Reader’s Choice…Song # 4/250: Dirty Old Town by The Pogues.

Ladies and Gentlemen…The Pogues!

The Pogues are one of my very favourite bands. They were formed in the early 1980s and grew out of the emerging Punk Rock scene in the UK. However, despite a penchant for drunkenness and wild behaviour, The Pogues were not the same sort of band as The Sex Pistols were. Their songs often read like poetry and spoke of the travails of real people in small, working class towns like the one I grew up in back in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. The Pogues are most well known for their song, “FairyTale of New York” but their catalogue is vast with songs such as “Fiesta”, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”, “The Turkish Voyage of the Damned” and “Dirty Old Town” all being audience favourites. The Pogues were an eight-to-ten piece band at any given time. They often incorporated instruments such as penny whistles, accordions and banjos into their songs. Their lead singer was the charismatic Shane McGowan. McGowan was known for his great height, his alarming lack of teeth and for the boozy manner in which he sang his lyrics. The Pogues, in general and, McGowan, in particular, were a fun to see live. They always brought a lot of energy to their performances but, as well they always appeared to be teetering on the edge of coming apart at the seams. This sense of perpetual uncertainty eventually took its toll in the early 1990s with Shane McGowan being fired for failing to appear for concerts. In order to fill his role so that the band could carry on, former Clash lead singer, Joe Strummer fronted the band for awhile. Eventually, The Pogues disbanded for good but they will always be remembered with great fondness by their fans, of which I am definitely one.

Ewan MacColl in the 1950s when he wrote, “Dirty Old Town”.

The song, “Dirty Old Town” is one of their more famous songs but, in truth it is actually a cover song. “Dirty Old Town” was originally written back in the 1950s by a famous Irish singer named Ewan MacColl. MacColl was a song writer and social activist who wrote several famous songs such as “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, “Dirty Old Town”, as well as revising the centuries old lyrics for a song made famous by Simon and Garfunkel called, “Scarborough Fair”. *(You can read a post about “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” here). In any case, “Dirty Old Town” is a song about a real town in England called Salford, which is near Manchester, to the northwest of London. The song tells of life and love amid the factories that lined a canal that ran by the edge of town. The Pogues came to record this song because of their connection with singer Kirsty MacColl (who was Ewan MacColl’s daughter) and who, you may remember, was the female counterpart to Shane McGowan’s drunken lover in “FairyTale of New York”. *(You can read a post about that song here). While Kirsty MacColl was around the band during the recording of “FairyTale of New York”, she played other traditional songs from her father’s song book. One of the many songs that she played for the boys was, “Dirty Old Town”.

Like most songs favoured by The Pogues, “Dirty Old Town” is replete with imagery.

I met my girl by the gas works wall

Dreamed a dream by the old canal

I kissed my girl by the factory wall

Dirty old town

Dirty old town.”

Songs such as this ring true for me. Growing up in Glace Bay in the 1960s and 70s meant that I shared my town with hardworking fishermen and coal miners. Glace Bay was a blue collar town, for sure. There were plenty of stories to be told from down on the wharf that edged both sides of our harbour and from the lamp houses that stood watch over the coal mines that dotted the land. When people work hard for a living it makes the simple pleasures of a shared drink with friends or a stolen kiss from your heart’s desire seem like treasure. It is that understanding that has always come through for me in the songs by The Pogues.

Not surprisingly, “Dirty Old Town” was nominated as a Reader’s Choice song by someone else from back home….my good friend, Paul Coombs. Paul and I went to high school together and have managed to stay in touch as the decades have rolled by. So, it is with a raised glass of good cheer extended in his direction that I thank Paul for nominating “Dirty Old Town”. It is a great song from a great band and I am pleased to play it for everyone today. So, without further delay, here are The Pogues with their cover of the Ewan MacColl classic tune, “Dirty Old Town”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Dirty Old Town” can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Pogues can be found here.

The link to the official website of Ewan MacColl can be found here.

The link to the official website for Kirsty MacColl can be found here.

The link to the official website of Salford, England….the subject of “Dirty Old Town” can be found here.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #347: Fairy Tale of New York by The Pogues.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #347: FairyTale of New York by The Pogues.

One of the stories that has become woven into the fabric of America is that of immigrants sailing to the US in search of a better life. Over the course of several centuries, this has certainly been true of people from Ireland. While those escaping the great “Potato Famine” may be among the most well-known Irish immigrants who came to America; in reality, the Irish have been sailing away from their homeland for generations. When Irish immigrants leave Ireland for America, their arrival point was often Ellis Island, near The Statue of Liberty, in New York City. One can well imagine what a relief it must have been to see the end of their storm-tossed journey across The Atlantic Ocean in the form of a glorious statue beckoning them forth into a new land, where anything is possible and all of their dreams could come true. It is not surprising that such a sight has come to inspire poets, artists, singers and writers to put their emotions into words. Among the many songs that have been written about the Irish coming to America, one of the most famous and beloved is “FairyTale of New York” by The Pogues.

“The Pogues” are a Irish band that some call a Punk band. But, from my point of view, while they may have a reputation for being drunk and disorderly, they have managed to create some of the best written and most heartfelt songs in Modern Music History. Their musical catalogue includes such classics as, “Fiesta”. “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”, “Dirty Old Town”, “Turkish Voyage of the Damned” and their biggest hit, “Fairy Tale of New York”. One of the characteristics of most songs by “The Pogues” is their ability to tell stories based in human terms. For example, in “Dirty Old Town”, the crux of that song is the boyhood thrill of being able to sneak a kiss from a pretty girl. “Turkish Voyage of the Damned” is actually about the journey, via boat, across the ocean to America. And, “Fairy Tale of New York” is about two people who meet once they have arrived and are starting their new life in NYC.

“FairyTale of New York” is sung by lead singer, Shane McGowan and a woman named Kirsty MacColl. Kirsty MacColl is an interesting figure in the story of this song. She was a singer/songwriter from the UK who had some minor hits of her own, most notably, a song called, “They Don’t Know” which was covered by singer Tracy Ullman and which became a big hit for Ullman in the 1980s. MacColl married a well-known record producer named Steve Lilywhite and, via that association, came to sing on a number of records by bands that he was producing, including, “The Smiths”, “Alison Moyet”, “Talking Heads” and “Abba”. For most of those sessions, MacColl worked as a background singer but, when “The Pogues” came to record “FairyTale of New York”, McGowan needed a female foil for the character he played in the song. MacColl, because she was available, became the woman in the song and has gone on to forever be associated with this hit. However, in reality, when “The Pogues” perform this song live, a revolving cast of female singers (some well known and others, brand new) have filled MacColl’s role. So, when you see a video or live performance, don’t assume it is Kirsty MacColl up there. It really could be almost any female singer.

As for the song, itself, there are many who claim that it is one of the most romantic songs of all-time. The basis for their claim lay in the depth of feeling expressed throughout the lyrics by McGowan’s character for his female companion. The story is that McGowan’s character finds himself in the NYPD drunk tank on Christmas Eve and is taking stock of his life based upon the men he sees around him at the time.

“It’s Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank.

An old man said to me, “Won’t see another one.”

And then, he sang a song. A rare old mountain dew.

I turned my face away And dreamed about you.”

MacColl’s character is having none of McGowan’s waxy nostalgia and holds him to account all throughout the song. The back-and-forth dynamic unfolds like a Broadway play, culminating in the closing verse, where each character exchanges the following lines:

McGowan: “I could have been someone.”

MacColl: “Well, so could anyone. You took my dreams from me, when I first found you.”

McGowan: “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.”

There aren’t many songs in which the storylines between two characters are so richly drawn and so deeply told, as is the case with “Fairy Tale of New York”. “The Pogues” may not be a band filled with pretty boys but, for my money, they have made some of the most memorable music I’ve heard in my adult life. They are one of my Top Ten favourite bands of all-time and, “Fairy Tale of New York” is, definitely, my favourite Christmas song. So, without further delay, here are “The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl” with “FairyTale of New York”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Fairy Tale of New York” by The Pogues, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Pogues, can be found here.

The link to the website for radio station KEXP, can be found here.