I was always of the opinion that Spider Stacey’s tea tray head-bashing was as much a part of The Pogues’ magic as MacGowan’s poetese. The band’s subject matter could be boiled down to (i) London and an accompanying nostalgie de la boue (ii) The immigrant Irish experience and identity (iii) Booze. The melding of these three was the particular genius of the band and MacGowan’s lyrics. It undoubtedly filled the vacuum after the demise of post-punk and the musical non-event of ‘New Romanticism’. The Pogues, The Fall and The Smiths (the ‘The’ bands?) offered us hope in the mid-80s (as did, to a greater extent, Americans such as Sonic Youth, Big Black, REM, Big Black, The Replacements, Husker Du and The Butthole Surfers).
The Crock of Gold goes some way to explaining Shame McGowan’s pathology: the film starts with him being unconscionably rude to the film maker, boorish, spoiled and out of it (natch). Like it’s meant to be somehow pathognomonic of Shane’s essential ‘honesty’ and ‘telling it as it is(n’t)’? A great start to the film, and nothing after this made me alter my opinion as to his essential smallness of spirit, whatever the ass-kissers say. The first part is possibly the most interesting: I found it noteworthy that there was a lot of hand-held video film of the MacGowan family available, very unusual in the early 70s, and somewhat contradictory to the narrative of noble rural poverty that is being actively promoted in the narrative; the young Shane’s proud boast of being introduced to booze and fags at a very early age is left unquestioned (it obviously adds to the epater la bourgeoisie de l’angleterre image?); the admissions of bullying at school (clearly designed to avoid being bullied himself) leave a nasty taste in the mouth, delivered as they are with the typical MacGowan snickering, aversive cackle / ‘death rattle’. Punk basically validated his antisocial tendencies and gave them shape and purpose. (Even if only to form the entirely forgettable Nipple Erectors, the ‘controversial’ name of which was entirely in accord with the ‘headline grabbing’ shot of our hero with his ear being compromised by a female fellow attention-seeker., the point at which most of us became aware of ‘Shane O’Hooligan.) But Punk did, for a very brief time, offer misfits like our Shane a way in.
The Pogues, like The Libertines and The White Stripes later, are very much a ‘Greatest Hits’ band. 1984′s Red Roses for Me remains, for me at least, the quintessential original Pogues vinyl product. It has the most solely MacGowan -composed songs (six in all), more than on any subsequent Pogues album. In Temple’s film, Bono and Depp slaughter ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, as does Cave with, of all songs, ‘Summer in Siam’, one of MacGowan’s lesser songs. It all goes to show how fragile the magic was. His later band, The Popes, were mediocre in the extreme (with The Pogues’ essential spirit being leeched out in favour of a mere ’rock band’), only a shadow of The Pogues’ essence, i.e rock syncretic with Gaelic music, bonded by a ‘punk attitude’. By my reckoning, MacGowan was responsible for 16 songs on the first three albums, only half of the total tracks. Without the input of Spider, Jem et al, the magic was gone. As the man himself opined, after releasing such rubbish as ‘Fiesta’ on the third album, “I hated what we were doing - we became what we hated, the basis of my self-hatred” (apparently the excuse needed to get fully into Siam’s most popular exported product).
I’d have more sympathy for Shane MacGowan if he wasn’t so clearly a rather unpleasant individual. However, judging from the fawning below the line comments about the film, I’m very much in the minority. Full credit to Julian Temple for making a typically generous account of the man, with a mix of family shots, those of Irish life in general, and of vintage live material across the years. As he did with The Sex Pistols, revealing the the less ‘rotten’ side of John Lydon and the less ‘vicious’ side of John Beverley. Temple is surely the true artist here.