London Irish Punk: Life & Music… Shane MacGowan

London Irish Punk: Life & Music… Shane MacGowan
Author: Joe Merrick
Publisher: Omnibus Press
Published: 2001

I know this is probably one of the most obvious and stupid things I have written here on P2K, but life is subjective. We all live our lives with a myriad of external forces pulling us in one direction or another, and at different stages of our lives too. And we all react different to these life events. Some are good, some are bad – and what I consider bad, you may consider good. But it’d be a dull old world if we were all the same, wouldn’t it? But I like to drag out some of my old life events – incidents from my past, if you prefer – when I write. Maybe not long descriptions of legendary bowel movements or tales of high adventure jammed up in a long shopping queue (that’s what Twitter is for), but nuggets that put the item or event that I am talking about; be it a movie, book or CD, into some kind of context. I know that isn’t professional. Years ago, when Hunter S. Thompson was popularising this style of writing, it was tagged ‘gonzo journalism’. I don’t think I could call myself a gonzo journalist – and at this point I’ll refrain from telling you about the bats. You poor bastards will see them soon enough! It’s simply when I write, I like to define the parameters of my viewing, reading or listening experience.

Now why am I defining my ‘review manifesto’? In particular, it relates to my problems with this book, London Irish Punk Life & Music… Shane MacGowan. Before I go any further, I will say that this is a very, very good book. It is well researched, and covers everything up to 2001 (it was published in 2001 – so it was up to date – not that MacGowan has done much in the last ten years to add to the legend). The book presents a pretty definitive overview of MacGowan’s early life (well two chapters), and his music career through the Nipple Errectors (Nips), The Pogues and his solo career. Most of the book is concerned with the rise of The Pogues, and MacGowan’s subsequent fall from grace.

When The Pogues first burst into the spotlight, a lot of people said that they combined folk and punk. I never really got that. I got punk when the Sex Pistols, The Saints or The Clash did it, but I didn’t get The Pogues punk thing. As I am sure that anybody who has been in an Irish pub where live music is performed can testify, most traditional Irish music is quite heart-felt and passionate, and usually involves acoustic instruments being thrashed to within inches of their lives. If that’s punk, so-be-it, but I think it’s just having a good time.

I think the punk tag was applied to The Pogues for two reasons. Firstly, Shane MacGowan was a noticeable personality on the punk scene. Many documentaries about punk feature footage of a young pimply MacGowan bopping around in a union-jack coat; usually accompanied with the story of how he had his ear bitten off during a Clash concert. Another reason for the punk tag was that traditional Irish music had become pretty staid at this time. If you think back, the flagship for Irish music was Clannad (the rise of Enya was still a few years away). A while Clannad’s theme from Harry’s Game gives me goosebumps, it is not really a music you can participate in, whether it be singing, dancing or grabbing an old battered red Frontalini piano accordion and bashing out whatever notes your fingers fall on.

One of the things that lifted The Pogues above many of the other traditional music groups were the lyrics of Shane MacGowan. His words weren’t all cheery, ‘toora loora loora and I’ll drink a bottle of beer’ (although they certainly drifted into that sentiment), but they also crossed into tales about rent boys, wanking off johns for cash (The Old Main Drag). Or, of course, in MacGowan and The Pogues most famous song, Fairytale of New York, which is about a married couple fighting on Christmas eve. I make it sound like they are nasty, unpleasant songs – they aren’t. They are quite beautiful in their way, but lyrically they catch a slice of life that’s not so rosy. Honest really.

As The Pogues became more successful, things began to fall apart within the group, and MacGowan’s behaviour, aided by a ceaseless and immoderate intake of drugs and alcohol, became more erratic. Ultimately he was sacked from the band. The Pogues put out another couple of albums, and MacGowan went solo with varying success.

Now, back to where I started. What is wrong with this book? As I said, it’s well researched and covers the key moments in the career of MacGowan and The Pogues. But that is its problem. It comes across as researched, rather than lived. I know, that sounds stupid. After all this book is attempting to present a cohesive and linear telling of MacGowan’s life and does so, but it doesn’t place the events in a context beyond a comparison of what else was charting at the same time. For example; and I can assure you I could have picked out heaps of instances like this, when author Joe Merrick talks about The Pogues contribution to the Red, Hot and Blue project (December 1990), he suggests that the rendition of Miss Otis Regrets/Just One Of Those Things, failed to capture the ‘ethereal feel’ of the song, and more importantly, the Neil Jordan video clip as an ’embarrassing affair’. And in a way, he is dead right. Especially looking back on The Pogues legacy, Miss Otis Regrets/Just One Of Those Things is not one of their standouts.

The thing that Merrick misses however, is the detail hidden in the cracks. But allow me to explain in my quasi-gonzo style, exactly where I am coming from. I saw Pogues three times in early 1990. The first show was cancelled (for some unknown reason), and then rescheduled at the end of their sojourn in Melbourne. First show was a riot – great – drenched in beer. Oh, what the heck, we’re all friends here! Continuing with the gonzo theme, and to paint a more accurate picture, here’s an over embellished snippet from my diary entry (over embellished because I had delusions of being a writer at the time – and wrote it in an autobiographical format – forgive me!):

The bouncers took our tickets, looking us up and down as we entered. The Old Greek was already packed, and we fought our way through the crowd to the bar. Ivan bought the first round, and was served little white plastic cups. He passed the amber fluid over the heads of the people queuing at the bar, to us, loitering just behind. After all, we were all as dry as a camel’s arsehole because we hadn’t had a drink in at least five minutes.

This is fuckin’ pissy,” bellowed Ivan over the noise of the support band (Intoxica). He gently squeezed the side of the cup and the froth overflowed onto the already sticky beer stained floor.

“Better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick, my friend,” I replied, raising the cup to my lips. We barged our way into the centre of the throng, but it’ll never matter where you stand at a concert, you will always on the edge of a pathway and people will keep brushing past you, spilling their beer, and your beer onto your clothes. The support band finished up and everybody began to jostle for best position. While waiting a tall university knob screamed past, sending people and beer flying in all directions.

“Fook the Revolution,” he yelled, raising his hands in the air like some deity to be worshipped.

“Fuckin’ typical. An Irish band comes to town and suddenly everyone thinks that they’re fuckin’ Bono,” I snorted as Mick grabbed my empty cup and flung it to the floor.

“It’s your shout,” he said. I stepped on the empty cup, crushing it and turned on my heel and ventured into the jungle of bodies towards the bar. On the way to the bar I nearly had my eye taken out by a group who unfurled a giant flag, with The Red Hand of Ulster on it. They began to wave it above the crowd and suddenly I realised why they served plastic cups. I was caught in a shower of beer and white plastic. I thought I was going to a concert, not a political rally.

I returned twenty minutes later. I had lost half the beer trying to find them again in the crowd.

I handed them their half filled cups and said, “ Getting a beer is harder than finding a virgin in a maternity ward.” I expected them to laugh but I don’t think anyone heard (or maybe the comedy genius of Shady Tree just wasn’t their thing).

The lights went down and the crowd stopped talking and turned and faced the stage. The curtain drew open and over one thousand plastic cups of beer flew into the air and an amber shower rained on the crowd as the first few bars blasted out at us.

Whiskey you’re the divil, You’re leadin’ me astray, o’er hills and mountains and to Americay………”

“Do you you wanna go up!” shouted a stranger as crowd thrashed and bumped; like a wild sea of arms, legs and torsos.

“What?” I yelled back. The stranger pointed to the sky and before I knew what was happening I found myself on my back, being passed overhead towards the front of the stage. I started to dip but suddenly found myself being lifted up again. I floated above the crowd on a sea of hands. But it had to happen, gravity had to reassert itself. Crash! I plummeted to the ground quicker than Buddy Holly. For a moment I was lying on the ground winded until I was saved from being trampled to death by two blokes who pulled me to my feet.

“Whiskey you’re my Darlin’ drunk or sober……”

I decided, if I was to survive the evening it was time to go upstairs and find a more sedate place to catch my breath and enjoy the night. I found that the others had already adjourned to the balcony. They were too pissed to stay on their feet in the mosh pit below. On meeting up again I was handed an icy cold can of Victoria Bitter by Ivan.

Ah, the halcyon days of youth! The next show was a shambles. I still loved it, but allegedly MacGowan was very, very drunk and he came to blows with drummer Andrew Ranken (that could be bullshit – but that’s what I heard). The third, rescheduled show, was on a lot earlier in the evening, and was quite good, with MacGowan entertaining the audience with choo-choo dances.

But there were troubled times ahead. After the Melbourne leg of the tour, my memory of events related in the press is hazy, but MacGowan may have missed a concert or two, and been kicked off an airplane (or two) for being drunk. I vaguely remember the tour being written up in the NME as a debacle (I think under the misleading headline ‘The Pogues vs Kylie Minogue). This of course, was about eighteen months before his sacking in September 1991.

Afterward, news didn’t really filter down under. All we knew was Shane was in a bad way, and getting worse. Over the following months, we didn’t know if he was alive or dead? If I recall correctly, there was even an Irish travel guide published at that time entitled ‘Is Shane MacGowan Still Alive?’ I mean, no one (by that I mean ‘fans’) knew what was going on. History now tells us, that MacGowan spent a lot of time off his nut in Thailand, and then the band went and recorded the album Hell’s Ditch.

So moving along, it’s now December 1990. It’s World Aid’s Day – and the television special Red, Hot and Blue is telecast around the globe (Australia may have got it a day later!) Finally after sitting through a never-ending parade of clips, The Pogues are on the television. But… but what’s this? There’s Kirsty MacColl, on screen with the band. Shit, where’s Shane? And the song Kirsty is singing is a bit of a dirge. Oh, no, what’s going on? What has happened to The Pogues? Then the music changes tempo, and shambling in from stage right, is Shane MacGowan. He looks unkempt… like a bag of shit in a chequered suit, but it’s him. Slurring and mumbling the lyrics too. Just the way we remembered him. There was a huge collective sigh all around the globe from Pogues fans at that moment. MacGowan was alive and still putting it out there. It was a great moment, televisually. And a great moment for Pogues fans. I cheered. Joe Merrick misses that in his book. His analysis is spot on, but he is doing just that, analysing MacGowan and The Pogues; not living the adventure as it unfolded (and if he did – he seems to have locked those memories away, and kept them out of the book). Of course, that is my experience and my recollection of events. If you’re a Pogues fan and caught some of their gigs (or watched their videos, or simply listened to one of their songs through some earphones) you’ll have your own tales to tell, and how they effected you at certain moments of your life will be unique – and equally as valid as my rambling in the paragraphs above.

I guess that’s the thing – the true essence of a person, a band and/or music – that a book, no matter how well researched it is, cannot capture. As I said, life is subjective. However, biographies (unless they’re the kiss and tell type) can’t be – and that in its way, is why they can never be truly representative of the individual they are attempting to portray. I know that’s all rather twee, and obvious, but it is something that many people forget when reading a biography about somebody they know very little about – but certainly comes to the fore when they read about somebody they have followed and admired (as much as you can admire MacGowan) for years.

So in summation, London Irish Punk is good, but will offer little insight to fans who have followed the group since the 1980s – however, if you’re young (or only been introduced to them through re-releases of Fairytale of New York) then this book provides a fine overview of MacGowan’s life, particularly his time with The Pogues.

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