I'm not singing for the future
I'm not dreaming of the past
I'm not talking of the first time
I never think about the last
- A Rainy Night In Soho
The first time? It was in a park in South London back in the summer of 1985. The last? Probably just before last Christmas, in a former railway shed in Manchester. But in between those two dates, the Pogues were the most fun that anyone could have with a collection of musical instruments and a dancefloor.
As the elections for London's Mayor get closer, and residents of our great city start to realise that in May 2008 Ken Livingstone may lose his seat to a floppy-haired racist twat, it's hard not to think back to the days when Red Ken had a surer finger on his city's pulse. Or, at least, was able to offer us better quality bribes for our affection. Londoners of a certain age will still remember Livingstone with fondness for his leadership of the Greater London Council in the mid-80s, and their willingness to treat us all to regular celebratory events, without the disspiriting corporate hype that today's equivalent bashes in Trafalgar Square have.
The Jobs For A Change festival on July 7th 1985 was a good example. Theoretically, it was a way for the GLC to highlight the plight of London's unemployed: at least, I assume that's what it was. I was there, and I couldn't really tell you anything about the political side of the event now. But it happened in Battersea Park, it was free, and it had three stages of excellent music playing all day. I literally spent most of the day wandering around the park with a full-size ghettoblaster recording anything that took my fancy.
Whenever the GLC held a concert, there were certain things you could always predict. Hank Wangford would be affectionately taking the piss out of country music's cliches while still performing them to perfection: Frank Chickens would be confusing the hell out of punters with their karaoke cabaret act: and Billy Bragg would be thrashing his guitar so hard that his mate Wiggy would have to retune it after every second number. All of these elements were present and correct at Jobs For A Change '85, but of course there were a whole pile of other bands as well. Which is why, as the sun went down, I found myself drawn to the second stage, where people were literally hanging out of trees to catch the act that was bringing the house down. They were, of course, the Pogues.
I was aware that the Pogues existed, but I think I'd mentally bracketed them with all that cowpunk silliness that was going around London at the time and left them alone. Over the course of that hour in Battersea Park, I realised just how wrong I'd been: realised, in fact, that I was exactly within the band's target demographic. Like them, I'd grown up with Irish parents, in a household where the family record player would alternate between their old Irish records and my new punk ones. It was only a matter of time before a band invented a way to synthesise the best of both forms into ruthlessly efficient good-time music. They even (initially) named themselves after the one bit of Gaelic that every Irish-descent kid knows - pogue mahone, or 'kiss my arse'.
The next day, I bought the two albums they'd released to date - Red Roses For Me and Rum, Sodomy And The Lash - and investigated further. Away from the frenzy of the live performance, several things were apparent. They knew exactly what they were doing musically: no matter how fast or hard they played, the feeling for the music was always there. In Shane MacGowan, they had a primary songwriter who was touched with some sort of genius: capable of writing songs that sounded like they'd always existed (and only rarely using actual plagarism to achieve that effect), and capable of swinging from the emotional to the profane at the drop of a hat. And in the twelve months between the release of their first and second album, they'd managed to develop from a good band into one with the makings of greatness. It would take them nearly three years before they released their third one, and it would be another quantum leap ahead for them.
It's very rare that you can pinpoint the exact moment when a band hits its peak - mainly because, by definition, it's the sort of thing you can only do in retrospect. Take Oasis, for example. You can nail them down to a two-day period - the weekend in 1996 when they played to a quarter of a million people at Knebworth, a pair of shows that (according to legend) five per cent of the population of Britain tried to buy tickets for. Before Knebworth, they had Morning Glory and the love of everyone in the country whose surname wasn't Albarn: after it came the coke-fuelled excesses of Be Here Now and increasing irrelevance. But for that weekend, they were top of the heap.
With the Pogues, I'd suggest you could specify the exact day when they were at their very best: and like the man said, it was twenty years ago today, on March 17th 1988. For years, the band had made it a tradition to play a London show on St Patrick's Day: I'd been to a couple of them myself, and they were always a little bit special. But in the runup to the 1988 show, the band had gone stratospheric. After a quiet period, they'd released a comeback single in Christmas of 1987: a little thing called Fairytale Of New York that came within a hair's-breadth of being the greatest ever Christmas Number One.
The album that followed - If I Should Fall From Grace With God - took all the promise of their earlier records and built on it tremendously. Whereas the earlier records had been more heavily focussed on Shane MacGowan, here the rest of the band was given a chance to shine. Philip Chevron (who, before the Pogues, had been an acclaimed singer-songwriter in his own right) contributed a touching story of Irish immigration, Thousands Are Sailing. Terry Woods provided Streets Of Sorrow as a quiet prologue to the ferocity of Birmingham Six. But MacGowan's tales of London lowlife, written alone or with other band members, were still the highlights of the record.
In the wake of Grace Of God's success, the Pogues played seven nights back to back at London's Town And Country Club, with St Patrick's Night at the centre of the run. The show was filmed, and is still available on DVD - the picture quality's a bit ropey (I guess they assumed it only needed to be good enough for VHS), but as someone who was there on the night I can vouch that it gives you a taste of the excitement that was to be had that evening. Kirsty Maccoll repeated her vocal on Fairytale, the brass section from After Tonite added extra swing to a couple of the songs, and Joe Strummer and Lynval Golding turned up for a couple of surprise guest slots. By the aerosol-fuelled frenzy of Fiesta at the end, you couldn't help but feel that this was the best band in the world right now.
Inevitably, this was the point at which it all started to fall apart a bit. Shane MacGowan's public image started to morph from 'that guy with the horrible teeth' to 'that guy who's pissed all the time'. The Pogues' next album, Peace And Love, proved that Grace With God was always going to be a tricky act to follow, and rumours abounded that MacGowan was buried in the album's mix to cover up for the way he couldn't quite hit notes - or indeed, consonants - the way that he used to. A period of hedonism in Thailand resulted in a couple of interesting musical detours on 1990's Hell's Ditch: particularly the lovely Summer In Siam, which ended up being the band's last truly essential single. But the rest of the Pogues were starting to get cheesed off with MacGowan's unreliability: tellingly, the last two tracks on the album don't feature Shane at all, and he was booted out of the band shortly afterwards.
The Pogues has always had a set of strong personalities at its centre - the ferocious larking around of Spider Stacy and Andrew 'The Clobberer' Ranken, the tight musicianship of Jem Finer and James Fearnley - but when they tried to go it alone without MacGowan, it quickly became apparent that it was their former frontman's personality that tied them all together into a band, rather than a bunch of competing solo acts. They did a short run of shows with producer and mate Joe Strummer on vocals: the London one at Hackney Empire was notable for an audience banner reading 'HAVE YOU NO SHANE?' They made two more albums, Waiting For Herb and Pogue Mahone, the second of which I've never got around to buying, some twelve years after its release. Most other Pogues fans felt the same way, and the band fizzled out in 1996.
For a while, anyway.
Everyone keeps saying that live music is making a real comeback: with recorded music hardly worth a bean in the face of download culture, we're heading back to the concert halls in an attempt to recreate a unique experience we can't get anywhere else. Actually, I'd suggest this is a phenomenon that came to light a few years ago, in the evolution of Christmas Only Bands. There are several groups who were popular years - sometimes decades - ago, whose best work is long behind them: and they've realised the easiest way to earn a living is to reform every Christmas and play all their hits to the office party crowds. Madness have been doing this for several years now, and have somehow managed to keep their dignity intact in the process.
The Pogues have been doing it since 2001. Since the 1996 split, the band members had been flailing around in a variety of solo and joint projects to very little effect. Shane MacGowan had made two sporadically fine albums with his cheekily-titled new band The Popes, but was notable for not having released any new material since 1997. They all got back together again for a short series of Christmas shows: and as the late Rob D reported on my old letters page on 23/12/2001, apart from some minor misgivings it was like they'd never been away.
The problem is, they're still doing it. When I found out late last year that the Pogues were playing Manchester Central in my old home town on a weekend before Christmas, it seemed like the ideal time to plan my usual festive visit North. It wasn't until The Belated Birthday Girl and I had booked the tickets and the hotel that the warning messages started coming from my Mancunian relatives. Apparently, when The Pogues had played the same venue one year earlier, they'd been utterly terrible. In fact, it was suspected that the appearance of Billy Bragg as a support act on this one show (not the rest of the tour) was intended as some sort of compensation for the 2006 debacle.
Bragg, of course, makes for a rather interesting link to that first ever Pogues gig I went to. Twenty-odd years after that show, he's still writing new material - well, a bit slower than he used to, given the six-year gap between albums, but new material nonetheless. And his newer songs actually take the passage of time into account. The highlight of his Manchester support set, Old Clash Fan Fight Song, is specifically about what the legacy of the Clash means to people who are now in their forties and fifties. It's a terrific piece of work, combining the attack of his early hits with a thoughfulness that's developed over time: and amazingly, Bragg is writing so many songs at the moment that he can't even be arsed to put it on his new album.
In the whole of the Pogues set that followed Billy Bragg, there was only one tangential reference to the fact that we've all got older, albeit an incredibly smart one. The opening music to the show was the Clash's Straight To Hell, from the early days of their history: the closing music was M.I.A.'s Paper Planes, from the present day. Spot the link. For the rest of the show, the Pogues tried to pretend that the last 25 years hadn't happened, and failed horribly. MacGowan's stage performances with the Popes were always touch-and-go affairs, but I was always under the impression that the reunited Pogues were doing a better job of keeping him on the straight and narrow. Wrong: whereas in the past there was the odd song where MacGowan would give up on the lyrics and just repeat one verse over and over again (exhibit A: Bottle Of Smoke), at the Manchester gig that was what he did for most of the songs. And his sloppiness has infected the rest of the band: the fake falling-apart at the end of Fiesta has been replaced by a group of musicans who literally don't know when to stop.
The real tragedy here is this: back in the Pogues' heyday, I genuinely thought MacGowan was one of the best songwriters of his generation. He was telling the sorts of stories that no other British songwriter would even want to touch with a bargepole. Theoretically, in 2008 he could be looking at the underclasses in the country today and writing about them, or examining how his punk rock ideals have changed now he's 50: but he hasn't had a new song out since 1997. Every couple of years, rumours start doing the rounds that "Shane's writing again," and nothing ever comes of them. Instead, he's become a poster boy for pissed-up Christmas party crowds, who specifically come to the shows to watch him screw up.
I had a lot of emotional reactions at those early Pogues gigs: but the one I never expected was my main reaction to that show in Christmas 2007, with my nerves on edge at the start of each song waiting to see if MacGowan could finish it without fucking it up. So, twenty years on from one of the best gigs I've ever been to, it's a little sad to have to report that there's probably no reason for me to ever see the Pogues live again: but that's just the way life goes. It could almost be considered ironic that this year, I'll be spending St Patrick's Night in Kilburn in the company of Mary Coughlan. But that's probably a story I'll have to save for another time. Being a monkey, and all.