Shane MacGowan, the brilliant chaotic songwriter and singer of The Pogues, died last week. His best-known work is an alcoholics’ lament turned unlikely Christmas classic—Fairytale of New York:
It was Christmas Eve babe/In the drunk tank/An old man said to me, won’t see another one.
It’s a Christmas song for people who don’t like Christmas songs which is possibly why it is so popular. When the annual row about it being cancelled saw the odious Laurence Fox step up to be outraged The Pogues replied, “Fuck off you little herrenvolk shite”. Which is one of many things to their credit.
By the 1980s the energy had largely drained from punk, giving way to the bouffants and synthesisers of the New Romantics. So with contrarianism, along with tin whistle player Spider Stacy and banjoist Jem Finer, MacGowan and a knowing political joke, formed the New Republicans. They morphed into The Pogues.
Songs of work and hard living, exile, resentment and loss made them inheritors of a boisterous Irish tradition.
The list of powerful songs is long—Dark Streets of London, A Rainy Night in Soho, Sally MacLennane, If I Should Fall From Grace With God.
The interpretations are important too. Dirty Old Town was written in 1949 by Ewan MacColl about Salford. But The Pogues have owned it since they recorded it in 1985. And once you’ve heard MacGowan sing Whiskey in the Jar with Irish folk band The Dubliners discussion ceases.
The Dubliners were sending a message and passing a torch. It is easy to forget that The Dubliners themselves were about taking Irish music away from a twee pastoral vision of Ireland.
Dubliner Luke Kelly got into political music-making while living with diaspora Communists in Britain. But not everyone was so keen on The Pogues. Irish music royalty Tommy Makem described them as “the greatest disaster ever to hit Irish music”.
Many obituaries in Britain wallowed in the drunkenness and did you know MacGowan was born in England snark. Of which the kiss my arse of Póg mo thóin has always been there as a response.
As is Navigators. While not written by MacGowan, his vocals infuse it with sorrow, righteous rage, and vindication, and a dash of how-did-we-miss-this envy.
It is about “navvies” itinerant labourers who did the brutal, bruising, fatal work of building Britain’s railroads in the 19th century:
The canals and the bridges, the embankments and cuts/ They blasted and dug with their sweat and their guts/ They never drank water but whiskey by pints/ And the shanty towns rang with their songs and their fights
They died in their hundreds with no sign to mark where/ Save the brass in the pocket of the entrepreneur/ By landslide and rock blast, they got buried so deep/ That in death if not life they’ll have peace while they sleep
By the end of the song the entrepreneur is forgotten. The empire has been overthrown. But the thing the nameless labourers, who didn’t always behave the way the English bosses saw fit, built—the railroads—endure.
Perhaps in the mist around the death of a treasure there should be some sulphur too.
The Pogues did get cancelled once. Under the broadcasting ban on promoting terrorism in the 1980s, Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six was deemed too dangerous to broadcast.
The song was accused of saying “convicted terrorists are not guilty, the Irish people were put at a disadvantage in the courts of the United Kingdom and that it may have invited support for a terrorist organisation such as the IRA”. And so it did.
There were six men in Birmingham, in Guildford there’s four, who were picked up and tortured and framed by the law, and the filth got promotion, but they’re still doing time, for being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time
Like a navigator, MacGowan created work that’s lasting and awe-inspiring, and came at a cost. He made music that shot up your veins to your heart. But before you had a chance to get maudlin, he’d toss a drink in your face.