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He Will Not Go Gently

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Source: Irish Voice
Author: Brian Rohan
Copyright: (c) Irish Voice 1998

MacGowan Defies Time with his Most Daring Album Yet

This should be the time in Shane MacGowan’s career for gentle rewrites of ‘Broad Majestic Shannon’ or ‘Rainy Night in Soho.’ Some would say it’s time for the 40-year-old former Pogue’s career to go the way of his liver or his “good looks,” so infamously ruined all those years ago down the Old Main Drag. Instead, MacGowan has released his most challenging and controversial album to date: a shockingly original, 17-song collection, The Crock of Gold.

Crock of Gold is an Irish rock album the likes of which have never been heard before, an album full of characters defiantly at odds with modern, Euro-funded Ireland. There is the “crumpled man with the crumpled Carroll’s packet in his hand,” who waves a broken bottle at no-one in particular and mutters “F yez all, F yez all.” There are the “kids from flats” sent after “rich Brits drinking trendy Irish beers,” to “burn them in their brand-new cars.” There is disdain for everything that is fashionable in music, and the shouted assertion that Galway waltzer Big Tom — yes, that Big Tom, the one your mother jived to — is “still The King.” There is the information that MacGowan’s preferred dance move is the Siege of Ennis. There is also, most notoriously, a western-style hero’s tale, ‘Paddy Public Enemy Number One’ heralding the late INLA gunman ‘Mad Dog’ McGlinchey as a modern-day Jesse James.

Shane MacGowan

“The ultimate antidote to the Celtic Tiger,” was the verdict of a friend who listened to The Crock of Gold after a recent trip to thriving, hyped-up Dublin. “This is the kind of stuff the Celtic Tiger would like to bury and forget about, if only it could.”

What’s MacGowan up to?

The increasingly-marginalized Londoner has always been on the outskirts of Irish music, bastardizing the Clancy Brothers with a little Johnny Rotten, to the delight of neither. But on the first post-Pogues album, 1995′s The Snake, MacGowan at least had the business sense to try and widen his appeal. He managed American rock radio success — a feat even The Pogues never quite achieved in their decade together — when he dug up a song he penned in the early 1980s and re-recorded it as a duet with Sinéad O’Connor. Despite an outdated reference to the Vietnam War, that song (‘Haunted’) brought MacGowan to the late-1990s mainstream and remains a jukebox favorite. The Crock of Gold, however, has no such appeal. Which is not a criticism of itself, but more a criticism of the state of radio. The Crock of Gold, simply put, is too daring.

To those willing to suffer its offenses, it is also the most enjoyable record by either MacGowan or The Pogues since 1987′s If I Should Fall From Grace With God.

“It’s 20th century Irish music,” explains MacGowan, in a recent interview from his adopted home in London. “We’ve got to the 20th century now. We started out in the f—ing 18th century with the Pogues’ first album [Red Roses for Me], then the 19th century with the second album [Rum, Sodomy & The Lash], and got up to the 1950s with the third album [If I Should Fall From Grace with God]. Then, we put out a load of rubbish [Peace & Love and Hell's Ditch], and I put out The Snake, right? The Crock of Gold is now like the fifth album, and we’ve reached the 1990s.”

MacGowan’s chronology is correct, and would make for perhaps the best 5-CD boxed set ever packaged. The last two records MacGowan recorded with The Pogues were not “rubbish,” as he asserts, but they were the two records over which he had the least control. MacGowan was in an alcohol and drug haze for most of the making of Peace & Love, his worst-ever record, and the other members of the band unwisely neutered his influence on Hell’s Ditch, when they tried to steer the band away from jigs ‘n reels and into World Music. MacGowan, of course, was not interested in didgeredoos or Eastern European melodies, and the barnstorming ceilis of The Snake and now The Crock of Gold shows the direction which MacGowan wanted to take and which the other Pogues refused.

In that vein, Crock of Gold is also the most nationalist-minded of all MacGowan’s records, stressing unapologetically a republican agenda which had been only hinted at before. Pro-republican lyrics abound, such as on the alternately militant and childish ‘Skipping Rhymes’: “I shot one, I shot two, I shot three/ That’s more than you/ With a nick-nack paddy-wack/ Give a dog a bone/ Send the stupid bastards home.”

On another track, ‘Back in the County Hell’ (the title’s a reference to ‘Boys From the County Hell,’ from the first Pogues album), MacGowan sings, “When I’ve done my patriotic chore/ And burnt London to the ground/ I’ll go back home to Nenagh/ And get pissed every night in town/ Like the old folks say/ Can’t keep a good man down.”

All of that is child’s play however compared to ‘Paddy Public Enemy Number One,’ possibly the most un-politically correct song ever recorded in the Irish rock and roll canon. Though he is never mentioned by name, Dominic ‘Mad Dog’ McGlinchey — killed by his former Irish National Liberation Army comrades four years ago — is the obvious subject of the song: ‘The Coppers in the North they couldn’t catch him/ The British Army they just couldn’t touch him/ He shot a couple coppers and he joined the IRA/ And the papers called him Paddy Public Enemy Number One.”

In the style of an old western epic, MacGowan tells the story of McGlinchey’s life, including his ejection from the IRA, his joining the INLA and his eventual split with them, in part because McGlinchey was too much even for that group: “One day he tired of it all and hung away his gun/ When he hung away his gun he became the hunted one/ He went into a phone box to make a local call/ They shot him in the phone box/ Splashin’ blood upon the wall.” Whew. Clearly, these are not the new lyrics by Bono or Sir Bob Geldof. What’s MacGowan getting at? Clearly, he has always been an Irish nationalist among the London-Irish Diaspora, and The Crock of Gold is perhaps the first time he’s been comfortable laying it all out. There’s also an element of mischief here, as MacGowan has always enjoyed simply taking the rise out of people. But most of all there is MacGowan’s empathy for the outgunned and the undone, a constant in his lyrics for 20 years.

As always, the Tipperary native writes from the perspective of the emigrant adrift. “It was 1962 and I was/ Two years out of school/ When I got on board a boat/ That was bound for Liverpool,” he sings in ‘Mother Mo Chroi,’ one of his more autobiographical songs ever.

The theme is repeated in ‘B & I Ferry,’ a rollicking sequel to ‘Boat-Train’ his 1989 song with The Pogues about the London-Irish emigrant experience. MacGowan’s North London is every bit as melancholy and regretful as a boozer on Bainbridge Avenue: “The years they go by quickly/ I know I can’t remain here/ Where each day brings me closer/ To that final misery/ My kids will never scrape shit ’round here/ And I won’t die crying in a pint of beer/ I’m going back to Ireland/ And me Mother Mo Chroi.”

The music? Dominated by traditional jigs and reels, as played by the very competent but overall un-spectacular Popes. Whereas The Pogues had a dream- team worth of personalities and stand-out musicians (Terry Woods, Phillip Chevron, Jamie Fearnley, etc), The Popes is a dictatorship run by MacGowan, with happily faceless drinking buddies on accordion, guitar, banjo and whistle. I’d tell you their names, but what’s the point?

Which is not to say that the music is less than good. It’s just a backdrop for MacGowan, which is perhaps the way it should have been all along for The Pogues. The most inventive music by the Popes involve a reggae-ish bop reminiscent of latter-day Clash or the work of Brooklyn Irish rapper Seanchí. Otherwise, these Popes are content to let MacGowan take the lead. The voice? Amazingly, clearer than ever. Not a slurred word in the bunch. Trust us on this one.

How will The Crock of Gold be received? Among the converted (ourselves included) it’ll go down as one of the best records of ’98 and among the very best of MacGowan’s career. The faint-of-heart will be offended, and everyone else simply won’t notice. And MacGowan wouldn’t have it any other way.