On an airplane bound for Dublin seems a proper place to begin speaking about Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. While as a band the Pogues were born in London, their obvious spiritual and musical home is Ireland. And, as anyone who has read A Drink with Shane MacGowan can tell you, the iconic front man is himself the product of an Irish childhood steeped in myth, legend and song, a house full of relatives, Guinness and whiskey. His formative years were then spent in London where among other things he ended up a soul boy and a punk—active among the first wave of London punks as the creator of an early fanzine, as well as a general instigator and disturber of the peace. The British punk scene was largely the result of a decaying and increasingly dysfunctional class system, of the boredom and hopelessness of the young and neglected. It seems natural for MacGowan to have seized on this movement. But his response was not the nihilistic fervor of the Sex Pistols or the political robustness of The Clash or The Jam, but an identification of the otherness of the young London punks with the otherness of different peoples, past and present, especially the Irish, a people whose history is riddled with oppression.
Rum, Sodomy and the Lash is filled with voices. They are often voices of men conscious of the impossibility of their situations; the voices of seekers not quite aware of what they are seeking. “The Old Main Drag” portrays a sixteen year old arrival in London forced to hustle himself a living—and a buzz to stay sane; “A Pair of Brown Eyes” is a dislocated and poetic pastiche of a man in a pub and amidst the intensity and carnage of war, a man roving for an elusive and indefinite pair of brown eyes; the tale of Jimmy who leaves town to make money only to return to the same old “boozer” and bar maid, is related in “Sally MacLennane.” In the end Jimmy, promptly upon his return, drinks himself to an early death and joins those who “left for heaven without warning” while he was away.
Perhaps most haunting, and appropriate, of all is “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” wherein MacGowan inhabits an Australian soldier taken away from his wandering to fight in Gallipoli during World War One. He survives in a hellish landscape of violence before losing his legs and getting shipped back to Australia where the band plays “Waltzing Matilda” just as they did when the soldiers were sent off amidst cheers, given a hero’s send off. No one cheers as they return; no one even looks at their gnarled and deformed bodies. Later, as the parade passes by his porch, which celebrates “the forgotten heroes of a forgotten war,” the young people ask him “what are they marching for” and he asks himself the same question. It is one of the best, if not the best war song that I know off, and one at once immediately emotional and thought provoking.
The Pogues were at this time were still fairly amateurish as a band. But like some of the best punk bands, this in no way keeps them from making a deep impression upon those that hear their music. It even serves to complement that quality of Irish music which sets the mind to wandering, which sets a man to dreaming of green hills and the eyes of one he once loved. That is, it makes it rock and roll a bit more. Rum, Sodomy and the Lash is filled with songs which are poetic and visceral, some both simultaneously. They are filled with vivid characterization and the hazy recollections of memories, which have aged like ancient photographs. Mostly, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash reminds one again and again of the very real talent possessed by Shane MacGowan, both as a writer of songs utterly his own, beautiful and ragged, and an uncannily evocative singer. He is able to write a character of mythical proportion, Cuchuliann, into a riotous stomp which takes place everywhere, full of characters drawn from everywhere; able to color Ewan McCall’s “Dirty Old Town” with a vibrancy and brilliance all his own.
If Rum, Sodomy and the Lash is the sound of the Pogues at the peak of their powers (which it is), then it is also the sound of MacGowan discovering the breadth of his own; the sound of his influences coalescing into a voice absolutely his own, an original and inimitable voice.
The Clash – The Clash
Crooked Fingers – Red Devil Dawn
Dexys Midnight Runners – Searching for the Young Soul Rebels