The Pogues Biography

The London, England-based punk scene of the late 70s inspired some unusual intermingling of styles and the Pogues (then known as Pogue Mahone) performed punky versions of traditional Irish folk songs in pubs throughout the capital. The line-up for their first gig at The Pindar Of Wakefield on 4 October 1982 featured singer Shane MacGowan (25 December 1957, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England, but raised in County Tipperary, Eire), Spider Stacy (b. Peter Richard Stacy, 14 December 1958, Eastbourne, England; tin whistle, ex-Millwall Chainsaws), Jem Finer (b. 25 July 1955, Stoke-on-Trent, England; banjo/mandolin), James Fearnley (b. 9 October 1954, Worsley, West Manchester, England; guitar/piano accordion), and John Hasler (drums). MacGowan had spent his late teen years singing in a punk band called the Nipple Erectors (aka the Nips) which also featured Fearnley. Cait O’Riordan (b. Catilín O’Riordan, 4 January 1965, Nigeria; bass) was added to the line-up the next day, and after the band went through a number of drummers they finally settled on Andrew Ranken (b. 13 November 1953, Ladbroke Grove, London, England) in March 1983.

After several complaints the band changed their name (Pogue Mahone is ‘kiss my arse’ in Gaelic) and soon attracted the attention of the Clash who asked them to be their opening act. Record companies were perturbed by the band’s occasionally chaotic live act where they would often fight onstage and Stacy kept time by banging his head with a beer tray. In 1984 Stiff Records signed the Pogues and recorded Red Roses For Me, which contained several traditional tunes as well as excellent originals such as ‘Streams Of Whiskey’ and ‘Dark Streets Of London’. It announced a major songwriting talent in MacGowan’s evocative descriptions of times and places he had often visited first-hand. Acclaimed UK recording artist Elvis Costello produced the follow-up Rum, Sodomy & The Lash on which Philip Chevron (b. Philip Ryan, 17 June 1957, Dublin, Eire), formerly a guitarist with the Radiators, replaced Finer who was on ‘paternity leave’. The album saw MacGowan’s songwriting reach new heights on ‘The Sick Bed Of Cúchulainn’, ‘A Pair Of Brown Eyes’ and ‘The Old Main Drag’.

The Pogues soon established themselves as a formidable and unique live act and Rum, Sodomy & The Lash built on this success by entering the UK Top 20. The attendant Poguetry In Motion EP included two more Pogues classics, ‘Rainy Night In Soho’ and ‘The Body Of An American’. There were further changes when the multi-instrumentalist Terry Woods (b. 4 December 1947, Dublin, Eire, a co-founder of Steeleye Span) joined, and Cait O’Riordan was replaced by roadie Darryl Hunt (b. 4 May 1950, Hampshire, England). O’Riordan later married Elvis Costello. The Pogues’ intrinsically political stance resulted in the video that accompanied the single ‘A Pair Of Brown Eyes’ having to be re-edited because the band was filmed spitting on a poster of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. ‘We represent the people who don’t get the breaks. People can look at us and say, “My God, if that bunch of tumbledown wrecks can do it, so can I”’, explained Chevron in a press interview. The band would later have their protest ballad, ‘Birmingham Six’, banned from airplay. The album on which this appeared, 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God, was produced by Steve Lillywhite and embraced Middle Eastern and Spanish sounds. It sold more than 200, 000 copies in the USA and ‘Fairytale Of New York’, a rumbustious but poignant duet by MacGowan and Lillywhite’s wife, Kirsty MacColl, was a Christmas number 2 hit in the UK in 1987. During the same year, the Pogues teamed up with veteran Irish folk group the Dubliners on a Top 10 version of the traditional number ‘The Irish Rover’.

In the autumn of 1989, there were fears for the future of the Pogues when MacGowan’s heavy drinking led to him pulling out of several shows. He was due to join the band in the USA for a prestigious tour with Bob Dylan when he collapsed at London’s Heathrow Airport. He missed all the support spots with Dylan and the band played without him. ‘Other groups in a situation like that would’ve either said, “Let’s get rid of the guy” or “Let’s split up”, but we’re not the sort to do that. We’re all part of each other’s problems whether we like it or not’, said Chevron. Peace And Love (1989) and Hell’s Ditch (1990) featured songs written by nearly every member of the band and their eclectic nature saw them picking up the hurdy-gurdy, the cittern and the mandola. The albums’ erratic nature drew criticism from some quarters, mainly from original fans who preferred the early folk punk rants. While the other members were clearly strong players, it was widely accepted that MacGowan was the most talented songwriter. His output had always been highly sporadic but there were now fears that the drinking that fuelled his earlier creativity may have slowed him to a standstill. In an interview in 1989 he said he had not been ‘dead straight sober’ since he was 14 and that he drank in quantity because ‘it opened his mind to paradise’.

It was announced in November 1991 that MacGowan had left the band and had been replaced by the former Clash singer Joe Strummer. This relationship lasted until June the following year when Strummer stepped down and the lead vocalist job went to Spider Stacy. MacGowan later re-emerged with his new band, the Popes, while his erstwhile colleagues continued to tour heavily, recording competent new material that lacked the flair of old. The Pogues eventually called it a day in August 1996, by which point only Hunt and Ranken remained from the late 80s line-up. They reunited with the errant MacGowan in December 2001 to play a number of live dates. Several repeat performances have followed, including a December 2004 tour featuring the late 80s line-up joined by original bass player Cait O’Riordan.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.