Entertainment Music

Friday 14 December 2018

The music behind the man... Shane MacGowan

Shane MacGowan may be best known for his dodgy teeth, addiction battles and a ubiquitous Christmas hit, but behind it all lies a songwriter of huge talent, as a star-studded concert to beheld in his honour this week acknowledges, writes our music critic

Paying tribute: Shane MacGowan will be honoured at a star-studded tribute in Dublin's NCH on Monday night
Paying tribute: Shane MacGowan will be honoured at a star-studded tribute in Dublin's NCH on Monday night
John Meagher

John Meagher

In December 2015, Sky Arts broadcast a documentary that felt like an outlier compared to the usual cultural films it shows. The hour-long programme, A Wreck Reborn, followed Shane MacGowan in his pursuit of a more palatable smile.

His teeth had long been the stuff of notoriety - rotting stumps sticking at curious angles out of receding gums - and here he was submitting himself to a fly-on-the-wall documentary in which an Irish dentist would give him a mouthful of new teeth.

A Wreck Reborn made for watchable TV, especially as MacGowan appeared genuinely moved by the white gnashers that had been inserted into his mouth, but it was maddening, too. This wasn't just another fame-hungry wannabe trying to get themselves on the box, but a songwriter of extraordinary distinction. Those who have been seduced by the Pogues' raw, beautiful poetry would have had to ask themselves why Sky Arts hadn't commissioned a film celebrating his remarkable songs instead.

Too often, when one thinks about Shane MacGowan, it's about his appearance, or alcoholism or about the way he slurs his words. Not nearly enough thought is given to the fact that in his pomp - in his late 20s - he was delivering songs as great as any recorded by an Irish artist, whether born here or on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Finally, his gifts are being acknowledged with a night of celebration at the National Concert Hall, Dublin on Monday. It's ostensibly to honour his 60th birthday - which happened on Christmas Day - but it's also a coming together of an eclectic band of musicians keen to pay their respects.

And what a line-up. Deep breath: Nick Cave, Sex Pistols' Glen Matlock, Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, the Libertines' Carl Barât and Blondie's Clem Burke as well as the homegrown Finbar Furey, Glen Hansard and Lisa O'Neill. Various Pogues including Cáit O'Riordan, Spider Stacy, Jem Finer and Terry Woods will be playing. Oh, and Hollywood superstar Johnny Depp is also set to perform.

The night was the brainchild of the National Concert Hall's head of programming, Gary Sheehan.

"It's been organised with Shane's manager Gerry O'Boyle and Shane himself is heavily involved in it, in terms of who'll be performing and what they'll be singing," he says.

Cliché it may be, but Sheehan believes MacGowan is a songwriter's songwriter.

"The proof in the pudding is the people who wanted to take part in the night. When we asked them, and told them the date, they said yes. There was no hesitation. His songs are held in very high esteem."

The tribute night will cover all facets of MacGowan's career, from his fledgling punk years as frontman (Shane O'Hooligan) of the Nips (originally the Nipple Erectors) in the 1970s, through his remarkable innings with the Pogues in the 1980s, then into the intriguing genre-hopping time with the Popes in the 1990s. There will also be acknowledgement for the various side projects he's worked on in the interim.

"The thing that might surprise people is the sheer quantity of really excellent songs," Sheehan says.

"Everybody will know 'Fairytale of New York' and 'A Rainy Night in Soho' but we came up with about 50 songs that could have worked really well and we've had to whittle it down a bit. And there are great songs from right throughout his career, like 'Gabriele' from his Nips days. Listen to it now, and it's like a song that the Libertines might have had back in the day."

The Nips is a good place to begin with MacGowan, and his brilliant way with words was apparent right from the start. This, after all, was a young man who had won a scholarship to the prestigious Westminster School on the back of his early literary prowess.

And he truly came into his own in the mid-1980s with a burst of creatively that's still awe-inspiring today. First came Rum Sodomy & the Lash in 1985, surely still the greatest Celtic rock album ever released. It captured, stunningly, what it meant to be Irish or to be of Irish extraction in Thatcher's Britain. It's bruised, beautiful, angry and rebellious and includes such seasoned live Pogues staples as 'Sally MacLennane' and 'A Pair of Brown Eyes' as well as the now-definitive version of Ewan MacColl's 'Dirty Old Town'.

It was produced by Elvis Costello - the former Declan MacManus, of course - and that other son of Ireland helped MacGowan to channel his punk instincts into songs that harked back to an ancient time, but sounded fresh and vital, too - and quite unlike anything else that troubled the charts in 1985.

The following year, the Pogues delivered the Costello-produced EP Poguetry in Motion - arguably MacGowan's finest single work. Listen to 'Rainy Night in Soho' with fresh ears and marvel at the unabashed sincerity of the love-lorn sentiments, the elegance of the lyrics and the masterful sweep of the arrangements.

"But there's a light I hold before me," he sings. "And you're the measure of my dreams."

Around this time, he had started work on 'Fairytale of New York', allegedly in response to a playful jibe from Costello that he couldn't write a Christmas hit.

The song would be completed in the summer of 1987 with Steve Lillywhite, producer of the last great Pogues ­album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God - and, truth be told, the last time MacGowan was at the very peak of his creative powers before all those years of drinking would dim his ability to write truly wonderful songs.

The song's female part had ­originally been sung by a different singer but MacGowan wasn't happy with it. Lillywhite took it to his wife, Kirsty MacColl, and her vocal immediately captivated.

Kept off the Christmas ­number-one slot by the Pet Shop Boys with their synth-pop Elvis cover 'Always on My Mind', 'Fairytale' regularly tops polls on this side of the Atlantic as the greatest Yuletide single of all time.

Even though the festive season is behind us, it would be strange indeed if the National Concert Hall wasn't given a rendition on Monday night.

Either way, those who managed to get tickets for a show that ­reportedly sold out in 12 minutes are in for something very special.

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