Shane MacGowan's continued existence on the planet is nothing short of a miracle that would test the resolve of even the most determined atheist. I've personally witnessed the notorious Pogues front man who'll turn 49 on Christmas Day ingest an incomprehensible amount of booze and illicit substances, then carry on in a manner that makes the combined excesses of Keith Richards, Ozzy Osbourne, and Lindsay Lohan seem like a tea party in comparison. MacGowan's hard living has certainly become the stuff of legend, jokes, and even admiration, but in truth, it's a tragic tale of talent and vitality squandered, as anyone who's seen the heartbreaking 2001 documentary If I Should Fall From Grace can attest; it's hard to forget the sight of the singer's father choking back tears while commenting on his son's slow suicide.
After putting out five albums between 1984 and 1990, the Pogues finally gave MacGowan the boot in 1991 for his drinking and drugging. Over the past couple of years, though, the singer's reunited with the group for a few short tours (next month, they'll play a handful of dates in California and Las Vegas). Photos from the band's East Coast gigs earlier this year captured MacGowan's bloated, ashen, near-toothless countenance, and reviews noted that his defanged growl only sporadically matched the intensity and joy of the group's inimitable Irish folk-punk.
So perhaps it's best, then, to experience the Pogues' fire via those first five albums 1984's Red Roses for Me, 1985's Rum Sodomy & the Lash, 1988's If I Should Fall From Grace With God, 1989's Peace and Love, and 1990's Hell's Ditch (the band released two more albums post-MacGowan that are best forgotten) all of which have just been excellently remastered and expanded (by a half-dozen bonus tracks each) by Rhino Records.
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Among the most memorable of the extras: Roses' rousing renditions of traditional Paddy anthems "The Wild Rover" and "Whiskey You're the Devil;" the particularly spirited "Body of an American," from the Elvis Costello-helmed sessions that produced Rum; Fall From Grace's fiddle-propelled Pogues/Dubliners collaboration "Mountain Dew;" the group's raw take on the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" that closes Peace and Love; and a tender, trumpet-dappled reworking of the group's earlier hit "Rainy Night in Soho" that augments the Joe Strummer-produced Hell's Ditch. Put together with each album's original tracks, the sum total of all of this material is a reminder that, however obscured by the blur of the bottle, MacGowan was once a gifted songwriter, singer, and arranger, and that his songs and praises will be sung long after he's gone a departure one prays occurs much later than sooner.