Farewell to a legend

Farewell to a legend

The passing of Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan is a big loss for the music world

Farewell  to a legend

News of the passing of frontman and singer of The Pogues, Shane MacGowan, on Nov 30 sent shockwaves of sadness around the world of Irish music. Tributes were published across media, from the Irish president to his former bandmates.

Known for his masterful writing on songs like A Rainy Night In Soho, Streams Of Whiskey and, above all, Fairytale Of New York (one of the UK's most popular Christmas songs and a contender for the top slot on the charts this festive season), MacGowan's writing was the key to the band's success. The Pogues, which began in 1982 as Pogue Mahone (an Anglicisation of the Irish Gaelic phrase, kiss my arse) successfully blended politically-inspired punk rock with Irish traditional music.

Performing in small clubs and pubs in London in the early 1980s, the band released a cult single, Dark Streets Of London, changed their name to The Pogues and opened for The Clash on tour in 1984. The debut album Red Roses For Me was released the same year but it was the second studio album, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash produced by Elvis Costello in 1985, that cemented the band's reputation.

Further success came from five songs selected for Alex Cox's (Sid And Nancy) soundtrack for his Straight To Hell movie in 1986. In 1987, the single Fairytale Of New York, a duet with Kirsty MacColl, was released and became one of those songs that becomes an instant classic. Despite being often voted as the UK's most popular Christmas song, it did not top the charts upon release, peaking at No.2. Perhaps the gritty song will finally achieve the top spot this Christmas.

By this time the band, described by their biographer Carol Clerk as "shambolic but spirited", was not only making waves in the UK and Ireland but were also becoming known internationally along with other so-called "ethno-punk" bands like Mano Negra (Manu Chao's second band) and Brazil's Os Paralamos do Successo. Unusual for a pop band of the time, The Pogues incorporated traditional Irish instruments in their music including banjos and tin whistles.

My chance to finally see the band and MacGowan perform came in 1991 during my time working in Japan. The very first WOMAD festival was held in Yokohama in 1991, and The Pogues were one of the headliners. It was a terrific festival with stars like Marta Sebestyen and Musikas, Youssou N'Dour, Remmy Ongala and a host of Japanese musicians like enka legend Miyako Harumi and Okinawan band The Rinkenband.

MacGowan's inebriated behaviour on stage had become a serious issue by this time. He had missed gigs when the band supported Bob Dylan and slurred when he sang. The Pogues performed on the opening night, but backstage we could already see that he was "several sheets to the wind" (there is a photo of him at the festival clutching a bottle and looking very happy). When he came on stage he could hardly stand and was carted off, and while this was happening, some of the raucous crowd decided to get up on stage and dance. I took refuge on a speaker as it was getting dangerous in the mosh pit where we were taking photographs. Never a dull moment with Shane MacGowan and The Pogues.

I'm not sure if I actually heard MacGowan sing at all, but the band did carry on regardless and delivered a great gig in the end. Shortly after, the band announced that MacGowan and The Pogues had parted ways. They would reunite for tours some years later, but the band was never the same.

What is clear though is MacGowan, as a first-generation Irish immigrant in England, was a very important songwriter for the Irish diaspora, a chronicler of his compatriots' experience, especially in London, as described in the opening lines of the song Dirty Old Town.

"I met my love by the gasworks wall / Dreamed a dream by the old canal / I kissed my girl by the factory wall."

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar talked in his eulogy about how MacGowan's songs "beautifully captured the Irish experience".

Interested readers should check out Rum, Sodomy & The Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace With God to hear MacGowan and The Pogues in full flight. RIP Shane, you'll be missed.

My exhibition on molam music at the Jim Thompson Farm, "Lam Loke – The World Of Molam", part of the annual farm tour, opens on Saturday. Please join me. There are performances every day and special concerts each Saturday night. More information from the Jim Thompson Farm Facebook page.

John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.

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