The Shane of it all

Shane MacGowan's influence on Irish music cannot be overestimated according to a documentary on BBC2 tonight. Not bad, says James Rampton, for the singer, right, once described as 'sordid, rowdy and vulgar'

The Pogues partied through the 1980s like the millennium had come early. Their gigs were a riotous assembly of slam-dancing, hard-drinking pub rock, conjuring up all those adjectives beginning with R - rowdy, raucous, rumbustious, rambunctious. Audiences were invariably left with their ears ringing, their clothes drenched in that uniquely sticky mixture of sweat and stout, and an overwhelming sense of fun.

Leading the revels would be the Pogues' charismatic frontman, Shane MacGowan. A rare sight with his jug ears and rotted teeth, he'd more than likely have a Guinness in one hand and a fag in the other. Perhaps using the mike-stand as a support, he'd slur in his inimitable way through A Pair of Brown Eyes, Dirty Old Town, or Fairytale of New York. He was a mess, but a mesmerising one.

MacGowan reckons that "nothing can beat a good live show, because the audience is more important than the band. I've seen some awful bands play awful gigs, but still had a good time because the audience was great. There's a rawness, an infectious thing about Irish music," he continues. "You can't avoid tapping your feet, shouting, jumping around, getting pissed, or crying in your beer when the band sings a sad one. It's not intellectual, it's very emotional music and people like to let their emotions out."

MacGowan's canny trick with the Pogues was to take traditional Irish music, put it through a blender of punk sensibilities and whip it into something rogueishly irresistible. His ability to rework conventional forms is just one reason why the singer is the subject of a fascinating profile on BBC2 tonight.

As Billy Bragg puts it in the programme: "The great thing about the Pogues was that, instead of coming at folk music like Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention with respect, they came at it, got hold of it by the lapels, and threw it down the stairs. "

It is the sense of excitement generated by MacGowan's music which impresses his peers. Bono, Sinead O'Connor, Christy Moore and Nick Cave pay tribute to the man who was once described as "sordid, rowdy and vulgar". The Irish journalist Eamonn McCann reckons that "in 100 years' time, people will still be singing and still be playing his songs. Who else in Ireland - even Bono - can we say that about? Shane remains perhaps the one authentic genius who came out of the whole celebration of Irishry." Not everybody in Ireland has spoken in such glowing terms about MacGowan. When The Pogues first started with their unique brand of folk-thrash, they were accused by the establishment of bringing Irish music into disrepute and perpetuating loutish stereotypes. "It was only a tiny minority, a load of old stick-in-the-muds," MacGowan recalls. "There were a bunch of traditionalist folkies who objected to the swearing and the fact that we weren't very good. But that wasn't the point. It's never been the point of Irish music, which is best heard live in a pub with an accordion and people singing and dancing. "

It is, of course, richly ironic that Irish culture has since become the trendiest thing this side of platform shoes. "I think it's really great," enthuses MacGowan, who was born in Tipperary before moving to London as a six-year-old. "That's what the Pogues were formed to do - popularise Irish music. There's an awful lot of Irish pubs around now. Now it's almost hip."

Now 39, MacGowan is continuing on his crusade to popularise Irish music with his latest album, The Crock of Gold, recorded with the Popes and released later this month. "It's right back to my roots of Irish traditional music," he declares. "It's very head-banging. The rest of the Pogues moved away from this type of music - that was one of the reasons I left the band. It was as much musical differences as the fact that we hated each other. They didn't want to do old Irish songs anymore. We were turning into a rock band and I wasn't interested in that. I want to do traditional stuff. I'm not interested in progression."

The other criticism routinely wheeled out about MacGowan is that he is drinking his way down a fast-track to oblivion. He sighs when asked the inevitable question about self-destructive urges. "It's a load of rubbish," he says, wearily. "I don't see what this drink thing is all about. I don't drink any more than anyone else. You don't join a band to drink milk. "

MacGowan claims he finds it easier to write when he's out of it. "It gets rid of your inhibitions," he says. "Then you can concentrate on the music. It stimulates the creative forces."

Contrary to popular belief, however, he does not perform drunk. "I don't get completely legless before I go on stage. I just get merry. I'd hate to go on stage completely straight. I did it once and it was murder."

The Great Hunger: The Life and Songs of Shane MacGowan is on BBC2 at 10pm tonight. The Crock of Gold by Shane MacGowan and the Popes, is released on 27 October

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: .NET Developer / Web Developer

    £35-45K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer / Web ...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

    £18000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first ...

    Recruitment Genius: .NET Web / Software Developer - ASP.NET

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Small and agile digital marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Accountant

    £12000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A national firm of chartered ce...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders