Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash is a great album. It contains "A Pair of Brown Eyes," arguably Shane MacGowan's first masterpiece. It was recorded long before the album sessions took place, and was released as the band's third single. A slow ballad, it does not tell a story as much as it vividly recreates a few depressing moments in a bar. The singer, trying to drink away the memory of a brown-eyed ex-lover, is subjected to the ramblings of a drunken veteran of the Great War. The old-timer graphically relates how he endured the horrors of battle only to return home and find that his own brown-eyed girl had not waited for him. Following the time honored folk process, MacGowan set his lyrics against a backdrop of traditional Irish music. The album includes two more MacGowan classics: "The Sickbed of Cuchulainn" and "The Old Main Drag."
Replete with allusions to Irish history and culture, "Sick Bed" is a MacGowan tour de force with references to the mythical Irish hero Cuchulainn, Irish singers John McCormack and Richard Tauber, Irish Republican Frank Ryan, and Cloughprior cemetery where many of MacGowan's family are buried. "The Old Main Drag," a slow poignant number, is a seamy slice of life tale of a 16 year-old immigrant's attempts to cope with London's underbelly. MacGowan has claimed that the song isn't autobiographical, not surprising given the teenager's involvement with male prostitution, but the lyrics' power are surely born of experience. Nearly 25 years after its release "The Old Main Drag" had lost none of its power and remained a concert favorite.
Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash contains several other fine tracks. A traditional Scottish song, "I'm a Man You Don't Meet Everyday," featuring Cait O'Riordan's finest recorded vocal, is one. MacGowan's vocals on three cover tunes, however, are even better. "Navigator," an excellent song about immigrants building the railroads was written by the Nips' manager Phillip Gaston. "Dirty Old Town," the Ewan McColl classic, is nearly perfect. But best of all is MacGowan's flawless interpretation of Eric Bogel's anti-war masterpiece, "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda." Otis Redding once said that Aretha Franklin stole his song, "Respect." Indeed, most fans associate the song with Franklin despite Redding's outstanding recording. The same can be said of "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda." Bogel's version is fine, but with the release of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash the song became MacGowan's.
Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash is a classic that no fan of Irish music should be without. Rake at the Gates of Hell: Shane MacGowan in Context