Thursday, August 6, 2015

Big Bands: The Pogues

Big Bands—small facts: I am related to Guy Lombardo. Mr. New Year’s Eve and his Royal Canadians. Lombardo, among other musical accomplishments, broadcast for 48 consecutive years on New Year’s Eve, over radio and television, from Time’s Square, NYC.  In this video clip, you can practically smell the martinis and cigarette smoke of “New York’s High Society.”  In 1976, this whole scene—Times Square, the Waldorf Astoria, the cookie cutter, pre-Kenny Gee Kenny Gee horn drone, elevator soundtrack hip sounds must have already come across as poorly chosen nostalgia--what with the Rolling Stones having already peaked, disco being in full, jumpsuit swing, Elvis nearly dead and punk already taking root just a few blocks south in the Bowery…Revel in this--your dead relatives will smile down on you from heaven. 

The Royal Canadians?—not my favorite, despite the familial connections. I feel ashamed to have devoted a paragraph of copy to it…Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman. Those are the names to come to mind when I think of “big band”, but then, I’m hardly a scholar of the Big Band era, so I’m just listing what anyone could. The idea of big band conjures up more image—smart suits, martinis and classy dames with great gams—but the sound itself eludes modern sensibility. Yeah, when Swingers came out there was a bit of a revival, but swing big band sounds just don’t really add up to much unless you’re a student of the era…sadly, as should be discernible here, I am not…

I do love that sound, though: orchestrated swinging, sharp, cracking drums, big rhythm, every musical angel sharpened and snapped into shape by horns horns horns, twirling, snappy punctuations and exclamations of melody. One of my favorites is Louis Prima, he of the Pennies from Heaven” and “Angelina & Zooma, Zooma” fame…you know, the songs that get played in Mafia movies, or by your stupid friends when they have you over for pasta and meatballs...

That’s about all I know concerning Big Band. I have intentions to dig deeper into that era, but I always get distracted. When you reflect on the genres and movements and eras that are said to define one epoch or another, it’s hard to choose where to devote your listening energy. The beauty of music, however, is that the interested listener will literally never run out of avenues to explore. Next time I have a martini, perhaps the urge to strike out into the wide, wide world of the swinging Big Band sound will strike and lead me to something new. Until then, I have my “Rat Pack Christmas” CD, which I pull out out once a year….

But, this month’s theme is about big bands, not Big Bands.

Often times, big bands, like Arcade Fire, or the Polyphonic Spree, strike me as too big. A whole lot of sound comes out of what should be something much more cohesive and tightened up. Don’t get me wrong: big sound is fantastic, but I suppose I look to my rock music to be a little tighter and well-knit—knife edged and snapping, rather than sprawling— than the sound that comes out of large ensembles. I always feel a band like Arcade Fire, and similar artists, are trying to fit too much sound into a four minute song, as opposed to larger, horn-based ensembles that work to widen their soundscape and project a sound that is meant to be heard big and loud and unwieldy. Rock and roll can be chaotic, too, but it seems to work better with a variation of instruments, thus creating a sound with multi-textures. Multi-textures that add up to something cohesive, not something trying to achieve bombast without a reason.

So, I would say my favorite big band would have to be The Pogues. Upwards of eight members, blending traditional, “old-fashioned” instruments with modern, sounds and songs with a sometimes punked-up sensibility, the Pogues did big, roaring sound and rise and crescendo rock better than anyone. 

It’s hard to choose what to write about the band—what’s worth saying, and what’ not, has been committed to print a million times over, such is the devotion, revulsion and general amazement the band generates, in spite or despite of lead singer Shane MacGowan’s status as the drunkest man on the planet. The Pogues do Irish rebel music better than anyone—they also do Celtic rock, poetry, big band bombast, poetic conciseness, and drinking songs better, too. Live, they are a raucous act, and despite slowing down due to age and a history of shenanigans involving alcohol, and even more—despite the fact that they are pretty subdued when standing up there, delivering classics and traditional Irish folk songs—the audience at  a Pogues show carries the day. If you get a chance to see them in their now-rare touring schedule, do so, but watch out for flying shot glasses.

If you can’t see them live, listen and revel in the broad majesty of If Should Fall From Grace With God and Peace and Love, albums so steeped in their own legends as to come forth from your speakers like blessed streams of whiskey and holy water. MacGowan is a feeble-tongued, master poet; the band themselves has made some of the finest, most beautiful melodies and stomping sing-alongs ever recorded. They are past their prime, long past, Philip chevron has passed away, MacGowan is giving Keith Richards a run on the designation of most bafflingly still-alive human being.  Yet, the music they made—that string of albums they made from 1984 to 1990 will never be equaled in terms of instrumental brilliance, lyrical beauty and musical bravado. “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” will go down as classical poetry at some point; “Misty Morning Albert Bridge” is the song you should fall in love to…I could keep going, but, you should just start listening… The Pogues are special, blessed by the gods of music, and when I get to heaven (fingers crossed), this is the band I want playing me through the gates.

It’s not every song, but it’s pretty f#*king great.  At 38:50, Lullaby of London? Yeah…that’s all you need…pure grace.

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