Shane MacGowan: The Pogues Singer Dies Aged 65
His wife Victoria Mary Clarke broke the news with an emotional post on her Instagram account, writing, “I don’t know how to say this so I am just going to say it. Shane who will always be the light that I hold before me and the measure of my dreams and the love of my life and the most beautiful soul and beautiful angel and the sun and the moon and the start and end of everything that I hold dear has gone to be with Jesus and Mary and his beautiful mother Therese.
“I am blessed beyond words to have met him and to have loved him and to have been so endlessly and unconditionally loved by him and to have had so many years of life and love and joy and fun and laughter and so many adventures. There’s no way to describe the loss that I am feeling and the longing for just one more of his smiles that lit up my world. Thank you thank you thank you thank you for your presence in this world you made it so very bright and you gave so much joy to so many people with your heart and soul and your music. You will live in my heart forever. Rave on in the garden all wet with rain that you loved so much. You meant the world to me.”
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A statement from MacGowan’s spokesperson confirmed he “died peacefully at 3.30am this morning (30 November) with his wife and and sister by his side”. Prayers and the last rites were read during his passing,” he added.
A truly singular band, The Pogues were famous for blending punk style and attitude with the rowdier end of the Irish folk music tradition, as typified by the band’s heroes the Dubliners, and MacGowan, in particular, gave the band a reputation for volatility.
In the same way that the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem revolutionised Irish folk music from the distance of the New York diaspora, the first-generation, London-based Irish community spawned the Pogues. Indeed, MacGowan astutely observed that the band could not have originated in Ireland.
The key to the his band’s success was MacGowan’s remarkable songwriting ability, with the best Pogues songs including Streams of Whiskey, A Rainy Night in Soho, If I Should Fall From Grace With God and of course the band’s legendary Christmas song, Fairytale of New York, on which MacGowan duetted with Kirsty MacColl.
The song, first released in 1987, when it reached No 2 in the charts, became a highlight of the band’s Christmas gigs, with rereleased recordings becoming more poignant after MacColl’s death in a speedboat accident in 2000. Fairytale of New York has subsequently re-entered the charts many times, and is frequently voted one of Britain’s favourite Christmas songs.
Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan was born on Christmas Day in Pembury, Kent, while his parents were visiting relatives. He grew up in Tunbridge Wells, but frequently visited family back in County Tipperary. His mother, Therese (nee Cahill), was a prize-winning Irish dancer and singer and former model, and his father, Maurice MacGowan, an executive at the C&A retail chain, loved literature and poetry. Shane was an avid reader; he attended the fee-paying Holmewood House prep school, near Tunbridge Wells, where his creative writing skills were first identified. He then won a scholarship to Westminster school in London at the age of 14, but a year later was found to be in possession of drugs and expelled.
MacGowan was by now already a keen music fan, and he drifted through casual jobs in a record store and as a barman, living in a succession of squats and shared flats. In 1976, he achieved notoriety when a girlfriend cut his earlobe with a broken bottle during an early gig by UK punk luminaries The Clash.
During 1977, MacGowan had formed his own band, the Nipple Erectors, later renamed the Nips. They released four singles, including King Of The Bop and the Paul Weller-produced Happy Song, and an album, but never made much of an impression beyond the London club circuit.
MacGowan went on to form The Pogues in 1982, though the band’s name was originally Pogue Mahone, which in Gaelic means “kiss my arse”, a clear expression of their Irish heritage and punk attitude. The band made its debut in October 1982 at what was then the Pindar of Wakefield pub in Gray’s Inn Road.
At first, the band members could scarcely play their chosen or allotted instruments, but they were all keen to learn and soon attracted a local fanbase in London. By the end of 1983 they were voted “band most likely to succeed” by the trade paper Music Week, although at the time they had not secured a record deal. Pressure from the BBC and their newly arranged record label led to a slight name change, and they became The Pogues. Though often described as an “Irish band”, they were first and foremost a London band who drew on an emigrant Irish experience for both style and repertoire. This was seen most markedly in MacGowan’s own songwriting – he was writing as an outsider in his own community.
The band’s original songs such as Transmetropolitan, Streams of Whiskey and Dark Streets Of London were very much coloured by their subsistence-level life in London, while their covers of Irish traditional songs was largely suggested by MacGowan, and many of them came from the Dubliners, such as The Auld Triangle (originally penned by Brendan Behan), Muirsheen Durkin and Waxie’s Dargle. A highlight of the band’s second album, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town, was originally penned in tribute to Salford, but is now often thought to refer to Dublin after MacGowan’s rendition with The Pogues. The band’s folk instrumentation, which included banjo, accordion and tin whistle, were unusual in the rock and pop venues in which they performed.
The band’s three albums were for Stiff Records: Red Roses for Me (1984), Rum Sodomy & the Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall from Grace With God (1988) contained a rich mixture of Irish folk and songs by MacGowan, each one topping its predecessor, with If I Should Fall from Grace With God reaching No 3 in the album charts. Their transition from the world of London clubs and pubs to international concert halls had been aided by the group’s bass player Cait O’Riordan’s romance with Elvis Costello, with whom the Pogues toured. He also produced Rum, Sodomy & The Lash.
At the Vienna folk festival in 1985, the Pogues met up with the Dubliners, and this led, in 1987, to a joint single, The Irish Rover, which reached No 8 in the UK singles charts in March. Further chart success followed in December, when Jem Finer and MacGowan’s Fairytale of New York reached No 2 (but was kept off the Christmas No 1 spot that year by the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Always on My Mind).
However, MacGowan’s wild lifestyle led to him gradually withdrawing from his close involvement in the band. From 1988 onwards, he was more erratic on stage and brought fewer songs to the studio for their fourth album, the underrated Peace and Love (1989), which gave the rest of the band an opportunity to develop their own writing.
But in 1989, MacGowan missed a six-concert tour with Bob Dylan in California, when the airline refused to let him on the plane. He remained on board for the band’s next album, Hell’s Ditch (1990), which a Thailand trilogy of songs that seemed to indicate he had lost the basis of his London Irish pub-based inspiration.
Matters came to a head in September 1991 when on tour in Japan. MacGowan missed two of the four concerts, and the rest of the band sacked him. The band soldiered on, but the cracks had already been revealed. The Pogues could not have continued with MacGowan, but they also could not continue without him. After several band members left, they disbanded in 1996.
Post-Pogues, MacGowan was involved in collaborations, with artists including Nick Cave, Van Morrison, Christy Moore and the Jesus and Mary Chain, before forming a new band, The Popes. His album The Snake (1994) included his love song Aisling and – on the extended edition the following year – a reworking, featuring a duet with Sinéad O’Connor, of The Pogues’ Haunted. The single That Woman’s Got Me Drinking featured the actor Johnny Depp on guitar. There was a further Popes album in 1997, The Crock of Gold.
There was no let-up in the drink and drugs, and MacGowan suffered with stomach ulcers and alcoholic hepatitis. However, he was well enough to front The Pogues reunion tour, prior to Christmas 2001, which led to occasional gigs in 2002, another tour in 2004, and appearances in Japan, Spain, the US, Ireland and the UK in the years following. There were no new recordings – the audiences were happy with their extensive back catalogue.
A film documentary, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan, aired on BBC television in 2021, and a new biography, A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan, by Richard Balls, was published the same year.
MacGowan fractured his pelvis in 2015 and thereafter used a wheelchair. Six years later he broke his right knee and then tore the ligaments in his left knee. In January 2018, the National Concert Hall in Dublin hosted a celebratory concert for MacGowan’s 60th birthday, with the performers including Cave, Bono, Depp and O’Connor. As a finale, MacGowan himself sang the folk song Wild Mountain Thyme, before the Irish president, Michael D Higgins, presented him with a lifetime achievement award.
*Story updated on 3 December.