Phil Chevron: Guitarist with the Pogues and founder-member of Ireland's first punk band
Wednesday 09 October 2013
The Irish singer, guitarist and songwriter Philip Chevron played a pivotal role with two groups who put his country on the music map. As frontman with the Radiators From Space, the first punk band to come out of Dublin, he was one of the catalysts for a vibrant scene which tried to move Irish music on from the show bands of the 1960s and early '70s. And as guitarist with the Pogues he helped provide the perfect antidote to the synth-pop dominating the charts in the 1980s.
The Radiators from Space released a handful of singles and two albums, TV Tube Heart in 1977, and the ambitious concept Ghostown, produced by David Bowie's éminence grise Tony Visconti, in 1979. Now acknowledged as one of the most important Irish albums of all time, Ghostown contained several Chevron compositions that have endured and been reinterpreted by other performers, notably "Ballad Of Kitty Ricketts'' by Mary Coughlan, and "The Song Of The Faithful Departed'', a mainstay of Christy Moore's set for many years.
In 1985, Chevron joined the Pogues, the London-based ensemble fronted by Shane McGowan, once a punk rocker himself with the Nipple Erectors. They were originally called Pogue Mahone, Gaelic for "kiss my arse", and their robust, inebriated take on traditional Irish folk proved the polar opposite of much '80s pop music.
Chevron was first tasked with the banjo, an instrument he had never played, to cover for Pogue regular Jem Finer, and stuck around on guitar and mandolin for the recording of the group's second album, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, after MacGowan decided to concentrate on singing on stage. Chevron contributed the epic, haunting ballad "Thousands Are Sailing'', a definitive track on the Pogues' third album, 1988's If I Should Fall From Grace With God. It proved especially popular with the Irish diaspora who took the sentiment of its lyric about emigration to the US during the Great Famine to heart and turned it into an anthem at Pogues concerts.
"Even with music, emigration has always been the story of Ireland," Chevron said in 2009. "Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy and Horslips all earned whatever international fame they had by leaving Ireland. It wasn't until U2 changed the paradigm a bit that Ireland became a place you could base yourself in."
Chevron spent much of his life in the UK but regularly returned to his native Dublin. He was born Philip Ryan into an artistic family in Santry, on the Northside of the city, in 1957, and was drawn to performance and music after accompanying his theatre-loving father, Philip B Ryan, as a child. He saw his first pantomime aged three, and was so entranced he refused to leave until an usherette bribed him with a free ticket for another show. Ryan Snr worked as a catering manager in a hospital to provide for his family, but later wrote biographies of the Irish actors Jimmy O'Dea and Noel Purcell, while his son edited and completed his last book, The Lost Theatres Of Dublin, after he died in 1997.
Ryan Jnr could pick out a tune on the piano and infuriated his teacher by prioritising composition above scales. "From the moment I became aware of music, I wanted to know how it was made, why it was made, why one piece of music is different from another, what the context was, why some people make different music to others," he said in 2010.
He grew up fascinated by Marlene Dietrich, and Agnes Bernelle, the German cabaret singer, actress and political activist he would produce on the Bernelle On Brecht And... album. By 1977, he had taken up the Chevron pseudonym – after a budget record label – and transformed his glam band, Greta Garbage & the Trash Cans into the punky Radiators From Space. They signed to Chiswick, the independent British label. They recorded their debut single, "Television Screen'', in Dublin, and issued the equally punky ''Enemies'' and their first album after moving to London. They didn't quite connect with British audiences, however. "While we shared many of the characteristics of the UK punk bands – the energy and the attitude – we had nothing to say about tower blocks or anarchy," Chevron said.
The band broke up in 1981 and Chevron stayed in London, working at Rock On, the Camden Town record store Chiswick had evolved out of, and producing mod revival bands the Prisoners and Tall Boys, as well as The Men They Couldn't Hang, whose folk /punk hybrid paralleled the Pogues'. In 1983 Elvis Costello produced Chevron's single "The Captains And The Kings'', a song from the Brenda Behan play The Hostage, on his IMP label, before moving on to helming Rum, Sodomy & The Lash.
MacGowan recalled Chevron from the Radiators and had been his label mate when Chiswick issued "Gabrielle" by the Nips (the renamed Nipple Erectors). His recruitment followed. Along with the arrival of the equally gifted Terry Woods for the Poguetry In Motion EP, their first Top 40 entry, in 1986, Chevron's presence enabled the Pogues to evolve from their rather ramshackle early incarnation, comprising MacGowan, Finer, the tin-whistle playing, tray-bashing Spider Stacy, accordionist James Fearnley, drummer Andrew Ranken and bassist Cait O'Riordan – soon replaced by Darryl Hunt – into the formidable eight-piece most people still associate with the name.
Despite hitting the highs with ''The Irish Rover'' in partnership with the Dubliners in 1987, the volatile Pogues only made two more albums, 1989's Peace And Love, to which Chevron contributed "Lorelei'', and 1990's Hell's Ditch, before sacking the unreliable MacGowan. They soldiered on with Joe Strummer and recorded 1993's Waiting For Herb, but Chevron bailed out soon after.
He battled drugs and alcohol problems but came out the other side, reforming and recording another album with the Radiators, Trouble Pilgrim. in 2006. The Pogues also returned to critical acclaim and a cross-generational fanbase which has grown beyond their wildest expectations.
Chevron came out in the 1980s, admitting that "being gay and growing up in Ireland in the 1970s was a terrifying experience for any young man. I decided to come out when I was in The Pogues because I thought, 'Well here's an-all drinking, all-rousing, all-shagging, all stay-up-all-night sort of macho band which has me, too."
He was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2007 but recovered enough to continue with both bands until the disease returned.
Philip Ryan (Philip Chevron), singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer: born Dublin 17 June 1957; died Dublin 8 October 2013.
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