A week or so before The Pogues headlined the closing night of the Féile festival in Thurles in August, 1991, I saw them play live in one of their regular and most boisterous U.K. haunts, The Brixton Academy in South London. They’d car-crashed through a chaotic tour the previous year in support of the ‘Hell’s Ditch’ album and concerns had increased for the well-being of the group’s singer, Shane MacGowan, and indeed for the group itself.
Like half of the population of Cork at the time, I was about to move to London and was dipping in and out of the city, testing the water. A clueless post-grad, I honestly had no idea where I was going [literally and in every other way] and was afraid of my life, especially around the tube stations and at the bus stops late at night. My primary priority at concerts was getting home.
I’d started contributing regularly to my home-town paper, The Cork Examiner [now The Irish Examiner] at this time. I remember one exchange with that paper’s long-time editor, Fergus O’Callaghan [no relation], where he said :- ‘Your stuff is really good but I have absolutely no idea what any of it is about’. And looking back, neither did I.
In retrospect, while my spirit was willing, my writing was weak and my critical faculties were blunt. But writing for any newspaper, especially a national one, helped to blag access, and this was the case in Brixton.
I arrived at the venue three hours early, just in case, sheepishly killing time on the High Street and a couple of chip-shops. A press pass left for me at the front of the venue allowed me into the fringes of the back-stage, an education in itself. Support on the night was provided by The Chieftains and the sight of Paddy Moloney, Derek Bell and Matt Molloy mingling back-stage in their jumpers and slacks [and in Derek’s case, his trademark collar, tie and full-suit] reminded me more of a secondary school staff room than an old-school rock and roll dive.
I was told by one of the band’s publicists that Shane was sober and clean and that he was in rude good health. I’ve been told this on many occasions since. On the night, he took to the stage with what appeared to be a pint glass of wine in his hand and God only knows what else.
As it transpired, ‘Hell’s Ditch’ was the last Pogues record to feature Shane as a member :– he was fired by the band the following year on the eve of a tour having become increasingly unreliable and flutered. Elsewhere, I started to see how PR was the enemy of journalism, even journalism as irrelevant as mine.
On the night of the Brixton show, the crowd was noisy, intense and involved. The accents were thick and familiar, a strain of Cork prominent among them. And Ireland’s exploits at the World Cup almost the previous summer charged much of the chanting before the band took to the stage.
I thought The Pogues were the berries and I thought of myself in pretty much the same light. Reading back, I owe Fergus O’Callaghan and his sub-editors for persisting with me and for taking a punt.
This piece, which I’ve edited, appeared in The Cork Examiner [now The Irish Examiner], on July 31st, 1991.
The Pogues, live in Brixton
I’ve always had lots of time set aside for The Pogues. They’re always been good fun, wholesome too, and they’ve managed to write some of the most moving songs of the last ten years.
Shane MacGowan, as main-brain and writer, has always had a unique handle on the Irish paralysis. On the national psyche.Maybe its because he’s coming at this as some sort of colonial outsider, I’m not sure ? But he’s always been worth a long-term listen.
MacGowan seems to understand the plight of the underdog better than most. Maybe its because he himself is the perpetual drunkard, barely hanging onto the strands of control or reality ? Either way, he tells a tall story very well and brings the plight of the drunken dreamer into all of our homes and hearts.
But the last Pogues tour – for the ‘Hell’s Ditch’ album – left us worried. Shane drank harder than ever. The sight of a grown man falling over on stage after twosongs and later having his stomach pumped didn’t quite measure up. We waited to hear of Shane’s death. Of the band’s split.Both of them survived. Hair’sbreath.
Everything’s different now. Almost. Shane seems back in control and, backstage, he’s sipping little measures of wine and telling us he isn’t drinking any more.
We’re in London, at The Brixton Academy, and the band are at ease. This is back-to-basics fun, and while the venue is painted with Glasgow Celtic shirts and tri–colours and World Cup bits and pieces, the nationalism here isn’t a negative one.
We’re thankful that The Pogues are still with us. Gerry Conlon is here and he takes a bow. Its fun and goddam alright to be Irish.
The Chieftains have already been on and the sound of reel music never tasted better. But The Pogues have their tricks too and ‘Thousands Are Sailing’, a remarkable Philip Chevron song from ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ is very apt here. Emigration, torment and the lure of work and a Yankee dollar all all familiar to tonight’s crowd.
On stage its typically shambolic though, and ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah’ is like a very loud affirmation that we’re here and happy. The Pogues fly through most of ‘Hell’s Ditch’ but there’s no ‘Summer In Siam’. No ‘Fairtytale of New York’ either.
And then The Chieftains are back. Paddy [Moloney] and Spider [Stacy] swap tin whistles and its fast-forward through ‘The Irish Rover’ and fiddldy-dee.
Tonight simply flew past. We wish for more but we’re thankful for small mercies and know at least that Shane is still with us and insisting he’s healthier than ever. That, in itself, is enough.