Pogues to return with MacGowan in tow
It was 1991 and things were about to come to a head for London-Irish punk outfit the Pogues. They were in Japan doing a set of shows, and the group had had about all they could take of their famously volatile frontman Shane MacGowan.
The band had risen to prominence in the mid-'80s, playing Irish folk music in keeping with their ancestry but at hyperspeed during riotous gigs. Things were quickly falling apart, though, during the Japan leg of what had been a grueling tour.
While the ragged-toothed MacGowan was a highly gifted songwriter, he was also a poster boy for alcoholism. In the end, the singer proved too much to handle and the group parted company with him after wrapping up their tour here.
"It was a culmination of the previous couple of years," founding member Spider Stacy says down the line from London. "I think Shane had just been becoming increasingly unhappy in the band, but his way of letting us know that was by getting more and more unreliable--to put it in diplomatic terms--in his kind of behavior and so on and so forth.
"We just felt we couldn't go on with him in the band like that, because it was just too depressing and too self-destructive."
Hearing Spider say this gives one a pretty good idea of how far gone MacGowan must have been. After all, Spider, a longtime friend of the singer, was no choir boy and counts himself lucky to be alive.
"I will say that with the benefit of hindsight--which is a wonderful thing--we did it the wrong way," he says. "I think we should probably have said 'you're obviously really unhappy with the way things are going, maybe we should all take six months to a year off and then make a fresh start.' But when it's all sort of swirling around you, you don't really see things clearly."
So how did MacGowan feel about all this?
"It depends on which of his versions of the events you are listening to," Spider says. "Sometimes it's like it was all his idea and sometimes he was coldly forced to walk the plank.
"The truth is actually somewhere in between there."
Who could have guessed, then, that the Pogues would be returning to the scene of the crime with MacGowan in tow? But returning they are, with their classic lineup of Spider, MacGowan, Jem Finer, Philip Chevron, Terry Woods, Andrew Ranken, James Fearnley and Darryl Hunt for two solo shows and a set at Fuji Rock Festival (Original bassist Cait O'Riordan will not be making the trip.)
"Yeah, maybe we'll fire him again," Spider deadpans when asked if coming back to Japan has any symbolic significance.
Spider says despite the group's split with MacGowan there was never any bad blood. It was this amicability that allowed the group to re-form for a weeklong reunion in 2001 and then again last year.
"We were going to do it again before 2004, but for one reason or another it didn't happen," Spider says.
In conjunction with the group's re-forming, Warner Music recently put out a two-disc greatest hits release, The Ultimate Collection, with songs more or less hand-picked by Spider, who has also written the liner notes. One of the discs is of the group performing live at the Brixton Academy in London in 2001.
"The last Pogues greatest hits had 'The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,' which is a great song, but it's like eight minutes long and I've always felt that it wasn't really representative of the band...Also it meant that 'Tuesday Morning' didn't get on it, which meant that it cost me money," Spider says, laughing. The song, off 1993's Waiting for Herb, was penned and sung by Spider and was one of the group's highest chart-climbers ever.
Warner also released remastered and expanded versions of all seven of the group's studio albums. The band oversaw the project, supervising the remastering process, the artwork and the booklets. The albums contain almost 40 bonus tracks in total and liner notes from notables such as Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch and Bob Geldof.
Mojo magazine on June 16 gave the Pogues second album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (1985) its Classic Album Award.
"I was really, really pleased they gave us the award," Spider says. "It's nice to get some recognition. I do sometimes feel that the Pogues get overlooked, certainly in this country, by the music press.
"In some respects I guess we're always going to be something of a sidebar, because we're not an obvious musical influence on a lot of stuff that's around at the moment...But, if I can say this without sounding big-headed, we've left a lot more of a mark on some people's lives than a lot of other groups have done."
The early '80s was arguably a dangerous time to be playing Irish rebel music with bombings by the IRA a potential concern for many Londoners. But Spider says the Pogues were never really about politics.
"It was a funny time certainly to be playing this music in London, but it was all done with a bit of a laugh," he says. "You know, really, there was no better guarantee of annoying people than by affecting support for the IRA in London. It would really piss people off. But that wasn't political, that was being brattish, really," he adds with a chuckle. "People were coming along and just having a really good time."
The Pogues were also honored recently when the classic song "Fairytale of New York" was voted favorite Christmas song in a poll of VH1 viewers.
After MacGowan's departure from the band he was briefly replaced by Joe Strummer, who had also produced the Pogues fifth and final album with MacGowan on board, Hell's Ditch.
The Pogues last came here with Strummer in 1992, and while their relationship was a fruitful one, it was short-lived, the former Clash frontman leaving in less than a year to pursue his own projects.
"I don't think we could have continued if we didn't have that interim with Joe, because the man was basically like morale on legs, and gave us all the boost we needed," Spider says.
After Strummer left, Spider took over the singing duties.
The Pogues made two more albums without MacGowan, shedding original members along the way, and finally breaking up in 1996.
"Shane's a fantastic songwriter, and to replace someone like that is no easy task...and we never really did," Spider says. "When you get to Pogue Mahone (1996), I think you can see a new direction starting to take shape, but at the same time we'd all had enough of it by then, really.
"I have to put my hand to my heart and say that I don't like the last two Pogue albums nearly as much as I like the first five."
Most people would probably have to agree.
Along with their set on July 29 at Fuji Rock Festival, the Pogues will also perform July 26, 7 p.m. at AX in Shibuya, Tokyo, (03) 5738-2020, and July 27, 7 p.m. at Osaka Mother Hall, (06) 4397-9061.
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