The Pogues' 10 greatest songs, ranked

30 November 2023, 17:27 | Updated: 30 November 2023, 17:35

The Pogues on the cover to their 1988 third studio album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God.
The Pogues on the cover to their 1988 third studio album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God. Picture: Warner Music/Island Records

By Thomas Edward

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There's no band quite like them.

Formed in 1982 in London, Celtic punks The Pogues brought Irish music to the masses with unbridled honesty, a hefty dose of humour, and plenty of heart.

Founded by raucous singer Shane MacGowan originally as Pogue Mahone (translated from the Gaelic phrase for "kiss my arse"), the band would go on to achieve international recognition and success throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Known as much for their rampant shenanigans as their deeply affecting music, The Pogues blended Irish musical and lyrical traditions with the energy and endeavour of punk music.

MacGowan's punk rock beginnings informed The Pogues' biting sound, that was backed by instruments which historically provided the basis for Irish traditional music.

Whilst there are countless anecdotes about the alcohol-induced antics of MacGowan, its their musical legacy will no doubt endure.

With the tragic news of Shane MacGowan's death on 30th November 2023 at the age of 65, we've ranked The Pogues greatest ten songs:

  1. 'Sally MacLennane'

    The Pogues - Sally MacLennane (The Tube, 11.01.1985)

    'Sally MacLennane' is MacGowan's ode to a former lover, though not a human lover - it was written about his favourite brand of stout beer.

    The song was inspired by Shane's storied drinking sessions during the early 1980s around the bars surrounding London's Euston railway station.

    "I was always a little envious of Shane, it was almost this ritualistic thing where he'd get stocious and his friends would put him on the train to Ireland," The Pogues' accordion player James Fearnley recalled to The Irish Post December 16, 2013.

    "A lot from that song had also come from being a barman himself at the Great Ormond Street hospital bar. He knew about watering whiskey down from that I'm sure."

  2. 'The Old Main Drag'

    The Old Main Drag

    Produced by Elvis Costello, 'The Old Main Drag' was a song that'd been knocking around with The Pogues since their earliest iteration, though wasn't released until 1985.

    Appearing on their second studio album, Rum Sodomy & the Lash, the lyrics are among MacGowan's most harrowing.

    Detailing a young Irish boy's wide-eyed adventure to London where he's met with nothing but degradation and despair rather than hope.

    MacGowan doesn't shy away from the horrors, singing: "And now I’m lying here I’ve had too much booze / I’ve been shat on and spat on and raped and abused".

  3. 'Thousands Are Sailing'

    The Pogues - Thousands Are Sailing - Live St Patrick's Day 1988 - HD Video Remaster

    The Pogues' inaugural tour of the United States in 1986 inspired 'Thousands Are Sailing'.

    Written by the band's guitarist Phil Chevron, the song directly references the much-travelled passage of Irish emigrants to New York.

    Nodding to Ellis Island ("The island is silent now") where over twelve million Irish emigrants were processed, this evocative number deals with the pain of the past.

    Not only those who made it to the United States and faced persecution, but also the many who didn't even make it that far.

  4. 'The Irish Rover' (with The Dubliners)

    The Irish Rover - The Dubliners & The Pogues

    Alongside The Dubliners, The Pogues took an old Irish folk song about a sailing ship meeting an unfortunate end, and turned it into a charting hit.

    'The Irish Rover' details a glorious ship, whose enchantment grows with each verse, until the crew meet a terrible end with a measles outbreak striking everyone on board - even the captain and his dog - bar the song's narrator.

    The song's origins have been widely debated, but The Pogues and The Dubliners paired together and made it an undisputed number one hit in their Ireland homeland in 1987.

  5. 'A Pair Of Brown Eyes'

    The Pogues - A Pair of Brown Eyes

    'A Pair Of Brown Eyes' was The Pogues' first single to make a dent in the UK charts, peaking at No.72 in 1985.

    Borrowing the melody from Francis McPeake's 1957 folk song 'Wild Mountain Thyme', the lyrics are entirely MacGowan's.

    Instead, it's a wistful ballad about the horrors of World War I from the perspective of a veteran.

    Accordion player James Fearnley explained in 2013: "There's a jaded irony about it where he's making light out of dismemberment and the horrors of war; I always like that about Shane's songs-they pack an extra punch because he holds back the punch."

  6. 'Dirty Old Town'

    The Pogues - Dirty Old Town

    'Dirty Old Town' was originally written by folk singer Ewan MacColl, the father of one Kirsty MacColl with whom The Pogues would later collaborate.

    The 1956 song is about Salford, Manchester and the ominous industrial landscape of the time, both criticising and romanticising all the trappings of living in such a place and time.

    Many artists have since given 'Dirty Old Town' their own spin, including Rod Stewart, Simple Minds, and The Dubliners, though The Pogues' version is widely regarded as the standard nowadays.

    MacColl founded England's first ever folk music club - The Ballads and Blues Club - the covering his classic songs are artists paying homage to him paving the way.

  7. 'Streams Of Whiskey'

    The Pogues - Streams of Whiskey

    If there was ever going to be a song title that succinctly encapsulated The Pogues and their drinking habits, it would be 'Streams Of Whiskey'.

    Released in 1984, the song sees the band at their vibrant best, as they were candid about their penchant for Irish whiskey.

    Evoking the band's early days tearing up small gig venues around London, it brought them and their fans ever closer.

    James Fearnley later confessed: "Like no other song, it made me want to drink, and drink like Shane drank!"

  8. 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God'

    The Pogues - If I Should Fall From Grace With God

    The title track from their 1988 album of the same name 'If I Should Fall From The Grace Of God' is one of The Pogues most strident musical offerings.

    Following up from the success of their timeless Christmas song, 'Fairytale Of New York' with Kirsty MacColl, the leading single from their next album didn't quite have the same impact overseas, though the album is widely regarded as their landmark full-length.

    But 'If I Should Fall From The Grace Of God' is quintessentially The Pogues, a band that decided not to replicate former successes and instead beat away at their own drum.

    In many ways, it distils the very essence of The Pogues in one song.

  9. 'A Rainy Night In Soho'

    The Pogues - A Rainy Night In Soho

    Though it featured on The Pogues' 1986 international breakthrough EP, Poguetry In Motion, 'A Rainy Night In Soho' was largely ignored at first in favour of the poppier 'London Girl'.

    However, the song has since become a fan favourite, a trademark MacGowan ballad with cinematic imagery and yearning lyricism.

    Detailing the collapse of a loving relationship of the course of time, it's MacGowan at his most contemplative.

    If there was ever a striking visual metaphor to accompany his lyrics, the music video shows Shane dancing the waltz with his girlfriend before a burning fire.

  10. 'Fairytale Of New York' (with Kirsty MacColl)

    The Pogues - Fairytale Of New York (Official Video)

    It's timeless, it's instantly evocative of the festive season, and it's undoubtedly The Pogues' finest-ever song.

    'Fairytale Of New York' sees Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl trading insults at one another throughout the Christmas anthem, which is consistently voted as the UK's favourite Xmas song.

    The lyrics detail the toils of Irish emigrants who seek a new prosperous life in New York as entertainers, but end up homeless and disillusioned instead.

    Shane and Kirsty sing the parts of a married couple hard on their luck, and sling jibes at one another instead of celebrating the joy of Christmas.

    Sick of the series of tacky Christmas singles that receive endless airplay each year, The Pogues wanted to write a Christmas song for people who don't have a great time during the festive season.

    It's a fitting song to call The Pogues' greatest, and will be remembered for years to come, despite not reaching the top spot of the UK charts as they were held off by the Pet Shop Boys' synth-pop cover of Elvis Presley's 'Always On My Mind'.

    In 2023, in the wake of Shane MacGowan's death, it may very well reach number one after all. Given Shane was born on Christmas Day, it'd be a fitting tribute.