The Pogues’ Streams of Whiskey

Last night as I slept
I dreamt I met with Behan
I shook him by the hand and we passed the time of day
When questioned on his views
On the crux of life’s philosophies
He had but these few clear and simple words to say…
  The Pogues, ‘Streams Of Whiskey’

cover, Streams of WhiskeyI have no idea if this is a bootleg or not, but if you go to the official Pogues Web site, you will find this warning: ‘The Pogues, through Jem Finer, have asked that those considering purchase of the bootleg release titled Streams of Whiskey please consider this message: The Pogues ask you please DO NOT buy Streams of Whiskey. This album has been released without the permission, and contrary to the wishes of the band. It is a not great quality recording from a Swiss festival in 1991, recorded from a radio broadcast and previously available as a bootleg. There will be an official live album released later in the year recorded (properly!) over the last two nights of the recent Brixton shows.’ What I do know is that it showed up here for review one day, and I, as a devoted Pogues fan, snagged it. Now ’tis true that we don’t review bootlegs which is why I’m treating this as legit as it’s a United Kingdom product and bootleggers are unknown in Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia.*

(That’s sarcasm, me lad.)

What I know is this rambling, not terribly well produced, live recording is a re-release of the bootleg Live on Rain Street from a 1991 show in Leynin, Switzerland. That bootleg featured an very unappealing close-up of the snaggle toothed Sean MacGowan in mirrorshades looking like your worst urban nightmare. The current release features a much more appealing ‘mock’ whiskey bottle look — certainly a much more commercial look. Now having seen If I Should Fall from Grace, the film about Shane MacGowan that the publicist for the Sundance Channel sent us and which we screened here in the Green Man offices for the editorial staff, I will say that the former cover art captures Shane in all his, errr, glory. (Yes, early editions of the film misspelled MacGowan’s last name in the titles, but that was remedied in later releases.)

Now given that the Pogues are, on their commercial released albums such as If I Should Fall from Grace with God and Rum, Sodomy, and The Lash, rather well-produced by acknowledged producers such as Steve Lillywhite and Elvis Costello (who would marry and later divorce Pogues vocalist Cait O’Riordan), how they sound live is a question very much worth having the answer to.

Short answer — it’s a fucking mess. But what the hell would one expect of a group that by ’91 was barely capable of finding the stage, let alone performing? However, it is a glorious mess worth hearing, as The Pogues are one of the great live acts of our time, but their concerts have been so poorly documented that the studio releases are all that most folks know about. (I dimly recall that a concert tape of a New York show was released a decade ago.) Yes, peer-to-peer networks have lots of live stuff of theirs, but this is the first widely available concert release I’ve encountered. A reviewer online put it ever so well when he said that ‘short of having Guinness spilt down the front of your shirt and your ear bitten off by your girlfriend, Streams of Whiskey is the closest the armchair shamrock insurrectionist can get to the full-tilt thrill of a live Pogues concert.’ My bad luck was that I never saw them live as the three times that I had tickets to them, Shane & Company never showed up. (Got my money back once, but not the other two times. Such is life.) Even tried to see him with the Popes, but you can guess what happened…

Even at its worst, when the mixing engineer sounds like he fell into the Guinness brewing vats (as the disastrous mix on ‘Young Ned of the Hill’ demonstrates), they are brilliant live. And where else will you hear an anti-Cromwell song condemning him for his quite real rape of the Irish? Just listen very, very carefully as the vocalist almost completely gets lost in the mix. Now that is not unusual of this sort of band — the Green Man music archives have a bootleg of a Liberty Cage concert (which formed after The Men They Couldn’t Hang split up in 1991) where the vocals often get lost. And Clash bootlegs, including an official one I heard, are often terrible as regards vocals. But the difference here is Shane himself; there are somewhat incomprehensible vocalists and there are mostly incomprehensible vocalists — and then there’s Shane.

Even a decade ago, long before the video was shot for If I Should Fall from Grace, Shane was a bleedin’, barely understandable mess who on any given night couldn’t sing worth a fuck. One tour saw him so badly off that the late Joe Strummer of Clash fame replaced him as lead vocalist. (Now there’s a set of bootlegs I’d love to hear!) Shane is at his unintelligible best here with Streams of Whiskey being an apt name for this recording. “Soaked in Whiskey” would have been closer to the mark. Streams of Whiskey captures this apparently well-lubricated Celtic band going full-tilt toward oblivion through a sixteen song set with a great deal of enthusiasm and lots of the aforementioned lubrication. Drink deep as you listen to this, and maybe, just maybe, even Shane will make sense. Or maybe not.

I stress once again that The Pogues who were planning an official live album from their reunion tour, are asking fans not to buy this: they weren’t consulted on the release and aren’t happy with the quality. Do I honestly think any truly live CD from the Pogues that has Shane in it would sound better than this? No! And there’s really good stuff here. The concert took place after Hell’s Ditch, the last album MacGowan made with the band, and the sixteen songs cover all of their records together. ‘Streams of Whiskey’ leads off followed by ‘If I Should Fall from Grace with God,’ and a good version of ‘Sally MacLennane’ lacking only the female vocalist who did it on Rum, Sodomy, and The Lash. Phillip Chevron takes the vocals on his song ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ from If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Shane sang it on IISFGWG — Chevron’s singing is more heartfelt, more wrenching than that of Shane’s. Not at all surprising to me is that Shane’s never very good vocals get worse as the show goes on — both ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘The Sickbed of Cuchulainn’ are barely understandable.

One reviewer claimed that ‘The poor quality of the album keeps even the best numbers from living up to the studio versions. Now that this is packaged as a real release instead of a bootleg, it comes off as a substandard product.’ Maybe, maybe not. When we screened If I Should Fall from Grace, there was a fair bit of the Pogues live in it, and most of that was awful. The only bits (live) in that documentary where Shane sounded good were those of The Nipple Erectors, his punk band with Shanne Bradley, former wife of John Hasler, a founding member of the group Madness, and who would be an early member of The Men They Couldn’t Hang with Cush and Swill.

This was obviously a truly fantastic concert and everyone is having the time of their lives. No one gives a shite if the vocals are good, or if the instruments on key. All the cuts here together make for an impressive display of what the lads sounded like live. Only ‘The Fairytale of New York’ should’ve been here but isn’t.

Okay, maybe this is not an essential album for those with a casual interest in the group, but it’s a great souvenir for the hardcore fans. After you listen to it, join me in the Green Man Pub and we’ll down a few whiskeys as we discuss Shane, his rotten teeth, and this ragged but interesting band.

[Jack Merry]

(Sanctuary Records, 2002)

* This album remains listed in The Pogues’ discography, as does The Ultimate Collection, which includes the set that was recorded live at the Brixton Academy in 2001.

Jack Merry

I'm a fiddler who plays in various bands including Chasing Fireflies, the Estate contradance band; I'm also the Estate Agent for everything music related including the tours our myriad musicians do elsewhere. My drink, or so my wife Brigid says, is anything liquid, but I like a good dark beer and a spritely cider most of all. Scotch-Irish by ancestry, my favoured music is Irish, Scottish and Nordic trad.

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