Any conversation concerning the Pogues will inexorably gravitate towards one Shane MacGowan, the tomb-toothed enfant terrible of Irish (and English) folk-rock. The band’s frontman is a living legend. The emphasis on the first part of that cliché is entirely valid. After all, yer man’s on-going survival in the face of prodigious alcohol abuse almost rivals that of the Stones’ Keith Richards!
Not surprisingly, when your correspondent’s allotted half-hour “phoner” with a designated Pogues’ member, Philip Chevron, takes an inevitable turn five minutes into the conversation, the band’s guitarist is ready — if not wholeheartedly willing — to field questions about you-know-who. The first thing he does is emphatically confirm that MacGowan will be in the touring party that is heading to Australia over Easter for the 2012 Byron Bay Bluesfest http://www.bluesfest.com.au some 40 years after their inception. “It’ll be the classic 8-piece line-up — we don’t go out on tour unless it’s basically that line-up,” the Irishman declares.
The last time the band graced Australia’s shores, back in 1992, the Pogues were sans Shane, their infamous singer having been giving his marching orders during a disastrous sake-fuelled 1991 tour of Japan. His and the band’s account differ on whether he quit or was sacked, but either way Chevron is not prepared to comment. “I’d rather not go over that again,” he says curtly. “I’ve been through that so many times. We’ve been around longer now than we were the first time. I understand that the past is endlessly fascinating, but it’s well documented and I can give you no new perspectives on it.”
A fresh take on MacGowan’s litany of misbehaviour will emerge with the publication in April by Faber and Faber of accordionist James Fearnley’s much-anticipated Pogues’ memoir, Here Comes Everybody. The miscreant’s liver-battered love affair with the bottle — he was reportedly once given only six weeks to live — is apparently covered in some detail. “There’s at least 20 chapters on that topic I think,” Chevron remarks with a chuckle. “I can’t speak for James obviously. It’s one man’s point of view: how he saw the kind of hey-day of the band and how he got through it in one piece. One thing I noticed from the bits that I’ve read, though, is that it wasn’t like it happened. People do perceive things differently and the bits that they prioritise in their memories can be very different.”
The last time MacGowan performed at Bluesfest, in 2003, with The Popes, he cut a sad and sorry figure, stumbling around the stage looking bedraggled in a tired and emotional state. Chevron assures that his mate’s demeanour and, more pertinently, his behaviour have vastly improved since he re-joined the Pogues and hit the big five-o. Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan actually turned 54 on Christmas Day, shortly after his 1987 song about an “old slut on junk” (‘Fairytale Of New York’) was announced the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century by the UK’s music licensing body, PPL.
The Pogues’ US tour last year and their dates in Europe during the 2011 summer festival season reportedly went relatively smoothly. “We very rarely do any bad shows these days — it’s a fairly happy ship,” says Chevron reassuringly. “There tends not to be dramas with Shane these days. He’s happy and it tends to come out in the performance. I realise we have a history of drama with Shane in Australia, so I’m aware of the sensitivities. All I can say is that we’re all older and wiser, not least Shane MacGowan. The thing is a guy like Shane doesn’t have to do this, but he does it, like the rest of us do, because it’s fun and enjoyable to do. For all of us, it becomes such unmerciful pain if anybody rocks the boat. When you’re thirty maybe you can consider that it [bad behaviour] goes with the territory and the job. But you really stop thinking like that when you’re in your 50s. I’m not saying it’s always perfect — the Pogues is a volatile entity — but it’s a volatile entity that’s also found a way of accommodating itself with the demands of touring.”
Quizzed if bookers insert a special clause in Pogues’ contracts to help ensure they’ll turn up for a gig and with their frontman upright, Chevron laughs heartily. “If only! We tried putting him in jail for a while. But we’re human beings. We don’t do these things to each other, so there’s no grand plan to make sure that everything goes according to plan.”
Perusal of the band’s most recent playlists shows a strong reliance on material from their early albums, and songs like ‘Dirty Old Town’, ‘A Pair Of Brown Eyes’, ‘Sally MacLennane’ and ‘The Irish Rover’ — something that Chevron, who joined the band during the making of their second album, doesn’t deny. “We do quite a few songs from Red Roses for Me , Rum, Sodomy & the Lash  and If I Should Fall From Grace with God . It seems to me that those albums are more representative of us than the later ones.”
Australian fans will be pleased to hear that Eric Bogle’s immortal anti-war anthem ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ still makes set lists. “We’ve re-introduced the song over the last few years after not having played it for many, many years,” says Chevron. “Just occasionally an idea comes to revisit something everyone likes. But these songs get put away in the first place because they kind of get a bit overplayed and the spirit goes out of them. After a bit of a break they usually come back refreshed. If anything, ‘The Band Played’ is actually better than it was when we were originally doing it, although Shane can’t always be depended upon to get the order of the war in the right sequence. One of the problems is, of course, that it’s 290 verses long [five in point of fact – ED]. We do a version that’s three verses long but that in itself is quite a challenge.”
The aforementioned classic, ‘Fairytale Of New York’, is also pulled out of the bag at appropriate times. “We tend to only do the song at Christmas,” says Chevron. “That’s not an unbreakable rule ‘cos we have done it many times out of season, but it does mean we have to bring with us a female singer. Jem Finer’s daughter has been singing it for the past few years with us and doing a wonderful job. The thing is, though, that it’s not what she does — she has her own career. We certainly don’t expect her to come trailing around the world after us.”
Long suffering followers will be well aware that the Pogues can be somewhat inconsistent performers, despite being named as one of “50 Bands To See Before You Die” by the UK’s respected Q magazine. Chevron points out that much depends on the audience. “We don’t genuinely know what the mood of the house is until the first three numbers. Then we can kind of relax a little bit and say what kind of gig it’s going to be. Then we decide if we have to raise the energy level or whatever. Set lists tend to be pretty much written in stone — not because we like it that way but because if they’re not Shane gets very confused. Much as we’re familiar with these songs, they need to be rehearsed.”
The absence of fresh material partly stems from a hiatus in band activities that lasted some five years, from their break-up in 1996 to their reunion tour in 2001 in the wake of the release of the autobiography A Drink With Shane MacGowan. During that recess, Philip Chevron re-formed his previous band The Radiators (which briefly included former Pogue Cait O’Riordan), James Fearnley relocated to the States and became a member of The Low And Sweet Orchestra, Jem Finer discovered experimental music and fellow multi-instrumentalist Terry Woods formed The Bucks with Ron Kavana.
The Pogues last studio album with their classic line-up, Hell’s Ditch, was released in 1990, with the late, great Joe Strummer producing. Their most recent release, 2008’s Just Look Them Straight in the Eye and Say….POGUE MAHONE!, is a box set containing rare studio out-takes and previously unreleased material. Reminiscing about the band’s association with Strummer, Chevron says: “He was a pleasure to work with. Joe worked with us in many different capacities and for different reasons. We actually started off doing a movie with him. He became our guitarist when I was ill for a while, then he became our producer and then he became, of course, the singer. I wrote a song called ‘Joe Strummer’ about how Joe was always the man you phoned when you got in a jam. As a performer, he was extraordinary because he was a bit like a jazzman. He moved in different directions and reshaped it as we went along. That was always fascinating because I don’t think any of us had been in a band that was like that. Everything we did with Joe was really positive.”
Chevron also gives credit to Terry Woods, the Pogues’ most senior member. “Terry was born in 1840,” he jokes. “He was a founding member of Steeleye Span and he was also in Sweeney’s Men which I’d argue was the start of folk-rock, alongside The Byrds.” The guitarist is quick to quash any notion that the Pogues were propelled by punk rock. “We all had very diverse musical tastes and backgrounds. I mean if you started in the ‘sixties, as Terry did, you probably were more likely to be influenced by Sweeney’s Men. Those who came through the ‘seventies, like Shane and me, were more likely to be in a punk band. But really it doesn’t alter what you do. There were huge strains of music that we were all interested in and we all were very erudite about. What we actually ended up doing was something that nobody else had done and that was to combine punk rock and Irish music and combine a lot of the music with an irreverence for it, which is something that not even Steeleye Span or Horslips did.”
The Pogues spawned a new generation of punk-folk bands, like the US outfits Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphies. “We came up with something that was eminently copy able, a template that anyone with three chords could go and play,” says Chevron. “I personally admire the bands that add something extra to it; bring their own songwriting craft to it or have a great singer … whatever. That’s what we did. By spotting that we could do that was the art in it and why it worked.”
Philip Chevron attributes the Pogues’ on-going popularity to their capacity to sustain energy levels, although he acknowledges that allowances have to be made for advancing years. “Getting lots of rest and sleep and going to bed early is the honest answer to our longevity. We had all our partying days back then. It’s genuinely a pleasure to go out on the road and do this and then go back to your life. That way, the energy comes naturally.”
• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.