Fairytale reunion

Publication: The Scotsman

Author: Richard Purden

Date: December 4, 2005

Original Location: Link

SITTING back in Shane MacGowan's local pub in north London, Jem Finer looks every inch the family man, an articulate and sprightly English gent who these days plies his trade as a sculptor. To his side, MacGowan looks unusually at ease in an open-neck black shirt, sipping a glass of white wine.

The disappearance of the Pogues from public view can be traced back to the original release of their hit record, 'Fairytale of New York', in 1987. Just as they reached their pinnacle, MacGowan's vision for the Pogues began to encounter resistance from his fellow band members. Amid heavy drinking, the band decided a new democratic approach would serve them best.

Much to his bewilderment, MacGowan lost the direction and creative control of the group while facing a relentless touring schedule. A messy break-up followed in 1991, leaving the Pogues to struggle along without their folk hero; MacGowan formed the Popes but spent most of the decade in the wilderness. Tentative reunions in 2001 and 2004 have endeared them to each other's company and, once again, there's talk of a return to the studio.

Arguably, the Pogues have had to prove themselves all over again as MacGowan's penchant for hellraising left the music business sceptical as to whether they could still showcase the legendary live performances of the 1980s. The two previous reunions led to a Japanese tour in the summer, and further American dates have been lined up for next spring.

This month they will finally re-release 'Fairytale of New York' to coincide with the current tour. For 18 years it has been an alternative Christmas anthem. While little seems to vex them these days, losing out on the number one slot to The Pet Shop Boys' 'It's a Sin' the first time round is still a major bone of contention.

"That really was such a brilliant time for the band. I remember we were in America and things were a bit tense because we thought if this doesn't go top 40 in the first week, it's finished," says Finer. "I think it went in at 40. After that it was like a ball rolling up the charts, and by the time we started touring Britain it was absolutely everywhere."

MacGowan's plan was to concentrate on the Irish expatriate cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago as momentum gathered for the band in America. "It was my first time in America when we filmed the video for 'Fairytale of New York' and we had all these mythical ideas about it when we arrived," offers MacGowan.

"We always played brilliant gigs in New York; our first ever show there turned out to be a lunch-hour gig at a school! We had people like Robert De Niro and Iggy Pop coming down and we supported U2 a few times there."

The single's re-release this Christmas is being used to further highlight the events surrounding the death of Kirsty MacColl, with whom MacGowan performed a duet on the 'Fairytale' track. Profits for the single will be going to the Justice for Kirsty Campaign, which MacColl's family set up to cover legal costs in their fight to reveal the facts behind her controversial death five years ago in Mexico. In honour of MacColl, the band is planning a number of special guest slots, including appearances from Kate Moss and Katie Melua during each leg of the tour to perform the song with MacGowan.

It's been something of a struggle for the band to release the song for a number of years. The final glitch was getting hold of the original artwork, which was eventually found on eBay. "It comes up every year and this time the record company said they were prepared to put their might behind it," says Finer.

"We lost a lot of money when it didn't go to number one because we had a bet on, but we made money on it in Ireland. All our friends and relatives put a bet on, so it was the number one of the people if you like," adds MacGowan.

The Pogues were a London-Irish band and although their backgrounds were spread far over the British Isles - Finer and MacGowan have Irish roots but lived largely in London - the Irish aspect ensured their audience at first.

"It would have been very different if we had started in Ireland and had been Irish people living in Ireland. That would have been another story - so many great Irish writers are exiled and, looking back, it made a huge difference for us. We all came from different backgrounds but had common experiences - we all knew what it was like to be marginalised and picked on," says Finer.

The band would celebrate being Irish at a time when anti-Irish feeling was rife in Britain. The marriage of punk and Irish ethnicity was something MacGowan had been developing since the late 1970s. "There was a big Irish influence on the punk scene. I used to hang around with Jimmy Lydon who was Johnny Rotten's brother; he formed a band with music producer Youth, called 4be2. They were mixing folk with heavy reggae, and around that time I formed the Pogues."

Despite this, the Pogues' image was very much the antithesis of the punk movement, and by the time they released their first album, Red Roses for Me, in 1984, punk had become an anachronistic embarrassment.

"I was born in 1957," says MacGowan. "We got the image from our parents. They looked like that with the dark suits and open-necked shirts - no one could argue with that look."

The Pogues' trip north this month to perform at Glasgow's Carling Academy is a welcome journey for MacGowan, who considers the city something of a second home. First on the list will be a visit to his favourite haunt, McGinn's on Hope Street, where he has penned some legendary tracks over the years.

"We were terrified the first time we were in Glasgow. It was different back then because we really didn't know what to expect. We knew if we didn't go down well we'd have got bottled off! It was brilliant, though, amazing - it just always is when we play there." Finer nods in agreement: "It's nice to know there's something there that has never really got lost."

The same, of course, could be said for the inimitable charms of these ageing punk-folk rockers.

'Fairytale of New York' is out on December 12. The Pogues play Carling Academy, Glasgow (0870 771 2000), December 13 and 14

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Transcribed and made available by Zuzana.