The London Irish rock band The Pogues are back in Ireland next weekend for Siamsa in Cork. Michael Dwyer talked to their lead singer, Shane MacGowan.
Before anyone heard of the Pogues on this side of the Irish Sea, they were "semi-legendary in London", in the words of the band's lead singer, Shane MacGowan. He hesitates about using these words in case they might be misconstrued as a pompous statement; clearly, it isn't. Anyhow, he says, the papers are always misquoting him, or concentrating on what he believes are irrelevant aspects of the band's almost-legendary lifestyle.
These things happen whether you're semi-legendary or almost-legendary. The papers prefer to print the legend. It's been like that ever since the very first interview with the band was published in the New Musical Express five years ago this month.
This was the opening paragraph: "During the 1976-77 era of Pistols punk, young Shane MacGowan was quite a well-known face about town, immortalised by the gossip columns when he had the lobe wrenched from his sizeable ear by Kate Modette."
That lobe story is mostly myth, as the NME interviewer could have established merely by a glance at the MacGowan ears in between taking notes. In fact, an ear-ring is suspended from that very lobe which we were told no longer exists.
Shane explains. There was "an incident" involving him and Jane (not Kate) Modette. "There was sort of scratching and eventually cutting going on, but that was like a punk thing that was fairly normal. There just happened to be a photographer there when it happened. They got a picture with my ear bleeding and said it had been bitten off. There was quite a lot of blood, but it was all friendly." So there.
In those punky days, he used to call himself Shane O'Hooligan. He laughs at the memory of it. "That was when people used to have aliases, like Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Billy Idol - you knew they weren't their real names but everybody had one. He was 19 at the time and playing in a band named the Nipple Erectors, which was later abbreviated to the Nips, just as Pogue Mahone became the Pogues, although for different reasons.
Now he's pushing 30, as the legend of the Pogues has spread all ober Britain and Ireland, into continental Europe and accross the Atlantic. They appeared in a feature film, Straight To Hell. Their collaboration with the Dubliners on 'The Irish Rover' topped the Irish charts recently and the two bands performed on stage together at the U2 concert in Croke Park in June.
Next Sunday they'relined up with Status Quo, Christy Moore and the Wolfe Tones for this year's Siamsa Cois Laoi gig in Cork. "I think the bill is great - it's a real headbanger line-up," Shane says, and it's going to be fun, he promises.
However, most of the band's summer is being spent in a recording studio, at St John's Wood in London, where they are working with the gifted young producer, Steve Lillywhite, on their third album which will be released in the autumn. This work in progress will follow the model of ist exuberant and hugely popular predecessor, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, in that it will include both traditional songs and new material.
The pleasures of Rum, Sodomy and the Lash ranged from distinctive interpretations of 'And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda' and 'Dirty Old Town' (a regular on-stage triumph for them) to disarming material such as their own 'The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn', which reflects on the experiendes of a dying, lonely man: "When you pissed yourself in Frankfurt and got syph down in Cologne/And your heard the rattling death trains as you lay there all alone/Frank Ryan brought you whisky in a brothel in Madrid/And you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids."
About half of the current Pogues stage set consists of songs from their new album, although the final content has yet to be deceided. Traditional songs which will be featured this time include 'The Recruiting Sergerant' and 'The Galway Races', and possibly 'South Australia'. Shane believes that Steve Lillywhite is the first producer to work with them and get the sound - "acoustic but heavy and powerful" - which they achive on stage, but in his opinion did not get on record previously.
Shane was looking fairly haggard when we met shortly before two on Tuesday afternoon last, in a pub up the road from the recording studio in St. John's Wood. Rock people are mostly night people, given the nature of the business, and Shane probably hadn't been out of bed for very long. He removed the glasses which matched his chirt and jeans. He sat down, put his pack of cigarettes on the table and ordered a drink - a large port with lemonade and ice and a slice of lemon.
To describe the drinking habits of the Pogues as semi-legendary would be to understate the most prominent feature of their public image, on and off stage. It's mostly a myth, Shane insists. "There's been a long history of the drink angle being concentrated on. The fact is, we don't drink more than any other band, you know. When we started we were playing in bars. We had short hair and suits and we drank on stage, right? We regarded ourselves as a dance band, an Irish dance band basically that also did slower numbers with more feeling. Because we drank on stage, which lots do, and because our audience had a good time and got drunk and generally looned around a bit, that's where all that thing came from."
He admits that he was put on medication for alcohol abuse in 1985. "At one stage I was doing a lot of whiskey. I started doing my stomach in. I wasn't eating enough or anything. I was leading up to an ulcer, but I never got that ar." The experience scared him. "So pulled out. I still drink a lot, but I try to lay off the spirits, whereas I used to drink shorts all the time."
As part of the price of fame, his opportunities to go out and enjoy a drink in peace have been curtailed. "Some pubs I can go into, but a lot of the pubs, certainly the ones I used to go into a lot, it'smore trouble than it's worth. People just keep talking to you. I understand that, and I'm not complaining about it, but it's bad when you can't just go with your girlfriend or a couple of friends and have a fucking drink."
Part of the problem is that he's so easy recognisable and owns the most photographed bad teeth in Britain. "Any publicity is good publicity, I suppose," is his response to the attention his teeth receive. "Okay, I've got bad teeth, but so what? What's the problem?" These teeth proved to be a big problem in the eyes of the Pogues' American record company. Before the Pogues played New York int he spring of last year, the record company doctored their publicity photographs by whitening the gaps in the MacGowan mouth. Shane says he wasn't upset. He thought it was all very funny.
"Record companies tend to do things without asking and in America they reckoned they just couldn't sell a band with teeth like these," he says wide-mouthed. "So when we went over there, I bloody saw pictures in the papers and there was me with white teeth."
Changes are afoot, so to speak, in the MacGowan mouth and Shane insists he's doing this for himself and that it's got nothing to do with the band. Pointing to a lone, isolated tooth in the centre of his upper set, he says that he's going to have it extracted and replaced by a gold tooth.
Although he grew up in London, Shane MacGowan was born "around north-west Tipperary", on Christmas Day in 1957. His family took their musical influences with them when they moved to England while Shane was a little boy. His father, Maurice, played irish music on the record-player all the time, and his mother, Theresa, came from a family that danced, sang or played in sessions or at the fleadh ceoils.
"Even if you're not from an Irish background you're going to hear a lot of Irish music if you knock around certain parts of London, " Shane says. "Half the pubs in North London in the Sixties ans Seventies had a lot of Irish records on the juke-box, and at least half the pubs in London must be Irish-run. So you had blacks, Italians, English and Irish in there and there would be Irish music playing along with soul and rock'n'roll. It's a real melting pot, especially in North London, of musical types."
Following the demise of the Nips towards the end of the punk peak, Shane and Spider Stacy changed their tunes and made a legendary appearance at Richard Strange's Cabaret Futura Club in London when they went up and played a set of Irish rebel songs one night in October 1982.
"There was nothing happening on the live music scene at the time," he recalls. "It was all this synthesiser stuff and all clubs and so on. No live bands worth speaking about. We just got a band together and got a few gigs and started blasting it out. We never really thought about it that much."
Over the next two years they built up a huge following in London and built the supporte that enabled them to make their first record, 'Dark Streets Of London' and to put it out on their own label. That support helped the record to stay on the charts of the bstselling independently released records for months afterwards. Those were the days when they were known as Pogue Mahone, a jokey anglicisation of a rude Irish expression which they adopted for want of a better name. They took a little mischievous pleasure in hearing the name spoken by radio disc-jockeys who were innocent of ist meanting, until somebody in the BBC made the connection. This happened two months after the BBC banned the number one hit 'Relax', by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and with sensitivity still in the air, the BBC banned the Pogue Mahone records from daytime airplay.
The group were signed by the Stiff record label and it was put to them that they should shorten the name. "We're not revolutionaries, and there's no point in being in a band if nobody can hear your records, so we shortened the name to the Pogues," Shane says. Elvis Costello became an early fan and he invited the band to be the support act on a month-long tour of Britain and Ireland late in 1984. They made their Irish stage debut in Belfast on that tour - "a really good gig," says Shane - and followed it with a Dublin date which was "a bit of a disaster".
Cait O'Riordan, the Pogues' bass-player, later left the band and married Elvis Costello. She played the leading woman's role in the recently completed Irish thriller, The Courier. Does Shane miss her in the band? "I miss her female warmth and passion," he says after a little consideration, "and her occasional viciousness and anger. She's quite a dynamic person and I wish her well as an actress,"
Cait, Shane and the other Pogues all made their film debut last summer when they went to Spain to appear in the western spoof, Straight To Hell, which opened and closed here and elsewhere in June after a mostly unenthusiastic critical and public reaction. "I think it's a good laugh," says Shane. "It's real trash, but that's what it's meant to be - and insane spaghetti western. It's good for a late-night show."
They accepted the film because its director, Alex Cox, had made the extraordinary video for their 1985 single, 'A Pair Of Brown eyes', and that was wrapped up in a matter of days. They thought shooting in Spain would be three weeks of fun with a little work thrown in. They were wrong. "It was fun to make, but it was much harder work than I ever thought," Shane ruefully admits. "I thought it would just mean putting on the guns and so on, but it wasn't like that at all. We did have out three weeks in Spain, which was great, but we had just finished a long tour and then had to get up really early every morning. We were dragged out of bed at five and sent out onto the heat of the desert while the Spaniards were staying in the shade." So would he do it again? "Yeah, I'd do it again," he grins.
First and foremost, the Pogues are a live band and thes thrive on the spontaneity and boisterous atmosphere of their gigs. Touring has it's pressures but Shane finds it a welcome relief from living in London all the time. "I don't particularly like it here anymore and it's not getting any better," he says. "Another five years of that lot (the Conservative party) and God knows what it will be like. I don't really want to hang around if I can help it. We've been touring pretty constantly and I'd like to continue moving countries quite a bit. There's one place I really like and that's Greece, the Greek islands. And there's New York and there's parts of Ireland that are still great."
However, he would not live in Ireland permanently. "Ireland is not as fucked up as this country, though. I'd just like to say to anybody who thinks they're going to have a better time in England - the're not, they're wrong."
Shane MacGowan likes Charlie Haughey. "He's a bit of a shyster, but then all politicians are, and at least he's got the right principles. I don't like FitzGerald. I'm not going to start preaching about Irish politics, but at least Haughey confronts the issue taht a certain amount of the country is occupied by a foreign power, which FitzGerald wouldn't. It would be better if there were some left-wing thinking in Fianna Fail but they're still a lot better than Fine Gael."
He has no time for pop stars who preach about politics in their music, although he cites Paul McCartney's 'Give Ireland Back To The Irish' as an exception. "That was straightforward and it was totally outspoken at the time. He just made a statement and he was from an Irish family and he had a right to make that statement. There are things you can make definite statements about but most of the heavily political-message groups generally make broad, and in the end, safe statements about different things being wrong."
How about U2, with whom they played Croke Park five weeks ago? "I like their music and I've got most of their records," he says, "but I wouldn't like to be him". Why not? "Too many people think Bono is God. I don't think it's affected him. I think he's pretty cool, y'know. I agree with the peace thing and all that, but it's all like such a religious, spiritual, mystical thing. It's like being at an open-air Mass. That's what struck me that say in Croke Park."
In the subject of religion, Shane says he is " a lapsed Catholic, but I',m still a Catholic. I wouldn't say I'm a bad Catholic. What my Catholic upbringing means to me now is, I have an idea of the connection between the physical world and the supernatural world, or whatever, and a lot of things still really move me. I occasionally go to Mass and that still moves me. Things like the rosary still move me. There's alot of different ways of appreciating life: through music, or nature, or through people whether it's conversationally or sexually or just looking at them. A very deep, heavy, poverful, symbolic religion like Catholicism is another way of appreciating that. I know it's been corrupted over the years, and abused. I think the chruch's position on things like divorce in Ireland is wrong, in terms that it causes a lot of suffering. I don't think these should be crucial issues in the church. But I think most religions have got heavy attitudes about things like that. Catholicism is not an isolated religion."
Shane prefers not to discuss the more personal aspects of his life, which is his prerogative, and the subject returns to music. The worst aspect of the contemporary music scene is "the ultra-produced soulless pap and the mindless posing that goes with it", and he blames Duran Duran for starting that. He likes the new soul music like Terence Trent D'Arby's, or the new jazz, especially Courtney Pine.
"The best thing for me was us and the Dubliners being Number One in ireland and on the British Top Ten, and now Los Lobos being Number One here", he says. "The Dubliners are still as good as they ever were - better actually."
Next Sunday in Cork, he hints, the Pogues may team up with Christy Moore for a song or two. Shane is really looking forward to getting out of the recording studio for the weekend, travelling to Cork and getting on stage again. It's been a full eight days since the band did their last gig, at a festival in Nyon, Switzerland, "Open-air festivals are great, much better than being cooped up in a hall. There's so much more freedom and everyone, the band and the people, is in a better mood. See you in Cork."