Originally formed in 1982 and with their name being the Anglo translation of ‘up your arse’ in Gaelic, The Pogues has always been clear in their aim to confront, shake and stir the world around them.
The Pogues were musically groundbreaking in many ways musically. They were one of the first bands to combine elements of the then cutting edge of punk and new wave with more traditional forms of Celtic music. Founders Peter “Spider” Stacey and the legendary vocalist from the band, Shane McGowan, along with other members of the band, were incredibly proud of their Irish roots and this comes across brilliantly in the music. Listeners can hear their influence today in such great bands as Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly.
The band reached a peak in popularity in the late 1980s/early 1990s period. In their initial period, the band released five excellent albums, a standout being 1985’s Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, produced by British New Wave beacon Elvis Costello. Apart from the groundbreaking sonic sound and approach of the band, what really shines through the most and separates them from many other band’s is McGowan’s incredibly affecting, at times bellowing and utterly unique voice. One cannot listen to The Pogues and not be affected by that raw emotion that seeps through every word the man sings.
Many of the band’s songs have, over time, worked their way into the fabric of the world. “Dirty Old Town”, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”, “Thousands Are Sailing”, “Streams Of Whiskey” and “Summer In Siam” are ones that immediately spring to mind. However, probably the most famous is the utterly magical, stunning and moving “The Fairytale Of New York”. A duet between The Pogues and the late Kirsty Mc Coll, this song was voted number one in cable music channel VH1’s Best Christmas Songs Of All Time poll. One of the most timeless, honest and incredibly beautiful songs ever written, it will forever etch the name of the band in music. It’s the closest this scribe ever gets to a Christmas carol.
The Pogues were always a volatile band in regards to both the music created and the personalities involved. These matters came to a head after the recording of 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace. McGowan’s spectacularly excessive alcohol and drug intake got him fired from the band in 1991. In his place stepped The Clash’s Joe Strummer for a time before Spider Stacey took over lead vocals. The band recorded two more albums and split up in 1996 to pursue various side projects and working with other people. Stacey, for instance, has worked with the like of the Dropkick Murphys and Astral Social Club. Mc Gowan formed his own band, The Popes, and wrote his autobiography.
In 2001, The Pogues, including Mc Gowan, reformed for a Christmas tour of the United Kingdom. They have been playing together on and off ever since. Now, twenty two years since they last toured Australia, they have announced they are touring these shores next year as part of Bluesfest 2012 and will be playing side shows around the country.
Tone Deaf’s Neil Evans recently spoke to Pogues guitarist Phil Chevron from on the eve of their momentous return to Australia.
“The reformation tour in 2001 for Christmas was one of those happy accidents that happen in life every so often,” begins Chevron. “All of the original members of The Pogues were asked on an individual basis if they wanted to tour in a reformation of the band. Unbeknown to each other, we all agreed to do the tour separately. We soon discovered that sense of spark and musical chemistry was still there. Since 2001, we have toured on and off, while still pursuing our own lives and interests outside of the band.”
“When we first started, our combination of music that we loved, namely punk and traditional Celtic music, confounded as many as it thrilled. It was one of those things that you either got or you didn’t,” says Chevron. “What the band were trying to do was fuse and combine two forms of music that had meant the world to all of us. It was like in the mid-50s. To use that classic line, country music and the blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll. That’s what we were aiming for with the music that The Pogues were making. Once we built a following, there was also the question of the music versus commerce. I think the two came together on Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, our second album. The immediate thing that we noticed about our fans is that they were incredibly fierce and passionate in their love of what we did and particularly their love of Shane.”
This brings us to one of the strongest focal points in the band and perhaps one of the most intriguing front men ever in a band, Mr Shane McGowan. At the suggestion that McGowan would have been an absolute handful to deal with Chevron bursts out laughing and asks if this scribe had considered a career with the United Nations, explaining that, while he had been asked this question before, it had never been asked with such subtlety or tact.
Chevron explains.”As fellow band members, we all knew what we were getting into in regards to Shane. He was, and still is, a truly unique individual and a force of nature. We learnt very quickly that trying to control the situation or imposing structure and/or rules in regard to him was futile. This chaos was definitely a factor, ironically, in both the success and eventual demise of the band. There was a definite sense of chemistry, both personal and musical, between us. If you take one of those elements away, it simply isn’t the same.There was a definite merry go round vibe and experience to The Pogues. The entire gamut of emotions and experiences were felt and experienced during our initial time together.”
Eventually, the fact that Mc Gowan became incapable of doing his job lead to him being fired from the band in 1991.
“What people don’t realise is that we had a great deal of commitments to meet, especially in relation to touring. When Shane left, our immediate thought was to meeting those commitments. We made what I felt was a good choice in getting Joe Strummer to sing in the band for a while. It proved to be an excellent fit. After Joe, Spider admirably took over vocals for a few years before the band split up in 1996.”
The Pogues have a strong connection with Australia, having toured here a number of times and also recording versions of both “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and “South Australia”. What lead the these excellent choices of cover versions?
“There has always been a strong connection to Australia, with a great number of Irish people over the years migrating to your shores. It’s been particularly the case over the past few years with the failing Irish economy and people leaving the country,”
Our land holds very strong memories for Chevron from their tours from the late eighties and early nineties. “I’m sure you have your own negatives and issues with Australia but, from an outsider’s point of view, we had some fantastic times there and really found the country to be idyllic. Keep in mind that, with most of our tours, we were leaving behind harsh and unforgiving European winters and coming to this tropical land, which was usually in either late spring or summer. It was such a heartening and refreshing change. Also, the people were incredible. Very unpretentious and down to earth. It reminded me quite a bit of home,” says Chevron.
After the band broke up, Chevron pursued his love of both working in the theatre and travel. “We still have our jobs and lives outside of The Pogues,” he says, referring also to other members of the band. “By doing short tours like we have for the past ten years or so on and off, it definitely helps to maintain the spark and fire that makes The Pogues what it is. Although it took people a while to understand and appreciate what we do, that sense of working class ethos and talking to people on their level works and has a universal appeal around the world”.
Religion is something that has, in one way or another, been a characteristic of what informs and infuses The Pogues as a band. Even some of the titles of their albums, such as Hell’s Ditch, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace, suggest a sens of strict boarding schools and Catholic shame and guilt.
“I’m probably the most non-religious person there is and, out of a band with members of varying sense of belief, definitely the odd man out,” laughs Chevron. “For me, what I always tried to bring to the band was that sense of questioning why religion has the almighty power it does and why it divides people so wildly. The band was formed at a time when Irish nationalism was a big issue, along with ‘The Troubles’ namely the Protestant/Catholic conflicts. Religion is simply one of many stripes and themes that colours and shapes the music of the band.”
“It is heartening to see the influence of The Pogues in popular music still today,” says Chevron. “At the very least, as a musician, it is incredibly satisfying to know that you have had an impact on the world, even in the smallest of ways,” One immediately thinks of the track “Fairytale Of New York” when thinking about the musical legacy The Pogues have left us.
“It was a track that came together slowly”, explains Chevron. “Our producer suggested we do a Christmas song for the If I Should Fall From Grace album. We thought that, out of the ones that we thought about covering, we could write a better one. It was written by two people with very strong opinions and skills: multi instrumentalist Jem Finer and Shane McGowan. The real ‘x’ factor that made the song soar was the addition of Kir Mac Coll, who was the wife of our producer, Steve Lillywhite.
From an idea by Steve, she initially laid down only a guide vocal on a demo version. As soon as we heard it, that was the song in a nutshell for us-she totally nailed what we were after with the vibe and mood of the track”.
“It’s still amazing to see the way it has become part of the fabric of the world over time. It’s not really our song anymore, it belongs to the world in general. It charts every year in the United Kingdom around Christmas time. It’s probably a song that will outlast us all. It really strikes a chord with people in that, unfortunately, Christmas is not a happy experience for all. The song really seems to encapsulate that perfectly. The ironic part is that, due to America’s utterly stringent censorship radio laws and the fact that you can’t say the word ‘faggot’ on air, even in a proper context, the song has been popular everywhere except New York. Unofficially, though, it did become a powerful beacon call for people in New York post 9/11. That’s something that makes creating music all worth it and experiencing everything you go through with that process, good, bad and everything in between”.
– Neil Evans
The Pogues are heading out for Bluesfest and have happily announced their own shows too. “Fairytale Of New York” is hands down one of Tone Deaf’s fave Christmas songs. Check out some others in our slideshow.