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Red Roses For Me: How The Pogues Blossomed On Their Debut Album
In Depth

Red Roses For Me: How The Pogues Blossomed On Their Debut Album

Though rowdy and rebellious, The Pogues’ ‘Red Roses For Me’ album was executed with feeling – and hinted at greatness ahead.

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It’s fair to say that The Pogues’ debut album, Red Roses For Me, flipped the finger to the zeitgeist when it was first released in autumn 1984. Shiny pop acts such as Duran Duran and Wham! held sway in the charts, and even though The Smiths were busy setting a new benchmark for indie pop, a band breaking through who – as Hot Press put it – “encapsulated the old Ireland of The Dubliners and the anarchy of the Sex Pistols” were inevitably going to stand apart in such a climate.

Listen to ‘Red Roses For Me’ here.

“I wanted to follow Shane wherever he went”

Not that The Pogues were ever going to operate on anything other than their own terms. The group made one small compromise, modifying their name when the media realised that their original moniker, Pogue Mahone, translated as “Kiss My Ass”, but that infamy only added to their outsider chic. Indeed, after BBC Radio 1’s David “Kid” Jensen enthusiastically supported their debut single, Dark Streets Of London, and The Pogues became synonymous with the wildest gigs on the capital’s pub circuit, maverick imprint Stiff Records signed the band and put them to work recording their debut album.

Along with producer Stan Brennan (also previously Shane MacGowan’s boss at Rock’s Off Records in Camden), The Pogues entered London’s Elephant Studios in the late summer of 1984 to record Red Roses For Me. Their reputation for rowdiness may have preceded them, yet, as accordion maestro James Fearnley recalled, the album came together quickly and with relatively little fuss.

“It took just a couple of weeks to complete,” Fearnley wrote in his memoir, Here Comes Everybody. “We had already done the work in in [friend] Rick Trevan’s back bedroom and during the course of six to nine months of regular gigs.”

“Transmetropolitan was our mission statement”

The band’s pre-production work stood them in good stead, for Red Roses For Me (its title referencing a play written by Irish literary giant Sean O’Casey) revealed that The Pogues had hit upon a potent sound through blending traditional folk music with raw energy and punk attitude.

Executed mostly using acoustic instruments such as banjo, tin whistle and accordion, in addition to Cait O’Riordan’s electric bass and Andrew Ranken’s minimal drum kit, the music was fluid and stirring throughout, though MacGowan was the obvious focal point. His guttural rasp imbued famous Irish ballads such as Sea Shanty and Poor Paddy with a desperate, dangerous edge, while his self-penned songs – including Boys From The County Hell, Transmetropolitan and Streams Of Whiskey – were brilliantly bawdy odes to being young and skint in the Big Smoke.

“Of all the songs, Transmetropolitan was our mission statement,” James Fearnley recalled. “It was a generous and degenerate song. It brought us all together in our second-hand suits, lumberjack shirts and Fred Perrys with our outdated instruments. It pressed us to march across London, following Shane, like the children following the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

“Streams Of Whiskey, though, made me want to follow Shane wherever he went,” the accordionist continued. “Like no other song I’d heard, it made me want to drink – and drink like Shane drank. I wanted to go down to Chelsea – wherever that pub was – and walk in on my feet but leave there on my back. I loved the recklessness and the bitter joy of the song.”

“In all its sweat-soaked, beer-stained glory, it’s fantastic”

Crucially, though, Red Roses For Me wasn’t all about drunkenness and debauchery. In fact, the album also contained several moments of real tenderness. Spider Stacy’s haunting tin whistle perfectly accentuated the band’s wonderfully sparse reading of Brendan Behan’s imprisonment tale, The Auld Triangle, while the album’s glorious closing track, Kitty, coaxed an atypically romantic vocal from MacGowan – and it proved that The Pogues’ music arguably had an even greater impact when they dared to give a glimpse of their more vulnerable side. Indeed, as the group became truly adept at blending these disparate influences over the next few years, The Pogues would make much of the music which now sets their legend in stone.

On its own merits, however, Red Roses For Me showed that The Pogues were already well on the way to becoming something truly unique. Though the album only dented the lower reaches of the UK charts upon its initial release, on 15 October 1984, it led to a major, profile-raising tour with Elvis Costello And The Attractions, and it attracted critical raves which noted that The Pogues’ erstwhile frontman was already a highly individual force to be reckoned with.

“Shane MacGowan’s faith in the power of positive drinking has paid dividends,” NME’s especially astute review declared. “The raucous surge and evocative noise that has filled the capital’s pubs and clubs has come through the stark sobriety of the studio set-up to arrive intact in all its sweat-soaked, beer-stained glory. It’s fantastic.”

Buy Pogues coloured vinyl and more at the Dig! store.

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