SEVERAL YEARS BACK, singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan, then leader
of The Pogues, found himself in the awkward
position of being kicked out of his own band. The Irishman himself was
not the problem, it was the company he kept--all of which could be found
in the Physician's Desk Reference and Complete Guide To Bartending.
The Pogues rose to fame on the reputation
of being a hard-drinking, unpredictable, fuck-you band--then dumped their
leader for living up to the image.
From the band's beginnings in 1982, The Pogues
dared to couple the folk music tradition of the Clancy Brothers with the
irascibility of punk. The collision was a shock from either direction.
While MacGowan's vulgar lyrics and slurred vocals defiled the tradition-based
folk ballads for the purists, younger fans were left having to adjust to
an accordion and banjo in a punk tune. A sort of Sex Pistols meets The
Chieftains, some said in defining the unprecedented combination. Understandably,
the Chieftain element was more irate. The conservative press accused them
of sounding like "a pack of drunken louts let loose in a studio,"
and of being led by "a toothless moronic pisshead." The band,
though, had responded to such criticism even before it surfaced: fittingly,
the band's original name, prior to censorship by their label, was Pogue
Mahone--Gaelic for "kiss
In spite of the criticism and the band's aggressive image, the group nonetheless
produced unadulterated folk music. While folk songs have rarely been of
interest to rock groups (The
Beach Boys' "Sloop John B" and the Animals' "House of
the Rising Sun" may be the only popular exceptions), the Pogues, thanks
to MacGowan's writing, turned out album after album of sea chanteys, drinking
songs and Irish rebel anthems. MacGowan reinvented folk music in his work
with the Pogues, making the music of interest to fans of The Ramones and
rather than those who gravitated toward Clannad
and Peter, Paul and Mary. MacGowan's vitriolic political lyrics also revived
folk music as protest music, basically dead since the '60s. Tales of Irish
rebellion were spit out with a verbal punch that made other protest singers
sound embarrassingly polite.
Polite was not a word one would associate with MacGowan. Temperate, either.
Years before The Pogues he was in legal
trouble for possession of LSD
and a variety of pills (at the tender age of 14). He later spent six months
in detox to shake addictions to alcohol, Valium and barbiturates (at age
18). Not long after forming the Pogues, his doctor pronounced his liver
shot, temporarily scaring him into a white wine-only diet (late 20s). Speed
and amyl nitrate followed opiates, cocaine, speedballs and Ecstasy. In
1988 he claimed to have regularly dropped 50 tabs of acid a day (31-years-old).
"I've got the constitution for it," he explained.
The other Pogues did not.
Both MacGowan and the rest of the Pogues claim to have initiated the singer's
exit from the band in 1991. MacGowan states he was tired of being responsible
for the livelihood of 15 band members and crew staff. Not true, says the
group: He was booted after having missed three out of four concert dates
in Japan. The fourth was worse yet, with a blitzed MacGowan stumbling through
his role as band frontsman. The group mutinied, met with MacGowan back
at the hotel room and gave him his walking papers. He accepted the termination
without a fight, ending a nine-year association.
Joe Strummer from The
Clash, already a great fan of the band, was called in to take his place.
During one of the first rehearsals MacGowan appeared and stood in the hall,
guitar around his neck, typically loaded to the gills, and strumming the
same chord over and over. Making matters worse was the presence of a reporter
from England's New Musical Express, there to interview the new version
of the group.
The MacGowan-free Pogues released Waiting For Herb in 1993. The
Pogues-free MacGowan just recently gave us The Snake. The album
titles alone show the content differences.
Both show that Shane MacGowan is The
Pogues, no doubt about it.
On The Snake, as on earlier Pogues albums, electric guitars
thrash against uillean pipes and banjos; and tin whistles establish memorable
hooks even before the vocals surface. Tunes like "The Rising of the
Moon" and "Roddy McCorly" relate the battle stories of militant
pride found on "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six" from the Pogues'
If I Should Fall From Grace With God. "A Mexican Funeral In
Paris" is the same William
Burroughs-style horror reminiscence found in the Pogues' "The
Sick Bed of Cuchulainn" and "Hell's Ditch."
On Waiting For Herb, the Irish folk/punk band is trimmed of its
extremes: The accordions and mandolins prefer sweetness over tradition,
and the guitars are stripped of their punk nastiness. The vocals are no
longer mean and raspy; and the writing lacks MacGowan's passionate anger,
regret and colorful storytelling. The music of the once-notorious Pogues
is now tame.
MacGowan remains as full-strength as his drinks, and his songwriting method
has not changed: The secret, he says, is to settle in with a bottle of
something, several packs of cigarettes and "maybe the odd vitamin
"He'll probably outlive us all," said one Pogue, "just to
A censored version of the present album cover shows MacGowan crucified,
a rude joke regarding his banishment. But don't feel too sorry for him.
One fucked-up MacGowan can still out-sing and out-write seven remaining
Pogues. Interestingly, Spider Stacy and Jem Finer, the other two original
Pogues, were brought in to guest on this first solo release. One wonders
if he hopes to start the band all over again by persuading his longtime
cronies to rejoin him. If so, they ought to grab at the offer before he
sobers up and reconsiders.