I will happily accept that I am about as unmusical as it is possible to be without actually being tone deaf. It surprised me last year to notice that my contributions to the 52 Movies series focused on films with striking soundtracks, but I suppose in those cases the music serves a broader storytelling purpose. As a teenager there were a few albums that I listened to over and over again, almost obsessively – not entirely for the music, but often in order to get down the words on paper, to appreciate them as poetry. There was no Internet to look up texts, liner notes were patchy and not always accurate, and to me the heart of a song, the thing that matters, is the lyric. And even in new songs, there is nothing I like better than the flavour of history (a good example of this, I think, is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”).
My more musical sister would watch the BBC chart show Top of the Pops week after week, and tune in to Casey Kasum on the American Forces Radio, and spend money on music by bands like Culture Club and The Cure. The only thing I ever wanted money for was books. The offerings of DJs on radio or television left me cold, although as a ten-year-old I had loved an all too short-lived BBC programme called The Song and the Story, in which Isla St Clair (with the Maddy Prior Band for backing) would both perform and expound folk songs. My parents had a number of folk and folkish albums from the 1960s and early 1970s, and in my early teens these were the records I would play over and over again (others might be better placed to write about Simon & Garfunkel, but later in this series I could perhaps provide a few words on Max Boyce). It was through my sister, so much more abreast of current popular music, that I came to hear The Pogues, the first band whose tracks I coveted for myself. I soon had my sister’s album on a cassette tape of my own.
Perhaps due only to my own ignorance, I think of The Pogues as the beginning of punk folk. The first of their albums I became aware of was their second, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985) – the title taken from a remark of Winston Churchill’s about ‘Navy traditions’. The group was London Irish, and was initially formed as a punk band under the name ‘Pogue Mahone’ (Irish for ‘kiss my arse’). Their style was unique and strangely coherent despite ranging between, as well as combining, the punk and the traditional. Shane MacGowan (whose musical career began under the stage name Shane O’Hooligan) was both singer and songwriter, and while his voice was rough, his writing was definitely poetry – marked by wistfulness, whimsy, bravado and sentimentality, and delivered with the energy and rawness of punk music played on traditional instruments. Another, more beautiful, voice on the album is Cait O’Riordan’s.
The tracks The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn and A Pair of Brown Eyes are perhaps the most typical, or the most striking. Sally McLennane is worth a mention too. And every so often they would throw in a 1960s folk song, making it their own, or even a genuinely traditional song, such as “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day”.
I can second the novelist in that last clip when he says ‘there are some albums that survive your teenage years, ... that you'll buy over and over again’. My first copy might have been a homemade tape recording, but I have bought it on tape, CD and iTunes since. As a teenager my own favourite track, precisely for the flavour of history, was “Navigator”, a song about the Irish navvies who laboured to build British railways in the 19th century.
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.