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The Pogues: No Small Potatoes

May 18, 1986|CHRIS WILLMAN


It's not just Americans who are rediscovering their roots music. In Europe, the latest "only band that matters" has been the Pogues, who've kicked up a storm all over the Continent merely by playing what can genuinely be called traditional Irish folk music.

They haven't even tempered the old sound all that much with rock 'n' roll; it's pretty much acoustic guitar, snare drum, accordion and uileann (a.k.a. bag) pipes providing most of the sound a lot of the time, even though--now that Stateside release has finally come--the band is being raved about by aggressive rockers as much as the McCabe's crowd.

The by-now famous English review that called the group "the best punk band since the Sex Pistols" had in mind a revisionism that's mostly attitudinal, not musical. Most of what the Pogues do could probably pass muster at a real Irish pub without much ado from the oldsters. It's so basic, yet there's a fury there that's more the stuff of angry young men than imbibers ready for a jig.

Make no mistake, most of the songs on the band's second album (and first U.S. release), "Rum, Sodomy and the Lash," do center around the stereotypical Irish leitmotif-- serious drinking--but with rage and/or pathos, not a sense of happy-hour celebration.

Leader Shane MacGowan sings boozy, street-specific tales of desolation and desecration that might be hard to take if the music wasn't so alternately belligerent and beautiful.

"The Old Main Drag" is the last wheeze of a male prostitute who's been beaten and raped till he hardly has the strength to get up from the sidewalk where he hawks his wares. "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" is told by an Australian soldier returning from the Gallipoli massacre of World War I without his legs, a bitter veteran whose only satisfaction comes from the fact that there's no one at the dock to pity him when he returns.

It's not the stuff of which green beer is made, and the doleful morbidity can be overwhelming in large doses, but there are seeds of greatness among all the alcohol-soaked ennui.

Those seeds can be heard growing in "Poguetry in Motion," a new EP released concurrently with the album here that, like its predecessor, is produced by Elvis Costello. Providing probably an even better introduction to the Pogues, the EP shows the band just as capable of songs that have nothing to do with crawling through (and dying in) the streets.

"London Girl" is remarkably close to rock 'n' roll without forsaking tradition, and "A Rainy Night in Soho" (with the tender refrain, "You're the measure of my dreams") is a surprisingly pretty ballad drenched in unabashedly romantic strings. Both the LP and the EP offer fair warning of one extraordinary European band that'll never be caught dead trying to ape an American accent.

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