An anti-war epic, a Christmas classic, an incredible Sinead duet, and more
With the Pogues, singer, songwriter, and rock & roll icon Shane MacGowan connected the sound and spirit of punk with his Irish roots to create one of the most distinctive bands of the last 40 years. Pogues albums like 1985’s Rum, Sodomy & the Lash and 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God remain classics, and his finest songs (both originals and covers) were full of heart, poetry, and ragged beauty. He was also a great duet partner for other artists. Here are some highlights from his brilliant career.
‘King of the Bop’ (The Nips) (1978)
Before MacGowan immersed himself in Irish music, he imbued himself with punk. Julien Temple’s documentary, Crock of Gold, makes the case that MacGowan was at enough early Sex Pistols gigs that he could have been Sid Vicious (although, in fairness, so could almost anyone). MacGowan formed his own punk band, the Nipple Erectors (later the Nips), who released the Fifties-rock–inspired “King of the Bop” in 1978. His growl paired with Duane Eddy–style guitar could have made for the rowdiest, gruffest rockabilly rave-up since Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot” if the Cramps hadn’t put out “Surfin’ Bird” that same year. Luckily for MacGowan, he’d turn to his own roots for new inspirations. —K.G.
‘Dark Streets of London’ (1984)
The Pogues’ 1984 debut single, written by MacGowan, establishes the template for everything that would come after it. It’s at once rollicking and downtrodden, buoyant and bruised, a perfect mix of rough-and-ready punk rock and proudly hot-wired traditional Irish folk music. MacGowan sounds like a young man on a payday spree, his voice creaking and spitting proudly with underdog gusto, even as he drops lines about being “buggered to damnation and I haven’t got a penny” on those dark London streets, which he made feel as alive as any writer ever did. The song appeared on their great debut, Red Roses For Me. —J.D.
‘Waxies’ Dargle’ (1984)
“Says my aul’ wan to your aul’ wan, ‘Will ye go to the Waxies’ dargle?” So begins the 19th-century Irish reel that MacGowan and the Pogues turned into a punk song on their 1984 debut. In the 1800s, those words meant, “Me mum is asking yer mum if you’d like to go to a blowout thrown by the local cobblers.” In the late 1900s, it meant, “Let’s all go to the pub and get properly drenched,” which you can hear as MacGowan sings, “Whaddaya have, I’ll have a pint!” and Spider Stacey clangs whatever is in grabbing distance as hard as he can on his head. It’s a glorious, uproarious celebration, and it set the tone for everything the Pogues did over the next decade. —K.G.
‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ (1985)
“The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” was originally recorded by the Australian folk singer Eric Bogle, an artist whom critic Robert Christgau called “one of the least commanding singers in any hemisphere you care to name.” But lyrically, it’s one of the most searing portrayals of the horrific nature of war ever written, and the eight-minute funeral-march version of the song that ends Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash is absolutely devastating. McGowan truly makes it his own, masticating every word as he sinks his crooked teeth into its tale of the “the legless, the armless, the blind, the insane” who counted themselves as lucky survivors of the Battle of Gallipoli in World War I. It remains punishingly real every time you play it. —J.D.
‘Dirty Old Town’ (1985)
Written by British songwriter, playwright, and actor Ewan MacColl, “Dirty Old Town” was already more than three decades old by the time the Pogues got around to it. First heard in one of MacColl’s plays, Landscape with Chimneys, it had become a standard in the U.K. But leave it to MacGowan to have the nerve to take it on — and make it his own in the process. Whereas MacColl sang “Dirty Old Town” with a certain folk-purist starchiness, MacGowan fully inhabited the song. The hint of a hangover and a dead-end life in MacGown’s voice made the images of gas stations, trains and prowling cats even more vivid — and imbued the song with a sense of resignation that was all too real to many who heard it in the Eighties. —D.B.
‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ (1985)
McGowan’s genius, the way he was able to blow the soot off centuries-old musical traditions, rarely sounded as grand and poignant on one of his earliest songs. On the surface, “A Pair of Brown Eyes” is one of those ale-sodden Celtic ballads that everyone sings in tandem at the end of a long night in the pub, especially its “A rovin’ I’ll go” refrain. Behind MacGowan, the band trudges on beautifully, the banjo and accordion conjuring rolling Irish hills. But the lyric is anything but celebratory: In a bar, a war veteran listens to country songs on the jukebox as he recalls what he endured (“the arms and legs of other men were scattered all around”) and what he’ll never get back. When he finally stumbles out, he hears the birds and the wind, but as MacGowan’s already roughened voice conveys, his roving for peace of mind will never end. —D.B.
‘The Body of an American’ (1985)
MacGowan’s greatest tale, raising hell with accordions and pipes and tin whistle, the same year the Pogues released their rebel Celtic folk-punk classic Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. “The Body of an American” might be slightly diminished by all those scenes in The Wire with Irish dudes dancing, but this is one of the realest songs ever written about immigration, also one of the best funeral songs, also one of the best drinking songs. It’s also the realest song about leaving home and laughing it off, when you know in your heart you’ll never return and you’ll never get over the true love you left behind and you’ll never truly have a home again. —R.S.
‘A Rainy Night in Soho’ (1986)
In one of the Pogues’ tenderest ballads, MacGowan sings, “I took shelter from a shower, and I stepped into your arms on a rainy night in Soho.” It’s a tribute to the love of his life, the one who stole his heart at a young age, who transformed his life for better and/or worse — and it’s never clear whether that love is a woman or whiskey. Probably both. It’s that ambiguity that made MacGowan one of Irish rock’s greatest poets, and he knew it, too, since this track originally came out on an EP snarkily titled Poguetry in Motion. As the melody lilts around and MacGowan toasts friends who fell into Heaven and some who fell into Hell, all of his great loves sort of melt together, and it doesn’t really matter, which is the point: “Now this song is nearly over, we may never find out what it means/Still there’s a light I hold before me, and you’re the measure of my dreams.” That “measure,” of course, is a jigger — both the kind that measures whiskey and the lady who dances in his dreams. —K.G.
‘Fairytale of New York’ (1988)
Best Christmas song ever? The Pogues brought on the great vocalist Kirsty MacColl for this 1988 tune about a couple of Irish immigrants in New York who arrive with big dreams and end up with nothing to show for it but their hate for each other, for their wasted dreams, and for the boys of the NYPD choir still singing “Galway Bay.” MacGowan and MacColl have better chemistry than a shot and a beer after Christmas Eve mass, with MacColl (who died tragically in 2000) giving as good as she gets. When Shane calls her “an old slut on junk,” Kirsty rifles back with a homophobic slur that shocks by today’s standards: “You scumbag, you maggot/You cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your ass/I pray god it’s our last.” (Jon Bon Jovi changed it to “braggart” when he re-recorded it in 2020). As the Sinatra strings swell around them, the hopelessness rips your heart out. And somehow this became an MTV hit. —J.D.
‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ (1988)
This rambunctious anthem is one of the best examples of Shane MacGowan’s ability to punk up Irish folk. Written by MacGowan as the title track of the Pogues’ third album, it addresses death, drowning and maybe even some of Ireland’s politics. “This land was always ours/it was the proud land of our fathers,” he snarls in one verse before letting out a piercing scream. But it’s the “coming up threes” allusion that is most rich in imagery, of the maritime kind: Lore has it that before you drown, you surface three times. As MacGowan delivers it, in a chorus so hooky it was once used in a Subaru commercial, he’s at peace with the end result: “Let me go, boys.” —J.H.
‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah’ (1988)
Anticipating the upbeat, ultra-optimistic, everybody’s-in-this-together euphony of Britpop before Blur and Oasis had even formed, the Pogues’ “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah” was a feel-good bullet of good will (with a Top of the Pops-themed music video that also predated Nirvana’s “In Bloom”). The lyrics are one great big apology in which MacGowan admits he was a total jerk to the girl he liked since school (with some tawdry tangents), then promises to be the man she hopes he’d be with lots of positive affirmation: Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah! “Now all that I can do is hope and pray that you’ll forgive me before it’s too late,” he sings. “There’s only one thing I can say to you, you know I’ll love you, you know it’s true.” It was the band’s first U.S. hit. (Don’t skip the “extended version” for extra yeahs.) Yeah! —K.G.
‘The Sunnyside of the Street’ (1990)
One of MacGowan’s great immigrant anthems, “The Sunnyside of the Street” bears one of his best choruses: “I saw that train and I got on it/With a heart full of hate and a lust for vomit/Now I’m walking on the sunnyside of the street.” When paired with Spider Stacy’s tin whistle melody and co-writer Jem Finer’s finest mandola playing, the song paints a realistic picture of the hope and anxiety of leaving your native land for something better. Thanks to expert production by the Clash’s Joe Strummer (who briefly replaced MacGowan when the Pogues kicked him out after this album), MacGowan’s growl rests gently in the sunnyside of the mix. “I knew that day, I was going to stay right where I am,” he sings. “… On the sunnyside of the street.” —K.G.
‘What a Wonderful World’ (with Nick Cave) (1992)
Could anyone growl “What a Wonderful World” as well as Louis Armstrong? No, but if anyone could come close to his guttural greatness it was MacGowan, who recorded this rousing cover with Nick Cave in 1992, shortly after his ejection from the Pogues. In the music video, he closes his eyes (thinking to himself) and sort of melts into the lyrics as he and Cave shake hands during the “friends shaking hands” verse. It was an ironic vision of peace coming strangely from two of the era’s greatest hellraisers. The song was a minor, wonderful hit in the U.K. that year. —K.G.
‘Haunted’ (with Sinead O’Connor) (1995)
MacGowan might not appear to be a leading man, but on this melancholy duet with Sinead O’Connor, which appeared on the soundtrack for 1995’s Two If By Sea, he steps effortlessly into that role. Offsetting the falsetto notes of O’Connor’s opening lines — “do you remember that sunny day/somewhere in London in the middle of nowhere” — MacGowan’s gruff declarations of love give the song an endearing quality. The Pogues had recorded “Haunted” a decade earlier for the Sid and Nancy soundtrack, with MacGowan singing alongside Cait O’Riordan, but it was the chemistry between him and O’Connor that made the song a minor hit, reaching Number 30 on the U.K. charts. The two remained close friends, but in 2000 they had a falling out when O’Connor called the cops on MacGowan, hoping it would help him kick heroin. They eventually rekindled their friendship, but it’s this song — a ghostly ballad about enduring love — that will forever encapsulate their shared greatness. —E.G.P.
‘My Way’ (1996)
If anyone other than Frank Sinatra earned the right to sing this ode to willful stubbornness, it was MacGowan. By the mid-Nineties, when he turned the song into a Celtic-punk brawl, he was pushing 40 and had been through it. It all came out in his rendition, which was neither campy nor kitschy but a defiant statement of purpose. When he gargled, “Let the record show, I took all the blows/And did it my way,” he not only meant it; he was proud of it. MacGowan’s last shining moment, it naturally concludes with a touch of electrified Irish music, just to remind us where his roots lie. Somewhere, let’s hope he and Frank are tossing back a few together. —D.B.