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Waiting For Herb: How The Pogues Prevailed Without Shane MacGowan
In Depth

Waiting For Herb: How The Pogues Prevailed Without Shane MacGowan

Rich and diverse, The Pogues’ ‘Waiting For Herb’ album showed the magic didn’t depart with their mercurial frontman.

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Even The Pogues’ biggest fans would have held their breath when the group’s frontman and chief songwriter, Shane MacGowan, left the band in 1991, following the release of their Hell’s Ditch album. If The Pogues’ very survival was thrown into doubt, their ability to return with a hit record seemed far from assured – yet both transpired when the band released their sixth album, Waiting For Herb, in the autumn of 1993.

Listen to ‘Waiting For Herb’ here.

“People thought we were history”

With hindsight, The Pogues were arguably more surprised than their audience, not least when the record’s lead single, Tuesday Morning, rewarded them with their first UK Top 20 hit since Fairytale Of New York. The adulation didn’t stop there, however, for the song also saw heavy rotation on US radio stations and helped introduce The Pogues to a whole new market.

Finding stateside success was “a frightening thought”, tin whistler and vocalist Spider Stacy told the Boston Irish Reporter in a 1993 interview. “That’d just be too weird after 11 years with this band. Especially considering that when we parted with Shane, people thought we were history.”

“It was for his own good, after we’d tried everything we could”

It should be noted that The Pogues would have preferred not to part ways with their erstwhile frontman. However, in the two years prior to his departure, MacGowan’s drinking and increasingly volatile behaviour – both on and off stage – had threatened to derail the band’s career. Accordionist James Fearnley’s memoir, Here Comes Everybody, made it abundantly clear that firing the mercurial MacGowan was emotional, and Spider Stacy has since stressed that it wasn’t a decision the band took lightly.

“It was the most horrible day of my life,” Stacy confirmed in 1993. “It was for his own good, and only after we’d tried everything we could. [By that stage] we really couldn’t work together anymore.”

Yet, while releasing Shane from the band might have offered the remaining Pogues some short-term relief, the show still had to go on, as they were honour-bound to play some scheduled live dates. To help, the group turned to their close friend and Hell’s Ditch producer, Joe Strummer.

“It was sort of assumed that I’d take over,” Stacy later admitted about the group’s search for a new singer. “There was no way I could have done it right then, I don’t think. So I was relieved when Joe volunteered… It gave the band some emotional breathing room. Besides, it was an honour – I was always the world’s biggest Clash fan.”

“Critics said how bloody wonderful it was we could write songs”

By the time The Pogues knuckled down to writing and recording Waiting For Herb, however, Stacy had taken to his new position centre stage. Meanwhile, in terms of fresh material, the whole band contributed to the songwriting process – something which several Pogues had always done, but were rarely given credit for.

“With Waiting For Herb, critics said how bloody wonderful it was that some of the band could actually write songs,” Stacy revealed. “But if you look back, you’ll see many of the other guys have written songs all the way through. But since Shane was the singer, and he’s got such amazing charisma, he got the credit. Certainly, Jem [Finer, guitar] was never intimidated by Shane’s presence, while Philip [Chevron, guitar] and Terry [Woods, guitar] are pedigree songwriters.”

Helmed by David Sylvian and Robert Fripp collaborator Michael Brook, Waiting For Herb presented a rich, fulsome menu for ardent fans and newcomers alike to get stuck into. The stylistic experimentation of previous albums Peace And Love and Hell’s Ditch continued with the Slavic influences of Drunken Boat and the alluring, Arabian-tinged The Girl From Wadi Hammamat, though there was still room for more traditional Pogues carousers such as the Terry Woods-penned Haunting or the sturdy Smell Of Petroleum, which copped its refrain (“The secret of the universe is hidden in this song”) from Bertrand Russell’s A History Of Western Philosophy.

Sensibly, Stacy made no attempt to sing like Shane MacGowan. Yet while his vocals may have lacked his predecessor’s raspy edge, his voice had enough versatility to cope with tracks ranging from the anthemic, Clash-like Modern World to the rattling rockabilly of Big City. Elsewhere, his plaintive delivery proved ideal for the album’s more intimate material, such as the dreamy, vulnerable Small Hours and Tuesday Morning, wherein The Pogues took an unexpected detour into classic jangle-pop and emerged with a sizeable UK hit which also helped its parent album to swagger into the Top 20 of the album chart following it’s 19 October 1993 release.

“It bristles with traditionalism and modern punk fervour”

Buoyed by a raft of positive reviews, including commendable critiques from The Irish Voice (“a fine album”) and California’s San Jose Mercury News (“It bristles with traditionalism and modern punk fervour, with pumping button accordion, bouncy banjos and twangy guitars scoring The Pogues’ raspy, angry-poet refrains”), Waiting For Herb proved – against seemingly insurmountable odds – that there really was life after Shane MacGowan for The Pogues.

“I’m not so arrogant that I just assume everybody’s gonna tell us how great we still are,” Spider Stacy told the Boston Irish Reporter. “But the feeling about the music itself hasn’t changed at all. When it works, it works brilliantly. Most of the time, on Waiting For Herb, it does seem to work.”

Buy Pogues coloured vinyl and more at the Dig! store.

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