Many readers of this article I’m sure have heard of the British, Celtic punk band The Pogues, and will, no doubt, know of their joyously melancholy Christmas classic, ‘The Fairytale of New York’. However, despite the international popularity of the song, nobody I’ve spoken to has ever bothered to seek out any of their others. Therefore, if you, as I do, have ‘The Fairytale of New York’ on permanent repeat over Christmas, let me introduce you to another favourite of mine, ‘Dirty Old Town’ from The Pogues’ second, and rather excitingly named album, Rum, Sodomy &the Lash, (1985).
‘Dirty Old Town’, written by Ewan MacColl is, like ‘…Fairytale…’, a melancholy, very nostalgic song which captures the life of an ordinary working-class man and his girl in an ordinary working-class town, in perhaps, the 40s or 50s. When the music first strikes up with a dreamy accordion melody and plodding strums of an acoustic guitar, one might initially think they are about to listen to a French folk song. But then Shane McGowan’s distinctively humming Irish tones melt into the music, and a tangible picture of a daydreaming gas worker wandering along floats into the mind’s eye. One is carried on a synaesthesic journey of melancholy ponderance with him as he knocks off for the day, and wanders along the canal to meet his girl, greeting her with a kiss by the factory walls. The second verse takes us into the depths of night as the clouds drift across the moon, and the stray cats prowl around the deserted streets before the third verse almost allow the listener to imagine the sound of the siren from the dock, and smell the smoky air as a steam train rattles through the town, casting sparks from its chimney. But the fourth verse reveals a change in tone as the young man becomes determined to achieve something (it is not quite clear what), as he describes forging a good sharp axe of steel in a fire and chopping something, perhaps tradition, down like an old dead tree. The final verse is a refrain, mirroring the first verse as the young gas worker snaps out of his daydream, revealing that despite his hidden ambition, he merely repeats the same routine that he does every day.
Music writer, Jane Simon called Rum Sodomy & the Lash “the finest slice of story-telling your heart could wish for”, with Q describing it as ‘a proud, defiant bruise of an album that manages to be both profoundly bleak and immoderately romantic.’ I could not use better words to describe this album, and particularly ‘Dirty Old Town’ which seems to be the epitome of this. Other songs worth listening to in this album include ‘A Rainy Night in Soho’, which is again romantically nostalgic and another definite favourite of mine, and ‘Sally MacLennane’, which is very much a jaunty, darkly humorous Irish pub song with a repeated chorus which one can easily imagine a crowd of regulars, having had a very healthy quantity of drink roaring in unison and jigging along to. It appeals to British cynicism I think, and I urge you to explore their other albums too, especially Pogue Mahone (a gleefully defiant anglicisation of the Irish Gaelic póg mo thóin, which means “kiss my arse”), because somehow, despite the generally melancholy, sometimes even dark undertones of The Pogues’ seemingly nostalgic,romantic music, it always manages to put a smile on my face and I hope, on yours too.