Shane MacGowan and the Church of the Holy Spook
Speaking to me in 1994, just before the release of his first, and greatly under-rated solo album, ‘The Snake’, Shane MacGowan reflects on the importance of religion in his life and his frustration and disillusionment with the music business.
“The Brit Awards?… A pile of fat greasy wankers in tuxedos, with a load of scum up the front — who I could identify with — who were there to dance for the cameras, because the guys in the tuxedos were too busy stuffing their faces and drinking… Elton John was really nice to my and my girlfriend, Victoria, though, and the whole thing was a really good laugh.”
Grinning, Shane MacGowan, the former leader of the Pogues, sits in a north London pub, sipping on a glass of Irish liqueur and discusses his recent televised appearance with mentor Van Morrison, at the prestigious ‘Brit’ awards. Despite his affection for Morrison, Shane has little respect for the music business moguls who gathered at the award ceremony. Shane’s appearance with Van Morrison was his first major public appearance in quite some time. As a fan of Morrison’s he was delighted to be asked, but isn’t quite sure why Van wanted him. “I don’t know why he asked me,” says Shane, modestly. “Perhaps he likes me…”
Recently, Shane has changed his lifestyle, and his drinking habits. He looks better than he has for a decade, at least, although he protests, when I mention his healthy appearance.
“I’m in terrible shape,” he laughs, “I’ve got a beer gut…” And he pulls up his green silk shirt to demonstrate, though the pale flesh of his belly actually reflects the care he has been taking of himself recently. His impersonation of Jim Morrison in Paris, circa 1971, with bloated carcass and beard, has disappeared, and Shane is fit and sober and lucid. He is ready to admit that he may have overdone his drinking in the past, but now says that he is “practising moderation in all things,” and moderation seems to suit him.
“I know that I’m going to live to be eighty-eight, at least, and I’m still going to feel cheated… but you can’t argue with death.” Shane also seems happier, as well as healthier, than he has for many years. His happiness he attributes to his new band, the Popes, with whom he has been writing and rehearsing, for the past year.
“I’m doing what I want, and I’ve got a great band, that plays what I ask them to play… And I’m doing what I want, within the confines of this shitty, stinking, music business.”
Earlier, in a little rehearsal studio, a stone’s throw from Pentonville Prison, I heard Shane and the Popes rampage through a set of new material and esoteric covers, with Shane howling at the microphone like a man possessed, a far cry from his lack-lustre vocals on the later Pogues work. There is excitement in the studio, and a feeling that, with this new band, Shane can finally give full expression to his musical vision, and his vision is now much more positive than the pessimism of the past.
Shane explains how he became disillusioned, as the energy and the enthusiasm of the early Pogues became dissipated and diluted, in a quest for commercial success.
“I’ve always had my music, but I couldn’t play what I wanted. On the Pogues’ best album, ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, me and Jem wrote every note, apart from the traditional numbers which I arranged… but after that, things changed. On Peace & Love I had one last go, then I gave up. I thought the music business people would leave me alone, so I could have my fun. On Hell’s Ditch, I didn’t take hardly any interest at all, apart from being dragged off the floor in front of a mike. I had a laugh… but they rejected all the best songs.”
Here Popes’ guitarist, Paul McGuinness, interjects with a paraphrase of the old John West slogan. “It’s the songs that the Pogues reject, that makes the Popes sound so good…”
Shane laughs, but there is no suggestion that the Popes survive on outcast tracks and tidbits from Shane’s glory days with the Pogues. He has written a substantial body of new work, but is still annoyed at the rejection of what he regards as some of his finest songs. Shane may be bitter about the business, but stresses that his split with the Pogues was purely due to musical differences, and that there is no personal animosity. Indeed, the Pogues have been sharing the same rehearsal studios as Shane’s new band. They are still the best of friends.
“I’d be quite prepared to write their next album for them,” sniggers Shane, “if they feel like playing some good music for a change (laughs)… Seriously, though, I still love them. I love them all… what’s left of them (laughs).”
The members of the new band are mainly old friends of Shane, people he feels comfortable with, musicians who are able to understand Shane, and come up with the RAW sound that Shane wants. According to Shane, the band play his music just the way he wants is. “We’ve grown up together,” says Danny Heatley, the Popes’ drummer. “It’s kicking. It’s going really really well, because we know what Shane wants, plus we’re really good friends. We hang out together.” This inspires Shane to remark, obscenely, on Danny’s intimate anatomy, and break into his famous snurfle of a laugh. “We have a high sexual drive in this group,” cackles Shane, “just like in the early Pogues.”
Danny has been playing drums since he was 16, in all sorts of bands, from The Exploited to The Boothill Foot-tappers. His father is Spike Heatley, the famous jazz-man, who played double-bass on some of the Faces’ early singles, much admired by Shane.
Kieran O’Hagan, who has been involved in various musical projects with Shane over the last ten years, belts out rhythm guitar for the band. Kieran’s input is not just guitar, but also his knowledge of the traditional fold music of his home, Co. Armagh, in Northern Ireland, where his father, Sean, is a keen collector of ballads and yarns.
Paul McGuinness plays lead guitar. He is a veteran musician from the punk days of the seventies, when he played with the Dublin bands D.C.9 and Tokyo Olympics.
Bernie France, on bass, is an old school chum of Shane’s. He recalls how, twenty years ago, they spent their days at the College for Further Education in Hammersmith “…smoking dope in the common room before sneaking off to get pissed in the pubs and going to see [legendary acid-punk band] the Pink Fairies.” Like the rest of the Popes, Bernie was a Pogues/Pogue Mahone fan right at the start, and recalls the very early days with a great deal of affection — it’s that kind of wild excitement and energy that the Popes are trying to re-create.
According to Shane, the new album [The Snake] will sound:
“…Two thirds like the early Pogues, what we used to call ‘paddybeat’,” he sniggers, “and the rest is R’n’B and Rock’n’Roll and Hard Rock… and there’s even one track with a Reggae beat, a toasting number… and there’s Thai-beat and a coupla Jazz-Soul type numbers, like Sly meets Coltrane downtown. But the greater part is paddybeat, early Pogues style. Nothing to do with what the Pogues are doing now.”
Judging from the Popes’ performance in the rehearsal studio, Shane’s new material is equal to anything he has written in his past career. From the brilliant Snake With Eyes of Garnet to That Woman’s Got Me Drinking to I’ll be Your Handbag, it’s obvious that Shane’s creativity has not be affected by his disgust with the music business. In addition to a wad of new, original material, the Popes blast their way though a wide range of covers, from a rip-roaring version of Cracklin’ Rosie, like Neil Diamond on Amyl Nitrate, to Junior Wells’s Lovey Dovey, to traditional ballads like The Rising of the Moon and country classic The Streets of Baltimore. But Shane is clear as to what the major influence on the new material is: traditional Irish music and balladry.
“We follow a tradition, the Irish tradition, and it’s an aural/oral tradition, not written down, which has lasted for thousands of years AND WE’RE PART OF IT. The English folk tradition — and I’ve seen it in Kent, proper Morris dancers having a ceili, with bodhrans, the lot — is rare, but it exists… Industry has wiped out the folk tradition in England. The folk tradition will die if it isn’t followed.”
Another influence of Shane and the band is religion. Scattered around the studio are all sorts of religious artefacts: pinned to an amplifier, next to a picture of Phil Lynott, is a picture of a nun, with the caption, “Sister Margaret leads a life of chastity, poverty and obedience…”, there is a genuine voodoo doll hanging on the wall; a huge crucifix sits on tops of a speaker; while another smaller crucifix hangs directly in front of Shane’s mike. And this is no corny gothic piss-take. The Popes are a band who take their religion seriously: original new songs include Old Time Religion and Church of the Holy Spook.
“I believe in one great spiritual entity,” says Shane, “which the Catholic Church calls God, and which I call the Tao. It’s the same thing. People say that the Christian church in Ireland was overlaid on a pagan culture,, using the word ‘pagan’ as a slur… but all the ancient religions of the world have the same basic idea of an all-enveloping creative being or force, which the old Irish religion represented by a circle, because they worshipped the sun… Patrick inscribed a cross over the circle, although the cross is a mandala anyway. The mandala of Christ, the crucifix, is a STRONG PROTECTIVE THING AND GUIDE. I feel a lot better with a Gaelic cross around my neck…”
So far, the Popes have played only a small number of low-key gigs, in Ireland, and at the Mean Fiddler in London. Their next London Gig is a Saint Patrick’s day bash at The Grand in Clapham, although the band are trying to organize a small tour of the Celtic world, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, at around the same time. With a set of twenty-six songs rehearsed and ready, the Popes are bursting to let rip, live, and with Shane’s new enthusiasm and vigour, sparks should fly.
Shane is producing the new album himself, along with Dave Jordan, who has worked with the Stones, The Specials, Bob Marley, and on the Pogues’ Rainy Night In Soho, also co-produced with Shane. They hope to get Jerry Lee Lewis, the Killer himself, to guest on a new version of the rockabilly anthem King of the Bop, written by Shane in his days with the Nips [previously known as The Nipple Erectors]. Dave is as enthusiastic as the rest of the band. “Because Shane’s not under any [commercial] pressure,” says Dave, “he’s the happiest, healthiest and most lucid I’ve ever seen him. He’s completely in control.”
Fair play to you, Shane.
Interview by Jim McCool. Originally published in The Irish Post, London, in 1994.