In 1989, the British music magazine NME called the “three horsemen of the apocalypse” to one table. Nick Cave, Mark E. Smith of the post-punk band The Fall and Shane MacGowan of the folk-punk group The Pogues were all three outsiders in their own way. One came from a former British colony, another from a declining post-industrial city, and the last was a descendant of Irish immigrants. “So the NME think we’re the last three heroes of rock and roll, do they?” Cave posed a rhetorical question. “The sycophants,” MacGowan retorted, “we’ve actually got three of the most severely brain-damaged cases in the history of rock and roll.”
Everyone at the table brought a special kind of storytelling to rock music. Cave told murderous ballads about decimated souls seeking salvation; Fueled by psychedelics and amphetamines, Smith envisioned his native Manchester being overrun by goblins and goblins at night in the songs, creating his own version of Northern England psychological realism.
MacGowan was able to incorporate stories from pre-Christian Irish mythology, IRA fighters for Irish independence, fearless sailors and London street hustlers into his songs, while with the Pogues he found a way to combine two of the most proletarian musical forms: Irish folk music and anarchic punk. With a band that played banjo and accordion, MacGowan brought Irish folklore to the city – the Pogues’ songs reminded immigrants of home, and the apocalyptic visions were wonderfully suited to London, where a punk generation with self-destructive tendencies celebrated the decline of Western civilization and danced wildly on its grave.
When MacGowan died on November 30 at the age of sixty-five, Cave was the first to rush in with a memory: “Despite our wayward ways, we both had a romantic nature. We recognized that in each other – and we shared a love of words and writing too.” Cave sang MacGowan’s songs such as “Rainy Days in Soho”, as did Sinnead O’Connor and others. The Pogues’ music became famous for drinking anthems like “Streams of Whiskey” from their debut album Red Roses for Me from 1984, which, at least for a while, made excessive drinking a graceful and noble activity. In the book Heavy cut of him, music critic Nick Kent said: “He has a rare talent for combining Byron and idiot.”
The Pogues made their mainstream and chart breakthrough in 1987 with ‘Fairytale of New York’ – an unlikely Christmas hit featuring MacGowan alternating vocals with singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl as a estranged couple on Christmas Eve. His storytelling talent was particularly evident on the first three albums, including Rum Sodomy & The Lash from 1985 and the follow-up If I Should Fall from Grace with God from 1988, where they also landed their only Christmas song. A few years later, MacGowan was fired from the band because his behavior became unpredictable due to excessive drinking and drugs – and from this point on the press focused more on his poor health, falling teeth, questionable lifestyle.
On truc he founded the band The Popes, recorded several solo songs and made guest appearances everywhere. Perhaps most relevant to the 1990s period is the MTV footage of MacGowan wearing black glasses alongside Cave’s band the Bad Seeds and singer Kylie Minogue in the song “Death is Not the End”. They’re accompanied by a string quartet, and they’re all barely able to articulate, and it makes you wonder how much they’ve gone “on the amp” – that these people met on the same stage and finished the song at all remains a minor miracle in the history of MTV music television.
The will to live and survive
MacGowan was born in 1957 in the town of Pembury in the southeast of England, near Kent. His parents moved to England in the biggest post-war migration wave, hoping to improve themselves in the country, earn money and return to Dublin. They lived with a double consciousness, they worked in England, but their hearts remained in Ireland – this uprootedness, when their “home” was always elsewhere, also took its toll on MacGowan. But they often went to a cottage in a desolate area in County Tipperary near the town of Nenagh. The family house on his mother’s side had a thatched roof and could easily serve as a museum today – and through these walls he absorbed folklore and traditions that were to be spoken for a little later.
When he remembered his childhood, he mostly remembered how he and his family sang folk songs and danced folkloric dances. MacGowan left school at sixteen and began working alternately as a bartender and record store clerk, his two greatest passions in life. His life changed in 1976, when a storm called punk swept through Great Britain – as an Irishman at the time, he must have been impressed by how punk mocked the monarchy and denigrated national symbols (although, paradoxically, he later cried when Queen Elizabeth II died). He enjoyed punk decadence and a certain amount of violence at concerts. A photo of the 19-year-old MacGowan from a Sex Pistols concert has been circulating the pages of the music press and fanzines: he is smiling blissfully, blood pouring from his protruding ear, because someone tore it open with a fishing hook in a roar. It wasn’t long before he formed his first band, the Nipple Erectors, fueled by this unbridled energy, but his talent for writing ballads was already showing.
The Pogues were founded in 1982 and the original name was Pogue Mahone (meaning “kiss my ass” in the Celtic language). Already the first single “Dark Streets of London” that appeared on the debut Red Roses for Me, perfectly captures what MacGowan excelled at. In the song, he draws on his episode as a teenager, when he spent time in a mental institution – he talks about dark things, but at the same time, his words are accompanied by a rousing marching rhythm: “Every time with the first day of spring, I return to the place where I was electrocuted, / Where I’ve seen death in the eyes of drugged lunatics… I’m cursed and deep in my pocket.” “If I Should Fall from Grace with God” from the album of the same name is similarly dark and cheerful: “If I should fall from grace with God, / Where no doctor can relieve me ,/ If I were under the sod,/ But the angels won’t accept me.” In such Pogues songs there is defiance and anger, but also the will to live and survive.
He became a mythical figure of Keith Richards proportions, and there was constant speculation whether MacGowan had already died or how he was doing – given his lifestyle, he lived to a respectable age and proved defiant until his last moments. When he accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award from Irish President Michael D. Higgins in 2018, he had to do so from a wheelchair. Last year he even had the first exhibition of his illustrations, which could be classified as art brut. When talking about the legacy of his band the Pogues, it is often said that they influenced other folk-punk groups like Flogging Molly or Dropkicks Murphy.
No doubt that’s true, but the Pogues weren’t a pop band: MacGowan had a respect for traditional songs, and the decision to combine punk with folk music was a radical gesture in the early 1980s. In this light, their legacy is more alive today in bands like Lankum from Dublin, who connect the earthiness of folk music with experimental procedures bordering on drone metal. Today, it is a means for them to have a relationship with their country and the past without a nationalistic aftertaste. The band also expressed their condolences on Twitter with the words “goodbye to the titan”. “Everything that could be done with the traditional rock band format has already been done. We make music from the roots, stronger, angrier, more emotional,” commented Pogues MacGowan’s musical style in the 1980s for NME, and his words still sound relevant – at a time when the independent scene is looking for a way to folklore.