10 Best Pogues Songs
The Pogues emerged out of the London punk scene in 1982 with a fusion of punk and traditional Irish music. The synthesis worked. But what set the band apart was the lyrical brilliance of frontman Shane MacGowan. His voice sounded like it had risen out of some holy gutter, and he displayed an almost Presleyan emotional range that could make the most delicate ballad or the rawest stomper unforgettable. His songwriting chops were just as powerful, leading the Clash’s Joe Strummer to declare him one of the best lyricists of the 20th century. But MacGowan and his bandmates were prone to excesses -- alcoholic and otherwise -- and it proved their undoing. MacGowan’s drinking led to his 1991 exit, and the group broke up in 1996. They’ve reunited since with MacGowan back on board but have yet to produce any new music. Which is just as well. They’ve more than made their mark. So grab a Guinness, Powers, Tullamore Dew or whatever's your poison and check out our list of the 10 Best Pogues Songs. And while you're at it, raise a glass to the late Philip Chevron, the group's longtime guitarist, who died in October.
Off the band’s debut album ‘Red Roses for Me,’ 'Streams of Whiskey’ is a raucous tribute to the mood-lifting powers of alcohol. The song kicks off with frenetic banjo, tin whistle and accordion before segueing into MacGowan’s vocals recalling a dreamed encounter with the heavy-drinking Irish writer Brendan Behan who imparts his life’s philosophy: to go “where streams of whiskey are flowing.”
An anthem of the Irish-American experience, complete with salutes to coffin ships and J.F.K., 'Thousands Are Sailing' captures the bittersweet mixture of hope and despair, opportunity and exile felt by Irish immigrants to the United States. One of the few songs on the list not written by MacGowan, 'Thousands Are Sailing' was penned by guitarist Philip Chevron.
The final track off the Pogues’s fourth album, ‘London You’re a Lady’ is a moving and earthy paean to the British capital. Propelled by pounding drums, accordion and tin whistle, the song imagines the city as something of an aging and sad-eyed prostitute, one who has been thoroughly abused but who still has a “golden heart ... pulsing” between her “scarred-up thighs.”
The title track off their third and arguably greatest album, 'If I Should Fall from Grace with God' is a thrilling example of the Pogues’ high-energy combination of punk and traditional Irish music, with MacGowan’s snarling vocals offering a compelling complement to Andrew Renkin and James Fearnley’s galloping drums and accordion. The song, which centers on a man’s grim but matter-of-fact contemplation of how best to dispose of his corpse, made an incongruous appearance in a Subaru Forester commercial, providing the soundtrack as a hockey mom chauffeurs her children to and from the rink.
With the opening line echoing William Wordsworth, this slow-paced ballad demonstrates the full range and ambition of MacGowan’s songwriting. The jilted narrator is drowning his sorrows at the pub, but an old man interrupts his revelry with horrifying war stories and the tale of his own long ago heartbreak. The song was the first Pogues single to register on the U.K. charts, peaking at 72.
It’s impossible to choose between these two poetic ballads from Side B of ‘If I Should Fall from Grace with God.’ Both offer powerful and tender emotional sentiments along with evocative pastoral imagery. Each is carried along by the band’s subtle musicianship.
Kicking off their second album, ‘The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn’ showcases the Pogues at their rawest and fastest, both musically and lyrically. Packed with violent action and startling imagery while brimming with historical and mythological references, it is MacGowan’s songwriting at its crazy best.
A nostalgic piano and cornet ballad that contemplates the emotional trajectory of love and friendship over the course of time, ‘A Rainy Night in Soho’ is one of the major gems off ‘Poguetry in Motion.’ Though he does not outshine the original version, Nick Cave did a stellar cover on ‘What a Wonderful World,’ the 1992 EP he and MacGowan put together with the Bad Seeds.
First released as part of the 1986 EP ‘Poguetry in Motion,’ ‘Body of an American’ features a scintillating tin whistle and accordion opening that segues into MacGowan’s description of the chaotic wake of Big Jim Dwyer, an Irish-American boxer who who has been brought back to Ireland to be buried. The song had a recurring role on HBO’s ‘The Wire,’ with boozed-up members of the Baltimore P.D. playing the song on special occasions, belting out the chorus, “I’m a free born man of the U.S.A.”
'Fairytale of New York' supposedly had its origins in a bet between MacGowan and Elvis Costello, who produced 'Rum, Sodomy & the Lash.' Costello doubted MacGowan could write a Christmas song. The resulting track, co-authored by Pogues tin whistle player Jem Finer, is arguably one of the best Christmas -- and New York City -- songs ever made. Confined to the drunk tank on Christmas Eve, a down-on-his-luck vagrant recalls a doomed New York love affair. In a searing back-and-forth duet between MacGowan and Kristy MacColl, the couple recounts the relationship, from its hopeful beginning down to its sordid end. The song, which reached No. 2 on the U.K. charts, concludes on a redemptive note -- or an alcoholic delusion -- hinting at the possibility of reconciliation.