led me to believe in the power of live music. So, thank you Youth Fellowship, for making sure I never missed out.
A year or so later I found myself browsing in Walker’s Record Shop at Irvine Cross. It was the best wee record shop bar none. The two elderly ladies who worked there had an extensive knowledge of music and knew exactly where to find what you were looking for. Years later, when I worked at Our Price and had a good understanding of the mechanics of ordering and returning stock, I realised that Walker’s was so good because they never returned any un-sold stock, so over time the shop had become an Aladdin’s Cave of waiting-to-be-discovered classics. Flicking through the racks one day I chanced upon The Pogues ‘Poguetry In Motion‘ EP. With memories of the previous year’s Bible quiz/Pogues swear fest still fresh in my mind I bought it. My first Pogues record, but certainly not my last.
It’s a tremendous EP, a Pogues in miniature for the short-of-attention.
Side 1 kicks off with London Girl, the ‘poppy’ one, all skirling accordion and battered snare, a chicken dance for those folk in Docs ‘n denim I’d seen in the queue the year before, MacGowan growling his way through the London A-Z with youthful abandon.
The Pogues – London Girl
This is swiftly followed by A Rainy Night In Soho, another London-referencing song, one I didn’t immediately take to (it was too slow for this hopped-up teenager) but in time I’ve come to accept it as the classic it now is.
The Pogues – A Rainy Night In Soho
A romantic, (aye, romantic! That drunk ‘singer’ could fair write a love song, eh?) lilting, waltzing gem of a song, it’s the equal of anything Tom Waits might have written had he been an Irish immigrant in London rather than a Californian who lived on the Mexican border. It always annoyed me how MacGowan sings the “now this song is nearly over” line twice, once mid-way and one when it is in fact nearly over, but I like to think his lyrics on the recorded version were a work in progress that he never quite got around to changing. We’ll maybe never know.
Flip the record over and it starts with a thrilling rush of double-speed playing, penny whistles competing with a snarl of shouting and swearing and a tumble of military drums. There’s a great story in the lyrics and the juvenile in me regresses to that night at the Bible quiz every time I hear it. Who knows if it was played that night in the Grand Hall, but I’d bet it was. For its sheer ramshackle stomp, The Body Of An American remains my favourite ever Pogues track.
The Pogues – The Body Of An American
The last track on it is an instrumental two-fingered salute to the Irish traditional musician Noel Hill. He famously called The Pogues music ‘a terrible abortion to Irish music’. ‘Planxty’ is an old Irish pub shout, said the way we say ‘Cheers!’ nowadays. So, the band were saying Cheers! Noel Hill, ironic, like, before launching into a breakneck instrumental with wheezing accordions and marching band drums punctuated by the occasional war cry. Wake up, garandad, they (literally) say. This is where Irish music is at nowadays!
The Pogues – Planxty Noel Hill
It might surprise you to know that the first version of Fairytale Of New York was recorded at these sessions. Producer Elvis Costello had clearly caught The Pogues in a rich vein of form. You may also be surprised to know that Costello and MacGowan had a long-running argument over the arrangement of A Rainy Night In Soho. Shane eventually won, with his choice of flugelhorn solo taking precedence over Costello’s favoured oboe solo. Spinal Tap, eh? Pogues completists amongst you will also be aware that the Costello mix of A Rainy Night In Soho went on the American version instead.
Perhaps the biggest surprise though in all of this is that, in a year where our greatest living musical heroes are no longer actually living, Shane still walks among us, an advert for a debauched way of life that even Keith Richards would balk at.
Pogues completists will also be aware of this….Shane MacGowan having his own religious experience, just in front of Mick Jones as The Clash rage on stage: