In many ways, Shane MacGowan has been a complicated figure in the history of popular music. The writer of some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful songs of the 20th Century – including the likes of ‘Dirty Old Town’, ‘Pair of Brown Eyes’ and most famously, the Christmas hit ‘Fairytale of New York’ – his life is a testament to earnest creativity, a keen eye for observation, and ‘punk’ in a truer sense than mere safety-pinned clothing. Lyric lovers need only explore the deeper cuts on Rum, Sodomy and The Lash to see his lyrical genius at work – witty and moving tales of the ordinary.
Across a career involving pioneering groups such as The Pogues, The Nipple Erectors, and Shane MacGowan and The Popes, Shane MacGowan never truly did sit still. However, on the 30th of November 2023 the world was saddened to hear of his premature passing at the age of just 65. Described by his wife Victoria Mary Clarke as “the most beautiful soul and angel,” MacGowan’s lyrical and song-writing talents shaped the world of alternative and popular music through its poetry – an intimate look into one man’s perspective.
Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan was born on Christmas Day 1957 to Irish parents in Pembury, Kent. MacGowan grew up until the age of six in Tipperary – a fact that never quite left him. His interest and pride in his Irish roots would be a theme that would dominate his catalogue of work throughout his life, lending him a unique lens that set him apart from your standard pogoing punk of the late 70s and early 80s.
In 1977 at the famed Roxy Club in Covent Garden, MacGowan first took to the stage with ardent punks The Nipple Erectors (a.k.a The Nips). This would be the first of hundreds of gigs across MacGowan’s life, and namely the start of his love affair with the infamous London punk scene. The Nips only lasted until 1980, however, MacGowan did not procrastinate, forming The Pogues in 1982 alongside Spider Stacy, Jem Finer, and James Fearnley.
Blending punk and traditional Irish folk music to pioneer the genre of Celtic punk – a mixed palette of both heart-breaking folk ballads and intense, driving tunes – The Pogues were, and still are, a seminal group of musicians and songwriters who forever changed the hardened attitudes of many teenaged punks. Theirs was a clear, defined identity – away from your safety-pin clichés – and their music only thrived because of it.
This rigid sense of identity and deft lyrical talent was a clear influence on both contemporary and modern bands on the cutting edge, from The Clash’s Joe Strummer to Lias Sauodi of the modern drug band the Fat White Family. By far not the first to employ the slice-of-life lens to a lyrical ballad, MacGowan could paint a picture of characters in a London-Irish pub or a fragment of life on the streets in an unparalleled way. As far as I am concerned, it may remain unparalleled too. MacGowan had a deeply introspective and alert eye to the tales of ordinary living, and his depictions of the London-Irish community at the time are invaluable.
In 1991, MacGowan was kicked out of The Pogues (despite effectively being the band) due to “unreliability”, leading him in 1992 to form Shane MacGowan and The Popes – somewhat out of ironic spite. This was due in large part to the fact that throughout his career, MacGowan struggled intensely with alcoholism and substance abuse.
In 2001, the frontman was even reported to the police by none other than fellow Irish star Sinead O’Connor over drug possession, in an attempt to get MacGowan to kick a heroin habit. From that incident onwards, MacGowan did successfully overcome his substance abuse issues, being invited to reform The Pogues that very year. MacGowan became fully sober in 2016, giving up alcohol completely – a true testament to an incredibly strong character.
At the age of just 65, MacGowan’s impact has already been felt in ripples across music. The tragic news however can best be described in MacGowan’s own, poetic words in the achingly beautiful ‘Sally MacLennane’: “Some people left for Heaven without warning.”
Rest in peace, Shane MacGowan.