Bonanza Meets Ballykissangel:
A Brief History/Review of The Men They Couldn’t Hang’s “Night of a Thousand Candles”
The year was 1984. The location: London. Word was on the street: Two bands were kick-starting what one day would become an entire genre. One band would go on to become the toast of London, and eventually, the world – the stuff of legend. The other would make a smaller mark, toil in relative obscurity, but in the long run, would still be together making music today. These two bands were the Pogues and the Men They Couldn’t Hang. The connection between the two is, like so many other stories in the rock-n-roll canon, quite incestuous.
Shane MacGowan was the front man and main creative talent behind the Pogues. Shane’s first band, the punk-cum-rockabilly-power-poppish Nipple Erectors (shortened to the Nips) was formed with a lass who played bass called Shanne Bradley. Shanne and Shane formed the creative nucleus of the Nips, and when that band parted ways, Shane and Shanne went on to play in outfits who did a similar, yet at the time, foreign musical style. Add to this punk rock family tree Stefan Cush. Cush was a young London punk who had roadied for the Pogues. When he and Shanne decided to start a band, it was no surprise that the sound turned out like it did. They combined the brash of punk with folk/Celtic sounds and instrumentation just like pal Shane’s band had, but added a heavily American-influenced sound to create a unique vision all their own.
So it is written, so it is done: Shane to the Pogues camp and Cush and Shanne to the Men They Couldn’t Hang. While the Pogues career would flourish and they would become a phenomenon, the Men They Couldn’t Hang would make large waves, only to see the Pogues-level of success denied to them. Critics gushed, they toured with the Pogues, Elvis Costello signed them to his record label “Demon,” they toured with him, and Pogues manager Frank Murray almost chose to manage the MTCH over the Pogues – but Pogues-level mainstream success eluded them. History is a fussy wench, and time tells a different tale for MTCH.
The Men They Couldn’t Hang began their career in 1984, appearing at a number of alternative country music festivals. They followed-up their live performances with the release of a cover version of Eric Bogle’s ‘Green Fields Of France’, which soon became a big hit on the UK Indie charts. Produced by Phil Chevron (more Pogues connections, if you please) it was a smash. Their first album, “Night Of A Thousand Candles”, was released in 1985.
“Night Of A Thousand Candles” is a grand achievement. It almost makes me sad to listen to it because I always wonder what could have become of this group. The main songwriter in the band was lead guitarist and Bouzouki player Paul Simmonds. Using this album alone as an example, one could see the potential in Simmonds lyrical skills. London legends Cush and Phil “Swill” Odgers were the vocalists and each played guitar. Swill also played the tin whistle and mandolin. The aforementioned Shanne Bradley played bass and Swill’s brother Jon rounded things out on the drums. Guests like the ever-incredible Tommy Keane also pop up on the album.
The album shares many similarities with the Pogues early work – it is fiery, folky, punky rock. But, it stands on it’s own – separate and individualized, sounds of a hungry group bent on success, hell or high water. I’d almost say that Flogging Molly (maybe the Tossers as well) are more of a MTCH-sounding band, more-so than the Pogues and I’m not sure they’d agree. But that’s the take I get because of two things: 1) MTCH are much more heavily American sounding in a strange way, seemingly hugely influenced by American roots music like old, hard-ass country. (The album itself ends with a rendition of “Rawhide”) and 2) Flogging Molly’s membership is almost all American, with the notable exception of Dave, (all of the boys in the Tossers are Yanks) so this punk/country-ish sound is bound to pop up honestly in FM/Tossers’ sound. So, it seems like the three would naturally sound a bit alike. But maybe I’m wrong.
On to the album itself. It opens with the brash one-two punch of “The Day After” and “Jack Dandy” both of which are faster and punky, similar to the Pogues early work and to me, sounding like FM. “Johnny Come Home” is the epitome of a Johnny Cash-influenced punk number, very like something Mike Ness might cut today. “A Night To Remember” combines the folk/country sound with a modern English feel for a slower, sadder type number which works very nicely. The cover of Eric Bogle’s “Green Fields of France” was, as stated, a smash, and I can see why. Of all the versions I’ve ever heard (and you know there are many) I think this is my all-time favorite recording of it (this or the Angelic Upstarts version on “The Power Of The Press.”) It got guts and grit and piss and passion – all things which the song needs to succeed. You can hear the sneer and disgust in the vocals, as if saying “a tribute to young, heroic Willie MacBride of the tune, but definitely as waste of a young life, to be sure.” The following tune “Ironmasters” sounds like a group of Union workers if they sang shanties while on the job. I’ve always been a sucker for this type of tune, and it fucking rocks. In many ways, it sounds like a perfect cover for the Dropkick Murphys. It just is their type of tune. Both lyrically: the men fighting for their freedom, the underdog keeping their heads high, “it’s no sin to fight to be free” and musically: the song itself is pure DKM: Big group vocals and power all around. The perfect choice. You reading this Ken? “Scarlett Ribbons” starts out with serene piping (done by Tommy Keane) and is the most heavily Celtic thing on the record.
Other highlights include: the covers of two classics: the anthemic “Hell or England” where that’s the choice offered to him who knocked her up by her dear ol’ Da (a great, great song) and “Donald Where’s Your Troosers?” which, if any of you have heard the Real McKenzies version, is just as fast and rollicking. The group theme-song “The Men They Couldn’t Hang” also rounds things out in high-falootin’ country fashion.
All in all, even though the stories of the Pogues and MTCH are closely related, the bands were good friends (Shane was reportedly so smitten with Shanne that he eventually wrote a song about her) and toured together, it was a different career path that the MTCH took. A different chapter in history awaited them. As one compares the bands today, the only really heavy similarity is they both used Celtic instruments and were folk influenced. Re-listening to the CD, I’m still surprised at how much of it seems as influenced by American folk/country as it was Irish/English folk. Bonanza meets Ballykissangel? The cast of Hee-Haw jamming with Father Ted?
In the end, the Pogues, as we all know, fell apart. (Reformed?) As of today, MTCH (minus Shanne) are re-formed and playing to rave reviews. So, although the two tales of the bands are intertwined, they are not as much musically similar as many would have you believe. True, they are similar, but MTCH are doing their own thing and doing it well. I would highly recommend picking this album/CD up if you can find it, and take a good, long look at what all the fuss was about.
By Sean Holland