As I write this introduction, it has been four days since Shane MacGowan’s untimely passing. Pneumonia. 65. In those 65 years, some of which spent in ICU and hospitals and almost all spent fighting addictions (a point I will touch on soon), he and The Pogues made a lasting influence on punk music and further afield. I do not pretend to be massively knowledgeable on his upbringing and background, but I too am someone who has been influenced emotionally and creatively by his music. A true artist who had such a way with words that even after 100 listens, a song can take on a whole new meaning. In this piece I plan to talk about this lasting influence and analyse some of the most beloved Pogues songs.
Initially I’d like to talk about an obvious thing, something which I truly believe we all suffer from, but something which plagued MacGowan’s life – addiction. I remember the first time I saw the music video for Fairytale Of New York. Probably around 6 years old, I asked why he looked the way he does. Shrouded by smoke, sitting by a piano with a mouthful of god awful teeth. Of course then I had no idea about his drinking and smoking habits and as I’ve grown and matured, I’ve realised that the man sitting at that piano could easily be any one of us. It is a child’s view to equate one man’s life, in this case a man who is often considered a literary genius to the way he looks. This, however, is the view of many. On the day of his death, the internet was littered with cries of “I’m shocked he lasted this long”, and other comments of that sort. This, to me, is indicative of a larger problem in this country in which people are isolated, thrown away and looked down upon because of addiction. It is obvious when walking down any high street. Exchanged sniggers between friends, a kicked over mug of change, forgotten in the next five minutes. Luckily for MacGowan he passed away with his wife by his side, and I doubt he will ever be forgotten.
In my infinite search for a sliver of a career I found myself at B&Q. Here I met Graeme, who was my driver’s mate. Being in the same van so often we learned about each other’s lives, where we would holiday as children, our views on life, and most importantly our music tastes. He didn’t think much of my taste except for one thing. Punk music, and more specifically The Pogues, would light his eyes up every time. He would reel off stories of Irish rebel tunes being played in his living room, so naturally The Pogues were close to his heart. Once, he told me that one of his main regrets in life was never seeing them live, and I believe that this is a common theme in Scotland. Being a country which has so many people who have Irish heritage, it is completely natural to desire music which links us to our past. Even people like my dad, who mainly listens to 60s’ psychedelic music, adores the band, even covering If I Should Fall From Grace With God multiple times.
The list of artists who list Shane MacGowan is almost endless, but the group closest to my heart is Fat White Family, with the band even supporting The Pogues on several occasions. Band member Saul Adamczewski has released a cover of A Rainy Night In Soho and singer Lias Saoudi of Fat White Family has relentlessly heralded MacGowan as a hero. In his recent essay, Searching For Shane MacGowan, Saoudi went as far as to say “I fell so deeply in love with Shane’s lyricism that, as my life slowly started to resemble one of his jovial nightmares, I took it to be a matter of pride, of authenticity”. I also had the chance recently to have a chat with The Jasmine Minks’ own Jim Shepherd. For anyone unaware, the Minks were one of the first bands signed to Creation Records. Having played a gig with The Pogues, he had this to say about them – “I loved them. Their street attitude and real instruments made me wonder what I was doing in an electric guitar band with winkle-picker shoes… Realism, something I aspire to”. Clearly, the band’s influence transcended just young punks like Adamczewski and Saoudi and secured itself firmly in other, perhaps unexpected, musical circles.
A Pair Of Brown Eyes
Admittedly, if I made a list of my favourite Pogues songs, the majority would be from Rum, Sodomy & The Lash. To me it’s almost perfect. Everything from the juxtaposition of songs, punk to folk, to the beautiful storytelling is fantastic. It is for this reason I will first be discussing A Pair Of Brown Eyes, the first single to be taken from the album.
This is one of those gorgeous folky moments of the album which, more often than not, will leave a tear in the eye of even the most hardened listener. Spider Stacy’s signature tin whistle, droning accordion, banjo, extremely bare drumming and MacGowan’s drunken snarl – what’s not to love? The song is a conversation between a drunk and a war veteran who have both lost their partners. A common theme of MacGowan’s lyricism is addiction, specifically drinking, so it is no surprise when the song starts with the line “One Summer evening, drunk to hell/I sat there nearly lifeless”. Upon my first listen of the song however, I did not expect to be hit by the barrage of beautiful lyrics which follow as until that point I had really only heard the band’s rowdiest tunes (with the exception of Fairytale Of New York). His use of personification – “In blood and death, ‘neath a screaming sky/I laid down on the ground”, “And the birds were whistling in the trees/Where the wind was gently laughing” – helps the listener to place themselves in the scenario where this song takes place, and to really sympathise with these characters who even nature mocks. By the end of the song, the protagonist is left “rovin’”, looking for his lost love, in an unceremonious, non-happy ending. MacGowan’s lyrics, however beautiful, are real. There are no frills, no allusions to a brighter world.
Ultimately every line of this song could be analysed to death, and almost certainly already has, and so I see little value in regurgitating those remarks which other people have already made. Instead I can offer my own final opinion of the song – it is almost definitely one of the songs which pulls on my heart strings the most, it reinforces MacGowan’s legacy as a literary great, and it serves as a perfect introduction to The Pogues for any new listeners.
Fairytale of New York
It’s impossible to discuss MacGowan and The Pogues without talking about Fairytale of New York. It is almost certainly the nation’s favourite Christmas song having topped polls for years, and is by far the band’s most popular song. This is for good reason. Featuring a thunderous performance from both MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, it is yet another song which is guaranteed to play with the listener’s emotions.
Lyrically, this track is one which demonstrates MacGowan’s ability to subvert expectations and to make seemingly horrible situations and phrases seem beautiful. Opening with his voice accompanied by a piano, he sings once again about addictions – gambling and drinking. Referring to a “drunk tank” (a holding cell for people to sober up in) on Christmas Eve, the protagonist presumably misses this day with his partner, but seems to believe that a big win on a horse race will make both this situation and the whole year optimistic – “Got on a lucky one, came in 18/1/I’ve got a feeling this year’s for me and you”. This sentiment is furthered in the next verse, when the couple have emigrated to New York. The relationship then sours, and both partners resort to insulting one another – “You’re a bum, you’re a punk/You’re an old slut on junk”. By the end of the song, the listener is treated to a MacGowan staple – ambiguity. There is both an acceptance of the situation they are in, and perhaps a chance at reconciling their relationship.
As I said previously, this track shows how MacGowan can make awful words and phrases sound good, and I doubt that many other writers would be able to sing words like “you’re an old slut on junk” and “cheap lousy faggot” whilst still remaining as a respected character in both musical and literary circles, regardless of how many times the BBC try to change that.
Shane MacGowan was a poet of the highest order, a fighter, and a real treasure all over the world. Everyone from Boygenius to Fat White Family to Johnny Depp heralds him as an influence to them – be it musically, culturally or emotionally. He was a man who fought addiction for most of his life and still managed to produce some of the most beautiful folk ballads as well as the most rowdy punk tunes of the 80s. I also think we can all learn from MacGowan’s passing. We are never too far away from death, disease or illness. We are one missed mortgage payment from nothing, and we must embrace our life while we can, just as he did whilst fighting through alcoholism. Christmas will certainly be different without Shane MacGowan, just as it would without any lost family member – a sentiment sure to be felt throughout the world this year.
Now the song is nearly over,
We may never find out what it means.