The Pogues were one of the most intriguing bands to come to the fore in the 1980s, primarily because they could always surprise listeners. Just when you thought you had them pegged as rabble-rousing purveyors of a beguiling combination of Celtic melodies and sneering, punkish attitude, they could drop a heartfelt ballad that would leave you crying in your Guinness, even if it was sometimes difficult to tell, on songs like 1986’s “A Rainy Night In Soho”, if they were singing about the women that broke their hearts or the drink they used to forget those women.
Sometimes the band’s chief songwriter, Shane MacGowan, couldn’t even pinpoint the origin of his own creations. When asked by The Quietus about “A Rainy Night In Soho” in a 2012 interview, MacGowan waxed mystical. “I’ve seen ghosts behind me in period costume dictating songs on a couple of occasions,” he said. “’A Rainy Night In Soho’ was automatic writing. I had no idea what it was about. I had a vague idea by the time I got to the fourth verse but until then I hadn’t got a clue what was going on.”
Whoever was responsible for it, “A Rainy Night In Soho” provides plenty of wistful wonder. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll assume that it’s a special lady whom MacGowan is addressing here, the one he’s loved “down all the years, all the days,” the one with whom he’s shared triumph and sorrow. Together the pair manage to withstand the pitfalls that claimed friends of theirs: “Some of them fell into heaven/ Some of them fell into hell.”
In the second verse, the narrator looks back at the night mentioned in the title, with the two in a passionate embrace and the wind “whistling all its charms.” This is the point in the song where the first hint arrives that the narrator might be singing to someone who’s no longer a part of his life. “Whatever happened to that old song,” MacGowan wonders, sounding like a man who knows the answer but doesn’t want to admit it.
“The ginger lady by my bed” mentioned in the next verse seems to be the one clear reference to alcohol in the song, but it doesn’t quite drown out the memory of the girl: “I hear you talking in my head.” That’s when MacGowan drops a stunning set of lines, simple words yet choked with meaning about a man lost in a fleeting memory that wipes away everything else: “I’m not singing for the future/ I’m not dreaming of the past/ I’m not talking of the first time/ I never think about the last.”
In the final verse, MacGowan admits that his song is almost at an end, even as he can’t quite fathom its meaning. All he can say is that he loved once and well, and it is that which sustains him above all else: “Still there’s a light I hold before me/ You’re the measure of my dreams.”
In typical Pogues fashion, even a song as sweet in its intentions as this one caused a dustup, in this case between MacGowan and producer Elvis Costello about the former’s insistence on including a cornet in the final mix. Nonetheless, “A Rainy Night In Soho” prevails on the notion that one magical evening can compensate for a lifetime of heartache.