Clover and clover again: The Pogues are back!
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of Illinois Entertainer
The Season of Green is indeed in full swing and it just so happens to coincide perfectly with The Pogues’ latest trip through America. Though there’s likely to be no shortage of St. Patrick’s Day-related revelry at any of this month’s engagements, the seminal Celtic-flavored rockers are also tapping into a few other factors, from its constant influence upon younger generations of arse-kicking alternative outlets to the more tangible spring release of a box set chock full of rarities.
Given the group’s storied past and somewhat dramatic line-up shifts, die-hards aren’t likely analyzing the reasons, but rather rejoicing over the somewhat miraculous reformation of original front man Shane MacGowan, secondary singer/tin whistle player Spider Stacy, accordion player James Fearnley, guitarist/banjoist/saxophonist Jem Finer, drummer Andrew Ranken, plus veterans like guitarist Philip Chevron, mandolin/cittern player Terry Woods and bassist Darryl Hunt. The core nucleus originally splintered in 1991 and didn’t return to the road until ten years later, though a test trip through America was delayed until 2006 (and excluded the Windy City).
“When we started coming back through the States, we’d done both coasts, but left the middle a bit blank,” notices Stacy in his signature accent, phoning from home in England. “I don’t really know why we didn’t come to Chicago that first round because we’ve always had an audience there, but maybe the promoters were testing waters to see how it would go. I never had any doubts, especially because I played at the Metro with The Tossers back in 04 and that was a sell out. If we had a bit more time on our hands and were a bit younger, we’d be more than happy to do a few other places in the Midwest, but I understand there are certain limitations as to what we can do at the moment. We don’t want weary carcasses going around North America for weeks on end!”
When the band first began in 1982, the road schedule was quite the contrary to six select cities, exhaustively chiseling away at the London club and pub scene, followed by Ireland and Europe in general. Additional exposure on all planes came from a 1984 outing with The Clash, which paved the way for The Pogues’ first full-length release Red Roses for Me (Stiff Records) that same year. Besides scoring an instant reputation for its party-infused attitudes, the group also earned acclaim for incorporating an inventive blend of traditional Irish instruments with punk rock insistency.
“One of the things that surprised us [when we first started] was that nobody else was doing this before us,” he recalls. “Those early days of touring were really our starting point, which was basically us doing Irish songs in the punk style, while leaning more towards traditional instrumentation than electric guitars. It worked so well, but was really surprising to me that no one else had done it, especially because it’s very immediate and accessible. When it hit, we were like ‘fuck, we can do something with this!’”
With the formula connecting on all planes (if only for the sheer originality) The Pogues earned additional mainstream attention by 1985’s Rum Sodomy & the Lash, thanks in part to production from Elvis Costello. In America, college radio ate up quirky Celtic romps “Dirty Old Town” and “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” which have since led the album to land on the lists for Q’s “100 Greatest British Albums Ever” and Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
Yet 1987’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God proved to be a bigger breakthrough all across the globe, thanks to entering the major label leagues via Island and landing red hot producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, Peter Gabriel). The album also spawned the holiday-themed smash single “Fairytale of New York” (a duet with Kirsty MacColl), shooting to the top of the Irish charts (and reaching two in Britain), along with being named the “Best Christmas Song Ever” by VH1 UK. But success proved to be a double-edged sword for the band, leading the already excessive, often times slurred MacGowan down an even more extreme path of substance experimentation.
The most infamous case in point came during the band’s 1988 support slot on tour with Bob Dylan, when the famed front man simply didn’t show up. In his unpredictable absence, the remainders were sent scrambling for a last minute solution, opting for Stacy to step up to the microphone. “Shane just didn’t turn up and that was really, really nerve wrecking,” says his substitute in a somewhat nonchalant tone now that so much time has passed. “Each day he didn’t turn up was like being thrown into the deep end again. I say to myself after [singing] the show ‘I really don’t want to go through that again’ and then I did all over again the next day.”
Even with MacGowan’s awful attendance record on tour, members were able to hold his reigns in the studio long enough to record 1989’s Peace and Love. The disc found an even wider audience shifting ever so slightly away from The Pogues’ Irish slants and drawing influences from London’s geographic imagery and alternative rock scene of the day. While it provided a quick fix band-aid on the festering wounds, the leader quickly went back to the bottle and could barely make his way through the sessions for 1990’s Hell’s Ditch (even with production steering from The Clash’s Joe Strummer). Rather than worrying about his reliability on the road, the band let the longtime leader go a year later, an admittedly frustrating episode in the moment, but something Stacy insists was void of animosity from either party.
“There was never any stain or tension, at least never anything long lasting,” he confirms. “Obviously with any sort of group that spends that much time together in a closed environment, there will be some issues, but we actually never even had that many arguments. There was tension at the time with Shane and things were very difficult [throughout the late 80s into the early 90s], but the fact was he didn’t want to do it anymore. It caused a fair amount of stress, but there was never any bad blood and never a need to reestablish relationships between any of us. There were no broken fences to mend or anything like that.”
Though the choppy waters weren’t ideal, The Pogues not only survived that singer shift but thrived as Strummer graciously offered to fill MacGowan’s shoes during the dates behind Hell’s Ditch. Beyond the group’s career coming full circle from the time they were merely The Clash’s opening act, the collaboration was met with tremendous curiosity and subsequent fanfare on the road.
“After Shane left and we had Joe Strummer, I think it was really good for everybody,” muses Stacy. “I think that enabled us to refocus and see there was a way forward because [Joe] was a galvanizing force. Joe’s plan playing with The Pogues made him realize there was more to do with a rock band than stick with the traditional sort of three or four piece line-up. There were other forms of instrumentation you could incorporate beyond the guitar, bass and drum template, which you obviously here with [his later career group] The Mescaleros. It also made me feel easier when it became my turn to step up to the microphone full-time because I was no longer taking over for Shane- I was taking over for Joe Strummer. Even though Joe is [so legendary], he wasn’t The Pogues’ original lead singer, so it was totally different and I was more comfortable then.”
The season Stacy is referring to centers around 1993’s Waiting For Herb, which aside from featuring Stacy as the certified lead vocalist, steered even further away from the old time Irish vibe in favor of additional English influence (also the new singer’s personal heritage). Even with all the changes, The Pogues’ proved additional staying power at radio, returning to the top twenty with the jangly, folk-tinged rock of “Tuesday Morning.”
While the project put some additional wind in the group’s sails, The Pogues’ fan base was soon split between the actual brand name and MacGowan’s new act The Popes (who released debut disc The Snake in 1994). Plus, Stacy found longtime cohorts Woods, Fearnley and a cancer bound Chevron dropping out, throwing the line-up for yet another fractured loop on 1996’s Pogue Mahone.
“Looking back, parting company with Shane was probably the wrong decision at the time, but when you’re right in the middle of it, it’s hard to take a step back,” admits Stacy. “The best thing would’ve been to take a year off, but we carried on anyway and various members left. By ‘96, the group had clearly run its course because people’s hearts just weren’t in it anymore.”
Offshoot projects abounded, most notably Stacy, Ranken and Hunt’s short lived reformation as The Wiseman (later rechristened The Vendettas). MacGowan continued performing with The Popes while releasing the juicy autobiography A Drink With Shane MacGowan in 2001. Stacy soon struck out on his own under the banner Spider Stacy’s Pogue Mahone, (which utilized The Pogues’ cover band Boys From County Hell as his backers) and teamed with The Tossers (amongst others) on tour.
“First thing’s first- The Wisemen [name] was not my idea!,” Stacy shouts of his initial side stepping. “That was Daryl’s idea because we couldn’t think of anything else, but for historical record, it’s The Vendettas! I was actually really happy with [that project] and actually have half an album that needs to be completed, but then The Pogues reformed, so that put the kabash on that! It’s certainly my intention at some point to do something with that [material], but at present form, I wouldn’t be happy with releasing it.”
Just for kicks, the MacGowan-led version of The Pogues gave some spot dates a whirl overseas during Christmas 2001, and unlike the last go around ten years earlier, all the pieces clicked into place. “When we got back together, it was kind of weird because some of us hadn’t seen each other for maybe ten years,” recounts Stacy. “So consequently during the first rehearsal, we were more forgetful of what went where, but we picked it back up [pretty quickly]. It’s in the DNA I guess!”
Those strands continued to solidify overseas, but the 2006/7 re-introductions to America were also reviewed with feverish favor, even without the prospect of new material on the horizon. Instead, the group coasted on its iconic catalogue that shaped a trend all its own, tweaking the arrangements ever so slightly to incorporate a more aggressive flair.
“There are certain songs we know we can’t drop because we’d never get away with it, like ‘Dirty Old Town,’ ‘The Sunnyside of the Street’ and ‘A Rainy Night In Soho,’” Stacy suggests. “If it’s not Christmas, we can get away with dropping ‘Fairytale Of New York,’ but we kind of wrap the set list around those we really have to do. We could probably be a bit more adventurous and delve into the back catalogue, but in that way, we tend to be a little more lax. It’s not always easy to get Shane to rehearsals, which is more like him coming on the last day when there isn’t time to write out a new set list. It’s more like ‘how about this Shane?’ and ‘can you remember that one?’ And he’ll say ‘yeah, I can remember that!’ We have managed to change it slightly this time and we may move songs in and out, but we just really attack it as hard as we can each night.”
Even though MacGowan’s much more dependable than back in the day, his frame of mind is still a fairly common question for Stacy and company. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when he’d stagger, stumble and even vomit on stage, that was of course, if he even made it to the concert at all. “He’s in really good form and he’s enjoying himself,” verifies Stacy, letting out a laugh of the all too common but still essential inquiry. “I think Shane’s really happy that the band’s back together and working, plus some of the shows we’ve done over the last few years have been the best we’ve ever done. Despite being so many years further down the line, there’s no sort of diminishing energy or anything like that.”
In theory, that performance prowess, coupled with momentum from ticket sales, could prompt The Pogues to release an entirely new studio CD. Despite being an even more frequent query than Shane’s status, that idea has yet to materialize beyond informal conversations. “Everyone wants to know all the time when a new one is coming along,” echoes Stacy. “But it’s interesting because you also run into a problem whenever you do a new album. People don’t want to necessarily hear the new stuff because they want to hear the songs they know and love. In one sense you could say ‘why should we do a new album when you just want to hear old songs anyway?’ but it’s still something we’ve talked about. Nothing’s happening just yet, though that’s not to say it won’t.”
Even so, there are plenty of new Pogues-related products in stores, like last year’s Rhino remasters of key albums from the first MacGowan-led period. In keeping with that label’s custom of treating recent Yes, Genesis, and Depeche Mode collections, the original projects are updated with superior sound quality, an artwork facelift, plus a slew of bonus tracks. “We wanted [the label] to do them, so we’re quite happy that they did!” quips Stacy. “I’m more than happy that I had a couple of songs that were previously languishing as b-sides that can now see the light of day.”
The band’s aforementioned box set (tentatively titled Just Look Them Straight In The Eye and Say....POGUE MAHONE!!) follows a similar mindset, in turn unlocking an additional treasure trove of rarities and demos, plus a DVD of live material from reunion shows in New York and Manchester. “It’s basically outtakes, demos, early forms of songs and stuff that didn’t make it to a record in one form or another,” Stacy reveals. “With some of the songs, it’s possible they didn’t fit for a reason, but with others, you start asking ‘why didn’t we put this out as a single?’ My feelings are mixed with box sets- I don’t care who it is- because they often have reams of unreleased back catalogue and you can often listen and say ‘yeah, I kind of see why that was unreleased,’ but then you do find stuff really, really good stuff you’ve forgotten about.”
Regardless of the specific contents, the remasters series and box set offer a comprehensive evolutionary time line, along with several examples of rubbing off on other artists. While not carbon copies by any means, groups like The Tossers, Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly and The Elders (amongst many others) showcase surface similarities and regularly cite these pioneers as influences. It’s a sentiment that again fills Stacy with reactions, sometimes leaning towards flattery, but occasionally anger for merely ripping off The Pogues’ premises.
“There are some people who do it brilliant and some people who just think all you’ve got to do to sound like The Pogues is write a song like Shane when you’re really drunk and then play it in that condition, which isn’t really what it’s about,” he counters. “I’m always reminded of how John Lydon would get really irritated of groups who’d slavishly copy the Sex Pistols…But look at a band like the Dropkicks, who don’t actually sound anything like The Pogues even though some people say they do, which I think is lazy journalism. Sure there are similarities between the Dropkicks and The Pogues, but the Dropkicks are Boston-Irish musicians set to music that borrows from that sort of scene, Irish roots and all the stuff they listen to- like AC/DC and [various punk bands]. They’re able to draw influences from all they listen to rather than just one particular band.”
However, the continuation of Celtic rock/punk in any format has kept The Pogues’ spirit alive even during its hiatus. As a result, today’s ethnically varied audiences are split between old school appreciators hoping to reclaim their youth and teens checking out the legacy for the first time.
“I think the audiences have always been pretty diverse and you gotta remember The Pogues aren’t an Irish band, they’re a London band before anything else- or a London/Irish band if you’d like,” observes Stacy. “But the more diverse the better because it would be really boring if everybody was always wearing green hats at our shows- nothing against green hats at all. When we went back to Japan for the first time, I think the oldest person was about twenty-five and they were really going berserk. My wife and I were just in Dublin and Belfast with Dropkick Murphys and I was getting mobbed by teenagers outside and I’m talking real genuine teenagers, not just people in their mid-twenties who looked a bit young. The fact that we can come back and play for people who weren’t even born when we were at our peak makes me think we really had a big impact as a band and reach across all generations. Some of the songs the band’s written are really timeless and it’s good to know we achieved something beyond commercial success and genuinely touched people’s hearts.”
# # #