When the topic of the Pogues comes up in casual conversation, the first thought isn’t necessarily the sound of their guitars. More likely it has something to do with singer Shane MacGowan’s sneering voice, the driving accordion, the whistle and banjo runs and the general chaos of many musicians turning Irish sounds into rock and roll.
What, though, is rock and roll without guitar?
The Pogues’ longtime guitarist Phil Chevron, who died Tuesday at 56, came of age in the punk rock era, and he learned his art in one of Dublin, Ireland’s first punk bands, the Radiators From Space. So when he joined the raucous Pogues after MacGowan gave up the ax for full-time work with the microphone, Chevron -- born Philip Ryan -- brought with him a certain urgency.
Best known for writing the Pogues’ anthemic story-song, “Thousands Are Sailing,” Chevron became a central player in a band co-founded by MacGowan, tin whistle player Spider Stacy and banjoist Jem Finer. Chevron entered the Pogues just in time to work on their classic second album, “Rum, Sodomy & the Lash,” the Elvis Costello-produced work that confirmed the band’s import and stands as one of the great rock albums of the 1980s.
Though not written by a founding member, Chevron’s “Thousands Are Sailing,” from the band’s album “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” has become one of the Pogues’ key songs, a singalong romp about the Irish migration to America that traverses oceans and decades. It was penned from Chevron’s perspective during what seems like an exciting night in Manhattan, with MacGowan singing about early Irish ancestors on the island, wondering about their work and their culture.
“Did the old songs taunt or cheer you, and did they still make you cry,” wonders the singer. “Did you count the months and years, or did your teardrops quickly dry?”
In the song, other instruments take center stage, but supporting passionately in the background is the strum of Chevron’s guitar, guiding like a rudder while the singer describes a group that “tipped our hats to Mr. Cohen, dear old Times Square’s favorite bard/Then we raised a glass to JFK, and a dozen more besides.”
The lyrics continue, honoring both those who made it and those who died on the journey, feting those who turned their lives around with a fresh start, “where the hand of opportunity draws tickets in a lottery.” It concludes with a rich endorsement of America -- even if it seems to be at the expense of Chevron’s Ireland:
“Where e'er we go, we celebrate the land that makes us refugees/From fear of priests with empty plates/From guilt and weeping effigies,” wrote Chevron. He ends by offering the perfect solution: “And we dance.”