Disappointing Albums, Music

51 Disappointing Albums: The Pogues, ‘Hell’s Ditch’

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Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes.

One thing must be made clear,” he says, this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.

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It’s hard to recapture The Pogues’ moment these days. They were punk, folk, literary, and Irish. It was as though some kind of promise had been delivered, a band that took all of the best elements – Irish traditional music, Tom Waits, The Clash, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones and so on – and blended them into this remarkable stew.

The lead singer was a larger than life, drunker than thou poet, sort of London Irish Bukowski with terrible teeth and Patti Smith’s library. It was as though Brendan Behan had formed a band and recorded Exile on Main Street.

Their first album was rough but heralded the arrival of something new. Rum Sodomy & the Lash was the masterpiece, and If I Should Fall From Grace was the other masterpiece. Peace and Love was the difficult fourth album, and Hell’s Ditch was their last proper record with Shane McGowan.

Hell’s Ditch was disappointing. Or at least it was at the time. I didn’t know anyone who liked it. Its reputation does seem to have grown and I found a couple of young bloggers who like it best! However, my impression at the time was of a disappointing finish for a once great band. I didn’t entirely agree but, hey, it’s perfect for this column.

This is probably the first disappointment of the album. There are some wonderful lyrics but, to be honest, nothing on par with some of his earlier efforts.

Shane McGowan was not well in 1990. Without going into all the lurid details, he was drinking and then some. I saw them not long before this album was released and it was clear that he was only barely getting through the shows. His story is a sad one. He was among the greatest songwriters of his generation. Luka Bloom’s The One is supposedly about Shane. If it is, he gets it right, the sense of waste and missed opportunities.

This is probably the first disappointment of the album. There are some wonderful lyrics but, to be honest, nothing on par with some of his earlier efforts. That said, the mini concept of travel in Asia that appears in a couple of the tracks creates interest. The first song, Sunny Side of the Street, starts in Rome and moves to Mumbai and up into Nepal and then possibly into some kind of rehab centre. Shane said no, no, no.

Sayonara picks up the story with a visit to the sleazier side of Thailand and a nod to Van Morrison in the lyrics, ‘Ooh she gave me Mekong whiskey, Ooh, she gave me Hong Kong flu’. Things get complicated at Pattaya Beach in House of the Gods when the bar girl turns out to be not all that she seems, or perhaps more. Summer in Siam, a haunting tune and one of the best on the record, places this part of the world in a more romantic light.

None of these songs are too bad, though all lack the wit that Shane was capable of bringing to his stories. It’s on songs like The Ghost of A Smile where it’s clear that he is struggling. Someone is walking down Leeson St and then the title is repeated over and over. It’s an agreeable Irish folk melody but feels unfinished. Hell’s Ditch and Lorca’s Novena are much better. The first is a somewhat bracing tribute to Jean Genet. The second incorporates elements of Lorca’s own work to tell the story of his murder.

Jem Finer contributes a winner in The Wake of the Medusa, named for the painting which featured on the cover of Rum Sodomy & the Lash. Terry Woods does alright with the intriguing Rainbow Man and the possibly republican Six To Go. I still can’t figure out what 5 Green Queens and Jean is all about: money? cards? cross dressing aliens? Only Shane knows.

Why is it disappointing?

Shane mumbles his way through the entire thing. It sounds as though they took the first decent take they could get and hoped it would be okay. He always sounded a bit pissed on the earlier albums but here he sounds like he’s moved from stage Irish drunk to actual drunk. It’s heartbreaking and doesn’t add anything to the overall experience. I never completely bought Shane’s drunk act: no one can write like that when they are pissed. It’s sad when musicians become parodies of themselves. It’s even sadder when they become the image.

Why should you hear it?

Joe Strummer produced it and, vocals aside, did a cracker of a job. It’s bright and punchy from start to finish. He manages to bring the songs to life and does his best with a bad situation where Shane is concerned. If Peace and Love sounded a bit cluttered, this one sounds like a band discovering new grooves and stretching out. That’s on Joe, who ended up replacing poor old Shane on tour. Good man yourself!

Like many of the records I’ve covered, the disappointment is with a band that was capable of so much better. The songs here represent good ideas from a writer who was no longer in the condition to finish them properly. It remains part of an exceptional body of work but the sadness on this album goes well beyond the usual Irish doom and gloom routine.

For the rest of this series, click here.

4 responses to “51 Disappointing Albums: The Pogues, ‘Hell’s Ditch’

  1. I think highly of this record. I WAS disappointed by Peace And Love, though. The Asian songs have a Joseph Conrad feel to me. And Rain Street is a zinger. Terry Woods shines throughout. Oh,and my guess is money, possibly from successfully shifting a black bin-bag of weed. But who knows? Maybe after the end of the 51, open up a forum. I’m sure plenty of people have something to add. All the best.

  2. Never thought of money and the Jean/Jane possibility! Thanks for your comment. I prefer this album to Peace and Love but I thought this one was disappointing in a more interesting way. Some kind of forum would be great. Many of the comments so far on the series have provided further information about the album and/or raised additional discussion points. If you look back to the Yardbirds post, you’ll see that I even managed inadvertently to draw out Herman’s Hermits’ lead man Peter Noone!

  3. Prompted by your thoughts I decided to return to Rainbow man and for the first time actually looked at the lyrics. These had gone over my head before but I now at last see the comparison Terry makes between Aboriginal people — epitomised by the Sydney Eora people and the Irish (the significance of Vinegar Hill) both trampled on and dispossessed by British invaders. I’d like to explore more . Can you direct me to more commentary on this aspect of this very interesting song.

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