Punk Rings True, Renewed

Source: The Boston Globe
Author: Jim Sullivan
Copyright: © The Boston Globe 2000

Old punks don’t die – well, some don’t. They fight various addictions, creative slumps, record company and radio disinterest, inter-band squabbles, and a youth market that thinks Limp Bizkit has something to do with punk rock. If they’re lucky, they snatch a few of the inquisitive (or historical-minded) kids and maintain some hold on fans who are growing older alongside them and whose concerns have shifted from rock clubs and toward finding baby sitters.

The Buzzcocks, Britain’s first punk band, and Shane MacGowan have those audiences – kids and older folk – and both just packed Lansdowne Street rooms.

The Buzzcocks, led by singer-guitarists-writers Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle, are blessed with the best catalog in punk. They wrote most of ’em in a span of just a few years a long while ago, but when they trot ’em out and let it rip, it all feels young and fresh: fast razor-edged rock that asks more questions than it answers. At Axis, the short, now-blond Shelley was suffering from a cold and his voice wasn’t top-notch, but Diggle and crowd mem bers filled the gaps. It seems odd to attach the term ”classic rock” to punk – the term seems so old-school and calcified. But, really, in Buzzcocks’ hands – nothing seems like an anachronism, a relic. Songs are played for keeps as if the emotions matt er still. And they do. The plaints, gripes, accusations, and exclamations sound timeless. ”I Believe” was a glorious conundrum of questioning everything; ”Ever Fallen in Love,” the best break-up song ever, ”Autonomy,” about what we all want in a relationship.

At Axis, Buzzcocks kept the tension/release balance perfectly calibrating, exploding at all the right places, leaving the crow d deliriously drenched.

MacGowan, like Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, was kicked out of the band he propelled to early creative heights. For MacGowan, that was the Pogues. Now, playing with another accomplished band of Celtic punk guys, the Popes, MacGowan survives. He’s on everyone’s list to beat Keith Richards to the grave – due to his hardly hidden penchant for booze and drugs – but he’s a miracle man. Call him the drunken master. Thursday – only 35 minutes late to the stage! – he hung onto his mike stand, smoked, sang, barked, and cursed, and wove this spell of confrontation, self-denigration, and celebration. Often, all together. He sang, roughly, about possibly sleeping with ”your Mrs.” but never ”your daughter;” he cursed his ”junkie friends” and longed to dance with ”a buxom Irish whore”; his toast-raising often had to do with send-offs temporary (sailing away to America) or permanent, being buried in the grave ”with a jar of alcohol.”

His characters are tortured and bruised sorts, romantically inclined but cynically stunted. He sang of ”poor Paddy,” gone to America in the 1840s ”workin’ on the railway” whose only real hope is to die and go to heaven. He gets his wish. What does he do in heaven? Works upon the railway.

With lead instruments such as accordion and banjo, the Popes danced around him with delicacy and finesse. Highlights from the gutter included ”Sally MacLennane,” ”The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn,” and ”A Freeborn Man in the USA.” During one tune, an as-animated-as-he-gets MacGowan turned his back as if to conduct the Popes as an orchestra. He put the vicious ”Skipping Rhymes” – a Brits-out-of-Northern Ireland rant – back to back with the loveliest of sad, romantic numbers, ”A Pair of Brown Eyes.” At the end, he was singing his anthem to alcohol and ambivalence, ”Streams of Whiskey”: ”I am going, I am going, any which way the wind may be blowing/I am going, I am going, where streams of whiskey are flowing.” You’d like to hear some new things, but MacGowan is embroiled in a nasty dispute with his English label, ZTT, which has prevented him from releasing anything new since ’96; he reportedly has two albums ready to go.