The Bells Were Ringing Out, For Christmas Day...

Apr 21, 2005
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Some breathtaking and moving songs, plenty of wonderful Pogues spirit and fervour

Cons:Not excellent bonus material for the re-issue; useless hidden track

The Bottom Line: This is the Pogues' finest hour - most of their best work and moments of genius are captured on this record. A very important and essential recording.


God, I love the Pogues. They are a truly stunning and wonderful gang of grizzly-faced Irish reprobates, aren’t they? And this album is their masterwork; their last and colossal imprint in the world of music, leaving behind them a trail of empty beer bottles and some of the most stunning and rollicking tunes you are likely to hear one band ever play. The band consists of Shane MacGowan, here displaying moments of his genius song writing ability, on vocals, Spider Stacy on tin whistle and vocals, James Fearnley, multi-instrumentalist, Darryl Hunt on bass, Philip Chevron on guitars, Jem Finer on banjos and Terry Woods, another multi-instrumentalist on lots of things. This is the group’s third and last album and what a swansong this is. Most of the magic is borne from the pen of McGowan, who around the time of the album’s recording was not in the healthiest of states. Despite his ill health and fondness for ale, he managed along with his excellent band to come up with this marvellous record and some of the most memorable songs ever written and it was with this fabulous album that the Pogues cemented their place in the musical firmament.

The music on this album is performed with the fervour and hell-for-leather passion of the band’s first album, the equally wonderful ‘Red Roses For Me,’ and some of the songs on this truly defy belief. They are fast, rambunctious and at times incredibly uplifting, sorrowful and moving pieces of music. It is on this LP that MacGowan reaches his creative peak as a song writer and the band reaches their peak as musicians. The difference between this album and the group’s first two records is that this one is a far more mature and cohesive recording. The group brought in an orchestra which works remarkably well on many of the songs, but also broke the mould of their traditional Irish folk music to include a more modern and commercial sound which sounds just terrific. The lyrics here are truly phenomenal, certainly some of MacGowan’s best ever, especially in one track that has become a legendary Christmas song here in Britain, the bloody wonderful ‘Fairytale Of New York.’ The Pogues throw absolutely everything into their music, and perform it with the most blatant disregard for themselves that it is impossible not to be astonished, amazed and moved. This is the most important and essential Pogues album, and a necessity in everyone’s album collection. This edition is remastered and comes with six delicious bonus tracks on top of the 12 tremendous album songs.

1. If I Should Fall From Grace With God (2:20)
This fast and energetic track begins things capably. The opening rhythm is a jumpy and exciting accordion tune backed by a loud wall of support from the banjos and rumbling drums. MacGowan’s voice is more developed here, but he still indulges in some whooping half way through. The track dances with an indefatigable energy and sounds as if it could go on for another five minutes. This is a very uplifting and exciting knees-up that slams in to close way too soon. Lyrically it is typically morbid, dealing with the light issue of being sent to hell, and MacGowan is at his most vicious on the first verse: “If I should fall from grace with God, where no doctor can relieve me, if I’m buried ’neath the sod but the angels won’t receive me.” This hints at some of the very gloomy and dark lyrics in some songs later on, but here this is just a rollicking and barnstorming way to kick things off.

2. Turkish Song Of The Damned (3:25)
This wonderful track opens with an eerie and ominous guitar rhythm which is repeated throughout and some background hooting and squealing. MacGowan them comes in, his voice perfectly menacing and creepy as he sings the nasty and virulent verses. The chorus is truly fantastic, incredibly catchy and a little more sympathetic than the verses, but this track is frightening the whole way through: “Did you keep a watch for the dead man’s wind/ Did you see the woman with the comb in her hand/ Wailing away on the wall on the strand/ As you danced to the Turkish song of the damned.” The third verse is especially creepy, and the third section boasts some frightening flute melodies. The tune then jumps into this warped and eerie Irish jig, a section so devious and apocalyptic it sounds as if it’s come straight out of Tam O’Shanter. Brilliant.

3. Bottle Of Smoke (2:45)
The furious and storming pace is kept for this foul-mouthed piece of sheer Pogues anarchy. MacGowan is pretty much indecipherable throughout most of this, but makes sure the cuss words are kept loud and clear as the ferocious banjos and far more vociferous drumming keeps things going at a break-neck pace. I like the frantic section where MacGowan lets rip, yelling “Come on you bastards!” and getting away with it. There is even a hint of a certain female singer on backing vocals…

4. Fairytale Of New York (4:32)
Yes, I am of course talking about Kirsty McColl, whose tremendous performance on this timeless classic is probably the thing she will be most remembered for, unfortunately passing away a few years ago. This is unfortunate, as she had a wonderful solo career, but this is the kind of song anyone would want to be remembered for. This classic Christmas song revolves around a squabbling Irish couple in a drunk tank, both of whom are embittered but bound together by their seemingly hopeless predicament. This song is so wonderful because it manages to cultivate a poignancy and a love midst all of the anger and bitterness, and you end up feeling incredibly moved by the words that these people say to one another. This is the only duet that I’ve ever had time for, and I don’t suppose there are many songs quite as beautiful as this. Some of the verses in this are tear-jerking and astoundingly moving. The song opens with the delicate piano tune with MacGowan setting the scene before McColl comes in and the track kicks in with her singing in her best Irish accent. The chorus contrasts the halcyon days that the couple had on one magical Christmas when their future looked rosy with their present reality. I think my favourite verses are the final two, and these are certainly the most piercing: “I could have been someone/ So could anyone/ You took my dreams from me when I first found you/ I kept them with me babe/ I put them with my own/ Can’t make it all alone/ I’ve built my dreams around you.” The orchestra is very important as it provides that crucial element that makes the chorus such a grand, uplifting and beautiful affair but aching with melancholy at the same time. It isn’t likely that you haven’t heard this, but if not, then I suggest seeking out this album immediately. A truly awe-inspiring song.

5. Metropolis (2:49)
Its rather difficult to follow a song of that magnitude, so this instrumental provides a nice contrast. This is a rocking and swaying tune led by the banjo and flute with a grandiose trumpet section in the third half to elevate it a little more. It sounds a bit like the Batman theme, actually, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your politics. This is all right, but probably the weakest thing on the album. It’s all uphill from this moment on, anyway.

6. Thousands Are Sailing (5:25)
This ambitious song starts with some distant flute and some guitars before MacGowan comes in with the first verse. This sounds a little like the Pet Shop Boys at the chorus and was composed by guitarist Phil Chevron, his first composition for the group. The track is about Irish immigration to America and unfortunately it doesn’t hold its head up with the far superior MacGowan and Finer tunes.

7. Fiesta (4:10)
I recognised this song from countless awful British television adverts when I first saw it and the Pogues must have made a packet selling this to commercials. This is a roof-raising party anthem in which MacGowan delivers the verses in his best Spanish accent, and then the final verse all in Mexican. The song is performed and kidnapped by a huge brass section, and the trumpet melodies used throughout are so grandiose and wild that Perez Prado would spin in his grave if he heard them. Very anarchic but in a far stranger way than we are used to from the band, and illustrates the diversity of their song writing. They are trying to pull off some traditional Mexican music here and the great thing is they succeed in doing so, even taking time to make some irreverent cracks at lost comrades along the way. A damn fine song.

8. Medley (4:01)
The first half of this traditional song dealing with conscription is dominated by military drumming as it tells its tale then it jumps into a fast and energetic track with a highly enjoyable chorus of “With me wack fol the do fi the diddle idle day.” It makes more sense in the song, believe me and sounds great, although I’m not sure if it really is a medley, as I only counted two parts. The track is supposedly split into three parts titled “The Recruiting Sergeant,” “The Rocky Road To Dublin” and “The Galway Races” but the lyrics seem to omit the second part, or maybe I’m just not paying close enough attention. The vocals here are shared again, as they are to better effect on the next track and this where the barnstorming stuff comes to and end on the album.

9. Streets Of Sorrow/ Birmingham Six (4:36)
This is where things start getting very serious indeed. This incredibly moving song about some Irish men that were fingered for Birmingham pub bombings on groundless accusations starts off with a very delicate and wonderfully performed guitar tune that sets the very emotional tone that the second half furthers. Performed by Spider Stacy, I think, this is a very poignant piece of music, and it takes you by surprise just how sorrowful it manages to sound. The second half tops this with its angry and vengeful lyrics, performed by MacGowan they sound simply chilling: “A curse on the judges, the coppers and screws who tortured the innocent, wrongly accused/ For the price of promotion and justice to sell may the judged be their judges when they rot down in hell.” The track trudges back and forth, evoking the footsteps of a policeman on patrol at night and the music here provides perfect emotional weight to the overwhelming lyrics. The chorus here is also remarkable: “You’ll be counting years, first five then ten, growing old in a lonely hell/ Round the yard and lousy cell from wall to wall and back again.” The song then comes to a beautifully stirring and funereal conclusion as a incredible melancholy tune is played on the cello. This ending sounds like something that would be played at a funeral; you can practically picture all of the lit candles and sorrowful, sullen people bowing their heads down. Quite an astonishing and moving piece of music.

10. Lullaby Of London (3:26)
The serious tone of the previous track remains for the rest of the album, and is furthered here on this introspective track. The rest of the songs here are penned entirely by MacGowan, and showcases some of his finest solo song writing without Jem Finer. This opens with a maritime accordion tune and some noble-sounding banjo, and then it becomes a slower 4/4 lullaby, more sympathetic and a lot more upbeat than the pretty morose last track. The lyrics still deal with death, a theme in which MacGowan is an expert: “May the ghosts that howled round the house at night, never keep you from your sleep/ May they all sleep tight down in hell tonight, or wherever they be. The track concludes with a wonderfully emotive and soothing coda with some truly fine playing from all.

11. Sit Down By The Fire (2:17)
This probably boasts some of the fastest verses ever heard on a song. The music for this is very urgent and menacing, gloomy alone-at-sea music that leaps into uncomfortable spasms for the choruses. Scattered throughout is some jolly piratical hooting, and the lyrics depict a rather candid father telling his young ones about things that are likely to give them nightmares. It ends with some nice and nasty MacGowan humour as the father says: “Good night and god bless now f**k off to bed” to his terrorised progeny. The track ends in a terrifically Bacchanalian style, with some ferocious drumming and crazy acoustic guitars dancing madly like some crazed drunk fishermen on their first night back from sea.

12. The Broad Majestic Shannon (2:49)
The music is very similar to that of ‘The Fairytale of New York’ in the beginning but this becomes a stand-out song in its own right. This is a nice way to round things off, a more uplifting and hopeful sound to things and not a much melancholy dripping beneath the surface; a positive closer that juxtaposes well with the more intense songs on the record, and that is reflected in the chorus: “Takes my hand, and dry your tears babe/ Take my hand, forget your fears babe/ There’s no pain, there’s no more sorrow/ They’ve all gone, gone in the years babe.”

13. Worms (1:01)
This was originally a hidden track on the first issue of the album that unfortunately we can’t hide from here. A flat saxophone plays a slithering melody as a deep baritone sings the odd lyrics from some obscure poem that they must have used for this. A little unnecessary, but it’s very brief.

Bonus Tracks
14. The Battle March (Medley) (4:07)
There are six bonus tracks here, and I think of all of the Pogues re-issues the greatest bonus titbits are to be found on the first album ‘Red Roses For Me.’ But these are merely bonus tracks and as such can be ignored or enjoyed at your leisure. There are 3 songs and 3 instrumentals, and the latter are probably the weaker ones. This instrumental starts of gravely with a slightly oriental banjo introduction before the military drumming and the accordions come in and this becomes a slow moving affair, concluding as it began. The second half comes in at about 2:03, and the track then leaps into a fast and rip-roaring reel, and the track really couldn’t sound anymore Irish even if Seamus Heany suddenly started singing his poetry throughout it. Again it only feels as if there are two parts, but maybe I’m just missing the subtleties, not being fully au fait with traditional Irish medleys after all. Good, but missing the excellent narrative style of track eight.

15. The Irish Rover (4:07)
The vocals are shared on this prosaic track penned by Joseph Crofts. The vocal duties are shared between MacGowan and another band member who probably shouldn’t have been let near the microphone. Again this is another very traditional track; a very old-fashioned piece of Irish music that maybe lacks the bite compared to some the stuff from the group’s first album that was composed entirely of this sort of song. MacGowan tries to throw some snarling menace into the vocals but the story is more conventional and their role is really only as narrators here. Nice, but more verve and teeth would have improved upon it.

16. Mountain Dew (2:17)
With a little help from The Dubliners, this traditional classic is given a new lease of life. The vocalist here again I don’t know but this is a fiendishly catchy track with a great chorus and a fiddle has never been put to better use than in a song like this. Very charming and likeable stuff, probably the highlight of these bonus songs.

17. Shanne Bradley (3:38)
This is a grand and wonderfully syncopated track that basically just showcases some sterling playing from some guitars and accordions and is a very nice and amiable piece of music, if doing very little for its duration. The drums and bass join in half way through and this doesn’t really become a proper song but a track competing for the most beatific and pretty instrumental ever to be recorded. It nearly wins hands down.

18. Sketches Of Spain (2:12)
More Mexican rhythms here in this odd instrumental that jumps into sections that sound more like the Specials than the Pogues.

19. South Australia (3:27)
A nice knees-up closes this album that is maybe a little roughly produced and the bass is a little oppressive throughout. Again MacGowan isn’t on vocals here, it’s another member of the band who hasn’t sang before. Almost everyone gets a chance to sing on this record, it seems. It certainly ends in a rambunctious enough fashion to be very satisfying and leaves us in a perfectly messy and maniacal style. More appropriately, the track closes to one of the band members cussing, obviously hurting himself from bashing his instrument too brashly.

The Pogues: If I Should Fall From Grace With God (64:15)
So this is the finest Pogues album that you are likely to hear. The Pogues have never produced a ‘perfect’ record, but this comes pretty damn close to earning that title. There are some truly spectacular moments on this album that captures so wonderfully all of the various types of music that they can produce at such a high quality. What you get with this album is a dark and moving piece of work that is also a rollicking and barnstorming piece of terrific fun. The Pogues maybe have been ostracised from the mainstream because of the fact that fundamentally this is Irish folk, but this really is insignificant. Never at any point on this record do you feel as if you listening to traditional music as this music has a remarkable edge and verve to it that the duller sound of traditional music lacks, plus this album has a depth of song writing that elevates it beyond this genre. I recommend this album for fans of truly terrific music. ‘Fairytale of New York’ and ‘Streets of Sorrow/ Birmingham Six’ are truly breathtaking compositions; two of the finest songs the group ever produced, and I’d say good enough reasons alone for seeking this album out. So if you don’t have this, then I suggest you procure a copy immediately as you certainly will be moved, and this is an essential album from the band, their crowning glory.


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