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The Pogues: Why The Celtic Punk Rebels Will Never Fall From Grace
Geraint Lewis
In Depth

The Pogues: Why The Celtic Punk Rebels Will Never Fall From Grace

With their unique blend of Anglo-Irish folk-punk, The Pogues created a new type of rebel music that still sounds revolutionary today.

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Rowdy, rebellious and volatile, Irish band The Pogues somehow succeeded in spite of themselves. Initially naming themselves the deliberately provocative Pogue Mahone (Irish Gaelic for “kiss my arse”), the group revelled in their outsiders’ credo, yet their unique blend of punk-inflected Irish folk music connected with the mainstream and resulted in one of the most potent bodies of work known in any genre of music.

The Irish rover: Shane MacGowan’s early years

The “punk” part of The Pogues’ equation shaped their initial stance. Future Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan latched onto first-wave punk outfits such as The Clash and The Damned during their early days and – as Shane O’Hooligan – he formed his own punk/new wave outfit, The Nipple Erectors. Building a local following, the band played London punk haunt The Roxy and, after rebranding themselves as The Nips, released several promising singles, including Gabrielle and the Paul Weller-produced Happy Song.

MacGowan, however, had a markedly different background from most of his punk-era peers. Born to Irish parents in the English county of Kent, on Christmas Day 1957, he spent much of his early childhood in County Tipperary, Ireland. After winning a literature scholarship, he attended London’s Westminster School, where he was frequently bullied due to his looks and accent. Seeking refuge, the teenage MacGowan took to wandering London’s streets and found himself drawn to the capital’s less salubrious sights, among them the peep shows and strips joints of Soho. Much of what MacGowan witnessed in pre-gentrified London may not have been pleasant, but he later drew upon those experiences to illuminate some of his most singular songs.

Boys from the county hell: forming The Pogues

In addition to punk, MacGowan’s background had exposed him to traditional Irish folk songs from an early age. Accordingly, when he formed the band with like-minded musicians Peter “Spider” Stacy (on tin whistle), his future co-writer Jem Finer (banjo) and The Nips’ latter-day guitarist turned accordion player James Fearnley, MacGowan sought to create music fuelled by punk’s refusenik tendencies, but also the fire and erudition of Irish folk.

Even allowing for the addition of bassist Cait O’Riordan and drummer Andrew Ranken, the bands unlikely musical line-up immediately set them apart from the rock acts of the day, and their achievements are thrown into even sharper relief when you consider that glossy, radio-friendly pop acts such as New Romantic icons Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and ABC ruled the airwaves when MacGowan’s team made their live debut at The Pindar Of Wakefield (now The Water Rats) in London’s King’s Cross in October 1982.

Despite their largely acoustic initial line-up, the band still rocked harder than most of their contemporaries, and their rousing, John Peel-endorsed debut single, Dark Streets Of London, led to a record deal (initially with Stiff, then Warner Bros) resulting in a series of reputation-enhancing records.

“We followed Shane like children following the Pied Piper”

Attracting widespread attention, the band’s 1984 debut album, Red Roses For Me, took its title from a late-era Sean O’Casey play and presented a heady mix of reimagined Irish ballads (Poor Paddy, Waxie’s Dargle, a stark adaptation of Brendan Behan’s Dublin prison ode, The Auld Triangle) and vivid, MacGowan-penned set pieces such as Boys From The County Hell, the rampaging Streams Of Whiskey and the triumphant Transmetropolitan.

Revisiting the creation of the latter song in his memoir, Here Comes Everybody: The Story Of The Pogues, James Fearnley called it “a generous and degenerate” song, adding, “It brought us all together, in our second-hand suits, lumberjack shirts and Fred Perrys, with our outmoded instruments. It pressed us to march across London, following Shane, like the children following the Pied Piper out of Hamelin.”

MacGowan’s brilliantly-realised immigrant songs tapped into his experiences in both rural Ireland and inner-city London, and they had the same galvanic effect on the band’s nascent audience as they did on his bandmates. Red Roses For Me was a great start, but MacGowan’s songwriting truly blossomed on the band’s second album, 1985’s widely-acclaimed Rum Sodomy & The Lash.

“The best lyric writer of our generation”

Produced by Elvis Costello, Rum Sodomy & The Lash album captured The Pogues at the top of their game and featured several of McGowan’s greatest songs. Also referencing the celebrated tenors Count John McCormack and Richard Tauber, the album’s dramatic opening cut, The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn, brought the story of the legendary titular Celtic warrior kicking and screaming into the modern day. Its lyric was stuffed with memorably visceral imagery (“And in the Euston Tavern, you screamed it was your shout/But they wouldn’t give you service, so you kicked the windows out”), though it paled by comparison with the brutal realism of The Old Main Drag – a brilliant, if stomach-churning, evocation of life among the teenage rent boys that once haunted London’s Piccadilly Circus by night.

Elsewhere on the album, the rambunctious drinking ode Sally MacLennane mirrored the Irish folk song tradition for celebrating a person’s return to their homeland (a theme also touched upon in Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town, written by the group’s similarly Irish literature-influenced Phil Lynott), though the bruised romanticism of A Pair Of Brown Eyes also showed MacGowan was capable of penning songs of great tenderness. Indeed, his reputation as a lyricist of distinction grew rapidly among his contemporaries.

“I regard Shane as easily the best lyric writer of our generation,” Nick Cave later told The Observer. “He has a very natural, unadorned, crystalline way with language. There is a compassion in his words that is always tender, often brutal, and always completely his own.”

On the lash: mainstream success

Helped along by reviews such as NME’s, which proclaimed it “probably the best LP of 1985”, Rum Sodomy & The Lash established The Pogues as one of the decade’s most important bands. Over the next few years, they went from strength to strength.

After a line-up reshuffle which saw guitarist Phil Chevron and multi-instrumentalist Terry Woods swell the ranks, and Darryl Hunt replace Cait O’Riordan on bass, the band secured their place in the pantheon with their 1987 Christmas smash, Fairytale Of New York, featuring MacGowan’s seemingly ageless duet with Kirsty MacColl. However, the song’s parent album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, featured a slew of MacGowan-penned classics, ranging from the hard-hitting polemic of Birmingham Six to the cinematic sweep of The Broad Majestic Shannon and the rollicking, Clash-like title track.

The Pogues famously celebrated the success of If I Should Fall From Grace With God with a sell-out seven-night stand at London’s Town & Country Club around St Patrick’s Day 1988. By the end of the decade, they’d graduated to playing arenas. Broadly poppier and mainstream in design, their two final MacGowan-helmed albums, Peace & Love and Hell’s Ditch, saw their mercurial frontman’s influence diminish within the band, though his later songs, such as White City, the Christy Brown-referencing Down All The Days and the nightmarish, Spanish Civil War-inspired Lorca’s Novena showed his lyrics were still liberally streaked with his singular talent.

Red roses for them: influence and legacy

The Pogues parted ways with MacGowan during the summer of 1991, but by then they’d built up a formidable, legend-enshrining body of work which had also set in stone MacGowan’s reputation as a trailblazing musician and writer – both at home and abroad. But even while The Pogues’ star was in the ascendency, their influence was felt on home turf, with a small coterie of London-based Celtic-tinged roots-rock outfits such as The Boothill Foot Tappers and The Men They Couldn’t Hang breaking through in their wake. Initially featuring The Nips’ Shanne Bradley on bass, the latter outfit also released a string of impressive albums, with their 1984 debut, Night Of A Thousand Candles, including a sublime cover of Eric Bogle’s legendary World War I lament, The Green Fields Of France.

Across the Atlantic, though, The Pogues’ pioneering work has had a lasting effect, with the 90s seeing the emergence of a host of US bands clearly influenced by the band’s musical, lyrical and conceptual qualities. Among this considerable number are Canadian acts such as The Mahones and Great Big Sea, though it’s US bands Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys that have gone on to enjoy sustained international acclaim.

The former have released widely lauded albums such as Swagger and Drunken Lullabies, which share thematic subjects with The Pogues – among them Irish history and politics – while Dropkick Murphys (who hail from Massachusetts, home to a substantial population of Irish Americans) have enjoyed Billboard hits with albums such as 11 Short Stories Of Pain & Glory. They also enjoyed a run-in with Hollywood when their potent, Pogues-esque reimagining of Woody Guthrie’s I’m Shipping Up To Boston featured in the soundtrack for William Monahan’s 2006’s Academy Award-winning crime thriller, The Departed.

“A truly great artist and an amazing man”

Almost four decades after they emerged from squat-level life in London and set about assembling a spectacular body of work, The Pogues are as popular as ever, and their best work earns Shane MacGowan the right to hear his name mentioned in the same breath as the Irish literary giants he’s frequently referenced along the way.

“Shane’s writing and performing spoke to me as a young Irishman alone in London and trying to find his way,” Avengers Endgame star Tom Vaughan-Lawlor said during The Late Late Show’s 2019 MacGowan tribute. “He has that special gift that makes you feel like he’s speaking to and for your soul alone. It’s one of the many reasons why he’s a truly great artist and an amazing man.”

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