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It’s a Long Way from Tipperary

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Source: VOX magazine
Author: Ian Fortnam
Copyright: (c) VOX magazine

AS SHANE MacGOWAN releases his first album in three years, we sample the peculiar brew that is the history of Shane and THE POGUES, from the death of punk to the birth of the Popes, via the many drinks in between.

AS PUNK passion dissipated and died, choking on its own irrelevance, a generation of serial venters were suddenly deprived of its primal, therapeutic effect. The weekenders effortlessly embraced the foppish follies of New Romance, the oi polloi shaved their heads, but the hardcore lifers, the adrenalin addicts, were instantly anachronised and sent shopping for slippers.

One such rapscallion was Shane O’Hooligan (AKA MacGowan), a punk scenester who enjoyed brief national notoriety after having his ear bitten off at a Clash gig. An exaggeration, of course. Shane’s ear was bitten – by Kate Korus, latterly of The Mo-Dettes – there was blood, but the trusty lobe stayed put. The incident did, however, generate enough copy to motivate the young O’Hooligan to form a band, the incautiously monikered Nipple Erectors.

The band, soon to be rechristened The Nips, peddled a raucous hybrid of punk, rockabilly and R&B before collapsing in spectacular disarray. Shane, though, was determined to make his mark and, disgusted by the Durans and tartan Spands of the flaccid mainstream, harnessed the feral soul-power of traditional Irish music, allied it to wildcat hillbilly mayhem, and spiced the entire concoction with a dash of alcoholic punk velocity. Rounding up a like-minded gang by the name of Pogue Mahone, Shane set about intoxicating the world.

MacGowan was born in Kent on Christmas Day, 1957, but spent his childhood in Puckaun, Tipperary, until his family relocated to London in 1965. Shane was an intelligent child, accepted into Westminster Public School in 1971, but was expelled the following year for possession of narcotics, and began hanging around Piccadilly Circus, imbibing as much sobering experience as hard liquor.

The street-smart honesty and uncompromising ugliness of punk grabbed Shane by the throat, but as it died he seemed glad to be rid of the cliched trappings of rock. The essence of The Pogues harked back to the musical traditions Shane inherited from his forebears: his mother’s love of singing, his father’s impressive collection of jazz, blues and country records, and the rebel songs on the jukebox of his uncle’s Irish pub.

As the years have passed, MacGowan has become not only one of the most respected of Irish writers, but also one of the most indulgent. Liver-shrinking tales of his Herculean booze and chemical binges all too often overshadow his artistic achievements, but he remains one of the most compelling characters in modern music.

This month sees the long-awaited release of Shane’s first album in three years, ‘The Crock Of Gold’. So when better to revisit the stratospheric highs and subterranean lows of a maverick genius?

NME, June 17, 1978 Attending Raw Records’ first anniversary package at Cambridge Corn Exchange, Stephen Gordon happens upon Shane MacGowan’s initial foray into musical chaos, The Nipple Erectors, and reports that ‘Fuss And Bovver’ captures most of what’s good about the Erectors; hard, fast, tight to the point of suffocation and instantly memorable… Shane, who handles vocals, does have a totally over-the-top Ted persona, all sneers and exaggerated cockney accent. He curls his top lip and chews gum, doing his best to look mean and bored… Halfway into 78 it takes a great deal of panache to play a set that sticks rigidly to the conventions of ’76/77 emergent punk. Fortunately, the Erectors have that panache.

Shortly after, embarrassed by their puerile name, Shane rechristens the band with the far more radio-friendly epithet, The Nips. The band’s initial waxings, however (the rockabilly tinged ‘King Of The Bop’ and frantic R&B belter ‘All The Time In The World’, both sink without trace. Shane, meanwhile, bolsters his meagre income by working at Soho’s Rocks Off record emporium.

NME, October 27, 1979 Adrian Thrills meets the man Paul Weller once referred to as the only real star to come out of the new wave” on the eve of the release of The Nips’ third single, ‘Gabrielle’, and finds Shane in typically strident form. “The way I see it is we’re coming up to the ’8Os and somebody’s got to save rock’n'roll from all those prats with synthesisers and a university education. And it might as well be me!

When [punk] started it was great. but then you get so many wanky bands coming along… The Pistols and The Clash were always the two big cool bands to watch. But they just became like fuckin’ companies! It was like going to watch ICI on stage!”

And as for Gabrielle, She used to have blonde hair and tight leather-look plastic trousers… She used to be my first real love, but she wouldn’t ever go to bed with me. She just used to take me back to her bedsit in Streatham and jerk me off.”

Shane ponders his lack of success with women, and puts it down to “physical handicaps”, specifically “large” ears and unfortunate dental work. “I never always had bad teeth, but I got pissed one night seeing the 101ers with a mate. He said he’d give me a lift on the back of his bike, but I tried to get off while he was still moving and I broke all my teeth on the Hammersmith Road. 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 ‘cos I was so ugly… The punk thing changed my fuckin’ life. It didn’t matter that I was ugly.”

NME, March 15 and 22, 1980 The Nips tell Adrian Thrills of their untimely demise. Initial reports suggested the band were disillusioned with the lack of promotion afforded them by their record company (Chiswick), but Shanne Bradley (bassist) reveals:

“We were just sick of each other and I hated the music The Nips were playing. Shane and I weren’t communicating. We were just beating each other up all the time.”

The following week, Adam Sweeting catches the band’s swansong at London’s Rock Garden and says of Shane’s impassioned ‘farewell’: “He sang lines like ‘Got no reason for living/ Got no reason to die’… he even threw in Winston Churchill’s cliché’ about this being ‘Only the end of the beginning’… Plans are already being laid for the re-emergence of the members under different guises. There’s power worth harnessing in there somewhere.”

NME, January 15, 1983 Shane teams up with Peter ‘Spider’ Stacy (who he’d met previously in the Ramones’ moshpit), a young man who bangs his head with a beer tray in time to The Chainsaws. Over the next couple of years the pair are joined by Em Finer (bass, subsequently banjo and mandolin), James Fearnley (accordion, guitar and piano) and Cait O’Riordan (bass). Stacy eventually tires of perpetual concussion, decides to lay aside his beer tray forever and takes up the tin whistle. This loose line-up plays chaotic versions of Dublin’s’ drinking songs, Brendan Bean’s The Auld Triangle’ and occasional MacGowan originals (‘Dark Streets Of London’ and ‘Streams Of Whiskey’ under the name of Pogue Mahone – Irish gaelic for ‘Kiss My Hole’ – and gradually builds up a formidable live reputation.

Consequently, Gavin Martin is despatched to Dingwalls and discovers “a style pre-empted by phase-three Dexy’s, but Pogue Mahone’s approach is different- more bar room brawl than showband revue. They suffer from disorganisation (and] scrappiness… Ironically, the lifestyle that fuels the songs is also holding them back. Shane has a fine singing voice, one of the few people this side of 40 who can actually use his voice expressively and draw you in to the places and feelings sketched out in the songs. The songs themselves are barbed and naked, painting a blunt, sometimes squalid picture but never forgetting the effectiveness of a good tune or a merry jig.”

NME, August 13,1983 Drinking with Gavin Martin, Shane explains the philosophy behind Pogue Mahone: “Before, I’d never thought of playing Irish music onstage, but it became obvious that everything that could be done with a standard rock format had been done, usually quite badly. We just wanted to shove music that has roots and is generally stronger and has more real anger and emotion down the throats of a completely pap-orientated pop audience.”

In May ’84, the band release their debut single ‘Dark Streets Of London’ on their own Pogue Mahone label. Radio 1 gives the single zero rotation because the band’s name may cause offence to native Irish speakers, and consequently record companies are loathe to ink a distribution deal. Eventually, however, Stiff Records sign the band on condition that they change their name to the less controversial Pogues and curb their already legendary drinking habits.

When we signed to Stiff,” Shane later recalls, we had to pretend to stop drinking. So in the photo sessions we had to hide our drinks. And in the pictures we look really miserable and uncomfortable because we’re sitting on our beer cans.

NME, October 13, 1984 Sean O’Hagan reviews ‘Red Roses For Me’, The Pogues’ debut album for Stiff, and finds: the raucous surge and evocative noise that has filled the capital’s pubs and clubs has come through the stark sobriety of the studio set-up to arrive intact in all its sweat-soaked, beer-stained glory’. Those detractors that view the Pogue ethic as no more than an excuse for a drunken rave-up should lend an ear to Shane’s songs…”

The album is a rough and ready combination of the traditional (Poor Paddy and seven MacGowan originals (including ‘Transmetropolitan’ and ‘Boys From The County Hell’, produced. somewhat primitively, by Stan Brennan.

The band embark on an Irish tour with Elvis Costello, who steps in to produce their next album ‘Rum. Sodomy & The Lash’. Whether this decision is prompted by fondness for the band’s material. or the fact that Elvis has nefarious designs on Cait O’Riordan (latterly Mrs Costello) one can only speculate.

NME, April 27, 1985 Taking time out from recording the Pair Of Brown Eyes’ video with Alex Cox, Shane MacGowan. currently under medication for alcohol abuse, tells Don Watson: “Of course my state of health worries me. I realise now that I just can’t go on drinking and drinking and never eating. I know my body isn’t going to take it. It worries me. but I’m taking all the measures that I possibly can.”

Short of stopping drinking? “Yeah.”

NME, August 10, 1985 As The Pogues’ second album is finally unveiled. David Quantick opines: “It’s almost fair to call it the first Pogues LP proper. since ‘Red Roses…’, for all its myriad good points. wasn’t a lot more than a snapshot of their early stage set. ‘Rum. Sodomy & The Lash’. with its Quite Expensive Sound and its Additional Musicians, is the first Pogues record to use a studio properly. It’s a collection of free-ranging stuff, to be sure, from the funereal folk ballad to the near spaghetti-western instrumental, raucous celebration to brown study. cheerful melody to downright strangeness. It’s probably the best LP of 1985.” The album provides the band with their first three chart singles: the melancholic wartime lament ‘A Pair Of Brown Eyes’, the thigh-slapping, exuberant ‘Sally MacLennane’ and their stumble through Ewan MacColl’s ‘Dirty Old Town’.

The following spring, as the ‘Poguetry In Motion’ EP gives the band their biggest UK hit to date, they head for the USA for the first time, and effortlessly wow the New York glitterati with a forthright display of unmitigated drunken chaos, which peaks with the departure of Cait Costello.

They return home in August, after appearing as the gun-toting. coffee-addicted MacMahon family in Alex Cox’s spaghetti western Straight To Hell to find ‘Haunted’ (their atmospheric contribution to the soundtrack of Cox’s dismal Sid And Nancy movie) consolidating a new-found position at the heart of the zeitgeist.

Melody Maker, November 28, 1987 Carol Clerk meets up with The Pogues and Joe Strummer as the latter is about to appear as their special guest at Camden’s Electric Ballroom. “I would never have accepted an invitation from anybody else,” Strummer asserts. They’re from the same tradition as The Clash.” Though, presumably, without the ICI factor…

Shane. meanwhile, is discussing the band’s Christmas single Fairytale Of New York’ (a duet with Kirsty MacColl), which is, the singer claims, “A bit like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’… My part is the man who’s got kicked out of the drunk tank on Christmas Eve night. His wife’s in hospital. she’s ill, and he ‘s just out of his skull. Then they’re having a row and he keeps on bringing it on back to the good times and she keeps handing out all the shit.

“I haven’t got anything in common with the actual part that I’m singing – Yul Brynner isn’t really the King Of Siam-except in the sense that I’ve had arguments with women and it’s usually ended up with some kind of reconciliation. That’s what the song 5 about, but it’s in New York and they’re old and they’re going back to a long time ago when they got there, full of dreams.

“The guy is whining, saying. ‘Forgive me’ and she’s saying, ‘Puck it, you’re a waste of space’. They’re both right and they’re both wrong. But in the end they start getting sentimental and thinking about this and that, like old people do.”

The single goes on to reach Number Two in the Christmas chart, only being held off the top spot by the Pet Shop Boys’ insipid cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘Always On My Mind’.

NME, January 16, 1988 “The grief of Shane MacGowan cuts deep into the grooves of this record,” says Terry Staunton of the Steve Lillywhite produced third album. ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ sees The Pogues venturing towards the area occupied by the latter-day Madness. troubled words on top of happy tunes, storm clouds casting shadows across forced smiles. The Pogues have given us a thing of beau>’. the bleakest of masterpieces which will find few equals in l988.”(10)

Where the band’s previous original material had focused almost wholly on the considerable songwriting talents of Shane, ‘If I Should Fall…’is a more democratic affair. Jem Finer emerges as a formidable talent. supplying the music for five of the album’s 11 original cuts (including ‘Fairytale Of New York’, and Chevron’s ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ is also featured. The album spawns two more hits. the title track and ‘Fiesta’.

NME, July 22, 1989 Stuart Bailie casts a critical eve over the ironically titled fourth album, ‘Peace And Love’: “Rumour said this was the album that would never be released. Or that the recording might outlast some ofits creators. or that the band would split, and there’d be nothing but a terrible dissoluteness.

Whatever the truth of these stories, there is now an outcome. ‘Peace And Love’ is a painful. often wretched testament to the past few seasons of Poguetry’. Personality’ disorders, intrigue, creative blocks and physical abuse are all in evidence here. The Pogues, champions for so long in the fine art of brinkmanship, have gone perilously close to that final, frazzled charge out over the edge.” (7)

The album is a patchy, schizophrenic affair. That refreshing democracy’ has given way to a free-for-all mishmash of incompatible styles; Shane contributes just six songs out of 14. Jem Finer’s ‘Misty’ Morning, Albert Bridge’ is the only track released as a single and it falters at Number 41. The Pogues, and specifically MacGowan, are popularly perceived to be in irreversible, alcohol-fuelled decline. It’s also worth noting that while recording ‘Peace And Love’. Shane was routinely necking 15 tabs of acid a day.

NME, September 30, 1989 Jane Garcia catches up with The Pogues on their sixth transatlantic jaunt. They’re supporting Bob Dylan in California, then heading off towards the east coast. There is one obvious absentee.

Shane is languishing back in Blighty, for reasons unclear. Conflicting reports suggest that he a collapsed at the airport (b) has hepatitis and (c) is on his way. Yet none is substantiated as the remaining Pogues (determined to continue with the tour. with or without MacGowan) are keeping uncharacteristically schtum. It eventually emerges that Shane. initially unable to travel due to nervous exhaustion”, has returned to the fold. rejoining the tour in Dallas.

Garcia concludes: “Spider told me that Shane should rest as much as he has to. But now he’s returned to the road, exactly where he shouldn’t be. After a few dates in Texas with Shane back in the spotlight, it’s apparently smiles-and-song all the way. Until the next time. Poor old Pogues. Probably the only people really happy to see Shane back are the liquor store owners of America.”

NME, September 22, 1990 Shane embarks on a much-needed sabbatical to Thailand where he rediscovers his muse. Recharged, he takes The Pogues’ hitherto neglected helm for the Joe Strummer-produced ‘Hell’s Ditch’. David Quantick cannot believe his ears: “Hell’s Ditch’ is something I honestly thought I might never hear again: a great Pogues record. Whether it’s the last Pogues record is for the future, but it doesn’t really matter. If The Pogues and Shane MacGowan part company and go off to do various separate thrilling things, then good luck to them all; if they do they’ve left behind them a great memorial.” (9)

MacGowan compositions once more abound and are even infused with an uncharacteristic optimism. References to the mystic East (‘Summer In Siam’, ‘Sayonara’) are legion. Ultimately, maybe Shane should get out more.

Melody Maker, June 1, 1991 Victoria Clarke invites Shane to analyse the literary merits of serial drunkenness. Does he see himself as a drunk in the tradition of Brendan Behan? “Behan came straight from the Irish literary tradition of the bard being a drunk, getting paid in whiskey and sleeping in a ditch. I don’t get paid in whiskey and I don’t sleep in a ditch, but I see myself metaphorically like that, as coming from that tradition.”

Some people would argue that drinking impedes mental ability’, that it just creates an altered perception of reality’, a sort of instant fiction. “I’ve never heard a writer say that. F Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Brendan Behan, James Joyce, alkies every one of them. Hemingway is another great example of a piss artist, a classic American pissed writer. The 20th Century’ is a catalogue of American pissed writers.”

Why is there so much drinking in your songs?

“There is drinking in a lot of the songs because there is drinking in life. I spend a lot of time drinking. I know that drinking stimulates the imagination, the natural abilities to rhyme, simple things like that. It also stimulates symbolism, which is really important in writing.”

But doesn’t it distort reality?

“No, it makes reality more acute. Because your subconscious is acting on the same level as your conscious mind. You’re using all your senses, as if in a state of meditation. You’re not judging, you’re not asking why, you’re just experiencing in its purest form.”

NME, October 5, 1991 On tour in Japan, the band finally tires of Shane’s increasing unreliability’ (missed gigs, sloppy performances. drunken accidents and sack him. Shane, who hates touring, is “relieved to hear it”, and on their return to London the remaining Pogues begin rehearsals with Joe Strummer.

Stuart Ballie, commissioned to interview this new line-up about the imminent Greatest Hits package, is stunned to witness a “strangely bloated” MacGowan stagger into the rehearsal room, causing his former compadres to bolt for the exit.

Spider is far more prepared to talk about Shane’s future than the man himself. “Shane is simply not interested, and in every sense of the word is too tired to carry on touring. Seeing the way he was in Japan, that is a man who does not want to be on the road. And it’s not doing him any favours dragging him around when he doesn’t want it.”

Melody Maker, May 30, 1992 With Shane decidedly MIA and Joe Strummer flying the coop after a single lacklustre tour, The Pogues return with a lead-footed cover of ‘Honky Tonk Woman’. The Maker is less than impressed: The Pogues without the mouldering MacGowan seem like an alarmingly meaningless proposition. Like Morecambe and Wise without Morecambe. Or Wise. Spider Stacy is cattle-prodded out front to do a fair impression of a man passing a kidney stone… With all due respect to the friends and families of all concerned, this is quite probably their worst record since 1984.”

NME, October 22, 1994 After three years of virtual invisibility, other than a pair of truly embarrassing Flesh performances and a sluggish duet with Nick Cave (Christmas ’92′s ‘Wonderful World’), MacGowan re-emerges with The Popes and a new LP, The Snake’. Stuart Bailie is delighted to find the old fella back, and in the feistiest creative fettle. “The Snake is a happy homecoming in many ways. Back to the spit, spleen and absurdity of Shane’s ancient punk band The Nipple Erectors. Back to his dad’s old record collection – to those fierce and fantastic albums by The Dubliners, The Wolfe Tones and Johnny Cash. Back even to the emergent, blamming glory of The Pogues opening shot, ‘Red Roses For Me’. Shane’s been stock-taking and y’know, it sounds ace… The infernal world of Shane MacGowan is still very much ablaze.” (7)

In the same issue, Gavin Martin repairs to Filthy McNasty”s in Islington, where he joins Shane and unlikely sparring partner Johnny Depp for a refreshing Martini or ten. Depp plays guitar on and appears in the video for MacGowan’s latest roustabout single That Woman’s Got Me Drinking’, and is here to promote the single on Top Of The Pops.

Depp observes: the first time I met Shane… he doesn’t remember it. He was on a pool table, guitar in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. He was tired… ha ha ha.” He even compares Shane to Marlon Brando: “These are two guys who are completely true to their vision, non-conforming, uncompromising. I think Marlon is an incredibly gifted artist… in his thoughts, ideas and anything he does. Shane’s the same. They’re a couple of guys whose first instinct is always to go against the grain, it’s an admirable trait in anyone.”

Shane is lashed to the bar, gobbling headache pills and foggily remembering his ghastly inter-tour visits to convalescent homes. “Waking up there, not able to have a drink frightened the life out of me. I had to get out as quickly as possible and get down the pub.”

It’s also suggested that near the end with The Pogues, Shane had a death wish. “Of course I didn’t have a death wish, the reason I left was because I didn’t have a death wish. The reason I tried to leave loads of times before they were actually kind enough to throw me out was because I didn’t have a death wish. Life is sweet. What on earth makes you think I’ve got a death wish?”

NME, November 26, 1994 Smouldering Shane remains on seductive form, as Barbara Ellen discovers at London’s Kentish Town Forum, where he delivers a career-encompassing set. “Shane MacGowan stumbles blearily across the stage, walking past his mic stand three times before eventually locating it, grabbing it gratefully and looking down on the rapt, noisy audience with a lazy’, twisted grin. Hair fanned out like a chimney brush, shoulders sloped, shades glinting, he still looks like a fleshed-out stick-man doodled by a mentally disturbed five year old, still slews the aura of a serial killer without portfolio… MacGowan is a genius and there isn’t, as yet. anybody to touch him. The only problem is, like all the best highs, sooner or later, they’re bound to make him illegal.”

And so, in the final analysis, Shane MacGowan – back after three long years in the rheumy-eyed, bar-room wilderness – remains as compelling as ever. God bless his iron constitution and may his liver never fall from grace.