Planet of Sound: The Pogues, “Turkish Song of the Damned”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

Such mighty oaks from little acorns grow….

Shane MacGowan, founding singer for The Pogues, one of the most beloved Irish bands of the 80s, has said that “Turkish Song of the Damned” got its name and initial inspiration when he misheard a German fan’s question about another punk band of the era, asking if he liked “The Turkey Song” by The Damned.

But sometimes, such odd genesises geneses result in unanticipated brilliance; would anyone have expected a movie based on a theme-park ride to be as excellent as the original Pirates of the Caribbean?

I bring up Pirates both because of some similarities in the stories told by song and movie, and because both have a similar sense of fun behind their horror-genre plots. It’s icing on the cake that Shane MacGowan had the same sort of dissolute charisma as Captain Jack Sparrow (his drinking was equally legendary, though his teeth were way worse), and that MacGowan and Johnny Depp palled around back in each other’s bad old days.

Of the song resulting from his creative misinterpretation, MacGowan has said:

It’s about a guy on a Turkish island who deserted a sinking ship with all the money and all his mates went down. I’m not totally sure about this—he’s haunted and he’s dancing around with all this Turkish music playing endlessly in his brain—NYEAHH NYE NEE NEE HYEAHH NYEAHHH NIN NIN NYIN NEAHH. He just spends his time, haunted—dancing, drinking and fucking. Then his best mate comes back, and all the crew, to drag him down to hell or wherever they are. The thing is, he knew it was going to happen. So he’s been waiting.

It’s sung in the first person from that “best mate,” with the archaisms of the lyrics (along with the occasional clever steal from works like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) contributing to the song’s folkloric feel. MacGowan at his best was a beguiling songwriter, and even half-obscured as per usual by his slur and the deliberate roughness of recording, the lyrics here are credibly harrowing:

I come old friend from Hell tonight
Across the rotting sea
Nor the nails of the cross
Nor the blood of Christ
Can bring you help this eve
The dead have come to claim a debt from thee
They stand outside your door
Four score and three 

It’s when the chorus kicks in and the music picks up, transitioning from faux-Middle Eastern to the Pogues’ native Irish idiom, that it’s clear they’re having fun with this.

Did you keep a watch for the dead man’s wind
Did you see the woman with the comb in her hand
Wailing away on the wall on the strand
As you danced to the Turkish song of the damned

As MacGowan said of the song at another point, “it’s about being possessed, but it’s also a bit of a laugh.” It’s not a joke, but even when MacGowan gives his wonderful screeching howl, his own banshee wail, at several points after that first chorus, I hear more of a grin than haunted grimace in it. (Though I’ll also admit, when he howls before the lyrics start, it is genuinely spooky—one of the least terrible YouTube comments I’ve encountered in a while suggested that “no sound emitted by humans has ever conveyed such suffering, fucking bliss, beauty, and agony as Shane’s ‘YYYEEEEEAAAAAGHW!’ “)

Anyway, you can see the parallels with Pirates, where another crew of deathless sailors hate the one man who escaped their curse—though in Pirates, against all expectations, Jack Sparrow didn’t actually betray his crew. And both clearly draw inspiration from nautical myth and legend, particularly that of the Flying Dutchman.

As for how authentically Turkish any of this is… well, let’s just say that I doubt “The Lark in the Morning,” the traditional jig the Pogues play to close out the song, is often heard in Turkey.

Joshua Starr is a fan of speculative fiction in all media. ALL MEDIA.


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