A very unlikely fairytale
The infamous Pogues tell Neil McCormick how they've become a riotous Christmas institution
"You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot.
Amid the schmaltz, kitsch and fake sentiment of Christmas pop songs, The Pogues' 1987 single Fairytale of New York stands out as a thrilling blast of real human spirit and emotion, filled with an apt seasonal mix of romance, drunkenness and vicious insults. It is re-released next week in aid of charity, while the classic seven-piece Pogues line-up embarks on what is becoming an annual Christmas tour.
Fairytale's almost universal popularity may have somehow made this unruly ensemble synonymous with the season of goodwill, but in their '80s heyday the Pogues' fearsome brand of traditional instrumentation and raucous rock energy made every show seem like St Patrick's Day in a Dublin bar after closing time.
Originally known as Pogue Mahone ("Kiss my arse" in Gaelic) they coalesced around the unlikely figure of Shane MacGowan, a plug-ugly London Irishman apparently bent on fulfilling the self-destructive myth of the drunken poet with the mad joy of the truly committed, like punk's answer to Brendan Behan.
A genuinely gifted songwriter and compelling performer, MacGowan's public persona of Bohemian belligerence belied his deep understanding of the Irish lyrical tradition. Mixing ancient themes with contemporary concerns, MacGowan had a wonderful turn of phrase, exemplified by his succinct description of New York: "They've got cars big as bars, they've got rivers of gold. / But the wind goes right through you, it's no place for the old."
"It took two years to get that song right," recalls MacGowan, two decades on. "It went through 100 variations."
There is, inevitably, something sad about this admission, harking back to an era before MacGowan had squandered his talents. It is 14 years since he first parted company with the Pogues, and eight years since he made an original recording, but his reputation as a maverick genius sustains him.
Of the five Pogues albums recorded between 1984 and 1990, at least two are bona fide masterpieces - Rum, Sodomy & The Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988) - but by the end MacGowan was becoming an increasingly shambolic figure, stumbling off stage and forgetting the words he had himself written. He was eventually ejected from his own band in 1991.
The Pogues continued (with the Clash's Joe Strummer deputising on vocals) before petering out in 1995. Yet when the original line-up reconvened for some Christmas shows in 2001, they were more popular than ever.
"We really invented a way of playing traditional music that made sense in a particular time and place, which is an important part of the way tradition grows," muses banjo player and multi-instrumentalist Jem Finer. "It had a very idiosyncratic style and energy. Few people would have thought it had lasting value, but our audience has expanded - a whole new generation has come along."
"We get whole families," cackles MacGowan. "People have met and got married at our shows. People have been conceived at our shows. The sweet bird of peace flew over our heads. We've never had a fight we couldn't disentangle."
Gathered in a quiet north London bar, the Pogues' founding members make for an unlikely bunch. Finer, 50, is urbane, articulate and conservatively attired, with a post-band career as a highly regarded conceptual artist. He is drinking coffee. Tin whistle player and sometime vocalist Spider Stacy, 48, is skinny and rock and roll scruffy, well-spoken but oddly ill at ease. He is sipping Kaliber non-alcoholic lager. MacGowan, 47, is overweight, dressed like a debonair hobo, with the pallor of a corpse and not a tooth left in his mouth. He is ensconced with his second bottle of white wine. It is three in the afternoon.
"It's like a blood clot," slurs MacGowan, as he tries to explain how the Pogues work. "It congeals, and it thins. Sometimes it'll kill you, but in the right place at the right time, a blood clot is exactly what you need." And then he makes an extraordinary sound halfway between white noise and an industrial accident. I think he is laughing.
"Does that make sense?" enquires Finer, who must be used to elaborating the inscrutable remarks of his former songwriting collaborator. "It's very difficult being in a band when you are fully integrated into the music business, which is just a horrible life. Now we exist as an entity that separates into its different - yet inevitably linked - parts, and from time to time coagulates into the organism that it is, goes and plays concerts for the public and then dissipates again."
MacGowan makes a sound like a burst radiator emitting steam as it's dragged across gravel. "That's what I said," he cackles.
"Jem's just trying to illuminate the proceedings," Spider tentatively suggests.
MacGowan has clearly paid a heavy price for his lifestyle. Part of the public's fascination with him is merely that he is still standing, albeit at a precarious angle. Fame has become his enabler, his alcoholism facilitated by friends, fans and barmen. "It's fair to say I like a drink, so what?" he slurs dismissively.
He is not an easy man to interview, waxing and waning between lucid comment, poetic fancy, good humour and mumbling aggression. But his bandmates are defensive on the subject of working with him. "I always thought it unfortunate that the most interesting things about the band were overlooked because people preferred to talk about how drunk we were," notes Finer.
Their enduring popularity is a testament to the appeal of music that has aged considerably better than its frontman. In an era dominated by synthesizers and drum machines, the Pogues' fearsome folk rock sounded like the end of the world. These days, they are considered respectable heirs to iconoclastic Irish folk bands such as the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners.
While it is unlikely the band will record original music again, Finer argues that they remain a creative force. "Playing songs live is like letting them out of the bag so that they can breathe. Otherwise they become fossilised. And that corresponds with our attitude to tradition. Songs are like a recipe: you've got words and a tune, and you find your own way of doing it."
"The audience is what makes it," declares MacGowan. "It's about catharsis. All the violence and frustration, you just unleash it and the audience push it back at you and it starts going around and around and around." And then he makes that noise again, laughing with delight.
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