Social Distancing Spins, Day 5

By Joel Francis

In observance of St. Patrick’s Day, here are some of my finest albums with Irish ties.

The Pogues – If I Should Fall From Grace with God (1988) The only thing wrong with this album is that the title song is too short. The extended 12-inch version on the Pogues box set solves this problem. Mentioning the highlights is like reading the track listing, but I’ll narrow it down to the absolute best. “Fairytale of New York” is my absolute favorite Christmas song and is just as powerful in August as it is in December. Hearing Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan trade stanzas in the final verse always crushes me. This song’s all-time status was cemented in my soul when Bill Murray slurred his way through it with David Johansen and Jenny Lewis in his Christmas special.

There may be no finer tribute to the hope and heartbreak of the 19th century immigrants who traveled to the United States to start a new life than “Thousands are Sailing.” And that’s just side one. We’d better move on or I’ll be here all day.

Stiff Little Fingers – Greatest Hits Live in London (2017) The glory days of this Belfast-born punk band were long over when this live set came out. Although most of the material here pulls from the groups mighty four-album run in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the fire on this inflammable material has dimmed. I really bought this album because it was marked down on a Black Friday sale and signed by the current musicians. As it’s the only SLF I currently own, it will be what I spin when I need to hear “Tin Soldiers” or “Suspect Device.” Oh, one more thing: “Alternative Ulster” makes a great alarm song on your phone. It’s hard not to want to kick the day’s butt after hearing that first thing.

Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak (1976) Yeah, this is the album with “The Boys are Back in Town,” the only song that classic rock radio deigns to circulate, but this is a solid slab of rock from start to finish. “Jailbreak” blows out the speakers like a lost AC/DC song. “Cowboy Song” starts off like a campfire ballad before Phil Lynott’s storytelling takes over and the guitars plug in. Can we talk about Lynott’s lyrics for a moment? “Emerald” reads like a preview to a great lost epic poem. The story in “Romeo and the Lonely Girl” is just as majestic as Mark Knopfler’s masterpiece “Romeo and Juliet.” All with those dual guitars that can sting like a scorpion out of nowhere. Thin Lizzy gets nowhere near the respect they deserve.

The Chieftains – 3 (1971)

Van Morrison and the Chieftains – Irish Heartbeat (1988) If you blindfolded me and played me any one of the Chieftains first half-dozen albums, I’m fairly confident I couldn’t tell them apart. The traditional Irish troupe expanded their sound when they started adding guest artists and gimmicks in the ‘90s. (The Chieftains play movie themes! The Chieftains go to Nashville!) There are many moments to savor on those albums, but I like the unvarnished simplicity of the jigs and reels on their initial run.

Ironically, it was the success of Irish Heartbeat that paved the way for these cross-genre exercises. I don’t begrudge the Chieftains for trying to reach a broader audience but to my ears they’ve never found a better partner than fellow Irishman Van Morrison. For proof, take a look at the group’s star-studded release Long Black Veil from 1995. Everyone from Sting to the Stones shows up, but Morrison steals the album with his own “Have I Told You Lately.” Irish Heartbeat brings out a playful side of Morrison rarely heard, particularly on “I’ll Tell Me Ma” and “Marie’s Wedding.” Hoist a pint and turn it up.

Dropkick Murphys – The Meanest of Times (2007) Irish by way of Boston, the Dropkick Murphys combine the traditional feel of the Chieftains with Thin Lizzy’s hard rock and Stiff Little Finger’s punk attitude. When I played this album in the morning my son announced that he didn’t like it and left the room. That evening he was captivated by the Murphys’ live performance online. I tried to tell him they were the same band from earlier, but he didn’t believe me. I guess some things need to be seen to be believed. (By the way, streaming this concert was a brilliant idea and really seems to be taking off while all of us are stuck at home. According to the counter in the corner, 128,000 people were watching live. That’s a far bigger crowd than they ever could have hoped to reach by playing a St. Patrick’s Day show in Beantown.)

Flogging Molly – Within a Mile of Home (2004) It’s hard to imagine a Dropkick Murphys fan not liking Flogging Molly as well. Molly are slightly less hardcore than the Murphys on record but both acts generate a considerable mosh pit in concert. I found Within a Mile of Home at a ridiculously cheap price on CD shortly after its release. Seeing Lucinda Williams was featured on one track, I picked it up. A couple years later, I found Whiskey on a Sunday, the follow-up EP/DVD under the same circumstances. Watching those live performances convinced me I absolutely had to see this band in concert. While Within a Mile from Home is the only Molly vinyl I own, I’ve seen them a handful of times in person and never been disappointed.

U2 – Boy (1980) If it is possible to think about this divisive Irish quartet without the hype, bombasity and preening it has accumulated over the years, then Boy is it. With the exception of opening track “I Will Follow,” the rest of the album has been excluded from setlists and compilations (although some songs have gradually crept back onstage). The menacing “An Cat Dubh” almost sounds like an anthemic early Cure outtake (with glockenspiel!) that slides into The Edge’s wonderful guitar textures of “Into the Heart.” (Along with Bono’s earnest vocals. U2 were never not-earnest.) There aren’t many hints of The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby here, yet all the essential elements of those albums are present. Sometimes spending time with the boy is more revelatory than hanging out with the man.

Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”

(Above: “Fairytale of New York” may be the best modern Christmas song of all time.)

By Joel Francis

There aren’t many Christmas songs set in jail, but dang if songwriter Shane McGowan and the Pogues don’t turn lockdown sunny side up during the four and a half minutes of “Fairytale of New York.”

“Fairytales” opens famously on Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. As an old man sings and mourns his last Christmas, the narrator’s mind drifts to a Christmas Eve with the love of his life.

McGowan paints a vivid picture of that day in the New World with “cars big as bars,” “rivers of gold,” and a wind that “goes right through you.” After exploring the Big Apple together, the pair stumbled into a place where

“Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing.
We kissed on a corner,
Then danced through the night.”

Irish composer Fiachra Trench’s string arrangement captures perfectly the hope of the moment and excitement of a new life in a new world. During the subsequent verses, love fades and is replaced by drunkenness and addiction. But even as the couple exchanges insults, they keep returning to that Christmas Eve when the choir sang and the bells rang out.

Guest singer Kirsty MacColl appears as the woman in the story. Her melodic voice is a nice counterpoint to McGowan’s gruff brogue. MacColl’s part was originally written for Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan. That plan fell through in 1986, when O’Riordan absconded with Elvis Costello, who was producing the band’s second album.

When the group hired Steve Lillywhite to produce their third album, he suggested MacColl, his wife at the time, to sing guide vocals on a demo until the band could find a replacement. McGowan liked her part so much she was asked to sing on the record.

Released in December, 1987, “Fairytale of New York” has become a holiday staple. In 2005 the song was re-released as a single, to benefit “Justice for Kirsty,” a crusade to uncover the truth behind MacColl’s 2000 death in a controversial boating accident.

“Fairytale of New York” has been covered numerous times, but never improved.

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Classic Christmas Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”