Where it all fell apart: Pogues return to Japan
A lot of people had given the Pogues up for dead.
The obituaries, it turns out, were premature-much like those of their irrascible front man, Shane MacGowan, whose reputation for hard living had long made him a prime candidate for an early grave.
Though many assumed the Anglo-Irish band had breathed its last in 1991, when MacGowan parted ways with his bandmates during an ill-fated tour of Japan, the Pogues soldiered on without their principal singer and songwriter for two more albums, shedding more longtime members along the way. The final nail in the Pogues' coffin didn't come until 1995-or so it seemed.
"It's a band that everyone thought had ceased to exist. Then, they discovered that it had just been in a coma," banjo player Jem Finer said by phone from England ahead of a July tour with MacGowan.
The second coming of the group, who fused traditional Celtic instrumentation and lyrical themes with the anarchic spirit and energy of punk, actually dates back a few years. MacGowan, who also plays with his own band, the Popes, reunited with the other Pogues for a series of shows in 2001. One is documented on the live disc that accompanies "The Ultimate Collection," a greatest hits package released here May 25 by Warner Music Japan.
On the same day, Warner reissued the band's back catalog, with additional tracks and liner notes by artists like Tom Waits and Bob Geldof.
Fans hoping there'll be more where that came from shouldn't hold their breath. Finer says the revived Pogues aren't about to get back into the grind of recording and touring.
Rather than a prelude to a new beginning with or without MacGowan, Finer says the upcoming tour is a celebration of the past. The band will not be doing any new material.
Though the other Pogues once opted to go on without the singer, that route is no longer an option.
"There's not a future without Shane," Finer concedes.
In 1991, the situation was different. Finer, tin whistle player Spider Stacy, drummer Andrew Ranken, accordionist James Fearnley, bassist Darryl Hunt, guitarist Philip Chevron and multi-instrumentalist Terry Woods felt they had no choice but to split with MacGowan, whose drinking had begun to take its toll. He missed shows in Japan.
"He wasn't in a physical or mental state to play. His heart wasn't in it," Finer recalls. "My own view is that he couldn't actually say he wanted to quit, but his behavior did it for him."
The rest of the band took action.
"It just got to a point where it was impossible to work with Shane anymore," Finer adds. "So we told him. He said, `Alright. You've been very patient.' And we parted ways. I wouldn't call it firing. But we had a lot of touring booked, and we couldn't pull out of that. So, we carried on. It wasn't a happy situation for anyone."
Getting back together was a different matter. It's something they've done of their own volition.
"It's nice that we've all found each other again-and found a warmth between us that existed a long time ago, but got eroded by all of those difficulties," Finer says, adding, "There's a feeling too-though I don't actually feel it-that it might be nice to put things right that went wrong the last time we were (in Japan)."
The Pogues, with late Clash singer and guitarist Joe Strummer filling in for MacGowan, followed up the 1991 Japan tour with a final visit in 1992. Finer's experiences here are reflected in the song "Pachinko," which is on 1993's "Waiting for Herb." Fascinated with the game, he made several unsuccessful attempts to play. Despite reading a book on the subject, success eluded him until an elderly man showed him how it's done.
"I won-a lot," recalls Finer.
The song he wrote about the experience also gave him an opportunity to indulge his obsession with Okinawan folk music. With his banjo, he does a fair approximation of the staccato sound of the three-stringed Okinawan sanshin. The track reflects a growing interest in world music and a drift away from the Celtic-inspired sound that served as a blueprint for bands like the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly.
Finer makes no apologies for "Waiting for Herb" or 1995's "Pogue Mahone," which takes its title from the band's original moniker, a Gaelic expression that means "kiss my backside."
"Let's put it this way: If Shane had sung on them, they'd have been received very well," he says. "But a lot of people weren't prepared to listen to a Pogues record without Shane singing."
Finer's songwriting contributions increased with time, but for some fans, his finest moment is "Fairytale of New York," which he co-wrote with MacGowan for the album "If I Should Fall from Grace with God." A duet pairing MacGowan with the late Kirsty MacColl, it's not only a great Christmas song, but one of the few that bears listening all year. It's probably the only seasonal ditty to feature the word "scumbag."
"It's not a saccharine song about Christmas. It's a simple tale of simple folk," Finer says, adding that a "cinematic feel" and "unpredictable structure" help make it work. "A good arrangement can do so much to even the simplest ingredients."
What the Pogues did with the ingredients available to them changed the face of both rock and Celtic music.
"Bands are pretty boring if they stick to a tried-and-tested formula. What happened with the Pogues is that we invented a form of music. We discovered a new way of playing old styles of music."
Not to everyone's liking, however. Theirs is a sound that still has some purists tearing their hair out.
"Too bad," Finer says, laughing. "Some people tear their hair out when they hear purists."
The Pogues appear July 27 (7 p.m.) at Mother Hall in Osaka. 6,500 yen in advance. Call Smash West at 06-6535-5569. The July 26 show at Shibuya Ax in Tokyo is sold out.
On July 29, the Pogues play on the White Stage at the Fuji Rock Festival. See
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