Shane MacGowan and James Fearnley
Published: 14 June, 2012
by PETER GRUNER
SUCH was his passion and his trembling voice, that when Shane MacGowan sang the anti-war song And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda at the Pindar of Wakefield in King’s Cross in October 1982, grown men cried into their beer.
Now a new book by James Fearnley, Here Comes Everybody, chronicles the rise of the Pogues from humble beginnings belting out Irish-inspired ballads in the pubs and clubs of Camden and Islington, to performing with Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and those veterans of the “auld” country, The Dubliners.
Fearnley knows his subject well as he was a founder member of the group, and its accordionist, who helped create that distinctive Irish sound.
But the book is a tribute to MacGowan, the talented, chain-smoking poet, and ex-Westminster School scholarship boy, who wrote their most memorable songs but whose brittle, alcohol-fuelled personality ultimately led to their many break-ups.
MacGowan, a shambling figure with broken, stained teeth, was an electrifying performer on stage who managed to combine a traditional singing voice with the vitality of a punk rocker.
His banshee screams notched up the excitement.
We learn of the mutual admiration between The Dubliners and the young Pogues who collaborated in a studio session which culminated in the recording of the traditional ballad The Irish Rover.
It reached number 12 in the charts – virtually unheard of for a folk song – and the two bands appeared together on Top of the Pops in 1987.
Then in the same year the late Kristy MacColl sang with MacGowan in their now famous rowing couple duet, which became the band’s greatest hit, Fairytale of New York.
The band were originally called Pogue Mahone until DJ David “Kid” Jensen played their first song, Dark Streets of London, on the radio and a BBC producer discovered the name was Gaelic for “kiss my arse”. Rather than be banned from the airways, they dropped Mahone.
The Pogues soon brought huge audiences of fans to gigs at the Pindar, the Irish Centre in Camden Town, Dingwalls, and the Hope and Anchor in Angel.
Inspired by the Punk movement, the band played their instruments fast and furious, and they were often one step away from a fight, either between themselves or among the fans.
“We argued wantonly between songs,” Fearnley writes. “Cait [O’ Riordan, the bass player] kicked beer glasses across the stage, Jem [Finer, guitarist and co-writer] usually mild with equanimity, became distorted with fury.
The crowd in front of us, packed to the bar at the back, pounded the stage.” MacGowan’s lyrics, in songs such as Transmetropolitan, included local street names, names of cafés, pubs and hotels. Fearnley writes: “Valtaro’s was a café near Cartwright Gardens, round the corner from Leigh Street. Arlington House was a hostel round the comer from my block of flats in Camden and, at one time, Brendan Behan’s home. The Scottish Stores was a pub in the lee of King’s Cross station.”
Fearnley, despite being often irritated and annoyed by MacGowan’s irascibility, admits that when it comes to song-writing Shane has the magic touch. Describing MacGowan’s song A Rainy Night in Soho, he says: “The lyrics were generous and grown up. Despite the mysteriousness of some of the lines, there was a beautiful clarity to the song.”
But it was the singer’s protest songs that caused the most controversy. Streets of Sorrow/ Birmingham Six was a political song, written by band member Terry Woods and MacGowan, and was included on the Pogues’ 1988 album If I Should Fall from Grace with God.
The song is divided into two parts, the first (Streets of Sorrow), written and sung by Woods, describes the pain and sadness on the streets of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.
The second part of the song (Birmingham Six), written and sung by MacGowan, is a demonstration of support for the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, offering support for them as victims of a miscarriage of justice during the 1970s.
The group performed the song on Ben Elton’s Channel 4 programme Friday Night Live on April 15 1988, but the show cut to advertising before it was finished.
It was subsequently banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority under terrorism laws.
While the book is a fascinating read about one of Britain’s greatest and most colourful bands, the language has a slight pretentiousness, with Fearnley preferring to use long-winded prose where a shorter statement would do.
• Here Comes Everybody: The story of the Pogues. By James Fearnley. Faber and Faber £14.99