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The Origins of The Pogues

The Origins of The Pogues written by Robert Rawson All Rights Reserved © Void Magazine

There’s no denying that Ireland has produced some of the greatest music on the planet, it’s one of the things we do best. We have an impressive history when it comes to music and a lot of highly influential figures in music have come from Ireland. Unfortunately, Ireland has lost a few highly influential musicians over the past few years. We lost Dolores O’Riordan back in 2018, the lead singer of the Irish alternative rock band “The Cranberries”. Then in 2023 alone, we lost Christy Dignam, Sinead O Connor and near the end of the year on November 30th, we lost Shane McGowan. I think it’s safe to say that as a country we could consider Shane McGowan as something of a “national treasure”. McGowan has done a lot for Ireland when it comes to music, but we of course can’t talk about Shane McGowan without talking about The Pogues.

The Pogues were an Irish trad punk band who formed in 1977, at first only consisting of three members, frontman Shane McGowan, Spider Stacy on the tin whistle and Jem Finer on guitar. The three used to play together in a band called “The Millwall Chainsaws” and as time went on, more members such as James Fearnely (accordion), Cait O’Riordan (bass) and Andrew Ranken (drums) would join the band. The Pogues came onto the scene during the beginning of the 1980s. They would frequent pubs and clubs around London, making a name for themselves in English spaces with their Irish pub and rebel songs, during a time where it wasn’t too popular at all to be Irish in Britain. The Pogue’s sound was like nothing anyone had ever heard before at that time. The band would get on stage an the audience would be met with a raucous wave of traditional Irish music, punk rock and folk all mixed into one steaming, rattling pot. When describing The Pogues live performances, in a documentary titled “The Great Hunger: The Life & Songs Of Shane MacGowan” musician Billy Bragg said “it was like going to a punk gig, but it was folk music”.

They released their debut single “Dark Streets Of London” in 1984 on their own label. When they opened for The Clash in the same year, the grabbed the attention of record label “Stiff Records”. In October of 1984, they went on to release their debut album on Stiff Records, titled “Red Roses For Me”. On this record, you can hear them blending the sounds or Irish traditional music and punk music together, a sound that would continue to utilize and perfect throughout their career.

Now, let’s get into the part I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for, The Fairytale Of New York. The facts of how this song first came about are a little muddled, in James Fearnley’s memoir “Here Comes Everybody” he claims that their manager suggested they do a cover of “Christmas Must Be Tonight” by The Band, to which they declined and said they would write their own Christmas song, whilst MacGowan insists that the idea to write the song came from Elvis Costello (who produced their sophomore album) made a bet with Shane that he couldn’t write a Christmas duet to sing with Cait O Riordan. Regardless of whoever’s story is true, they wanted to make a Christmas song and that’s just what they did, eventually.

The song took about two years to write and record, with the writing process being especially grueling. On writing the song, MacGowan said “”Every night I used to have another bash at nailing the lyrics, but I knew they weren’t right” the frontman also said that “It is by far the most complicated song that I have ever been involved in writing and performing. The beauty of it is that it sounds really simple.” When the song had finally been written, Cait O’Riordan had already left the band, which left nobody to complete the duet. After looking for a female voice for a little while, the lads decided on Kirsty MacColl. At first, the band weren’t fully convinced that she was the right person to do it but once they heard her vocals on the song they knew they had made the right choice and after all of the struggles faced in making the song, they finally finished in in August of 1987.

Fairytale Of New York was released as a single on November 23 1987 and was met with widespread success. It reached the number 1 spot on the Irish charts and the number 2 spot on the UK charts over Christmas time. To this day, it is without a doubt The Pogue’s most popular song and one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time, with many regarding it as the greatest Christmas song of all time.

The band was hit with more commercial success than they had ever seen in their career so far, with their two albums “If I Should Fall from Grace with God” and “Peace and Love” reaching the top 5 in the UK charts. The Pogue’s were at their peak and nothing could stop them, or at least that’s what it seemed like. As the band would get more and more popular, McGowan’s antics would become more and more unbearable for his bandmates. Aside from his heavy drinking, McGowan would also fall victim to substance abuse, with heroin being his drug of choice.

In 1991, the band finally decided to kick McGowan out of the band following an erratic performance at the WOMAD Festival in Japan. Fast forward to 1996, The Pogue’s released their final studio album “Pogue Mahone” and bombed commercially. Following this failure, guitarist Jem Finer decided to leave the band and the rest of the band decided that it was time to pack it up and quit.

After the break-up, Spider Stacy, Andrew Ranken and Darryl Hunt formed a band called “The Vendettas”. Meanwhile MacGowan would continue play with his band “Shane MacGowan and The Popes” which he formed in 1992 a year after he had been kicked out of The Pogues. The other members of The Pogues would float around in and out of other bands, whilst MacGowan would continue to play with his new band until 2005, when The Pogues seemed to be back on track.

At first, The Pogues reunited for a Christmas Tour in 2001, they then went on to play a few shows both in UK and Ireland in December 2004 and before they knew it, The Pogues were back doing what they did best. As the years would pass, the lads would continue playing live shows and touring the world together, doing what they loved all over again, until their last show in 2014 in France, a few months after their guitarist Philip Chevron had passed away.

To this day, the legacy of The Pogues lives on and people continue to listen to and appreciate their music. Shane MacGowan’s raw and rugged vocals matched with his poetic way of words is a tough combination to forget. There was never a band like The Pogues and there never will be again.

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