The Pogues - Biography
By Audra Wolfmann
The Pogues will forever be celebrated in the annals of rock history for two distinctions: their original blend of rowdy, political, punk-fueled Irish folk music that made them the fathers of the Celtic punk genre; and their frontman, the outlandishly dissolute and talented singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan. The Whisky-soaked anti-charisma of underdog MacGowan ignited the Pogues irresistible image as rogue Irish rockers and spawned a loyal following of fans far beyond Ireland and the Celtic Diaspora. However, the troubled persona that helped the band become legendary also led them down some rocky paths on the road to greatness.
Officially formed in 1982, the Pogues had roots in several London-based punk bands of the late 1970’s. MacGowan (born Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan on December 25, 1957), spent his childhood in Carney, Ireland, but moved to England to attend the Holmewood House Preparatory School. In 1971, MacGowan earned a musical scholarship to the prestigious Westminster School. He was expelled within his first two years of attendance for possession of drugs. Within a few years, he was smack dab in the middle of the emerging London punk scene, attending those historic first Sex Pistols and Clash shows. In 1976, notoriety found MacGowan when a picture of his bloody face snapped at a Clash show made the newspapers. Seizing on the exposure, he changed his name to Shane O'Hooligan and formed the group The Nipple Erectors (later changed to The Nips). Influenced heavily by The Clash, The Stooges, and rockabilly, The Nipple Erectors released several singles (including “Happy Song,” which was produced by Paul Weller of The Jam) and one album, Only The End Of The Beginning (1980 Soho), before breaking up.
After the split of his first band, MacGowan shifted his focus to his other on-going musical project, The Millwall Chainsaws, which at that time included singer Spider Stacy, Jem Finer on Guitar, and Ollie Watts on drums. In 1981, The Millwall Chainsaws changed their name to The New Republicans and added former Nipple Erectors’ guitarist James Fearnley as an accordionist. Right before their first live gig in October of 1982, the decision was made again to change their name. Stacy suggested Pogue Mahone (from the Gaelic póg mo thóin, or “kiss my ass”) and the name stuck...at least until 1984. Shortly after their first gig as Pogue Mahone, bassist Cait O'Riordan and drummer Andrew Ranken were added.
Pogue Mahone quickly gained a reputation for their raucous live shows and the punk energy they exploded upon their accordion, tin whistle, and mandolin. In 1984, the band self-released the single “Dark Streets of London” and went on tour as the opening act for their heroes The Clash. After appearing on BBC radio and receiving complaints from Gaelic speakers, the group once again changed their name. Later that year, and newly minted as The Pogues, they released their debut album Red Roses for Me (1984 Stiff Records/WEA International) with the London-based Stiff Records.
Although five out of the 13 songs are traditional Irish tunes, the snide, punky sentiment of The Nipple Erectors dominates the album. It’s apparent that MacGowan’s songwriting skills are just beginning to blossom on songs such as "Transmetropolitan" and "Streams of Whiskey.” Red Roses for Me hit number 89 on the UK charts and brought the band a lot of attention and critical acclaim. However, their popularity exploded in Europe after the video for their manic cover of the traditional "Waxie's Dargle" premiered on the UK Channel 4's music show The Tube. The video featured Stacey repeatedly bashing his head in with a drink tray.
After adding guitarist Phil Chevron to the lineup, The Pogues went back into the studio in 1985 with Elvis Costello, the venerable godfather of punk and new wave, as their producer. The result was Rum Sodomy & the Lash (1985 Stiff Records/WEA International), a robust and rowdy album worthy of the notorious live shows the group was known to throw. The album’s title is a reference to the famous quote “The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy, and the lash,” which is falsely attributed to Winston Churchill. The album’s cover is equally provocative, featuring Théodore Géricault's painting The Raft of the Medusa with the figures’ faces replaced with those of The Pogues’.
Rum Sodomy & the Lash signals the beginning of MacGowan’s legendary songwriting career. His narrative-driven lyrics are simultaneously humorous, melancholy, and poetic, even if slurred or garbled within the confines of an alcoholic haze. Songs like "The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn" and "The Old Main Drag" are particularly fine examples of his talent for painting poignantly painful portraits of hard-luck characters with the plainest of language. "The Old Main Drag" tells of a sixteen-year-old boy who falls in with “he-males and she-males,” ultimately wasting his youth hustling on the streets of London. Yet MacGowan’s phrasing and emotive gravel-voiced crooning mixes with the full sound of the band to make the subject manner miraculously fit into the context of traditional Irish folk music.
Rum Sodomy & the Lash hit number 13 on the UK charts and became the hit of American college radio. The popularity of the album continued to endure well past the 1980’s. Q magazine gave it number 93 on their list of their 100 Greatest British Albums Ever in 2000, Rolling Stone ranked it as number 445 of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003, and Pitchfork Media gave it a place as the 67th Best Album of the 80’s. In 1991, "The Old Main Drag" appeared in Gus Van Sant’s film My Own Private Idaho.
Riding high on the success of Rum Sodomy & the Lash, The Pogues released an EP called Poguetry in Motion (1986 Stiff Records) in 1986. The four songs featured on the EP were recorded during the same sessions with Costello that produced their previous album. Although the EP sold well, releasing it may have just been The Pogues' revenge on a critic; the last track, "Planxty Noel Hill," refers to a traditional concertina player who accused The Pogues of disrespecting traditional Irish music.
Also in 1986, The Pogues contributed their song “Haunted” to the Alex Cox bio-pic Sid and Nancy. “Haunted” reached number 42 on the UK charts and further spread the popularity of The Pogues to an international audience. The song was originally sung by O'Riordan, but was re-recorded in 1995 as a duet between Shane MacGowan and Sinéad O'Connor (charting at number 30 in the UK).
In 1987, the band appeared in Alex Cox’s rock star-leaden western film Straight to Hell as the McMahon family. By this time, O'Riordan had left the band to marry Costello. She was replaced by Darryl Hunt, and then multi-instrumentalist Terry Woods joined the group. With the new lineup in tow, The Pogues signed with Island Records and released If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988 Island). Produced by Steve Lillywhite (U2, Peter Gabriel, Morrissey), their third full-length album was a hit charting at number three in the UK and 88 on the Billboard 200 in America.
If I Should Fall from Grace with God’s breakout hit was “Fairytale of New York," a Christmas-themed duet with Kirsty MacColl, (then wife of producer Lillywhite and daughter of songwriter/playwright Ewan MacColl). The epic tale of drunk tanks and a failed relationship proved irresistible to fans, charting at number two on the UK charts and number one in the Irish charts. The song was re-released by the Pogues in 1991 and again in 2005, topping the UK charts both times. (Unfortunately, MacColl died in 2000 in a mysterious scuba diving incident in Mexico.)
Although The Pogues were at the height of their popularity, MacGowan’s erratic behavior began to wear at the band. He had always been honest about his drug and alcohol use, but he seemed to physically deteriorate before the public eye during the late 80’s and early 90’s. After MacGowan failed to appear for the opening dates of their 1988 American tour with Bob Dylan and appeared confused and incomprehensible in interviews and television appearances, the band began to pick up his duties for the following few albums.
The songs on Peace and Love (1989 Island), released in 1989, are generally weaker in structure than their previous releases, and MacGowan’s lyrics are sloppy and garbled at best. To The Pogues’ credit, Woods, Chevron, and Finer contributed solid original songs of their own. The album charted at number five in the UK and 118 on the Billboard 200 in America. In 1990, they released their second four-song EP Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah (1990 Island). Its title song, MacGowan’s Mowtown-influenced dance track, hit number 17 on the Billboard Modern Tracks chart.
The Pogues fifth album, Hell's Ditch (1990 Island), was produced by The Clash’s Joe Strummer and features more songs penned by MacGowan than the previous effort. The sound is straight-ahead rock and roll for the most part with several surprises in store, such as three Asian-themed songs and the Spanish-inspired “Lorca’s Novena.” A return to form for MacGowan is heard on “Sunny Side of the Street,” which hit number 23 on the American Modern Rock Tracks chart.
Despite the glimmer of hope found in Hell's Ditch, MacGowan’s substance abuse problems were preventing the group from touring and recording. The band fired their frontman in 1991. Strummer temporarily took over as the lead and then Stacy filled the position for the following two albums, Waiting for Herb (1993 Chameleon) and Pogue Mahone (1996 WEA), released in 1993 and 1996 respectively. Waiting for Herb produced The Pogues’ final top twenty single, "Tuesday Morning," which hit number 18 in the UK and number 11 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks. The reception for Pogue Mahone, on the other hand, represented the overwhelming disappointment of fans and critics alike in the void left by the departure of MacGowan.
By 1996, Woods and Fearnley had left the band, and Finer called it quits after the release of Pogue Mahone. That same year the remaining members officially threw in the towel.
After his exile from The Pogues, MacGowan continued to write and record music. In the years that followed, he released several collaborations and, in spite of his continuing self-inflicted physical disintegration, he was able to form a new band called Shane MacGowan and The Popes. In 1996, he landed a Nike commercial with his cover of the Frank Sinatra classic "My Way.”
In 2001, MacGowan and the former Pogues were able to overlook their prior difficulties and reformed for a sold-out Christmas tour. They continue to tour through the new millennium, although their shows have not all been smooth sailing. MacGowan continues to struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, and is reported to have thrown up on fans during shows. Nonetheless, in 2006 he was honored by NME magazine with a place on their list of the 50 Greatest Rock Heroes.
Just Look Them Straight In The Eye and Say....POGUE MAHONE!! (2008 Rhino), a five CD box set compiled by The Pogues of previously unreleased material and rarities, was released in 2008.