Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Pogues' Lost Album: "The Measure of My Dreams"

 The commentary on the Pogues is that record label issues delayed the release of their follow-up to Rum, Sodomy and the Lash - the classic album If I Should Fall from Grace with God. In fact, you could probably say that in fact record label issues cancelled the release of the additional album that might have existed between those two landmarks. Think about it: in the mid-eighties, the Pogues were at their absolute peak. Consecutively, they released two of their (and the 1980s') best albums ever. Yet there is the tantalising possibility that there could have been a third album released in between those two.

Where do I get that idea? I made it up. I highly doubt there was any such album planned, but the fact is that between those two albums, the Pogues recorded well more than an album's worth of material, much of it recorded for soundtracks. Much of it excellent.

Into that latter camp falls "Poguetry in Motion", which despite the horrors of its title is in all probability the single greatest EP ever released. That's not just empty hyperbole: its four songs include two which are probably in the top ten of Best Pogues Songs, and the other two are probably in the top forty. There are a good many complete albums that have fewer than four classic songs.

The album I've assembled - the theoretical could've-been 'lost album' that I have compiled from the Rum, Sodomy and the Lash expanded CD, from the Just Look Them in the Eye and Say Pogue Mahone box set, and from the Straight to Hell Returns soundtrack album, might not have been universally praised. Its fourteen tracks contain fully five instrumentals and two covers. Half of the album comes from film soundtracks. But it still remains a hell of an album, 'transitional' but filled with classics. This is what my theoretical could-have-been album looks like:
  1. Danny Boy from "Straight to Hell" (1:45) trad. arr. the Pogues
  2. London Girl (3:05) Shane MacGowan
  3. The Town that Never Sleeps (2:06) Jem Finer
  4. The Body of an American (4:49) Shane MacGowan
  5. Hot Dogs with Everything from "Sid & Nancy" (2:50) Shane MacGowan
  6. Bolero del Perro Listo from "Straight to Hell" (2:55) Shane MacGowan
  7. Haunted from "Sid & Nancy" (3:34) Shane MacGowan
Side two:
  1. Planxty Noel Hill (3:12) Jem Finer
  2. Do You Believe in Magic? (2:42) John Sebastian, Zal Yanovsky
  3. Love Theme from "Sid & Nancy" from "Sid & Nancy" (1:42) Jem Finer
  4. Rake at the Gates of Hell from "Straight to Hell" (2:25) Shane MacGowan
  5. Rabinga from "Straight to Hell" (2:17) Shane MacGowan
  6. Driving Through the City (2:47) Shane MacGowan
  7. Rainy Night in Soho (5:47) Shane MacGowan
 The whole of the "Poguetry in Motion" EP is side one, tracks two and four and side two, tracks one and seven (I've used the 'oboe version' of 'Rainy Night is Soho' for no particular reason except that it's slightly less familiar to me and so more novel), and 'Do You Believe in Magic?' is an outtake from the same sessions. 'The Town that Never Sleeps' and 'Driving Through the City' were demos from that era, and the remaining seven songs are from soundtracks, as indicated above, though it's worth noting 'Love Theme' remained unreleased until the box set and 'Bolero' until the 2004 expanded reissue of the Straight to Hell soundtrack. 'Hot Dogs' was a single-only release.

There is a fair amount of material I could have included: not including the top-ten hit 'The Irish Rover' (recorded with the Dubliners and available on the If I Should Fall from Grace with God expanded CD) seems a bit wacky, but it's a bit too retro 'trad. arr.' for an album that intentionally references traditional Irish music without really devoting itself to it. The almost-was single 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' seems like an obvious choice too, but was too extreme at the other end: this is a pretty eclectic album, but syn drums and record scratches felt like a bridge too far. 'Something Wild', a third demo, was a vocal track but felt a bit too cobbled-together and too similar to 'Driving Through the City'. The box set contains any number of Sid & Nancy outtakes that mostly recontextualise the 'Love Theme' melody, and the extended Straight to Hell soundtrack has plenty of other brief instrumentals. Using too much of these would have tipped the balance on an album that integrates soundtrack work and fully-realised songs about as well as possible.

I think the disc plays well. Starting with an audio vérité a capella take on 'Danny Boy' is bizarre, but it sets a cool mood, one instantly shattered by 'London Girl' (it also feels like a 'goodbye' to the folk covers of the first two albums). Side one devotes itself largely to bashing up expectations of what a Pogues disc should sound like, and while jazzy mood music like 'The Town that Never Sleeps' (unexpectedly a demo for Grace Jones, apparently) would in later albums not seem so shocking, in 1986 it would have been a bold statement - sandwiched between two more Irish-sounding songs. 'The Body of an American' is a major track, epic in focus, and it's followed by a punk song. I would originally have wanted 'Hot Dogs with Everything' to come first so that we could swerve between extremes between the two Irish songs, but the Spanish-tinged instrumental to follow sounded bad after 'The Body'. That song is called 'Bolero del Perro Listo' and is a spaghetti-western Morricone homage (since I binned the actual Morricone homage). It segues perfectly into Cait O'Riordan's stunning 'Haunted', one of the Pogues' best singles and undeservedly buried in their catalogue.

I programmed this album intentionally considering vinyl sides - it makes less sense as fourteen consecutive tracks. 'Planxty Noel Hill' is a great side-starter, a rip-roarer and attention-getting response to criticism of the Pogues' approach to Irish music. Putting the outtake Irishified 60s cover 'Do You Believe in Magic?' directly after it strengthens the response to Noel Hill - 'magic' is indeed what the Pogues were creating during this time in their career, and this charmingly untogether cover has more than an ounce or two of it itself. The 'Love Theme to "Sid & Nancy"' was a tough choice: the box set has a series of tracks that take the same melody and recontextualise it, and also a handful that use that same 'Be My Baby' beat that occurs in 'Haunted' (this being the eighties, let's call it the 'Just Like Honey' beat). I didn't want to use the same beat twice, but after playing around a lot, I realised how this song just fits better than the rest. And so I put it only two songs removed from 'Haunted'... But again, side a and side b, right? So 'Rake at the Gates of Hell' is the main song from Straight to Hell, a return to Irishness (the last one, really) that is immediately followed up by a return to Spanishness in the form of 'Rabinga', the fifth and final instrumental, also from Straight to Hell. 'Driving Through the City' is a demo, originally intended for the movie Something Wild, apparently, and it's got a strange little surf-music vibe to it. Odd choice for 'penultimate track', but none of it matters once you get to the six-minute epic that concludes the album, 'Rainy Day in Soho', which alone should have made Shane MacGowan a millionaire. As I said above, I chose the 'oboe version', but whatever, really.

iTunes doesn't seem to have any of this stuff, so I can't put together a listening mix for you.

Note: Since putting together this collection, I've noticed that there are two other songs I could have included for consideration that I overlooked: "Mountain Dew", also with the Dubliners, and "Rince Del Emplacada". Either of them might have been a worthy addition - "Mountain Dew" is as hopelessly retro as "The Irish Rover" but seems to fit in a little better anyway, and "Rince Del Emplacada" is yet another instrumental but maybe a bit different-sounding to the five (!) included here - but I didn't really feel the need to go back and change anything. Let's imagine they're lost b-sides.

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