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37: Shane MacGowan

Photo By National Concert Hall

“The Ginger Lady By My Bed Covered In A Cloak Of Silence…”

In the rare echelons of musical history, only a few artists truly live out their legacy until their last breath. Icons like Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, and Johnny Cash embodied their artistry throughout their lives, leaving an indelible mark on the 20th century. Punk, a transformative force in the UK's music culture during the late '70s, crashed onto the scene like a wrecking ball. More than just a genre, punk was a lifestyle that personified anarchist sentiments. It was a time of relentless creativity, a break from societal norms where participants had to feel, breathe, and thrust themselves into it. Shane MacGowan, emerging in this tumultuous era, elbowed himself into the audience of prolific punk bands like Clash and the Sex Pistols.

NME 1976

Raised between England and Tipperary, Ireland, Macgowen developed a profound sense of Irishness, steeped in the country's history and fight for freedom. Growing up, he participated in the traditional Irish gigs that took place in the local boozers, learning ballads passed down over generations. On the dole, living in a flat share with friends, he came onto the scene with his first band, The Nips (short for The Nipple Erectors). The band experimented with punk and incorporated elements of rockabilly and garage rock, and later Greek, Cretan, and Irish folk music.

Drawing inspiration from experimenting with roots music in their sound, Macgowen conceived Pogue Mahone - an anglicisation of the Celtic phrase for 'kiss my arse,' a clear expression of their Irish heritage and punk attitude.

The Pogues' first album, Red Roses for Me, hit upon a potent sound by blending traditional folk music with raw energy and punk attitude. Executed mainly with acoustic instruments like banjo, tin whistle, and accordion, Cait O’Riordan’s bass, and Andrew Ranken’s drums, the music, led by MacGowan, introduced the world’s first Celtic-punk band. His raw, guttural delivery brought a desperate edge to Irish ballads like “Sea Shanty” and “Poor Paddy.” His originals, including “Boys From The County Hell,” “Trans-metropolitan,” and “Streams Of Whiskey,” humorously captured the challenges of youth in the big smoke.

Blessed with literary potential from an early age and a product of an Irish Catholic household, he described his literary inclination as an inherent Celtic trait. With a resonance from Irish balladry, his lyrics used imagery and storytelling, inheriting Ireland’s tradition of irreverent poetry that developed in the 19th century. A reveller, and alcohol and drug abuser, Macgowen’s lyrics were crafted from his own life, a prolific songwriter, “rooted in earned experience.”

“The Irish way of life, the human way of life. Cram as much pleasure into life and rail against the pain you have to suffer as a result...”

The Pogues' 1985 masterpiece, "Rum Sodomy & the Lash," produced by Elvis Costello, is a testament to the band's singular strangeness and Macgowen's shambling vocals, defining their unique blend of Celtic music and British punk. Themes of Irish immigration, rebellion, and working-class struggles permeate throughout. The album's brilliance lies in MacGowan's beguiling switches of perspectives, creating vivid narratives between "A Pair of Brown Eyes,” “Wildcats of Kilkenny” and the boisterous “Sally MacLennane,” whilst exploring their evident London influence through “Rainy Night in Soho.

MacGowan's lyrics, combined with the band's musical mastery, breathed life into traditional Irish songs, with covers of classic songs, “A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day” and “Dirty Old Town.” The album was hugely successful, reaching number 13 in the charts and cementing the band as a significant part of Irish discography.

Cover Art for The Pogues' "Rum, Sodomy & The Lash"

Shane Macgowen entered at a crucial time, during a tidal wave of political and social turmoil between Ireland and England, and a new surge of Irish nationalism. Despite his self-professed republican views, Macgowen never airs an anti-British spirit in his music. He is pro-freedom from Brittania's cultural and spiritual colonisation. The Pogues gave the Irish diaspora - and the wave of second generations - a sense of pride in their roots. Their music was a landmark in the evolution of Irish traditional music, reinvigorating it for migrants worldwide and combating the anti-Irish sentiment at the time. In a series of collaborations with the Chieftones and The Dubliners, MacGowen supported their crusade to reinvigorate republicanism in the country. In a sense, the uncompromising drive towards freedom is both symbiotic of Irishness and punk.

Following the momentous success of Fairytale of New York with Kirsty MacCall in 1988, and their highest-charting album, ‘If I Should Fall from Grace with God,’ The Pogues were propelled into international stardom. In an interview, when was asked why Fairytale of New York was so popular,  he replied - “because it’s not annoyingly happy like the others.” There, Shane captures a fragment of Irish poetry and lyricism, although often edged in melancholy. Famously averse to touring, Macgowen’s drinking, and drug habits reached a boiling point.

His journey with The Pogues concluded in 1990 after the release of the fifth album, 'Hell’s Ditch,' due to unprofessional behaviour, notably a memorable scene on a Japanese train. Once the band had decided to sack him he responded - “What took you so long?.”

After parting ways with The Pogues, he ventured into a new musical chapter with the formation of his band, the Popes. In 1994, he released the album 'The Snake,' which featured his heartfelt love song, "Aisling." In the years following, Macgowen avoided interviews and resented the limelight set on him by The Pogues. Many social conventions didn’t mean anything to him, and this continued late into his life. He notoriously gave journalists, photographers, and interviewers a challenging time trying to unravel him. He was someone, quietly under the guise of whiskey, not looking for the secret source of life but instead experiencing it all, tasting all the colours of the rainbow. Although famed for his Christmas duet, Fairytale of New York, he stood for much more than the pop song he “hated.” His legacy is found in the rejuvenation of Irish music, redefining, and centring Celts with a new sense of self-esteem. Macgowen stayed true to his depth and clarity of soul until the end, embodying the Irish principles of strength in spirit and independent mind, and the philosophy that above anything, freedom is absolute.

Written by: @hannahmaybaldwin

Edited by:  @Arriv3r