Shane MacGowan talks to The Irish Times, 1985: ‘They call us drunk because we’re Irish, or maybe because we are’

From the archive: The late singer talks about a BBC Pogues ban, and ‘despair, dullness and sobriety’

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in The Irish Times on June 7th, 1985

The Pogues present the Irishman as hellraiser, the alcoholic as social critic and the artist as victim of tooth decay. From obscure origins under the tables of various north London pubs they have risen to the point where Elvis Costello is producing their third album and Alex Cox (director of Repo Man) has just made a video of their Pair of Brown Eyes single. When I met singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan and tin-whistler Spider Stacy at their recording studio last week they had returned from a tour of Germany, Finland and Scandinavia. And last Sunday they travelled to their heartland to play at Kenmare Arts Weekend.

The bibulous six blend traditional Irish airs with their own brand of country and punk. The ballady sentimentality is there, but it’s infused with a London-Irish reek of realism: of stale stout, tacky bars, dirty digs and mighty crack.

Initially they were known as The Pogue Mahones, but Auntie Beeb twigged its meaning and barred its mention or their appearance on Top of the Pops. I suspect some payola scheme here. A band with a clever press agent – like Frankie Goes to Hollywood – can launch itself to stardom on the strength of a BBC ban.

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But a repentant MacGowan sees their point: “The legions of Gaelic speakers over here would have been so offended. It’s a common misconception about the Irish in England – we’re all taught to speak Gaelic before we learn to speak English, you know. In Ireland, where you’ve forgotten how to speaka de lingo, RTÉ still call us The Pogue Mahones. If we styled ourselves The Kiss My Arses the BBC probably wouldn’t bat a camera lens. There’s an element of racism in all this.”

Two of the band members are in fact English, and only MacGowan was born in Ireland – he spent his first six years near Nenagh. But they all grew up in touch with Irish music either at home or in the pubs. Many Irish pubs in London exist in a curious time warp, and it was on this circuit that The Pogues broke their teeth.

At a quick count MacGowan has about four good molars left. The rest are broken or black. He assures me that they’re real: “You never get a false set like these.” He was involved in an infamous ear-biting incident at a Clash gig back in 1977, which made him a minor celebrity. That summer he formed The Nipple Erectors, a punk-pop outfit which subsequently bowdlerised its name to The Nips. After the Clash gig he got together with his musically inclined drinking buddies to assault Irish songs with the raucous velocity of punk. “A lot of Irish pubs do both rock and Irish bands, so it’s surprising that nobody thought of mixing them before‚” he says.

Fear of falling between two styles, perhaps? “But there’s a big population of young people – mostly London-Irish – who go for both.”

They mix their drinks as manically as they do their musical modes. Spider sensibly stuck to cider as we chatted, but MacGowan swigged stout in the recording studio, switching to lager and whiskey when we adjourned to the famous (and tourist-infested) Prospect of Whitby, next door. Their Bacchanalian bouts are legendary, and they frequently seem to play while well under the influence. Spider’s drunken stage kick is his celebrated attempt to perform a lobotomy with a metal tray.

MacGowan has been medically advised to let up or crack up. “It worries me,” he admits, “and I’m taking all the steps I can – short of drinking less.”

“Carlos Castaneda knows nothing,” says Spider. “Alcohol is the path to awareness, the only road to reality. I don’t drink to blot out reality; I drink to blot out drunkenness. Besides, we’re both very easily dehydrated. The sun dries us out like sand.” But it’s raining today. “Yeah, well, we suffer from cold, too – whiskey keeps us warm.”

Though they play up to it, and welcome all publicity short of an obituary, The Pogues resent the way the English press concentrates on their drinking to the exclusion of everything else. “They call us Irish because they like to label things, and they call us drunk because we’re Irish – or maybe because we are.”

Do they need more booze to capture the spirit of their songs in the clinical atmosphere of a recording studio? “Not really. We get our buzz from audience reaction. You can’t have an audience in a studio, and no amount of booze makes up for that. But we’re professional enough at this stage to do what needs to be done,” he says.

Has success changed them in other ways? “Yeah. We’re more arrogant. We don’t get stage fright from a crowd of thousands any more.” They’ve outgrown the pub circuit by virtue of the crowds they draw – up to 2,000 in London, 400 or 500 in provincial cities. They’re doing a British tour in a few weeks’ time and will release a single to coincide therewith. The album will be out in September. It’s provisionally titled Rum, Sodomy & the Lash – Churchill’s encapsulation of the British naval tradition. We all agree that Churchill and the three Bs – Bracken, Birkenhead and Beaverbrook – would have made great drinking company and that the Tory party under the headmistress has lots its cavalier streak.

There are unflattering references to La Thatcher in the video. “Alex Cox is great. He’s a complete lunatic, a natural speed freak who doesn’t need amphetamine – his glands pump the stuff. We approached him after seeing Repo Man. None of us dreamed that in a video of A Pair of Brown Eyes the eyes would first appear in a brown paper bag or drop from sockets into cups of tea. Weird.”

Much of the video is an attack on modern mindlessness, with shots like one in which blindfolded commuters are tuned into Walkman radios.

“There are armies of people in this country who nearly never go out and about the pubs and the gigs and the nightspots. They sit at home watching telly, then they sit in offices watching computer screens, and when they travel between the two they’re plugged into Walkmans. Reality never impinges. They’re the ideal population for a police state, which is what Britain’s turning into. At the end of the 1970s it was a mess, but at least there was some spirit about. Now it’s sunk in despair and dullness and sobriety.”

They don’t do rebel songs in the Irish sense. “Views on that differ in the band, and views differ in our audience‚” says MacGowan. “I believe in a 32-county Ireland, but it would cause problems if we sang about it. We’d have to confine ourselves to the Irish ghetto. A few months ago we played in Glasgow to Celtic and Rangers supporters waving their colours – no aggro at all. Yet even as it is, we have only to sing The Auld Triangle or The Boys from the County Hell and some bigots think we’re an active-service unit.”

As we talk a head pops around the door and Spider is asked, “How does the Russian national anthem go?” He gives a rendition and explains that they’re playing a number of national anthems as background to a tune called The Gentleman Soldier. “It’s about a soldier who impregnates a young girl, then tells her he’s married and scarpers – the old story.”

Spider hopes that “Deutschland über alles” will be seen in the context of a piss-take. I express the hope that A Soldier’s Song won’t be used. They assure me that it won’t, as we all agree, spluttering into our drinks, that no Irish soldier would behave like that.