Fancy the greatest commission? Stuart Bailie took the call in 1987 to meet The Pogues in NYC, preparing for their breakthrough moment, ‘Fairytale of New York’. What follows is a remembrance of that visit, with some pictures from his personal archive plus an extract from the original Record Mirror cover story…
We fly into JFK and a black limousine is waiting. It’s a huge car, arguably the size of a bar, and inside there are many drinks. Our friend Philip takes a decanter of whiskey and pours us a measure each. We try the seltzer and Mountain Dew and roll though the neighbourhoods of Queens in the best of form.
We’re due to meet The Pogues, who have been filming a video for their upcoming single, ‘Fairytale of New York’. We all care for the song and our admiration deepens each time we rewind the promo cassette. Shane MacGowan and Jim Finer are writing so well. Kirsty MacColl is sharing the vocals. Plus the blessed strings of Fiachra Trench and those stylish hints of Morricone and Tom Waits. Astounding, really.
Philip Hall picks up the car phone and calls the Pogues manager, Frank Murray. The latter is in tremendous spirits, a former tour boss of Thin Lizzy with the capacity to savour the fun stuff. The November wind is brutal and Philip asks about the weather in Manhattan.
“Three inches of snow,” says Frank. “And that’s only on the hotel room tables.”
Presently, we’re over the bridge and headed to the Gramercy Park Hotel, NYC. It’s a once elegant place near Union Square with crumbling, Jazz Age décor and a tolerance for bohemian sorts, who might score “a gram at The Gram”. David Bowie was a resident in 1973 and the punks came afterwards, including The Clash during their 17-date run at the old Bond Casino in 1981.
The Pogues are stationed here for another three nights. They will play a couple of shows at the Ritz on 11th Street. Unfortunately, the band’s guitarist Philip Chevron is sick so Frank has called up Joe Strummer, formerly with The Clash, who is upstairs at the Gramercy, learning the setlist, focused and alert.
The regular band members are being messy and convivial around the lobby and bar. They act out film scenes from the works of Sergio Leone, Scorsese and Coppola. Often, Spider and Shane converse with wheezes, twitches and sniggers, a whole other lexicon of advanced boozer language. The only discordant note is when the Pogues are called together to discuss business, particularly the new album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God. That’s when they start to rage and collide.
The designer Simon Ryan has flown over with us. He has a quality idea for the new album sleeve. It is based on a 1928 portrait of James Joyce by Bernice Abbott. The writer wears his hat at a bold angle and he carries a Malacca cane. Simon has created a montage of the Pogues players alongside Joyce, all mocked up in a similar pose. The technology of 1987 has required the designer to book in expensive sessions with rostrum-mounted cameras and the talented people at Michael Mann Studios. He shows the artwork to the band. Voices are raised and disagreements are aired. The artwork is binned and Simon leaves the meeting in an emotional state.
Philip Hall is the band’s publicist. He once wrote stories for Record Mirror before taking a PR job at Stiff Records and then setting up his own office in Soho. The artists on the roster respect his style, which is keen but often bemused. He tends to rise above the drama. Later he will manage the Manic Street Preachers and handle the Stone Roses on their accelerated ascent after the first album. The Pogues tune, ‘Rainy Night in Soho’ is played at Philip’s wedding to Terri Gould in 1990 and sadly it is reprised at his funeral in 1993, taken by cancer at just 34.
Still, in 1987, Philip is loving the New York trip and his PR expectations are modest. There won’t be an in-depth interview with Shane MacGowan, who doesn’t care much for media chores. And if you want MacGowan to do a photo session, then book a room at the Gramercy, order up some champagne and get what you can manage before the fizz has gone. Which is how Howie (aka Joe Shutter) gets his cover shots for Record Mirror, with Shane clutching a fistful of greenback dollars.
It’s been an unexpected recall for myself to Record Mirror. I had left the staff of the magazine a few months earlier, taking a job in the press office of WEA (Warners Elektra Atlantic). Just as I was bidding my farewells, I heard the Pogues tune and was sad that I would not have the chance to write about this giant step. Instead, the RM feature was arranged with a decent freelance chap called Henry, who had the looks and demeanour of a Hugh Grant character. For whatever reason, The Pogues took a dislike to Henry and truncated the interview. So, I was called out of retirement and hey, sent off on a plane to America to write a cover story.
I had met Shane a bunch of times, before at gigs and bars in north London, particularly the Devonshire in Camden Town, where a deal of Poguetry happened in the mid 80s. I had arrived in London in 1985 and the band’s second album, Rum Sodomy & the Lash was a party essential and a map of exile. It had been my friend in lonely times and a primer for lost weekends. I had witnessed The Pogues in Belfast, Dublin, Kilburn, Harlesden and Kentish Town. I related. I even liked Shane’s side project, called Shit, which mainlined Johnny Cash and the Velvet Underground and featured his mates like Paul Ronan and the late Armagh firestarter, Mo O’Hagan.
Most times I had met Shane in his bleary, fall-about condition, when talk was brief and consonants were rare. In Manhattan, that’s also the case. But something else occurs. I say something glib to him – that the difference between 60s and 70s music was the self-consciousness that came sometime around Rubber Soul or Revolver and that ‘rock’ music was perhaps less vital. Shane rightly thinks that it’s a ridiculous statement and he checks out of his mumbling pose and decides to school me. He rattles off a list of names and records, which sadly, I don’t recall, other than Gram Parsons and maybe Gene Clark and Costello. He is quick-witted and a bit vicious. I can still feel the shame but MacGowan calls it correctly. Seconds later, he has assumed the dopey manner again and I realise that at least part of his style is a construct to ward off unwanted people in a facile business.
Various other characters have become embedded in the New York trip. Jon Marsh from The Beloved was headed to New York for a jolly when we met him at the airport. He quickly realised that we were set for a memorable time and decided to latch on. Martin Hall, brother of Philip, is also on board. Later he will manage the Manics, The Script and Wet Leg.
The two Ritz shows are magnificent and I write about them in the magazine extract below. Joe Strummer is rehearsed and eager, and it pulls Shane back into the firm as an active participant. The Irish Americans are noised-up and the Pogues have reached that sweet spot between finesse and chaos. Perfect.
At some point, Philip books us into a Japanese restaurant. We drink many orders of blood-warming kanzake with chasers of beer. Jem Finer is relaxed while the band’s live engineer Paul Scully is telling stories from the pioneer days of Irish rock and bottles of Moët arrive. Shane and myself decide to swap hats. In the snapshots, I’m wearing his homburg as he spoon-feeds me oriental ice cream.
Later, Philip Hall presents his NYC expenses to Island Records. The restaurant bill causes an uproar. “You’ve spent all the profits from ‘Fairytale of New York!’,” splutters the label manager, Chris O’Donnell.
Anyway, I write up the story soon after and it’s the Christmas cover for Record Mirror. I wish it had been done better. I was fairly young and not writing confidently. Hindsight tells me I missed a chance to resource a better tale, to take more notes, that I undersold the value of it all. But context also counts, and RM readers were likely more interested in the Pet Shop Boys, who clipped The Pogues to the top of the singles chart that Christmas. So I wrote it lightly.
I’ve added a few extra lines of transcript to the feature and removed a handful of adjectives and sentences that cause cringe, but this is largely the printed version…
A Fair Intake of Ale in New York
Record Mirror, 19 December 1987
New York is Shane MacGowan’s favourite town and Spider Stacy concurs.
“It’s a bit like Ireland in a way,” he says, “in that whenever I go over there, I always end up feeling really fucked after about four hours, and when I get back, it takes me about a week and a half to recover. That’s what it’s like here, except there are more means of abuse available, if you know what I mean. This city has a lot going for it; it’s got everything you could possibly want and you’d have to go a long way to find a better place. I met my wife the first time we played here…”
In America, just as in Britain, The Pogues seem set to break out of their cult status and reach a broader audience. Already, they have notable fans here like Faye Dunaway and Matt Dillon (who plays an arresting officer in their new video), while Beastie Boys Ad-Rock and MCA plus film director Jim Jarmusch arrived at the show to check out what was going on. And as an extra-special tribute, Los Lobos recently went out of their way to ensure that their bar room cousins should support them when they played their hometown of Los Angeles.
Yet on the band’s first night at New York’s Ritz club, The Pogues were a little more keyed-up than usual. Just before the American tour, guitarist Philip Chevron went down with stomach ulcer trouble, leaving the band in an awkward situation. At short notice, they called up former Clash frontman Joe Strummer, who they’d befriended while filming Alex Cox’s spaghetti spoof, Straight to Hell. Joe agreed, they had a couple of rehearsals together… and the whole thing worked out beautifully.
While he was nervous, Joe handled the job well, concentrating on his guitar and looking over to bass player Darryl for some on-the-spot coaching. A few songs into the set though, and he began to relax, his foot pumping along to the music like a veteran (if slightly upmarket) Pogue. By this time too, the audience had caught on to the idea, so when Joe stepped forward to sing Clash favourites ‘London Calling’ and ‘I Fought the Law’, there was a great roar of approval. And from that moment on, it was the best evening.
“If you look at Joe’s guitar,” Spider points out later, “you’ll see he’s got a chart taped to the side of it, really neatly drawn out, showing the chord patterns to each number in the set – 21 songs! I’m in the hotel room next to him, and at nine in the morning, the guitar starts going, and that’s Joe practising, taking it really seriously. It’s really good playing with him because he enjoys it so much – I don’t think he’s done anything like this in about three years.
“We supported the Clash three years ago, which was the first time I met him, and our paths have crossed since then. Now we’ve fallen in love with him, so we poisoned Philip and roped Joe into the band!”
Since the release of the Pogues’ excellent second album, Rum, Sodomy And The Lash two and a half years ago, the band’s recorded output has been disappointingly low. There were a few pieces on the soundtracks to Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell, and a one-off hit with the Dubliners on ‘Irish Rover’, but there was no real proof that they would be able to match the achievements of their last serious release.
Thankfully, proof has arrived. Not only is ‘Fairytale Of New York’ one of the best Pogues records to date, but it must also stand up as being one of the finest singles to come out this year. In fact, the song dates back to 1985 when Shane and banjo player Jem put together a couple of half-finished ideas and set upon the idea of writing a duet to be sung with bass player Cait O’ Riordan. Yet the recording never quite worked out; Shane wasn’t happy with the lyrics and when Cait left the band, the song got held over. They thought of doing it with Pretender Chrissie Hynde, but as things turned out, it was Kirsty McColl who stepped in to do a memorable performance as the cussin’, drink-sodden Biddy.
Like many of Shane’s songs, ‘Fairytale’ is based around some expatriate Paddies who’ve fallen on hard times, but by setting this storyline in America as opposed to London, he manages to stuff even more pathos into the proceedings. The start might owe a little to Tom Waits (especially ‘On the Nickel’), but when you get to the lovers’ slagging match and the bit about the New York Police Department singing ‘Galway Bay’ you start to realise that Shane MacGowan is a major talent. Suggest this to him, though, and he’ll squirm about with annoyance.
“Shane’s a very shy person in a lot of ways,” Spider explains, “and he doesn’t like it when people say that to him. I say it to him, and he gets all coy but it’s not false modesty. It is embarrassing to be complimented, especially when the people he compares himself to are really good; real writers like Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, Sean O’Casey and James Joyce.”
So what do the Pogues make of other popular songwriters around at the minute?
Jem: “What, like Morrissey, you mean?”
Shane: “He knows fuck all!”
Aren’t you even slightly impressed?
Jem: “No chance.”
Shane: “How can my friends really like the guy? He’s probably a really nice bloke, but half the people I know think he’s a fucking genius. If he’s a genius, what’s he doing in a fucking pop group – you know what I mean?”
Have you ever thought of projects beyond The Pogues?
Shane: “Don’t have time.”
Jem: “Knitting, maybe.”
Shane: “We play backgammon sometimes.”
Jem: “That sort of thing.”
Shane: “I like investigating foreign cultures,” (he sniggers).
Jem: “We’re very progressive — we’re a very anthropological band. We scour all cultures for the flotsam and jetsam to throw into our songs.”
But don’t you ever feel hard done by; that the public don’t treat you as seriously as you’d like?
Shane: “The audiences never think about us that way, and they’re the people who keep us alive.”
Jem: “The first thing people think if they don’t really listen to the music is that we’re a load of moronic drunk cartoon characters playing folk music.”
Shane: “That image has been laid on us by the press. They have been kind to us, but they’ve also created a stereotype for us that we never had anything to do with. When we started, there were no live bands in London to speak of. So we became a live band, you know? We’re a dance band.”
Jem: “Yeah, we are a dance band. Come Dancing: waltzes, polkas, reels, jigs. We play weddings sometimes.”
Shane: “We used to play a lot of weddings.”
Jem: “There was one person we didn’t know at all. He just phoned up and asked us. It was way out in the country in a tent in the middle of a field.”
Shane: “There was an Irish side at the wedding, which was his side, and the bird he was marrying was Swiss. The Swiss people tapped their forks on the table and the Irish people danced. Imagine having a Swiss band play at your wedding!”
Are there some corners of the world where people still haven’t tuned into the Pogues?
Shane: “There are places all over where people never really respond, and there’ll be small crowds, but whether it’s America, Ireland, Scotland or wherever, it doesn’t matter where you play. You’ve either got a bloody soul or you haven’t – it’s as simple as that.”
‘Fairytale of New York’ mentions a lucky horse that comes in 18/1. Do the Pogues frequent the bookies with likely tips?
Shane: “Occasionally, yeah. We were going to put our first record company advance on a horse. We should have done it.”
Jem: “We think it won, too.”
Shane: “But we should have done it, for the amount of money that we kept.”
Jem: “It wouldn’t have mattered, even if it had lost.”
Is there a longevity to The Pogues? Will they continue as long as The Dubliners?
Jem: “Most of us are over 30 now. I think I’ll always be singing ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ ’til I die. But I doubt we’ll go on quite as long as The Dubliners. I think our manager’s got far worse lined up for us…”
The second New York show is even better. Obviously, the word has spread while the Joe Strummer connection further explains the ‘house full’ sign and the many disappointed punters outside.
On stage the Pogues are romping through a set that includes some fine new stuff like the Mexican-flavoured ‘Fiesta’ and the awesome ‘Broad Majestic Shannon’. This is followed by a frenzy of encores with the likes of ‘Dirty Old Town’, ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ and a gloriously shambolic attack on Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May’.
The crowd, like every other Pogues crowd, know the words to all the old songs, perform spectacular acrobatic feats and wave scraps of green cloth around with gusto. One fan passes Shane a sheepskin bag which apparently contains some relative of the brandy family. The singer gratefully squirts the contents into his mouth and passes it on to Spider who immediately falls to his knees in agony at the taste of this foul liquor. Spider hands the concoction back and then watches his colleagues in horror as Shane finishes the lot.
“I reckon his throat must be made of asbestos,” an awestruck Mr. Stacy reflects afterwards.
So what’s it like to be in the running for the Christmas number one, Shane?
And what do you think of Rick Astley doing a cover of ‘When I Fall in Love’?
“Has he done that? Hah, he hasn’t! Nah, he can’t!” Shane reflects on the enormity of this crime. “That’s outrageous!”
Jem has placed £20 on The Pogues to top the Xmas charts, at 20/1. “If there was any justice in the world,” he reflects, “‘Fairytale’ should get to number one. But I guess there isn’t any justice.”
Maybe, and maybe not. But, for now, the Pogues are more concerned with shipping out to play in Boston where, apparently, “they all go bloody nuts”. First stop, though, is a 24-hour deli where Shane must stock up on his early morning wine supplies. As he sways away alone in the general direction of Lexington Avenue, sniggering to himself and decked out in his curious undertaker gear, he looks like the opposite of your normal pop star. Then again, Shane MacGowan is the only one of them who’s worth keeping.
(with love to the departed: Shane MacGowan, Philip Hall, Joe Strummer, Kirsty MacColl, Frank Murray, Philip Chevron and Darryl Hunt)