Can the Pogues Live Without Their Leader?
IN 1988, JOE STRUMMER, erstwhile frontman of The Clash, described Shane MacGowan, main vocalist and lyricist of The Pogues, as "one of the finest writers of the century." The notion of The Pogues as a "drunken rabble" was incorrect, he insisted: people "just have no idea of how great he is."
Now in 1991 we find MacGowan, a longtime alcoholic, too sick to continue with the group he made famous. And Strummer, who stepped into MacGowan's shoes for part of a previous American tour that the singer missed due to illness, started three months' work as his replacement at New York's Beacon Theater last week.
Tickets for Thursday night's performance had sold out before MacGowan's absence was announced. The news did not stop a second show from doing brisk business, and the fanatical audience - New York's large Irish population treats the London-based group as one of their own - voiced no complaints.
Strummer is an apt replacement: Producer of their last studio album and frequent on-stage guest, he also shares The Pogues' lowlife outlook and possesses the same kind of rasping, untrained voice that can turn "poetry" like MacGowan's "Turkish Song of the Damned" into the sound of a, well, drunken rabble.
Even so, he finds it hard not to play and sing as if still fronting the seminal rock band that split six years ago. He turned "USA," one of many Pogues songs dealing with the relationship between Ireland and America, into a Clash anthem, and soon followed it with an admirable and wildly received version of that group's own "London Calling" (dedicated to Mick Jones, Strummer's former Clash partner, apparently in the audience prior to his show with Bad Audio Dynamite II at The Sound Factory).
Otherwise, Strummer was visibly modest about his role, disappearing to the back of the stage when longer-standing Pogues members took the lead. On songs originally sung by MacGowan, guitarist Philip Chevron ("Thousands Are Sailing") and drummer Andrew Ranken ("The Broad Majestic Shannon") demonstrated the depth of available vocal talent, all the more necessary given that usual secondary singer Spider Stacey had virtually lost his voice.
The Pogues almost succeeded in avoiding the jigs and barroom anthems that MacGowan penned back when the Celtic punk group was a novelty, and his drinking an amusing reference point. But while their rich legacy (the album "The Best Of The Pogues" was released last week) and celebratory performances ensure them lasting popularity, the quality of their material has declined with MacGowan's health (other members' contributions are reliable but fitful), and they must find a new songwriter if they have any hope of a relevant future. By Christmas, when this tour wraps up in Ireland, Strummer may have slipped into that role. If not, The Pogues are in dire danger of becoming a mere nostalgia act.
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Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.
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