Born in 1957 in England and raised in Ireland, Shane MacGowan was drawn to the punk music scene in the late 1970s. He became the lead vocalist with the groundbreaking Celtic-infused punk band, The Pogues, in 1982. The group built a devoted fan base and gained even more fame when they toured with one of the most influential punk bands of the time, The Clash. Though MacGowan and The Pogues earned a reputation for their high-energy live shows and MacGowan’s infamous drunken performances, as a songwriter, he also brought a deeply emotional, Irish folk sensibility to the band with songs like “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and "Fairytale of New York." Drug and alcohol addiction ultimately caused MacGowan to be dismissed from The Pogues in 1991. Though he and the band would reunite in the early 2000s, their relationship continued to be rocky and touring together became increasingly limited. After the death of guitarist Philip Chevron, The Pogues played their final show together in 2014. MacGowan continues to write and perform solo, along with his new band The Shane Gang.
In The Beginning
Singer and songwriter Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan was born December 25, 1957 in Kent, England. Raised in Tipperary, Ireland and in London with his younger sister Siobhan, Shane MacGowan showed talent as a poet and musician at a young age. He credits his mother's family for his inclinations towards music, telling The Guardian, "I used to learn a song a day from my mother's family, so I built up a huge repertoire. Mostly Irish songs. I gave my first performance when I was three. They put me up on the kitchen table to sing and the song went down very well." His family also encouraged reading and the essays he wrote as a child won him a scholarship to study at London’s Westminster School. However, he was expelled for doing drugs in his teens and never looked back. He took on odd jobs including working in pubs and at a record shop, while finding his way through London's punk rock scene.
A fan of punk music, MacGowan joined the short-lived band the Nipple Erectors (also named The Nips) in 1976. In 1982, he formed the London-based band The Pogues along with Spider Stacy (tin whistle), James Fearnley (accordion, mandolin, piano), Cait O'Riordan (bass), Jem Finer (guitarist), and Andrew Rankin (drummer). The band’s line up varied somewhat over the years with added and subtracted members that included Philip Chevron (guitarist), Darryl Hunt (bass), Dave Coulter (mandolin, violin, ukulele), James McNally (accordion), and Jamie Clarke (guitar). The Clash’s frontman Joe Strummer also stepped in to replace Chevron when the guitarist became ill and replaced MacGowan after the singer was axed from the band during their 1991 tour. Together, The Pogues created songs that infused traditional Irish music with the raw energy of punk rock.
"Most really good songs, I'm not necessarily saying mine, but if you think of rock & roll, or blues, go as far back as you want, they all have a story. They're all about a revolution, or a battle, or a love affair, or whatever. I came from a really musical family. Everybody played music and told stories and made up songs. All the neighbors did as well." - Shane MacGowan
After Shane MacGowan and the Pogues toured with The Clash in the early '80s, the band, released its debut album, Red Roses for Me, to critical acclaim. Their 1985 sophomore effort, Rum Sodomy & the Lash, was produced by Elvis Costello and widely praised. The album highlighted the songwriting of MacGowan with "The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn” and “Sally MacLennane” among others, and his poignant vocals on “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.”
In 1986, they released the EP Poguetry in Motion, which included MacGowan's haunting ballad "A Rainy Night in Soho." The Pogues released their next and most successful album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, in 1988. It included the hit single "Fairytale of New York," which featured Kirsty MacColl singing a duet with MacGowan. The album's songs reflected ideas and story lines ranging from Irish history to emigration to the rowdy and raucous “Fiesta.” MacGowan’s softer poetic prowess is also showcased in “The Broad Majestic Shannon,” about someone returning home to find everything has changed, as well as the moving ballad, “Lullaby of London.”
Soon after the release of the album, Shane MacGowan drifted further into alcoholism and drug addiction. The band was forced to dismiss MacGowan in 1991. Joe Strummer stepped in to cover vocals during their tour. In 1994, Shane MacGowan staged a comeback by founding a new band, The Popes, which released a well-reviewed debut album, The Snake. Follow-up albums include 1997's Crock of Gold and 2002's The Rare Oul' Stuff, but neither received the traction of his work with The Pogues.
MacGowan reunited with The Pogues in 2001 and they toured annually to sold-out crowds. But as the years went by, friction remained constant among the band. They also shared a collective grief when Kirsty MacColl was killed in an accident in 2000, and two years later, with the unexpected death of Joe Strummer. Guitarist Philip Chevron succumbed to esophageal cancer in 2013.
MacGowan and his bandmates took on other music projects during the next decade, including a new band MacGowan formed in 2010 called The Shane Gang. By 2014, The Pogues played their last show and called it quits. Regardless of the band's end, its music and MacGowan's poetic lyricism endure and have inspired countless bands including Black 47, Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly.
For more than 30 years MacGowan has defied the odds of surviving his addictions, gaining almost mythic stature among his fans. “I’ve got a really good constitution,” he told The Telegraph in 2012. In 2015, a trip and fall accident left MacGowan with a fractured pelvis and limited mobility. He continues to recover.
Never married, he resides in Dublin with his longtime girlfriend, Victoria Mary Clarke, whom he met back in London's punk rock days.
In March 2016, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day and in a nod to their collective consumption, The Pogues announced a partnership with West Cork Distillers, and created their own brand of whiskey.
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