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A blast from the past, The Pogues: the BBC sessions 1984–1986 (Live)

ByDarragh Murray

Nov 26, 2020

“There’s leechers up in Whitehall,
And queers in the GLC,
And when we’ve done those bastards in,
We’ll storm the BBC!”

Thus screeched the infamous Shane McGowan on ‘Transmetropolitan’, the raucous opening to The Pogues’ debut album Red Roses For Me. It is through no accident that McGowan chooses to tar the BBC with the same brush as Westminster sycophants. Throughout their career, The Pogues endured a tempestuous relationship with the bigwigs of Broadcasting House. Pogues’ singles frequently fell foul of the corporation’s stringent rules outlawing profanity, and it was BBC censorship that forced the band to drop the latter half of their original, tongue-in-cheek name ‘Pogue Mahone’ (an anglicisation of the Irish póg mo thóin, meaning “kiss my arse”). Nonetheless, in spite of their nuisance, The Pogues were repeatedly invited back to the BBC. And storm it they did.

Recently released, The BBC Sessions 1984–1986 (Live) compiles recordings laid down during these visits. Following the band’s early years, this collection documents the rise of The Pogues from their genesis in the backrooms of Soho music halls through to the critical acclaim of their sophomore record Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. The compilation is comprised of twenty-three live takes, thirteen of which have remained un-played since they were first aired over thirty years ago.

Given the rawness of the group’s studio material, one can be forgiven for wondering whether a live album of this nature would be a futile endeavour. Indeed, none of the compilation’s recordings would sound out of place on any of the band’s studio records. Therefore, rather than seek to show The Pogues through a new lens, this compilation exists to serve as an auditory timeline that plots out the group’s rise to punk notoriety.

The record opens with four tracks recorded for the band’s first appearance on the John Peel Show, the elusive rite of passage for eighties bands hoping to break into the mainstream. Still performing under their original moniker, McGowan and Co. make their radio debut with the same cacophonous instrumentation that would later characterise their first album. While a veteran fanatic may notice the odd distinction between these live takes and their professionally-recorded counterparts, The Pogues ability to replicate the vigour of their albums is nothing short of impressive. The roomy acoustics of the studio enhance their typical pub room sound, with the group demonstrating impeccable timing as they meddle with violent tempos while the lyrical juggernaut of McGowan reels off reams of piquant poetry. 

The thunderous percussion of this first radio session is carried over to group’s appearance on The David ‘Kid’ Jensen Show just two months later. The band rumble through another four tracks, employing heavy use of chanted backing vocals in order to mimic a pub setting. The anthemic swell of the refrain in ‘Poor Paddy On The Railway’ recreates the buoyant exuberance of the heavy drinking sessions that typified life on the road with The Pogues.

As the album progresses, so too does group’s style. Returning to the John Peel show in December 1984, the band shifted their focus towards calmer ballads. The manic chaos of their previous radio sessions makes way for the reflective ruminations of ‘Navigator’ and Danny Boyas McGowan ditches the shrill cries of early Pogue’s recordings in favour of for a mournful, measured approach.

Sandwiched between these slower numbers sits the first of two versions of ‘Sally MacLennane’, the pair of which demonstrate how the skeleton of a future classic was fleshed out. On both recordings the backing vocals consist of apologetic interjections that stand in for the hoarse growls that give the studio version its gritty character.

As the record draws to a close the mastery of The Pogues shines in full effect. Following the release of Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, the group was firmly established as the archetypal Celtic-Punk ensemble and over the course of two performances on The Janice Long Show their prodigious command of the genre sits centre-stage. Renditions of ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ are full to the brim with the tragic melancholy that drove the band to cultural prominence.

The BBC Sessions 1984–1986 (Live) provides a fresh account of band’s origin story, compiling the vital ingredients that made The Pogues the icons that they later became; rapier wit, brutal honesty, and music that, like a good drink, is best enjoyed in the company of those that you love.

Image: brizzlebuff via Flickr