Here’s a clip of Anglo-Celtic folk-punks the Pogues with their lyrically not-safe-for-work reel “Bottle of Smoke” taken from their 1988 album If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Beware of multiple F-bombs, some of which you might actually hear.

The Pogues made three classic albums before lead singer Shane MacGowan left the group.  One of which was Rum Sodomy, and the Lash which was produced by Elvis Costello.  During the sessions for that album, Costello met and later married bass player Cait ORiordan.
The Pogues made at least two classic albums before lead singer Shane MacGowan left the group. "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" is one. Another was "Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash" which was produced by Elvis Costello in 1985. During the sessions for that album, Costello met and later married bass player Cait O'Riordan. She left the band by 1988.

Despite the band’s traditional sound, they’re often cited as an example of Irish folk-punk, even if most of the band members had English upbringings, including lead singer Shane MacGowan.  The connections to punk of course are more easily justified as MacGowan had come out of the scene in the late 70s, fronting a punk band called the Nipple Erectors, later to be shortened to ‘the Nips’.  Besides this literal connection in this particular case, there are a few important connections between punk and traditional folk music in general, which makes MacGowan’s stylistic shift as a songwriter a natural one.  The spirit of defiance and the plight of the working classes are certainly common themes, as is the almost non-existent divide between audience and performer.  In traditional music, much like punk, everyone was invited to play it, to participate, to sing along, and to keep the tradition alive by doing so.  There are other more basic crossovers too, of course.  For instance, the original name for this band when it was formed in 1982 was the more confrontational “Pogue Mahone” which in the Irish language roughly translates to “Kiss My Arse”.

The Pogues were unique for the time, making what is essentially traditional music during a time when high-gloss pop tunes were the order of the day.  MacGowan’s slurred vocals give the songs real character not to mention the benefits of his talents as a lyricist which made these songs into compact epics. The very fact that this band hit a unique stylistic vein made them sound pretty radical at the time too, which in turn made what they were singing about – depressed communities, hopelessness of the underclasses, love in the face of poverty and drunkeness, etc – into ideas to be taken seriously.  Having said this, they didn’t forget to have a good time with it.  This band made some truly joyous music, and “Bottle of Smoke” is one of my favourite examples.

The “Bottle of Smoke” here is a racehorse, and the narrator is the down-and-out gambler who finally gets a break.  That’s another thing about this band – they knew something about creating characters in their songs, little stories that make you laugh in this case, or cry in other cases.  In many of their songs, they achieve both reactions.  The sheer attack in the playing is another strength, and although this music shares the energy of punk as well as a similar DIY spirit, it takes some skill to play traditional music, as well as no small level of commitment to putting it across. The Pogues deliver this in spades.

MacGowan’s famous barfly persona eventually overtook him to the point where the band had to oust him by the early 90s.  The divide between the songs and the writer became more and more narrow, and his excesses and resultant behaviour made it impossible for them to succeed.  The group limped on without him until their break-up in the mid 90s.  Yet, MacGowan would rejoin the group more recently for a short tour in 2001.

For more music, check out The Pogues MySpace Page.

And be sure to visit Shane MacGowan’s Official Website too.


4 thoughts on “The Pogues Perform “Bottle of Smoke”

  1. Wh-hey! A song Graeme introduced Rob to! I remember we kept giddily playing that song again and again in 1989 or 90, sharing the fantasy of getting large speakers and blaring it out the window of the conservative college we went to at full blast in all it’s F-bomb glory.

    The whole of If I Should Fall From Grace With God is a stunning album. Exuberant, Coarse, Angry, Sad, Heartfelt it’s an album that viscerally elicits all the moods that make the human condition so great and contradictory.

    I remember watching Shane MacGowan on Jack Dee’s talk show on Channel 5 in ’97 allegedly performing “Fairytale of New York” with Kristy MacColl. I say allegedly because MacGowan was so drunk he couldn’t play or sing, so they played the song for lip synching and he was too drunk to do that too. He just sat at the piano he was supposed to be playing and stared at it and attempted to snych. I felt so sorry for Kirsty MacColl.

  2. I remember listening to If I Should Fall From Grace With God at your place – a vinyl version, I might add (your sister’s copy?) – and being gobsmacked at the effrontery of “Bottle of Smoke” while being intensely entertained by it too. Getting past all the coarseness, it’s basically a character study of someone in a specific cultural context, so in a strange way, the F-bombs aren’t really gratuitous or thrown in there for sheer shock value. That’s just how that character is most likely to speak. Novelist Roddy Doyle writes dialogue with the same principle in mind. And there’s a whole novel in “Bottle of Smoke” somewhere too. I think this is what makes MacGowan so gifted as a songwriter. With each tune, you get the impression that there is a whole world underneath what the lyrics promise.

    It’s too bad that his predilections for getting whacked out on drugs and booze interfered with his career, and the careers of his bandmmates. I also remember that late 90s TV appearance. McColl looked completely abandoned, which I guess she kind of was. No one would have guessed that it would be she who wouldn’t live to see the 21st century, rather than MacGowan who looked as though he might not make it through the song that night. I wish I could find the clip. If anyone out there can post it here, that’d be great!

    Cheers for comments, Graeme.

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