Celtic Soul Rebel: Talking to the Dentist About Poetry

The Pogues
Red Roses For Me (Expanded and Remastered)

The story of Shane MacGowan and the Pogues is pretty much a pub crawl. Pick a bar, almost any bar in any city, and the chances are it’ll have a story to tell.

Here’s one of the better ones. On the Gray’s Inn Road in London, perhaps a five-minute stroll south of Kings Cross Station, there used to be a pub called the Pindar of Wakefield. In December 1962, the Pindar saw the first British performance by a young man named Bob Dylan. Twenty years later, a new band called Pogue Mahone debuted at that same small pub.

And here’s another one. A friend told me recently about an occasion in 2004 when she saw Shane MacGowan DJ in Dublin. The Greatest (Barely) Living Irishman threw up on stage twice, and fell over continually throughout his set. And still people queued up to buy him drinks.

Draw a line roughly halfway between these two tales, and you’re getting close to the heart of Shane MacGowan. A songwriter who can be legitimately discussed in the same sentence as Bob Dylan. And a self-destructive drunkard whose own fans conspire at, and celebrate his rituals of self-abuse.

“The British press have been giving me six months to live for the past 20 years.”

— Shane MacGowan

If he’d been less of a stubborn survivor, Shane MacGowan would be a beatified legend today, the Irish Joe Strummer. In the Great Rock Star Death Pool of Life, even God had picked MacGowan ahead of Strummer. Yet it was the Clash man who succumbed to an undiagnosed heart defect while MacGowan, whose lifestyle frequently makes Shaun Ryder look like a straight edge nun during Lent, stumbles on from embarrassment to embarrassment.

Curiously, the lines that mark the lives of Shane MacGowan and Joe Strummer have met and entwined on many occasions. And they’ve also often run parallel. For example, both men reinvented themselves for their own purposes.

Punk rock populist Strummer was born in Turkey where his father was a British diplomat. After spending a privileged childhood in cities such as Cairo, Mexico City, and Bonn, the 10-year-old rebel rocker was sent to board at the City of London Freemen’s School. He later studied at London’s prestigious Central School of Art & Design. Where he was expelled for using LSD.

Professional Irishman MacGowan was born in leafy Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Three months old, he was sent to Ireland to live with his mother’s family in Tipperary. He returned to England five years later so that he could attend school in London. In his early teens, MacGowan received a musical scholarship to attend the celebrated Westminster School. Where he was expelled for possession of drugs.

Shane MacGowan first appeared in the music press long before he had a band of his own. An early adopter on the London punk rock scene, his less-than-film-star good looks were chosen for a front cover of Sounds and cruelly captioned “The Face of ’76”. A few months later he graced the pages of both the NME and the London Evening Standard. It was November 1976, and the Clash were playing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, just down the road from Buckingham Palace. Shane’s girlfriend, Jane Crockford (later of the Modettes), bit his ear and a suitably gory photograph, showing the young MacGowan covered in blood ran under the headline “Cannibalism at Clash Gig”. Strummer’s words, as reported at the time, were: “I don’t believe what’s happening down here.”

Strummer might have found it equally unbelievable that 14 years later he’d be considered an unsatisfactory stand-in for the bleeding punk from the ICA. However, MacGowan’s immediate future was utterly predictable. He formed his own punk rock band. Despite a couple of not entirely awful singles, the Nips (formerly the Nipple Erectors) went nowhere fast, and left just ten studio recordings and a farewell live album called Only the End of the Beginning.

“If I don’t make any money, I’m gonna wanna know why… People who think the world began when David Bowie cut his hair are just idiots … If anyone thinks that everything is boring it’s their own fucking fault… I suppose I was always made to feel like a bit of a wanker at school and I always found it hard to pick up girls at discos ’cause I was so ugly… I write about healthy teenage subjects such as sex and violence and getting pissed… my favourite thing other than me is my mirror”

— Shane MacGowan’s sleeve notes from Only the End of the Beginning

In the Nips, MacGowan sang in Cockney punk tones. By the time, Pogue Mahone (phonetically Gaelic for “Kiss My Arse”) recorded their first independent single, he’d developed a much more pronounced London-Oirish accent.

The genesis of Pogue Mahone is unclear, but it seems MacGowan got the idea for his innovative celtic-punk crossover when a West London band called Jeep recorded the traditional Irish song “The Wild Rover”. Certainly, Pogue Mahone evolved out of short-lived projects with names like the Millwall Chainsaws, the New Republicans, and the Black Velvet Underground. As the New Republicans, the prototype Pogues played a set of Irish rebel songs at the New Romantic haven Cabaret Futura sometime in 1981. In her book The Pogues — The Lost Decade, my old friend Ann Scanlon reports Shane as saying: “The point of it was to shock these ponces out of this smug little synthesised heaven. When we went on, they didn’t know what was going on. But there happened to be about 20 British Army squaddies there, and they didn’t like it. The manager went apeshit and we were pelted with chips. But we caused a real reaction, and then I thought I had enjoyed this a hundred times more than the Nips. So we made it a going concern.”

In May 1984, Pogue Mahone released their first single, “The Dark Streets of London”, on their own Pogue Mahone label. Its impact was immediate and the rapidly renamed Pogues were soon touring with the Clash (big surprise), and recording their debut album for Stiff Records.

Named for a Sean O’Casey play, Red Roses For Me sounded like nothing we’d heard before. It was the traditional music of the Dubliners on an amphetamine-fuelled bender through the backstreets of London. English punk rock getting blind fighting drunk in a North London Irish boozer. Folk music sung through gritted, broken teeth. Taking a number of long-standing musical traditions and cramming them all into a bottle with the revolution of the day, the Pogues shook the mixture until it was ready to explode, and created something entirely new again.

Red Roses For Me (1984) opens with a few bars of misleadingly wistful, traditional Irish music. But then a wild wind gathers and blows. It sounds like MacGowan’s own voice looped and echoed for effect, and it heralds that exuberant drinkers’ anthem, “Transmetropolitan”. Filled with humour and rancour, and with no small nod to James Joyce’s Ulysses, “Transmetropolitan” was a clear statement of intent. Yip-ay-aye.

The third song, however, was the killer. “The Auld Triangle” establishes the Pogues as something beyond a rowdy novelty. The arrangement is sparse, beautifully so, revealing the band’s early potential. MacGowan’s vocal is deeply affecting, deadpan and yet rich with emotion; belying the trivialities of “Transmetropolitan” and marking him out as a man worth listening to. And the song’s provenance makes a third significant point. It was written by Irish playwright Brendan Behan. A socialist, Irish republican and activist, Behan served three years for his role in a Liverpool bombing, and was then jailed again in Dublin for shooting a policeman. The Pogues, “The Auld Triangle” told us, were a powerful musical force with strong political sensibilities and a deep attachment to the literary traditions of Ireland.

Red Roses For Me flits from drinking anthems, to maritime tales painted in wild piratical shades, to traditional ballads, and back again. Happily, this reissue hasn’t been diluted by the usual spurious “bonus” material. Rather, it benefits from the addition of six non-album b-sides, including the Pogues’ first recording of Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, which was the AA side to the band’s debut single, “The Dark Streets of London”.

An anti-war tale told from the perspective of an Australian survivor of the battle of Gallipoli, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is as unadorned and effective as “The Auld Triangle”. While “The Dark Streets of London”, re-recorded for Red Roses For Me, illustrates MacGowan’s ability to blend traditions and themes to create something personal. It opens like another drunkard’s travelogue, but then refers to the singer’s stays in a mental hospital and ends on a note of bitter desperation: “I’m buggered to damnation, and I haven’t got a penny to wander the dark streets of London”.

If Red Roses For Me kicked the world’s door off its hinges, then Rum, Sodomy & The Lash (1985) swaggered into the living room, poured itself a large one, and made itself at home. Produced by Elvis Costello (who later married bassist Cait O’Riordan) and featuring new guitarist Phillip Chevron, it’s the Pogues’ finest work. Wrapped in an adaptation of Giricault’s Raft of the “Medusa”, there’s nothing here than does not excel. As you’d expect, there are plenty of full-on, flat-out, punk-rock-paddy-hoedowns. There’s even an instrumental that pilfers from Pink Floyd. But without exception the stand-outs are the slower Celtic soul numbers.

In “The Old Main Drag”, a runaway finds that all London has to offer him is prostitution, drink, drugs, homelessness, and an ugly, early death. MacGowan’s performance, again, is plain and matter of fact. He lets his words and the accompaniment — uillean pipe and banjo — bleed with the emotions his voice refuses to express. “Dirty Old Town” is a similarly straightforward rendition of a Ewan McColl song. Again, McGowan makes no attempt to emote, but still an underlying sense of soul and sorrow pervades his performance. The sumptuous Cait O’Riordan sings “A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day”, a Scottish folk song that becomes a mysterious tale of an IRA gunman in the hands of the Pogues. Her voice a welcome and beautifully haunting contrast to the unrefined tones of MacGowan. And then …

One summer evening drunk to hell

I sat there nearly lifeless

An old man in the corner sang

“Where The Water Lilies Grow”

And on the jukebox Johnny sang

About a thing called love

— “A Pair of Brown Eyes”

“A Pair of Brown Eyes” is the perfect compliment to “The Old Main Drag”. Together they say everything you need to know about Shane McGowan. Where “The Old Main Drag” addresses many of the themes that inform his work, “A Pair of Brown Eyes” covers most of the rest.

The Pogues — A Pair of Brown Eyes

A young man is drinking, drowning his heartache while Johnny Cash plays on the jukebox. An old drunk corners him and begins to ramble about his own life, about how he came back from the war to discover his girl had gone off with another. The young drinker’s immediate reaction is to despise the old sot for spoiling his orgy of self pity, and to stumble out of the pub in a rage. But then, he reconsiders. Perhaps he realises the old man has had much the harder life, and so develops a sense of perspective about his own. Or maybe he throws himself into the canal in despair. The issue is left unresolved, but the air of sorrow and entwined lives is left hanging by one of the Pogues’ most effective works.

The original Rum Sodomy ends with the Pogues’ very best moment, an extended and superior re-recording of “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. This re-release comes with another six additional tracks, including the entire Poguetry in Motion EP, a version of the traditional drinker’s song, “The Parting Glass”, and Jem Finer’s celtic-Morricone instrumental “A Pistol For Paddy Garcia”.

A Pistol For Paddy Garcia was the original title for Alex Cox’s movie Straight to Hell, which featured not only Courtney Love and Elvis Costello but also Joe Strummer and Shane McGowan. Cox’s previous movie was Sid and Nancy, originally Love Kills. While the Pogues provided the near-title theme for Cox’s punk western, it was Strummer who recorded “Love Kills”. However, the standout tune on Sid and Nancy was the Pogues’ own “Haunted”. Sung beautifully by Cait O’Riordan, it’s the only essential Pogues recording missing from these Rhino re-releases. Which is odd because MacGowan thought highly of “Haunted”, and re-recorded it as a duet with Sinead O’Connor in the mid-’90s. While O’Connor turned in a solid performance, Shane sounded more like a disintegrating Sid Vicious than the man who recorded Rum Sodomy.

Several years later, O’Connor reported MacGowan to the police when she saw him using heroin in his London home, just six months after his house-mate Robbie O’Neil has died from an overdose. At the time MacGowan was furious and threatened to sue her for libel. Subsequently, he’s thanked her and credited her for saving his life.

When Bob Dylan played the Pindar of Wakefield, he was a guest of Ewan MacColl and his wife Peggy Seeger. However, neither established folk legend was at all impressed by the young American’s performance, which probably offended their prescriptive ideas about folk music. According to David Quantick, MacColl was equally underwhelmed by the Pogues’ rendition of “Dirty Old Town”. Nonetheless, his daughter Kirsty became a firm friend of MacGowan’s and unequivocally involved in the legacy of the Pogues.

“Happy Christmas your arse. I pray God it’s our last”.

— “Fairytale of New York”

There are those who will tell you If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988) was as good as or perhaps better than Rum Sodomy. Such people have a corpse in their mouth. But the third Pogues album certainly does feature their best known moment. A Christmas staple despite itself, “Fairytale of New York” casts MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl as a pair of Irish immigrants reflecting on the crushing of their American dreams. Alcoholism, addiction, and prostitution have all played their part, and now one of the couple is celebrating Christmas from a hospital bed and praying for a release. It may be appropriate here to mention that Shane MacGowan was born on Christmas Day.

The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl — Fairytale of New York

There’s much to enjoy on If I Should Fall. “The Broad Majestic Shannon” is a robust recollection of lost love that surely provided the musical basis for “Fairytale of New York”. Phillip Chevron’s “Thousands Are Sailing” is a splendid Irish diaspora epic. And “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” couples new Pogue Terry Woods’ plaintive “Streets of Sorrow” with MacGowan’s righteously angry “Birmingham Six”. While the former weeps at the troubles in Northern Ireland, the latter is an explicit denunciation of the British legal system.

There were six men in Birmingham

In Guildford there’s four

That were picked up and tortured

And framed by the law

And the filth got promotion

But they’re still doing time

For being Irish in the wrong place

And at the wrong time

— “Birmingham Six”

“Birmingham Six” was banned by the BBC and others for breaching legislation preventing broadcasts in support of terrorist organisations. Nonetheless, the convictions of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four were over-turned as “unsafe” three years later. Neither MacGowan, Woods nor any other Irish performer has ever written a song protesting against the Birmingham and Guildford bombings which killed 26 people and injured 247.

Elsewhere, If I Should Fall shows the Pogues beginning to move away from MacGowan’s original celtic soul vision. Steve Lillywhite’s production is crisp and unobtrusive, but seems to defang the snake inside MacGowan. Jem Finer’s “Metropolis” is a jazz instrumental with a token Irish overlay. “Fiesta” is a frantic polka with a Mediterranean feel. “Turkish Song of the Damned” blends traditional Irish music with the obvious and ends on a suspiciously rockist note. And on the excellent “Thousands Are Sailing”, MacGowan sounds suspciously like a guest vocalist rather than the leader of the band. Whether MacGowan’s work ethic was slipping or his fellow Pogues were beginning to flex their muscles, If I Should Fall” clearly marks the point where the balance of power in the Pogues began to shift.

Peace and Love (1989) begins with another Jem Finer jazz instrumental. Although MacGowan contributes six songs including the gems “Down All the Days”, “Boat Train” and “London, You’re a Lady”, eight more come from Finer, Chevron, and Woods. The arrangements and production are well-worked, and songs such as Chevron’s “Lorelei” and Finer’s “Misty Morning, Albert Bridge” are delivered quite beautifully, yet they seem increasingly divorced from the magic of the Pogues as I understand and feel it. Reportedly, MacGowan was distracted by acid house and hallucinogenics during the recording of Peace and Love. He then collapsed at Heathrow airport as the Pogues were setting off to support Bob Dylan in America, leaving his band to tour without him. One way or another, it seemed unlikely the Pogues would be able to bounce back from Peace and Love.

And they did not. Joe Strummer (remember him?) had previously filled in for Phil Chevron when the guitarist dropped out of an earlier tour. Fast becoming an all purpose spare Pogue, Strummer now replaced Lillywhite for the recording of the Pogues’ fifth album. Though Hell’s Ditch (1990) is far from merit-free, MacGowan’s slurred and disinterested vocals alone illustrate the level of his personal decline while the Pogues, clearly no longer his band, continued to move away from their roots and on into the realm of straightforward folk-flavoured rock.

Depending on whether you believe Shane MacGowan or … um … Shane MacGowan, the singer was either fired because of his unreliability or he quit because he was unhappy that he’d lost control of the band. Either way, when MacGowan left the Pogues during a brief tour of Japan, Joe Strummer found himself volunteering to help them fulfill outstanding tour commitments in the USA and elsewhere. Fortunately, Strummer didn’t have to learn all the songs. By this time MacGowan was only on stage for half the Pogues’ live show at most.

Anarchistic, rebellious, and never patronising or sentimental, Shane MacGowan sang for the unfortunate and the dispossessed while the Pogues taught them to dance and laugh in the face of … well, whatever. It would be easy to mourn the loss of the band that recorded Red Roses For Me, Rum Sodomy, and If I Should Fall. Even easier to wax sentimental about the decline of Shane MacGowan. Perhaps, however, it’s better to celebrate that MacGowan is still with us, and that the Pogues lasted longer than either of MacGowan’s great punk inspirations, the Sex Pistols and the Clash.

The Pogues — Dirty Old Town

RATING 9 / 10