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Shane MacGowan’s excesses obliterated his talent – and the music industry stood by and watched

Shane MacGowan on stage in 1999
Shane MacGowan on stage in 1999 - PA

In May 1989, Ali Campbell, the frontman with UB40, delivered a message of tough love to Shane MacGowan during a tour of European stadiums on which The Pogues were the Birmingham group’s special guests.

“Ali… really lit into him,” recalled Pogues bassist Daryl Hunt in a piece published in 20/20 magazine in the summer of that year. “[He said] ‘You’re pathetic, you know that? Why are you always such a miserable c___? You never talk to anyone! You never f_____’ socialise. You just sit in the back of the [tour] bus f_____’ yourself up’” Hunt was unclear as to whether or not Campbell’s dressing-down would have any effect on his singer’s insatiable appetite for self-destruction. “Sometimes it registers and sometimes it doesn’t,” he concluded.

Certainly, there was no difference to be made six weeks earlier when The Pogues were forced to read the riot act following a performance in front of 10,000 people in which MacGowan – on a distant planet, anyway, thanks to a pronounced dose of LSD – had stumbled about the stage while missing vocal cues in favour of tucking into what one writer memorably described as “his portable off-license”. Evidently, things were coming unstuck. If there was a period in the singer’s life at which intemperance overpowered art once and for all, I reckon this was it.

I hope it goes without saying that the passing of Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan, who died with his family by his side at 3am yesterday morning, aged 65, is a tragedy of a private and terrible kind. But for those of us who knew him only through music, death came calling decades earlier. Barring a smattering of 21st Century guest appearances, 26-years have elapsed since the release of Crock Of Gold, his last full-length studio album (recorded with backing band The Popes). Not that it’s my business to complain about this, I suppose. It was his talent, after all, to do with as he pleased. And what he pleased was that it be allowed to drown.

“Your man MacGowan on acid, eight or nine tabs at a time, every day [was] one big f______ nightmare,” was how Pogues manager Frank Murray recalled the recording of Peace And Love, the band’s fourth album, from 1989. “It was terrible, him out [of] his head on acid in the studio. He was being impossible, getting into a couple of big bust-ups with [producer] Steve [Lillywhite]. Trying to get him to finish the f______ lyrics to a new song, you know, was bad enough. Then he couldn’t sing properly some days.” On account of the singer’s disrepair, the album ran over-budget to the tune of more than £30,000. Wouldn’t have been so bad were that not the best tune on it.

But while MacGowan’s appetites were on full display long before perfect strangers knew his name, the killing fields of his chosen trade provided all the license he needed to turn excess into derangement. The only difference, he once said, between his own life and those of the tramps in Kings Cross to whom he would often dole out high-denomination banknotes in the night’s smallest hours was that people applauded his misbehaviour.

As ever, though, the music industry had no idea how to handle, let alone help, a talent so determined to cannibalise itself. Instead, whether in horror or celebration, it fixated on the spectacle. Fine. But there comes a point, sooner than you might think, at which the wild scenarios from the world of rock’n’roll are enjoyed only by those who didn’t partake in them. As it so happens, this is a subject I’ve written about at length. In doing so I’ve learnt that you can have your great music and you can have your eye-popping stories – and you can even have them at the same time. But not for long, you can’t.

“Being around one person who obviously overdoes it can make everyone else sort of question their own vices,” said guitarist Philip Chevron in 1989. “Shane is obviously irreplaceable to The Pogues… [but] I still believe that if anyone needs to take an extended break from the group, we can accommodate that.” After firing MacGowan two years later, it turned out they could accommodate more than they might have thought. In 1993, the song Tuesday Morning, sung by Spider Stacy, became (at least at the time) the group’s highest-selling single.

Shane MacGowan celebrating St Patrick's Day in Belfast, 2004
Shane MacGowan celebrating St Patrick's Day in Belfast, 2004 - PA

For his part, Shane MacGowan became an anti-hero trapped in aspic. As Neil McCormick rightly noted in his tribute, “Fame [became] his enabler, his alcoholism facilitated by friends, fans and barmen”. It didn’t seem to matter that he made the rock’n’roll lifestyle seem squalid and rather dull, or that almost nothing he said outside the confines of a song was worth hearing. As accordionist James Fearnley noted in his book Here Comes Everybody: The Story Of The Pogues, from 2012, “A stable perception was never reachable as to whether Shane was a genius or a f______ idiot”.

Certainly, there aren’t many artists who have attained the status of musical sainthood with such a slight body of great work. With few exceptions – Rain Street, perhaps, from 1990’s bedraggled Hell’s Ditch, his last album as a Pogue – Shane MacGowan made his point in just five years. A glance at the credits on Red Roses For Me (1984), Rum, Sodomy & The Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988), the band’s deathless first three albums, reveals that he wrote, and in some cases co-wrote, a mere 21-songs. You can throw in three tracks from the Poguetry In Motion EP, if you like, and Haunted from the Sid & Nancy soundtrack, each from 1986. Even so, the pickings are slim.

To casual listeners, it might be even be that MacGowan’s genius has been validated on the strength of just one track. If so, I say fair enough. In combining the saddest and most joyous elements of the festive song-writing tradition, the seasonally ubiquitous Fairytale Of New York is both a gilded classic and a unique work of art. Still, despite the brilliance of this most remarkable of singles, barely one in 30 of the people who purchased it went on to buy even the most commercially successful Pogues album. In the UK, not one of their LPs ever went platinum.

In other words, despite the economy of MacGowan’s songbook, it seems there is much to discover. There’s the “dear dirty delightful old drunken old days” recalled on The Dark Streets Of London. There’s “the sunset that came to meet the evening on the hill” on Body Of An American. Best of all, for me at least, there’s the description of the fallout from one lucky punter’s big win on an outside bet at a racecourse on a clear and bright day. “Bookies cursing, cars reversing,” goes the untouchable couplet on the delirious Bottle Of Smoke.

I just wish there was more, is all. I wish it hadn’t petered out into decades of silence. What a waste. I wish I hadn’t seen the Popes concert at the Clapham Grand, in 1994, at which Shane MacGowan couldn’t even sing to the beat of The Irish Rover. I wish I hadn’t read the autobiography in which Pete Doherty recalled feeding him furtive hits on a crack pipe during dinner at a restaurant in Dublin. I wish I hadn’t queued to see The Pogues in the days when they became a 21st Century nostalgia act milking the Christmas gig market for next year’s spends, either. Even though I did, several times.

I was just 16 when I first saw them. On that lovely summer’s day in 1987, The Pogues were part of the undercard for the first date of U2’s two-night stand at Wembley Stadium. I don’t remember what they played that afternoon – I’d never heard them before, anyway, and try as I might I can’t find a set-list online – but I do recall it was like being hit by a hammer. “Did you like The Pogues?” Bono asked the audience hours later. “God likes The Pogues,” he added. Is it any wonder? They were the last truly great London band, after all.

If the mood took him, sometimes MacGowan would wrestle with the straitjacket of public perception. As he told music writer Nick Kent, the idea of merely being a conduit for greatness was for the birds. It was disrespectful. “Songwriting’s a craft, that’s all,” he said.” And anyway, the people who analysed his output were missing the point. “I always knew that my lyrics were better than anyone else’s anyway,” came the boast. “I just edit more than other people, that’s my f_____’ secret. Constant f______ re-editing.”

Shane MacGowan with his wife Victoria Mary Clarke in 2006
Shane MacGowan with his wife Victoria Mary Clarke in 2006 - Getty

This image of a dedicated writer hard at work makes the idea of a middle-aged MacGowan, somewhere in a parallel universe, beavering away with the diligence of fellow recovering addicts Nick Cave or Steve Earle (both erstwhile collaborators) more likely than it may seem. His life may have been chaotic, sure, but his songs are anything but. Disciplined and economical, he spent two years honing Fairytale Of New York into its state of eternal perfection. On the page at least, or on record, this was a serious man.

Like I said, I just wish there’d been more. By some accounts, he did too. But it never came to pass. And while the purest songwriter of his generation somehow managed to live for decades longer than any sane person would ever have predicted, the talent that brought forth A Pair Of Brown Eyes and A Rainy Night In Soho wasn’t so lucky. “There’s a limit to everything,” he once said, long before he discovered where it lay. Even for Shane MacGowan, in the end, it turned out to be true.


Bodies: Life & Death In Music by Ian Winwood is published by Faber & Faber