Dec 012023

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

Shane MacGowan covers

No matter how much longer than anyone’s expectations Shane MacGowan may have lived, the news that this polymath contradiction has died still manages to come as a body blow and a shock. Only last week there were sighs of relief, with his being discharged from his Dublin hospital bed, his home for most of the last year, with his wife Victoria citing he was being discharged for Christmas. Clearly it was to die, which he did, in his own bed.

Our job at Cover Me is not to replay all the tales of MacGowan’s excesses and exploits yet again; Lord knows, there will be plenty of that elsewhere. Here we come to celebrate his supreme gift of songwriting, through a prism of cover versions. MacGowan crafted songs that seemed drawn from the deepest well of Irish tradition, full of arcane and archaic imagery. He used a lexicon drawn from mythology, poetry and the gutter, yet imbued with a recognition of all the current ways and woes of the world. He thus confounded listeners, baffled by how all of this could emanate from his shambling and battered frame. How could someone who seemed barely able to speak manage to produce work of such beauty?

I caught the Pogues but once, early on in their career, mayhap 1986, in a dodgy venue in Birmingham, UK. It was, in turns, exhilarating and terrifying, the latter courtesy the howling, drunken mob of a pre-Christmas audience. Keeping a low profile, I was entranced, as the band rollicked through song after song after song. It was impossible to see the join between the traditional and the new, all soaked in a melee of whistle, accordion, banjo and guitars, the permaslurring frontman both totally out of it and totally in the moment. And this was well before they became TV favorites, on Top Of The Pops, first for their duet with the Dubliners, a version of “The Irish Rover,” and later with perennial Xmas favorite “Fairytale Of New York.” I was instantly hooked.

The first few albums have rightly become iconic–if anything, more so with the passage of time–as the quality of MacGowan’s lyricism has taken focus over the tunes. But, before losing sight of the tunes themselves, riddle me this: how many individuals and how many bands can lay claim to inventing a whole genre? That’s what MacGowan and the Pogues did, founding a genre that continues to have worldwide traction. In the same way as few places in the world fail now to have Irish pubs, so too there are Celtic punk bands from all four corners of the globe. But, returning to his lyrics, Bob Dylan apart, few writers have provoked such academic attention and praise as MacGowan, and there will be a whole lot more now.

So let’s have a look at some of those songs…

Christy Moore – A Pair of Brown Eyes (The Pogues cover)

Undeniably one of the more anthemic of his songs, there are many versions of “A Pair of Brown Eyes” that apply just a little too much begorrah. It takes this version, by Christy Moore, to strip it right back into the bare-boned poignancy, set out so seamlessly and simply in the lyrics, with the sense of horror all the more abject in the stark delivery. Christy Moore is one of the figureheads of the Irish music 1970s renaissance, a founding member of both Planxty and the Moving Hearts, with a subsequent and ongoing solo career. Always a proponent of MacGowan, he has covered a number of MacGowan songs, of which this is the most striking.

Nick Cave – Rainy Night In Soho (The Pogues cover)

Who better to cover MacGowan than his old time mucker, Nick Cave, the pair famously carousing together the bars of London back in the day. The two of them released an, um, interesting version of Louis Armstrong favorite, “What a Wonderful World,” with Cave covering this Pogues song on the flip. Here, it is pared back to piano and voice. One of MacGowan’s more elegiac songs, it delivers a glorious image of London by night. I like the way Cave expounds more about this in the video. (And if you thought the idea of Cave and MacGowan as a match made in hell, try also this article, from The Quietus, where the terrible twosome met up with the even more terrible third, of Mark E. Smith, of The Fall.)

Deer Tick – White City (The Pogues cover)

Deer Tick have history with MacGowan, covering also “If I Should Fall From Grace From God,” but, this, I think, offers a greater nuance. An American band from Rhode Island, they tend to get characterized as rock-folk, in that order. With a penchant for covers, they have also performed as Deervana, providing sets entirely of Nirvana songs. They take “White City” at a generally faster lick than the original, with an indie kid sheen of scuzzy guitars, although the retention of the whistle is a nice touch. I wonder if the Rhode Islanders had any idea as to “White City”‘s meaning, it relating to a dingy racetrack in West London, where, rather than horses, it is greyhounds that race.

Jesus & Mary Chain – Ghost of a Smile (The Pogues cover)

The Jesus and Mary Chain are not necessarily the first band you might think to have an affinity with MacGowan, but if you bear in mind the background of the Reid brothers, hailing from East Kilbride, in Scotland’s central belt, their parents and grandparents may well have shared a similar progeny with MacGowan’s parentage. Their “Ghost of a Smile” cover comes on the 2nd disc of 1994’s Come On, which, to show eclecticism, includes also a Prince cover and one by the Cramps. Do they add any Poguish inflections? Hell, no, it subsuming into their standard muddy strumfest, into which it morphs remarkably well.

Dzieciuki/Не Саскочу (Streams of Whiskey) (The Pogues cover)

OK, perhaps not the most original cover, at least until you try to decipher the words. Yes, it is Russian, with Dzieciuki being, possibly, Russia’s finest Celtic punks. The song actually comes from the only dedicated Pogues tribute CD I could track down, the imaginatively entitled Tribute to he Pogues, from 2016. Most of the songs err towards standard folk-punk thrash, so much so that it runs some risk of all sounding a bit the same. Nonetheless, I hope London Celtic Punks, the webzine, won’t mind me linking to their site, in which they praise the album and, if still extant and bandwidth willing, a free download of the album is offered. I confess, ruefully, I know nothing about the Russian ceilidheers featured in this clip.

Liam Clancy – The Broad Majestic Shannon (The Pogues cover)

That Clancy should consider to cover “The Broad Majestic Shannon” is testament itself to the credit offered MacGowan by the elders of Irish folk music. If Christy Moore is a current elder statesman, Clancy is the generation before, in the 1960’s USA, where, if nothing else, his band, the Clancy Brothers, along with Tommy Makes, emigrants to Canada, initially, led to an upsurge in the sale of Aran jumpers. Their somewhat anodyne ballads and, by today’s standards, sedate instrumentals, paved the way for the somewhat livelier Dubliners, back home in the auld country. Bob Dylan was a fan of Liam and his brothers, and they influenced his recordings in no small way.

Weeping Willows – Christmas Lullaby (Shane MacGowan & the Popes cover)

Bet you didn’t know that “Fairytale” wasn’t MacGowan’s only stab at a Christmas hit! After the Pogues ousted him for his unreliability, he formed a new band, a rougher and readier version that, initially at least, showed a resurgence in his enthusiasm and apparent capability as a show runner for a vibrant Celtic muse. Two albums showed he still had the interpretative skills, if with less new material forthcoming. Given no overtly new since, by and large, 1997, will there, I wonder, be anything in the vaults? With tales of new work with Irish band Cronin, albeit stemming from 2022, will that now see the light of day?

Talking of Christmas songs..

Damien Dempsey & Sinead O’Connor/Fairytale of New York (the Pogues cover)

Whilst we muse on the idea of Shane and Kirsty MacColl reprising “Fairytale of New York” in Heaven, let’s not forget how many Godawful versions of this wondrous song there are. A co-write with Jem Finer, it has scores of covers in the pantheon, including many slight variants to take in other locations. Most are so bad as to be an offense to his memory let alone all those that struggle, woefully, with using The Other F Word. Some clunkers include Fairytale of Stornoway, by the otherwise sterling band Peat and Diesel, to the crassly twee: Ronan Keating and Moya Brennan. The pairing of O’Hooley & Tidow give it good craic, if in an uncharacteristically stately version. Possibly the worst version is by the Wurzels, rural “comedy” band from the English West Country, unless, of course, you know better. (Let’s not even discuss Jon Bon Jovi!)

But how to choose the best? I have cheated, by going for the pairing closest to the heart of MacGowan, the one that features his nemesis, Sinead O’Connor. A brutally critical friend, she shopped him to the Garda for his heroin use, something he later thanked her for, and his tribute to her, on her death, via his wife, was tear-provokingly heartfelt. (Plus, I dare say she is giving him a rare oul bollocking as he rises up through the pearly gates!) Here’s the 2009 studio version, but there are some corking later live versions online as well. Dempsey is the unquestionably raw and real Dublin singer-songwriter and ex-boxer, who is well worth seeking out for his own material.

R.I.P. Shane.

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  One Response to “In Memoriam: Shane MacGowan”

Comments (1)
  1. I would like to clarify about the band Dzieciuki. Dzieciuki is folk punk group from Belarus. Please do not confuse Belarus and Russia.
    Long Live Belarus! Жыве Беларусь!

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