This was written before Christmas, and is only being posted now. Such is… something. My ability to get things done, probably.
The Brixton Academy oozes rock ‘n’ roll history from its very walls; and a lot of that history is — or closely mirrors — my own. I saw my first London gig there: The Ramones, in 1987 (and I saw them a few more times there, too, I can tell you). The Sugarcubes spent a bare hour on stage, and it was one of the best hours of live music I’ve ever seen. The Pixies took the place apart and restored my faith in rock ‘n’ roll when I didn’t even realise I was losing it. Stiff Little Fingers — who were the first band I ever saw live (Glasgow Apollo, 1980) — played a farewell gig there (OK, they later reformed, but lets not worry too much about that). At one James gig there, a moshpit full of lovemuppets collapsed on top of me.
But I’ve seen The Pogues there more often than anyone else.
And The Pogues, it seems, have reformed, and are touring. To Brixton, then, with swisstone. I saw them so many times in the eighties and early nineties that I probably wouldn’t have bothered this time. But back in the summer karmicnull gave me a CD by an American band called the Dropkick Murphys, which I love; and guess who was the support band?
The Murphys take US hardcore (in the punk sense) and Irish (and a touch of Scottish) music, and mash them together in the same way The Pogues first did with UK punk and Irish music two decades ago. Loud thrashing guitars meld with bagpipes and rebel lyrics. There are about six or seven of them, and they move around the Academy’s huge stage like it’s their playground.
That said, and though they rocked mightily, the cavernous space of the Academy did them no favours. They would, I think, be enjoyed best in a smaller venue. About a tenth of the size, say. I found it hard work to appreciate some of the songs I don’t know, so I suspect that if you don’t know their work at all, they would be very hard work indeed, live. Then there’s their version of ‘The Wild Rover’. Maybe Americans aren’t as used as we are to every dodgy folk band or drunken denizen of an Irish pub singing this one: but you’d think that when your forté is speeded up, punked up versions of Irish songs, you wouldn’t do a version of it that is, frankly, plodding.
No matter: I’ve now heard them do ‘Fields of Athenry’, live, and am happy.
As to The Pogues: what with one thing and another, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect, after all this time. But I shouldn’t have worried: it was like coming home: both for them and for me.
Let me say this, in no uncertain terms: I don’t think Shane is anywhere near as fucked up as we think he is. Yes, he’s done himself damage over the years, and I’ve seem him interviewed on TV and been embarassed and wished they had left him alone. But that night, although he moved with something of an Ozzy-Osbourne-esque shamble, he was totally switched on. He didn’t miss a single word, as far as I could tell, and the only mistake he made was that he messed up the first verse of the very last song, ‘Fiesta’; and that’s the kind of thing that any singer can do.
Physically, too, he was very together. During one song he kept playing with the mike stand, for example, and seemed to constantly be on the verge of knocking it over: but he always caught it. And at one point he balanced a glass of water on his head.
But what of the music? It was, of course, superb. I say “of course” because The Pogues consists of some of the most talented musicians in rock ‘n’ roll, and perhaps the English language’s greatest living poet.
One of their greatest abilities is to make London seem magical, mystic ghostly: songs like ‘Lullaby of London’ is a fine example of this. And ‘London You’re A Lady’ and ‘Misty Morning, Albert Bridge’ are hymns to the city that are rooted in more mundane concerns; but they still evoke a lyrical beauty. In a way the effect is not unlike that of Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802‘. Yes, I think Shane McGowan is as important a poet as Wordsworth, all right?
There was a spectre hanging over the show, though: it was nearly Christmas, and it was unthinkable that they wouldn’t do ‘Fairytale of New York’. But who would sing Kirsty McColl’s part? The song is inherently a duet; there is no way it could be done without two voices.
Tony told me he had heard that Cerys Matthews of Catatonia sang it at the Cardiff gig, but he didn’t think that she was touring with them.
So the end of the third encore and second hour drew close. “This is ‘Fairytale of New York'”, Shane growled, to cheers. Then one of the others introduced “Miss Ella Finer.” One of The Pogues is Jem Finer, as I’m sure you’ll know if you’ve read this far; so I suspected this was his daughter (and internet sources confirm this).
She wasn’t Kirsty, of course, but she did a fine job. Some of her vowels were on the plummy side (“Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our larst”, if you see what I mean): but you can’t hold that against her.
So as far as I’m concerned, The Pogues are back. Now, let’s just hope they write some new material and put a new album out.