Slurred and incomprehensible are some of the more complimentary terms laid at the door of perhaps the greatest writer to emerge from Ireland in the late 20th century, but scrape away at the coarse, grating and unlovely vocal style and sheer poetry is to be found, indeed in the late ‘70s few could have imagined that such talent was buried in the head and heart of lead Nipple Erector and punk about town Shane MacGowan.
As the arse end of punk was being mopped up by Johnny-come-lately major labels and, having pretty much exhausted the possibilities of what had by then become the Nips, Shane MacGowan and Jim Fearnley were trying to salvage something from the last stale gusts of the U.K. punk revolution when they met whistle player (and beer tray abuser) Spider Stacey in a London tube station and began playing punked up traditional Irish folk tunes in and around London before being joined by Jem Finer (banjo, guitar), Andrew David Ranken (drums) and Cait O'Riordan (bass) and gradually morphing into one of the most notoriously wild, drunken and exciting live acts around. Adding original MacGowan songs to their set and shortening their name from Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for kiss my arse) to the Pogues , the group released independent single, Dark Streets of London in early ’84, supported the Clash and then signed with Stiff Records who released their acclaimed debut Red Roses For Me garnering critical acclaim and building a solid, if generally well-oiled, fan-base. Far better however was to come.
Early in 1985 the Pogues, having enlisted ex-Radiators From Space guitarist Phil Chevron - and persuaded Elvis Costello to spend some time in the producers chair - delivered the astonishing Rum Sodomy And The Lash, lining up classy MacGowan compositions alongside furiously delivered traditional folk songs and glorious reinventions - Ewan McCall’s Dirty Old Town and Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda in particular stand out – here was the full distillation of the Pogues sulphate-folk racket and even today the album sounds unlike pretty much anything created before or since. Touring commitments then ensured that there would be no more recorded Pogues material for another full year, although the fine four track Poguetry in Motion EP was released in 1986, and fans were seriously despairing of hearing any new material when recording was put on further hold as they took time out to star in Alex Cox's film Straight to Hell in 1987. Come1988 and O'Riordan had been replaced by Darryl Hunt (when she left to marry Costello) and the line-up had been further augmented by Terry Woods, a banjo player from proto-Pogue’s outfit Sweeny’s Men, they had also left Stiff and signed to Island Records and finally released the Steve Lillywhite-produced follow up to Rum Sodomy And The Lash entitled If I Should Fall From Grace With God. The album had been well worth the wait as it was not only once again a critically lauded effort but would go on to became the group's finest hour and produce a massive hit single in Fairytale of New York featuring Lillywhite’s wife (the much missed) Kirsty MacColl – surely the best Christmas single ever made. Like it’s predecessor If I Should Fall… was a fiercely political mix of traditional and contemporary that all but assaulted the listener on first hearing, marrying astonishing musicianship, moving and insightful lyrics and the sort of manic enthusiasm that it sadly became all but impossible to sustain
What followed, given MacGowan’s addictive nature was perhaps not hard to predict as, like Brendan Behan before him, he proceeded to drown his talent in a haze of alcohol and drugs, ensuring the bands next album, Peace And Love, was a definite step down from it’s illustrious forebears and the live shows became ever more unpredictable as he regularly failed to make it to the stage (as on the high profile Bob Dylan support slots of ’88) pushing the reluctant Stacey and Finer into the lead vocal spotlight. The downward spiral continued on the bands ’90 offering Hells Ditch, which whilst not a bad album was once again just not in the same league as their first three releases, and the following year MacGowan was finally asked to leave the band.
The Pogues continued - with Joe Strummer often invited in to handle live vocal duties – and recorded Waiting For Herb (‘93) and Pogue Mahone (’95) but the spark was gone and they finally called it a day in 1996. MacGowan would resurface later with the Popes and with solo albums but, aside from the briefest of flashes nothing he created ever scaled the towering peaks of his previous outfits first three releases. That said as the end of 2004 approaches a reconciled MacGowan and Pogues can be found once again playing to sell out audiences across the UK, and there will be many who will be hoping to catch a glimpse of the Boys From The County Hell in full flight.
All seven Pogues albums - remastered and expanded - have been re-released and are on sale now