Dead Man Rocking (Manchester)

Publication: Spiked

Author: Brendan O'Neill

Date: December 21, 2004

Section: Culture

Original Location: Link

Shane MacGowan might be at death's door, but his reunited Pogues are more rock'n'roll than today's bland bands.

I once read a book called Is Shane MacGowan Still Alive?, one of those journeys of Irish self-discovery dressed up as a quirky travel guide that have been popular over the past five years. The answer to that question wasn't immediately clear as the man himself staggered on to the stage at the Manchester Arena on Saturday night. MacGowan appeared to move his limbs unaided, and opened his toothless, metal mouth to slur some words of welcome into the mike. But with booze-bloated features, skin as grey as a cadaver's and a cackle that sounds eerily like a death rattle, the jury is out on whether he's still alive.

The Pogues - the best band of the 1980s. Fact - are back. With their toxic mix of punk, rock and traditional Irish music (Drunk Rock, if you like), MacGowan and his often-merry men 'lit a fire under the arse' of popular music (as one critic put it) when they released their first album, the raucous Red Roses For Me, in 1984. They started life as Pogue Mahone (Irish for 'kiss my arse') but then toned it down to the Pogues. Asked recently why they struck 'such a big, rambunctious chord in early eighties Britain', MacGowan replied: 'Because we weren't a faggot and a guy with a synthesiser' (later insisting, 'I've got nothing against faggots')

That might not be PC, but you know what he means. The Pogues' first album came out in the year of the New Romantics, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bland Aid; their masterpiece, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, was released in 1988, when Stock, Aitken and Waterman dominated the charts and soap stars turned pop stars - Kylie, Jason, those twins from Neighbours most of us have since forgotten - were first foisted on the record-buying public. In a decade dominated by poncy pop acts and stadium-rock wankers ('straights playing "world music"', as MacGowan called them), The Pogues carried a flame for the rip-it-up spirit of rock'n'roll.

Their position as the last of the rowdy rockers was beautifully illustrated at the Manchester gig, where Pogues fans got drunk on warm cans of Guinness beneath posters advertising a future act - Donny Osmond. Donny and MacGowan are surely the Yin and Yang of popular music. Donny has perfectly white teeth; MacGowan has none. Donny is a Mormon who sees his music as a way of expressing his faith; The Pogues are, as the song says, 'The Boys from the County Hell', who 'sit and watch the junkies, the drunks, the pimps, the whores / Five green bottles sitting on the floor / I wish to Christ, I wish to Christ that I had 15 more'.

Donny's first taste of fame was as a member of a wholesome family of music-makers; MacGowan's came when he was a pre-Pogues punk, and he and his then girlfriend started to bite lumps out of each other in the high excitement of an early Clash show in London. MacGowan ended up in the pages of the NME, blood streaming from his ear, under the headline: 'CANNIBALISM AT CLASH GIG.' (In fact, maybe the dull Donny and the self-destructive MacGowan do have one thing in common: neither is a good role modelů.)

Now MacGowan, the anti-Donny, who was asked to leave the Pogues in 1991 after his boozing became too much to handle, is back in the band, cutting a ghostly figure on the Manchester stage. The initial excitement at seeing the Pogues reunited quickly gives way to trepidation. Audience members wonder whether MacGowan, who has spent the past 15 years living in various hotels, drinking himself to near death and being shopped to the cops by Sinead O'Connor for taking heroin, will be able to cut it. 'Will he remember all the words?' 'Will he be in tune?' We saw him on ITV1's Frank Skinner Show only a few weeks earlier (where Skinner got him to try on some pearly white false teeth), and then he could barely speak, never mind belt out a tune.

In fact, something peculiar happens when the band starts up: MacGowan comes to life (well, he sways from side to side, kind of in rhythm with the music). And he sings the old classics as he always sung them - like a pub drunk who enjoys a good sing-song after having 10 too many. They don't play any new material (if any exists), which isn't surprising considering that the aim of this reunion tour, according to tin whistler Spider Stacy, is to make 'filthy lucre' (no doubt a nod to the Sex Pistols' reunion tour in 1996, 'The Filthy Lucre Live Tour'). Instead they run through their crowd-pleasing greatest moments: Dirty Old Town, Irish Rover, Misty Morning, Albert Bridge, The Broad Majestic Shannon and, of course, A Fairytale of New York, recently voted the Best Ever Christmas Song in a poll carried out by music channel VH1, with bassist Cait O'Riordan taking the place of the late Kirsty MacColl.

MacGowan may not be as pretty as your average pop star, but he sings love songs better than most of them. Emotion flickers across his bloated face when he sings A Rainy Night in Soho - 'We watched our friends grow up together / And we saw them as they fell / Some of them fell into heaven / Some of them fell into hell'. Nearly 20 years after it was first released, that song can still make fully-grown men - and Mancunians at that - weep into their plastic cups of flat beer.

Watching thirty-, forty- and fiftysomethings sway to the music of the past, it struck me that the Pogues' reunion tour is a bit like the flipside of the 'Here and Now Tour', where those 'faggots and a guy with a synthesiser' who clogged up the pop charts in the 1980s have been playing across the UK, presumably also with an eye for making some filthy lucre. This year, Nik Kershaw, Living in a Box, Limahl, Kim Wilde, Bucks Fizz and others have played at various venues, tapping into the nostalgia for all things 80s-related. The Pogues may be far better than that lot, but their reunion tour is also a long, drunken trip down memory lane, where we try to escape the present by re-rocking to classic tunes of the past.

Perhaps that isn't surprising, though, when you consider how bloody dull the British music scene has become. Only today that bloody dullness comes as much from the alternative indie side of things as it does from pop puppets and the synthesiser brigade. British pop is awash with bland bands - Keane, Travis, Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand - who make samey, anonymous, plastic piano music, avoid doing anything too sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, and always get an early night (The Invisible Band, the title of a Travis album, just about sums these groups up).

On my way to Manchester, I read the Q interview with Keane, three men and a piano who named their band after the little old Irish lady who served them dinner at their public school. The interview takes place in Mexico where the band were due to make a video, but the idea was scrapped following reports of Westerners being kidnapped. The band were 'unable to secure insurance for the shoot', so 'for the entire two days they rarely ventured outside their designated "safe" hotel'. On drink and drugs, Keane said: '[W]hy should we get falling-down drunk all the time just to fit inů? Drugs have never been our thing. I'm sure fear plays a partů.' Franz Ferdinand, the 'undisputed pretty boys of rock' according to the Sun, recently announced that 'we are really not into the whole sex thing with groupies'. Now we know why the new Posh Rock is so dull - it's made by dull people.

It might be a bit sad to live in the past, even if it is a past where the Pogues still rock. But how much sadder that at a time when 'serious' music is everywhere, it takes a bunch of has-beens edging 50 who are in it for a few quid, fronted by a drunk at death's door, to remind us what rock'n'roll was like.

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