After acclaimed music books on Ian Dury and Stiff Records, you could argue it was almost inevitable that established rock biographer Richard Balls would turn his attention to Pogues frontman and somehow living legend Shane MacGowan next.
But there was nothing nailed on about him even completing A Furious Devotion: The Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan. In fact, there were far easier writing projects he could have chosen.
There was a feted prior publication, 2001’s A Drink with Shane MacGowan, a co-write between the man himself and his partner, Victoria Mary Clarke. But this goes deeper and wider, you could say, and anyone who’s tackled Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n Roll: The Life of Ian Dury and Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story instinctively knew the project was in good hands.
Richard, a newspaper journalist for 20 years – almost half of which he spent in Ireland – now working in communications for the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, first stumbled upon The Pogues on their first nationwide tour in 1984 at the University of East Anglia in his home city, Norwich, supporting Elvis Costello and the Attractions. And something clicked.
“I was 17, a massive fan of Elvis Costello. That was the first time I’d ever seen him and I was really excited to see him in Norwich, this sell-out gig. I got there and this band were on stage, and I could hear this clattering going on, thinking what on earth is this? I literally had no reference point for what I was looking at.
“These guys, and Cait was obviously there as well, wearing old-fashioned suits, with the exception of Dexys, I suppose, on Too Rye Ay, playing instruments that were not seen in mainstream pop. And this was in the hedonistic times of Wham! singing about ‘Club Tropicana’ and Duran Duran singing on yachts, this band right at the other end of the spectrum, playing this kind of roots music.”
I recall a bit of an overlap with other emerging bands like The Men They Couldn’t Hang, not least linked through Shane’s friend Shanne Bradley and an affinity with the Boothill Foot Tappers too. But I can’t recall if it was so much a scene as just a haphazard collection of similarly-motivated London-based bands given a label by the music press, be that ‘cowpunk’ or whatever.
“Yeah, it wasn’t a scene the same way as like ska, but it was kind of an accidental scene, I suppose, all performing in roughly the same sort of venues in King’s Cross and around Camden. I saw The Men They Couldn’t Hang in about ’85, again at the UEA, not long after I saw The Pogues. Maybe it was a bit of a reaction to that kind of slick, studio-oriented pop.”
What was it that jumped out to you about The Pogues? Could you see beyond the shambolic side? Because the songs were there from the start. I recall the first that jumped out at me was debut single, ‘Dark Streets of London’, taping it from highly influential BBC Radio 1 presenter John Peel’s show.
“Well, I remember them playing ‘Boys from the County Hell’ at that gig, ‘Streams of Whiskey’ and those kind of songs, so it was probably the faster songs and the fact you had Spider (Stacy) smashing a beer tray off his head pretty much throughout the set, while Shane was wandering about quite drunk, and Cait looked quite aggressive.
“The whole thing was very visual, in keeping with a lot of other Stiff Records acts. That’s probably the one thing they had in common with other people on Stiff down the years. There were a lot of them, and they were like a band of brothers.”
“I knew nothing about Shane at that point. That was the first time I clapped eyes on the guy. And I wouldn’t have known a lot about punk at that point. I missed all that. I was too young.”
Incidentally, Richard was born in July ’67, three months before this fellow ‘youngster’, and we’ve shared a fair few reference points, not least live shows we attended and a love of several bands, not least London-based outfits with Irish links such as Microdisney and That Petrol Emotion, as well as those Richard caught on his own patch, such as The Farmer’s Boys. But like me, he missed out on some of the seminal bands from that previous era, including The Clash.
“Because I was way too young to have been at a at a punk gig, I reckon seeing The Pogues at Hammersmith Palais about two years later, when they were doing Rum Sodomy and the Lash – and were quite big by then – I thought that was the closest I’d come to experiencing a punk gig.”
But we both lived and breathed that scene enough to keep following it down the years, and his initial love for The Pogues has now come to this authorised biography of a fascinating one-off artist, one of the greatest songwriters of his generation.
In his new Omnibus Press publication, Richard vividly recounts experiences that shaped Shane, from formative trips to his mother’s home in Tipperary to attending Westminster School, London, and the explosion of punk which enabled him to change his life forever, telling this gifted songwriter, musician, poet and bon viveur’s story through a combination of interviews with the man himself, journalist, writer and wife Victoria, Shane’s family, including those speaking publicly about him for the first time.
Included are interviews with Nick Cave, Aidan Gillen, Cillian Murphy, Christy Moore, Sinead O’Connor and Dermot O’Leary, all of whom pay their tributes and give their own recollections, as well as previously unseen personal photographs. But how did Richard get to know Shane?
“I first met Shane when I was writing a book about Stiff Records. I found him fascinating, a really nice guy, I really liked him, and it wasn’t a quick interview. I spent hours with him that day, just chatting with him and Paul Ronan, one of his oldest friends, who set up that meeting. That gave me a glimpse into the kind of person he was, and he certainly didn’t come across as a kind of hellraiser or this chaotic sort of person that you read about in the tabloid headlines.
“And when I later talked about telling Shane’s story, it was Paul who came with me on visits to Dublin to stay with Shane. That put me in a very privileged position, giving me the opportunity to spend time with Shane in his home and speak to him at his leisure rather than trying to ‘interview’ him, which he hates. His sister Siobhan and his father Maurice were also extremely supportive and provided access to other family members.
“There are voices in this book that have never been heard before – ex-girlfriends, relatives, close friends, even his English teacher, who spotted his genius as a writer, keeping some of his schoolwork. I think the book pulls back the curtain on parts of his life that have never been seen, and I hope it does justice to this kind, intelligent and generous man.”
It certainly does that. And there’s been great feedback to the book so far, rightly so.
“I’ve been really surprised at the feedback. You’re never really sure how anything is going to be perceived, particularly in Ireland when you’ve got an English writer doing a piece about one of their favourite icons – you’re never quite sure how that’s all gonna go. But it’s gone brilliantly well, and I’m overwhelmed by the response to it really.”
It seems apt timing too to be talking about all this at a time of year when on the radio, on the telly, in shops, wherever, there’s the Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer-penned ‘Fairytale of New York’ again, getting lots of airplay, somehow never having lost its magic 34 years after its initial release. How many times does Richard reckon he’s heard it in recent weeks?
“Quite a bit, albeit maybe a little bit less as I’m not in shops as often under current circumstances. But yeah, you hear it all the time, and it’s consistently coming up in lists as people’s favourite Christmas record.”
Yet that’s just one of so many great songs Shane’s written or co-written down the years, from the heady days of debut LP Red Roses for Me in 1984 through to Hell’s Ditch in 1990 with The Pogues and beyond, not least with next outfit The Popes, from someone Richard labels ‘a shy, complex man, a poet of whip-sharp intelligence and intense spirituality’. Was that how he saw Shane before setting out on this writing project? Or did his opinions and perceptions change as he got to know him better, seeing beyond the public persona? Because, let’s face it, we’ve all got our idea of what we might think Shane’s like. Yet Richard’s had a first-hand glimpse into his world.
“Because I had this really privileged access to him in his own house, I think that really helped me understand the kind of person he is away from music and being on stage and the public persona, the fact that I was actually not just talking and asking him things, but observing him in his own surroundings and seeing him with other people.
“One of the things about him which I think you only really find out if you spend a lot of time with him is how little he actually says. He’s a man of really few words. And he loves watching television. Even if there are three or four people in the room, which there normally was, we’d all be having a glass of wine and chatting, and he’d be watching TV.
“A lot of the time the conversation would be going on around him, and it would be other people reminiscing about things that that happened – tours and gigs, incidents and escapades, and Shane would kind of join in. But he’s definitely somebody who’s quite shy naturally.
“He’s a complex kind of person. And I think there were certain things I did learn about him, observing how shy he was, how introverted and so on. But what’s actually going on in his head? That’s not something I got to the bottom of completely. I think I’d be a fool to think I had.
“He does kind of live in his head. I’ve commented a lot on this and it’s because it is so noticeable how much television he watches. He has it on all the time. I went over to Ireland five times in the writing of the book, and never arrived to find him doing anything other than watching television. And often you’d arrive and he’d be watching the same thing he was when you left the previous day. He watches things on loop.
“He’ll watch a whole film, kind of doze a bit, then wake up and put it on again. Even if it’s something like The Deer Hunter, where you think, my God, have I got to sit through this again? But he really treasures that time, and … it’s speculation, I’m not a psychologist, but maybe that’s how over the years he’s coped with, you know, injuries he’s sustained, deaths of people in his orbit – from family through to band members and friends. And that’s a long list of people. But he’s survived.”
That’s something I was going to put to you. Be honest, many of us thought the previous book written with Victoria was something of an obituary in waiting. Who would have imagined he’d still be with us 20 years on, with this fresh biography landing?
“Yeah, and the thing is, over the years people have predicted his death so often that it’s become the stuff of legend! His doctor, Niall Joyce, passed away recently. He was an elderly man, but yeah, Shane managed to outlive his doctor, who treated him for years and years. And his sister, Siobhan, was with Dr Joyce when he arrived to find Shane lying on the floor. He said, ‘He’s got six weeks to live’. Obviously, that had a real marked effect on Siobhan – your brother lying there, at a young age, a doctor saying he’s got he’s got weeks to live here unless we get something done.
“So yeah, you’re right. And it’s extraordinary that we get to 2021 and he’s about to celebrate his 64th birthday.”
Then again, his Dad, interviewed within, Maurice MacGowan, is now in his 90s, so maybe it’s the pedigree of that family.
“Oh, you’re so right. Maurice is 91 or 92, and his brother Billy, who lives in County Dublin, is older, and still about, also in his 90s. And Shane’s mother died after an accident but was in her late 80s. So there’s pedigree there for long life.”
Who knows, perhaps there’s scope for another updated book 20 years down the line.
“Definitely! There’s things he’s done that need reporting on.”
How would you define the difference between your book and the one Victoria published two decades ago? Was she too close to the subject perhaps? And has it been easier or harder to get to the truth two decades later, speaking to more people? Has the passage of time and a distance from the subject made this easier or harder to tell?
“I think they’re just so different really. She interviewed Shane only, and it was his life told through his own eyes and his recollections, kind of stream of consciousness, a lot of it. It was him speaking, unedited. That made it in a lot of parts a really entertaining read. He’s just got such a great way of expressing himself, an amazing kind of take on things.
“Mine was interviewing over 60 people. If I’d just interviewed Shane, they’d have been a lot more similar, but I thought it was important to corroborate a lot of things around Shane’s life, particularly his birth, upbringing and early life. Myths have grown up like weeds around his story, to the point where it’s actually obscured the truth so much that I thought part of my job as a biographer was actually untangling some of that, so fans and people who were interested could actually see where he grew up and what the influences on him were, what kind of environments he knew as a child.”
And much of the last 30 or so years have been spent in Ireland, yeah?
“He lived in Dublin on and off in the ‘90s, and I think they’ve probably lived there about 20 years now, uninterrupted. He’s had a number of flats but still doesn’t own his place. He lives in a rented flat and the places he lived in before that were rented houses in roughly the same area. Again, that underlines another thing about him – he literally has no interest in fame, celebrity, money or material possessions.”
I should imagine the royalties from ‘Fairytale of New York’ alone would probably see him through a year.
“There’s no question. That’s the money song, bringing in a substantial amount every year. But equally, it’d be wrong to say that’s in some way the motivating factor. Money’s never been a motivating factor for Shane. He always wants to be paid a fair amount for touring or whatever, but he’s not money driven. The fact that money is coming in merely means he’s just comfortable. But a really interesting question to me is why hasn’t he recorded more original material these last 25 years.”
We mentioned his formative punk days earlier, and there’s a cracking photo in the book of a 19-year-old Shane in 1976 with Bondage, his six-page handwritten foolscap paper punk fanzine, having used safety pins to attach pictures torn out of the music press. That also suggests to me the written word always interested him, something borne out by your interview with Shane’s English teacher for the book.
“Oh, definitely. Shane is very artistic, very poetic, he does his own artwork, and we’re seeing examples of that now, and we know he was writing poetry in his flat around the same time he was writing songs. He’s just an all-round creative person, a lot of creative energy, and ultimately at school he was incredibly bright as a child but it was very much English and those kind of humanities subjects where he really shone.”
As for you, it’s struck me that you’ve now gone from writing about the gifted but notoriously difficult Ian Dury to writing about a trailblazing independent record company put together by the gifted but notoriously difficult Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera … and now Shane. Obviously, there are parallels, not least the London-Irish links and sense of rebellion and colourful characters portayed. I’m guessing from that, your next subject for a biography won’t necessarily be a member of Boyzone or Westlife.
“Ha! I was saying to somebody the other day that I think partly it’s because I worked in Ireland throughout the whole of the ‘90s as a journalist – living in Ireland at a really interesting time, when it was changing quite a lot, although I might not have appreciated it quite as much at the time, but certainly looking back that was a really pivotal time for Ireland, which was really growing as a country.
“Having lived there for a long time, I think it helped me writing this book, particularly having all those trips over there, knowing how society works and a lot about Irish culture. I think that was really helpful. And it might be that in a kind of subliminal way … going back to the UEA when I saw The Pogues I didn’t know nothing about Irish music, apart from hearing Val Doonican records at home, seeing Terry Wogan, and so on. I never had any reason to listen to Irish music. Dexy’s would have been about the closest I’d have come, so my interest in Irish music, which came from Shane and seeing The Pogues, might have been why I eventually did move to Ireland. I didn’t have any family connections there. It was music that drove me.”
Having recently seen Richard’s cousin, former Labour cabinet member Ed Balls, feature on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? genealogy series, I learned that the Balls side of the family were based in East Anglia for a long way back, so I’d assumed any Irish link was on his mother’s side. But apparently not.
“No Irish links at all that I’m aware of. But I love it as a country. I’d been there on holiday a couple of times before I lived there and think that was a massive factor as well. But by then I was liking lots of Irish bands – Fatima Mansions, Microdisney, That Petrol Emotion, and a lot of stuff The Waterboys were doing. I loved the Fisherman’s Blues album. But my introduction to all that was because of The Pogues.
“I think it’s also worth saying that when you think of the Northern Irish bands from that time and that whole scene – like Ruefrex, The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers – there’s a lot of anger there. A huge amount of real ferocity which in my opinion was never reflected in Republic of Ireland bands. They seemed tamer somehow.
“I think it’s worth saying that I think it’s because Shane grew up in London, not in Ireland. It was that perspective of being second-generation Irish, looking back at this country he romanticised, hearing about what British troops were doing in Belfast, which energised him. And that’s where a lot of punk energy came about … which wouldn’t have been the case if he’d been born in Tipperary.
“And one thing Shane did, I think, was kind of give a voice to Irish people living in Britain. Because of the IRA bombing campaigns at the time, a lot of Irish people felt really cowed and were massively discriminated against. It was a very difficult time to live in Britain and be Irish. And I think Shane was so out there, in the same way John Lydon was, with his Irishness, saying I’m so proud to be Irish, and that really instilled a lot of pride in people.”
Did you get a sense from various interviews in the book that people shared similar ideas of Shane as a person? Or was there a wide canvas of thoughts on him, suggesting he’s far more complicated than we might at first imagine?
“I’d say mostly people agreed, and a lot of people said the same things – he’s introverted, shy, very generous … He can be irascible, and I got on the end of a couple of tongue-lashings. The funny thing with Shane though is that the voice kind of goes up and you think, oh crikey, this is gonna put us back. It’s almost like a game of Snakes and Ladders. You sit there hours and hours trying to get an opening and get it round to the things you want to talk about, finding the right moment, almost get to the top, then all of a sudden, oh no, I’ve gone down a snake!
“But actually, what sounds irascible is just the way he speaks. Even when he’s just being really positive, even his little affirmations will sound like an attack! That’s just the way he expresses himself. And it’s something I really love about him. He’s pretty hard to fall out with.”
“Yeah, if he thinks he’s being interviewed, you’ve no chance! And he must have been difficult to film. I had the advantage of being in his living room. He hadn’t had to be dragged off to a hotel to speak to some journalists he didn’t want to speak to, the way artists have to do those and are often very reluctant to, they just see it as a chore.
He’s clearly something of a tortured soul, and these interviews must have taken their toll and made you wonder if you would ever achieve your aim at times. But you suggest if there was a key to your success here, it was letting him think he wasn’t being interviewed.
“But he was in his sitting room, we were all sitting around, chatting, and a lot of the time he was just enjoying the company. Then other people in the group maybe would sort of also help by trying to get him around to talk about certain things. I found what he was more willing to talk about was his childhood, being at school, being the Minister for Torture at Westminster School, pushing nettles down fellow pupils’ pants, selling drugs, escapades of family, the East End of London …
“That’s what he really wanted to talk about, really happily. If you wanted to start asking about records he’d made and stuff like that, you’d struggle. He has no interest in talking about The Pogues or his work or his career. But he loves talking about Tipperary and The Commons. He’d talk about that all day.”
Incidentally, The Commons is a cottage in a remote part of Tipperary, Shane’s mother’s patch, even if it’s often said that Shane was born there too, rather than Pembury, ‘near the quintessentially English town of Tunbridge Wells, Kent’, as Richard puts it in his opening chapter. He adds, ‘This common misconception was only encouraged by the BBC’s 1997 documentary, The Great Hunger: The Life and Times of Shane MacGowan, which stated that he was ‘born on the banks of the river Shannon in rural Ireland’.This and other subsequent films have concentrated heavily on his mother’s family, and his time spent at their remote cottage. Much less had been said about his father’s relatives, some of whom still live in England, and around whom Shane spent a great deal of his early life.’
Some of his interview subjects were more surprising, I suggested, using the example of South London singer-songwriter and 2020 Brit Awards Rising Star nominee Joy Crookes, of whom Richard says her ‘Bangladeshi mother introduced her to Sufi music and her dad to The Dubliners and The Pogues’. Was that someone who came up when you were doing an interview in your newspaper days?
“Funnily enough, it was just a coincidence. Paul Ronan knows Joy’s dad, David Crookes really well, so Paul’s been aware of Joy for a long time. And when she was in her early teens, she recorded ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’. Paul knew she was influenced by Shane and said, ‘why don’t you speak to Joy?’ Again, it shows that breadth of influence. It’s not just the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. It was great to get some comments from her about how Shane influenced her songwriting, even though her music’s so different, she was definitely inspired by his way of writing.
“About two years ago, before Covid, we had a night out. We met in a pub in Camden and Joy was there with David, and we went on to the Dublin Castle to see a Pogues tribute band and had a few drinks. She’s lovely, and a wonderful artist.”
And when did you last see Shane appear on stage or perform in public? I’m guessing you followed him in his days with The Popes?
“Yeah. I suppose again because I lived in Dublin in the ‘90s. A guy called Vince Power, who I think lost his shirt on the event, put on this thing called the Fleadh Mor in Waterford, at Tramore Racecourse in ‘93, with this unbelievable billing – Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Van Morrison, Shane MacGowan and the Popes, Jerry Lee Lewis … you can see why he lost money on it! That was basically the first time Shane and the Popes performed a big gig, their debut performance for all intents and purposes. It was a bit shambolic, but it was great. They played Pogues songs, starting with ‘Sally MacLennane’, then some of the stuff which was eventually on The Snake, which I think is brilliant.
“I saw them once more at Midnight at the Olympia at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, really late at night when they took so long to come out that people started smashing up seats in the auditorium. It all got a bit tasty! That was the last time I saw Shane in person on stage.”
I was surprised I never saw The Pogues earlier, having been impressed from the start, buying the records from fairly early. But I missed out on the If I Should Fall from Grace with God tour, my first instead on St Patrick’s Night in March ’89 at Brixton Academy, around the time of Peace and Love …
“Wow, that must have been a good night. I only saw The Pogues three times, the third time at Brixton Academy, around ‘87/’88, so before Peace and Love. What I can’t remember is whether Kirsty (MacColl) came out and performed with them that night.”
Funny you should say that. I had it in mind Kirsty appeared at that St. Patrick’s Night show. But I’m not convinced.
“Well, I’ve got it in my head I did see her perform, but your mind can play tricks, and I wouldn’t swear that I did. I did see her perform though. I feel really lucky in that way. I’d never seen her perform as far as I know, but then saw Ian Dury’s last ever concert. I was doing the book about him so went to the Palladium, and she was a support, February 2000.”
I’m jealous of that, but at least got to see Ian and the Blockheads’ Charley Charles benefit at the Town and Country Club, Kentish Town (late September 1990, having also caught them supporting Madness at Finsbury Park in August ’92). That was amazing. In fact, I was talking about it to Norman Watt-Roy, who was also in Wilko Johnson’s band that night.
“Ah yeah, he would have been.”
Getting back to The Pogues though, my second sighting was in late August ’89 at Reading Festival. But by the time I saw them again in June ‘92 at the Fleadh in North London (nine weeks to the day after that Madness/Blockheads show in the same outdoor setting), it was Joe Strummer out front with Spider.
“Well, again, you’re like me – I never got to see The Clash live, and in my case never saw Strummer with the Pogues, but did see him right at the end with the Mescaleros at the UEA.”
You’re one up on me there, and I regret not taking the opportunity, loving those Mescaleros LPs now, and the live footage.
“I went to that really because Mickey Gallagher’s son was in a band called Little Mothers who were supporting, and invited me along.”
I joked about it before, but do you know what you’re doing next, book-wise? Or are you happy to sit back a while after this?
“Yeah, I’m having a bit of a rest. It was a really exhausting project, involving travelling back and forth to Ireland. I’ve also got a full-time job, so I was always trying to fit it around work. I didn’t have the luxury of just being able to do the book.
“But I’m always on the lookout for the next thing. You never know where you’re going to find inspiration. You might just watch a TV programme, and out of the blue suddenly think, ‘I’d never thought of that …’. And I do like writing about a person, especially people like Ian and Shane, who are absolutely true originals. If you can find those kind of people to write about, that’s the most enjoyable thing.”
Is there a song or album that takes you back to your favourite Pogues moments? Not least if there’s a fresh resonance hearing it now, knowing the background better.
“I think it would be Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, because although the first album is the one to listen to if you want to hear what they sounded like right at the start, when they were really raw – and that’s such a great, great record – I think on the second one the songs are so strong, and not just the ones written by Shane. ‘Navigator’ is terrific as well. But things like ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’, ‘I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day’, ‘The Sickbed of Cuchulainn’, which has always been a big favourite of mine, and ‘Dirty Old Town’, again not written by Shane, but …”
It kind of became his for me.
“Yeah, and also there were stories around how they had the launch party on the Thames and the journalists either fell or got pushed over the side into the water. I love the classic Stiff marketing around it, the whole navigation theme which Stiff just picked up and ran with.”
Well, you’ve done another cracking job here, as you did with the Ian Dury and Stiff Records books, and I look forward to the next one, whatever the subject.
“Ah, well thanks a lot – that’s really lovely!”
For this website’s 2014 feature/interview with Richard Balls, celebrating Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story, head here.
A Furious Devotion: The Story of Shane MacGowan by Richard Balls (Omnibus Press, 2021) is available from all good booksellers and online outlets. You can also connect with Richard Balls via Twitter.