Shane MacGowan, the Pogues’ Poet of Displacement

Shane MacGowan (Photo: Creative Commons-Share Alike 2.0.)

There was a time in London, in the mid-'80s, when a party would invariably close with a couple of Pogues songs. It didn't matter what music had preceded them—it could be reggae or soul or whatever—but the Pogues would be played, to enthusiastic sing-a-longs by the party guests. Even I was known to join in occasionally.

As often as not, one of the songs would be the Pogues's cover of Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town." It didn't matter that the song had been written about Salford (a city in Greater Manchester): Everyone would feel it had been written about their own town. This wasn't true just in my part of London, which has a large Irish diaspora, but in many other places across the world.

This was one of several gifts possessed by Shane MacGowan, who died November 30, 2023: Whether he had written the song or not, you felt he was singing about your world, your life. He involved you in the song. It was a skill similar to that possessed by Bruce Springsteen: You may never have visited New Jersey—couldn't even point to it on a map—but you can still relate to the stories within the songs.

With MacGowan, that was especially true of Britain's Irish community. He was born in England, to Irish parents—a family heritage reflected in his music. He spoke for the Irish in Britain, especially in London, and as he did so, his songs acted as a conduit for many (including me) to the rich heritage of Irish music.

The Pogues' success and popularity came at a time when anti-Irish feeling in Britain was high, to the point that acts were committed against them. This was when the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland were at their fiercest, including bomb attacks on "the mainland." MacGowan bravely didn't dodge the subject. Irish Republicanism was a theme in many of his songs, including "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six," which tells the story of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, two groups of Irishmen wrongly convicted of IRA bombings. Now that they have been released, it is safe to talk about these miscarriages of justice, but it certainly wasn't back then.

MacGowan was enthusiastic about the Clash and was a regular at The Jam's early gigs. I came across him with the 1978 release of the single "King of the Bop," backed by "Nervous Wreck," by his first band, The Nipple Erectors. With its punk-rockabilly sound, this single still stands as one of the great neglected songs from the time. It remains a favorite of mine.

The Pogues were founded in 1982, with Shane MacGowan as singer, lead writer, and figurehead. The early releases didn't quite capture the excitement of hearing them live. The power of the band and the charisma of MacGowan just weren't fully conveyed—not that their first album (Red Roses for Me, from 1984) didn't have some good tunes. "The Dark Streets of London" is one of his many great songs about the city. The standout of his London tunes—possibly of all his songs—is "A Rainy Night in Soho," from the 1986 EP, Poguetry in Motion. It is beautiful and could easily have been taken from the Great American Songbook: His lyrics are a wonderful, poetic description of love, using London's Soho as metaphor. It's a song you play and play and play. (I would also recommend searching out, on YouTube, Sinead O'Connor's sublime cover, performed on Irish television station RTE One's The Late Late Show.)

Poguetry was, like the album that followed (1985's Rum, Sodomy & the Lash), produced by Elvis Costello. This was a purple patch for MacGowan: RS&tL is a bona fide classic. This is where you'll find "Dirty Old Town" but also classics such as "A Pair of Brown Eyes" and "Sally MacLennane." The whole set has life and vibrancy about it—a feeling that it's good to be alive.

Costello was replaced by Steve Lillywhite for the next Pogues album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God, from 1988. The Pogues kept their Celtic influences but incorporated others from farther afield, Spain and even Turkey. Perhaps the album's only problem is the risk of such a monster of a song overshadowing the rest. On Grace, that song is "Fairytale of New York," which is regularly voted by the British the best-ever Christmas song. MacGowan's bittersweet duet with Kirsty MacColl is one of the UK's festive traditions, played in shops, on the radio—everywhere. But, as glorious as it is, it is just one of many gems on the album. "Fiesta" and "Bottle of Smoke" are two more of the album's great songs.

His work of those years is the best evidence of the skill and artistry of Shane MacGowan—evidence that proves beyond doubt that he was one of music's best songwriters. Good albums followed, and MacGowan eventually left the band in 1991. It is true that these latter years were troubled by drink and drugs, something that, now that he has passed, elements of the media want to focus on.

I don't. When you listen to "Satisfaction," you enjoy Keith Richards's riff; you don't wonder what he was on when he played it. Shane set up a new band (The Popes), who, whilst not reaching the consistency of previous years, did have moments of brilliance: 1994's "That Woman's Got me Drinking," from the album The Snake, was perhaps the best example.

It is not necessary to just take my word about his genius, not when he received praise from the likes of Dylan, Springsteen, Strummer, and Cave. Even better, let his songs speak for themselves. Listen, and hear Shane MacGowan tell stories about the pain and the romance of people displaced—songs that express a deep understanding of the longing for a home.

cognoscente's picture

We need people like Shane, people who live across the border, on the self-destruction side, so that we stay within the good (bourgeois) boundaries, knowing, we just have to look to people like Shane, that we don't have to, if we want, if we dare. But of course we don't dare and we don't do it. But it is possible, that is the reassurance. That's why we we need people like Shane.

In the mid-80's "Fiesta" was always one of the highlights of the party, bringing the party to unprecedented and exuberant heights.

Julie Mullins's picture

Pogues fan here. I've always loved "Fiesta" too—underrated. Ditto for Poguetry in Motion—and "The Body of an American" too.
It's remarkable Shane lived as long as he did. He'll be missed.

Glotz's picture

Nice tribute to him, Phil.

Time has changed and voices like these are sorely missed. Time for some Pogues.