Shane's World: the return of The Pogues

Christmas is nearly here, which means 'Fairytale of New York' on the radio and The Pogues on stage. Carol Clerk celebrates the band's raucous magic
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The Independent Culture

It's 21 December 2005, The Pogues are playing the second of three sold-out Christmas concerts at Brixton Academy in London, and they're performing more vividly, more rumbustiously, than I've seen them do in 20 years. The mayhem in the audience bears testament to a fine and enduring repertoire, from "Streams of Whiskey" to "Summer in Siam", "Sally MacLennane" to "The Sunnyside of the Street", "Thousands Are Sailing" to "Tuesday Morning".

There's a hugely emotional and passionate response: you can feel it swelling all around the auditorium, and you can see it in the faces and the teary eyes of the fans, who come in all shapes and sizes - and ages. Sure, there are the faithful, those of the expanding waistlines and vanishing hairlines who saw it all in the old days. But there are younger people too, leaping madly and singing along with every word and pushing their way to the front in the T-shirts they've just bought from the merchandising stalls. They would have been learning to walk when The Pogues first did the rounds in London. Children of primary-school age bounce in their seats upstairs, thrilled, snapping pictures with the cameras on their parents' mobile phones.

The Pogues are delivering a song-and-dance act that links generations, that defies time. A jumble of men in motion, they are doing it with an athleticism that also seems to defy time, at least as far as the accordion player James Fearnley and the guitarist Philip Chevron are concerned, and with a finely tuned sense of dynamics that somehow sounds abandoned amid the grand rush and sweep.

And Shane MacGowan is at the top of his game. He may blunder around the stage, kicking his microphone stand to hell, like the portly uncle of his previous upstart self, but his offhand rasp hits home, gruffly, in the right places, more often than it ever did. He sounds almost exactly like you want him to...

MacGowan had one humble ambition for Pogue Mahone, as they were known when they started out, and that was to play music that made people dance, laugh and cry. If at the same time he could bring Irish music to a new, young audience by roughing it up round the edges and hurling it across with the snotty urgency of punk, so much the better.

Pogue Mahone were probably rougher than they had hoped when they took the stage for their first-ever gig, at the Pindar of Wakefield pub on Gray's Inn Road, London on 4 October 1982.

MacGowan was bashing out chords on a rhythm guitar, erratically. His vocal partner Spider Stacy, recruited just three days earlier, had no idea what he was supposed to be doing, so he yelled indiscriminately into the microphone, gurned at the audience and at one point burst into tears. Fearnley and the banjo player Jem Finer were still learning their instruments, and the drummer John Hasler was so wrong for the band that he would soon be replaced.

They were a tight-knit bunch. MacGowan and Fearnley had played together in a band called The Nips, and Hasler, who had once managed the embryonic Madness, had become involved in their management. MacGowan, Fearnley, Finer and Stacy had all previously lived together in the squats and short-rentals of a creative community in Burton Street.

By their second gig, the group had enlisted a bassist, MacGowan's friend Cait O'Riordan, who was also just beginning to play. It had already become clear that Stacy was not the right person to share vocals with MacGowan, and he was given a beer tray to bash percussively over his head - "a very old Irish thing", according to MacGowan - and advised to teach himself the tin whistle.

Pogue Mahone rehearsed diligently. They sought out gigs and, with the addition on drums of Andrew Ranken, another local lad who replaced Hasler early in 1983, they became everything MacGowan had envisaged, and more. No one had realised the massive potential of his songwriting, his rusty-nail vocals and his peculiar appearance. They very quickly built a fanatical following around London at a time when people were tiring of the electronic precision and posturing of the new romantics.

Pogue Mahone guaranteed a good night out, and with their acoustic instruments and stand-up drummer and funny suits, their repertoire of rip-roaring singalongs and simmering ballads, their boozy bravado and their onstage scrapping, they were like no other band.

After shortening their name to The Pogues to suit the BBC (Pogue Mahone means "kiss my arse" in Irish), they were snapped up by Dave Robinson of Stiff Records early in 1984.

There's a joyful, seemingly effortless genius at play throughout their first album, 1984's Red Roses For Me, which was produced by their friend Stan Brennan and includes enduring originals such as "Streams of Whiskey" and "Boys From the County Hell". Rough and ready, surging with brattish energy, the album consists largely of adaptations of traditional songs.

It was not until the following year's Rum, Sodomy and the Lash that MacGowan confirmed his great poetic gift, setting ferociously realistic scenes to tunes that sound as though they've existed for hundreds of years. By and large, these are songs of the London Irish, giving a voice to those who have moved away from their homeland and, in "The Old Main Drag", are barely surviving in squalid and unforgiving city streets. MacGowan's melodies, often wrought into shape by his "lightning conduits" Finer and Fearnley, are at once unique and familiar in an age-old kind of way, from the plaintive strains of "A Pair of Brown Eyes" to the vigorous rat-a-tat-tat of "Sally MacLennane" (not a lady but a brand of stout).

For Rum, Sodomy..., The Pogues collaborated with Elvis Costello, who had taken them on their first major tour as his support band and had also fallen in love with O'Riordan, from whom he quickly became inseparable. The Pogues were not the sort of folk to be starstruck. They nicknamed Costello "Uncle Brian" and subjected him to a barrage of ribbing and abuse at every opportunity.

Says Chevron, who was soon to join the band: "All they saw was this lovesick puppy who was now asking to produce their record. It was far from, 'The great Elvis Costello comes down from Mount Olympus to produce The Pogues.'" MacGowan and Costello didn't always see eye to eye, with the former complaining about the many vocal takes he was made to do in the studio, much preferring the raw, live approach of Red Roses For Me.

The band were enormously popular by now and, at the insistence of their then manager Frank Murray, were spending most of their time on the road, not always willingly. Early in 1986, they found a chink in the relentless touring schedule and returned to the studio with Costello to record several tracks for the much-loved Poguetry in Motion EP. These included MacGowan's richly melodic and atmospheric "A Rainy Night In Soho", a song that has entranced generations of Pogues fans but which also destroyed the band's working relationship with Costello, who took it upon himself to add an oboe part, infuriating MacGowan, who demanded that it be replaced with a cornet.

MacGowan won the argument and Costello vowed never to work with the group again. Awkwardly, he continued * * to see a great deal of them, as his romance with O'Riordan had become serious, until the bassist left the band in 1988, to be replaced by Pogues roadie and multi-instrumentalist Darryl Hunt.

There was always something compellingly chaotic about The Pogues' modus operandi. Some of their greatest successes happened almost by accident, and many of the biggest decisions in their career were made not in a boardroom but, blurrily, in a bar - or at the whim of manager Frank Murray, an emotional and theatrical Dubliner.

Procedures, meetings, discussions and negotiations were not Murray's style. He was an old-school rock'n'roll renegade, a stubborn, sly old fox answering to no one. Usually, he laid the plans and only later informed the band. In 1985, he decreed that they must employ a musician they'd never even met, his friend Terry Woods. Finer had his reservations from the beginning: "You know, I certainly hadn't bargained for what having a manager in the mould of Frank meant... His modus operandi for the band was we'd just tour the whole bloody time [with] a couple of weeks to go and record a record."

In December 1987, "Fairytale of New York" waltzed up to No 2 in the all-important Christmas chart, denied the top spot by a Pet Shop Boys cover of "Always On My Mind". Still, it is The Pogues and not the Pet Shop Boys whose single is remembered and played and loved, year after year. The band have become an inseparable part of the festive season, along with Slade and Wizzard, and they have the satisfaction of knowing that theirs is the finest, most intelligent and most original Christmas song ever crafted in the UK. Nick Cave once said, by way of a compliment: "You don't normally get Christmas songs so utterly hopeless." He must have missed the small glimmer of optimism contained in "Fairytale".

Its parent album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, was at last released in the new year. Now regarded as The Pogues' most triumphant achievement, it's an inspirational collection of songs that brings vivid new slants to the crackling, punk-fired Irishness, straight from the streets of London, that they had previously made their own.

In the background, there was drink and there were drugs, mainly cannabis and a smattering of cocaine, but back then the band's artistic processes were not adversely affected by whatever they took to feed the collective imagination. They were on a roll, unstoppable, reeling off tunes as if by magic.

A No 3 hit album, If I Should Fall... included songwriting contributions from several members and reflected the band's broadening horizons, their journeys round the world and the music they heard as they travelled: the sizzling autobiography of "Fiesta", a memory of their weeks spent in Almeria, Spain, filming Straight to Hell; the uproarious middle-Eastern carousing of "Turkish Song of the Damned"; and the blaring jazz of "Metropolis", inspired by the sounds of American cities at night. All these disparate elements worked perfectly well with The Pogues' own brand of leaping, Celtic punk, which they had not abandoned: everything was colourfully balanced, brilliantly delivered. "That's really the creative peak for me, in terms of the whole band being on a wavelength," Finer asserts.

Andrew Ranken may be a little harsh in his description of the next album, 1989's Peace and Love, as "some ghastly amalgam of everything and the kitchen sink", but in spite of the presence of such sterling compositions as "White City" and "Misty Morning, Albert Bridge", it disappointed many of the fans of The Pogues who'd thrilled to its predecessor.

Steve Lillywhite, who had also produced If I Should Fall..., concedes: "We couldn't quite reconnect with the magic. The diversity that worked so well on If I Should Fall... didn't work so well on Peace and Love."

"I would say that too many people in the band were taking too much cocaine," Finer decides, pointing to layers of unnecessary overdubbing and general self-indulgence.

Warners, The Pogues' new label-masters, had no idea how to promote the album, which nevertheless charted at No 5. The Joe Strummer-produced Hell's Ditch, which followed in 1990, also made a respectable chart entry at No 12, but notwithstanding its sunnier disposition and a clutch of excellent songs, including "Sayonara" and "Summer in Siam", it rang last orders for MacGowan.

He had become impossibly unreliable and had further removed himself from the daily routines of the band, spending much of his spare time in Thailand. Invited to leave The Pogues during a tour of Japan in September 1991, he simply responded: "What took you so long?"

The group replaced MacGowan temporarily with Joe Strummer and then with their own Spider Stacy. There was a Top 20 single with "Tuesday Morning", and there were two brave albums, but The Pogues became demoralised and their numbers dwindled as surely as their audiences. In 1996, they called it a day. The adventure was over, leaving a catalogue of timeless, treasurable music that has motivated a new young breed of Celtic psycho bands in America, notably Flogging Molly, The Tossers and the Dropkick Murphys.

Few would have dared to imagine that the classic If I Should Fall... line-up of The Pogues could ever be reunited, but in 2001, their former accountant and present manager, Anthony Addis, achieved the seemingly impossible, gathering the eight for a series of Christmas concerts. Such was the public reaction and the genuine enjoyment of The Pogues themselves that they have played together regularly ever since, at their own convenience, to wildly excited audiences across Britain, Ireland, Spain, Japan and the United States.

The Pogues, marking Christmas again this year with a string of shows in Britain and Dublin, are giving fans another chance to celebrate a glorious setlist, to marvel at the interwoven themes of tragedy, poignancy and humour in "Fairytale of New York", and to watch with awe as showers of fake snow fall on MacGowan, gamely attempting the song's traditional waltz with his leading lady. He is in better form than he has been for years, and the band, free of their bad old habits, are playing with a dazzle entirely befitting the time of year.

'The Story of The Pogues' by Carole Clerk is published by Omnibus Press, priced £19.95. The Pogues play Manchester MEN Arena tomorrow, and Brixton Academy from Sunday to 19 December ( www.pogues.com)

CHRISTMAS IN NEW YORK: THE MAKING OF 'FAIRYTALE'

The Pogues had decided to record a Christmas single. In the second half of 1985, they'd been rehearsing and recording new songs with Elvis Costello. Frank Murray had given each member a tape of a song by The Band, "Christmas Must Be Tonight", suggesting it as an ideal cover. Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer had other thoughts. "I thought the idea of a cover was bloody stupid," Finer says.

"We thought, 'If we're going to do a Christmas song, let's write one. I'd written this duet with crap words. It was very banal, a miserable song about a sailor being away from home. He was singing his bit and his wife or lover back home was singing her bit. I think at the end he committed suicide or something. Rubbish. [My wife] Marcia said the sailor romance thing was naff, that it didn't ring true. She suggested a couple having a row at the time of peace and goodwill, trying to crank up some Christmas spirit but failing and fighting. But she warned that the song shouldn't end on a bleak note and there should be some kind of redemption... It should end in a weird romantic truce that just couldn't be helped, a little glimmer of uncanny hope amidst the torture of packaged party time.

"I wrote a second song which had that plot. It was based on the people who lived across the street from us. Shane wrote 'Fairytale of New York' using the melody of the first song I'd written and the storyline of the second, which he transposed to New York, and he made it into what it is now.

"So we had this embryonic 'Fairytale', which we tried to record, with Cait [O'Riordan, bass player] singing, and it just didn't work. The arrangement was all wrong. It was far too complex. It was a very ambitious song for us. We just couldn't play it well enough and the lyrics needed more juggling around."

It would take a long time to get the song the way they wanted it, and another age to get it into the studio for recording with a different producer - Steve Lillywhite. It was Lillywhite and his wife Kirsty MacColl who brought the song bursting to life.

MacGowan says: "My part in the duet 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. 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."

Philip Chevron says the song is one of the great "universal songs of disappointment and loss". Andrew Ranken adds: "There was a conscious decision to write a Christmas hit and it succeeded. It was always destined to be a big one, and I think that's why we took so long trying to get it right. If I ever hear it now, I think, 'Well, that's another couple of bob.'"

It was Anthony Addis - the band's former accountant - who set things in motion for a Pogues reunion in 2001. The proposal was to reform the eight-man line-up that had recorded If I Should Fall From Grace With God for a run of Christmas concerts. In 2005, things really took off. They recruited a number of female singers for "Fairytale" as the tour went from city to city, among them Cerys Matthews, Aisling Bowyer, Jem's daughter Ella and Katie Melua. The single was re-released and was voted the best seasonal song ever by VH1 viewers, reaching No 3 in the Christmas singles chart. "I was so excited," says Lillywhite. "That song is like a great wine. It seems to improve with age."

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