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Shane MacGowan’s 10 Greatest Songs: A Life in Songs & Poetry

Shane MacGowan's Greatest Songs: A Life in Songs & Poetry

Shane MacGowan was, until yesterday, arguably the greatest poet alive. Upon his passing, numerous tributes hailed him as one of the greatest lyricists in the history of rock n’ roll. Yes, The Pogues’ frontman was not a man you met every day. There was truly something special about MacGowan, his storytelling, and his zest for life and for art.

While Shane did not record many albums during his all-too-short of life (seven studio releases in total!), he still left behind the sort of legacy that would make most writers envious. Today, I offer my small tribute to the great man and list Shane MacGowan’s greatest songs.

Note that Shane was a master folklorist. Many of The Pogues’ greatest songs were brilliantly reworked versions of classic folk songs such as “Dirty Old Town,” “The Rocky Road to Dublin,” or “Waxie’s Dargle.” For the purpose of focusing on MacGowan’s great gift for original wiring, I will not be including these.

Shane MacGowan’s Greatest Songs

The Nips – “Gabrielle”

Shane MacGowan already knew a lot about rock music, poetry, and literature when he arrived in London. That’s why it didn’t take him long to understand the power of punk rock, or to want to contribute. He was a noted figure during the early days of punk, attending gigs by The Clash or Sex Pistols. In 1976, he founded his own fanzine titled “Bondage.”

Anxious to get some for himself, MacGowan formed The Nipple Erectors. Vulgar band names, Pogue Ma Hone (“Kiss My Arse”), would become a theme. The punk group’s name was later shortened to the less offensive The Nips.

And, while The Nips’ legacy is mostly reduced to early punk-rock mythology, they left behind a few great songs. None of them is greater than “Gabrielle.” It’s a singalong-worthy number that displays the band’s interest in soul music as well as punk. It’s the closest that the band came to a hit before disbanding.

The Pogues – “Boys from County Hell”

It’s hard to think of any group that managed to be equally as rowdy and as sophisticated as The Pogues.

Found on the band’s debut album, “Red Roses for Me,” the song tells in great detail the story of troublesome Irish youths (“The boys and me are drunk and looking for you/We’ll eat your frigging entrails and we won’t give a damn”). It is loosely inspired by Brendan Behan’s play “The Hostage.”

The Pogues were a new kind of band, the kind that could earn admiration for their songwriting and playing from the likes of Bob Dylan or Van Morrison, both with whom they toured.

Shane MacGowan & The Popes – “The Church of the Holy Spook”

Shane MacGowan finally got the boot from his fellow Pogues bandmates in 1991. By most accounts, he was thrilled. During the final tour of Japan, MacGowan had fought tooth & nail to cause as much chaos as possible.

This included one incident when thinking he’d been contacted by ancient ghosts, he took on their plea to paint himself and the entire hotel room blue. There was another time, before the final concert, where an inebriated Shane fell face the floor onto the concrete in front of the band’s hotel.

The Popes, as the name suggests, were to be as much like The Pogues as possible. The one difference is that the band was no longer a democracy.

Listen not to the naysayers. The Popes recorded one great album, “The Snake,” and another, “The Crock of Gold,” featuring 2-3 great songs.

“The Church of the Holy Spook” is the closest that they come to recreating The Pogues’ early, manic folk-punk sound. Shane’s excellent lyrics tell the tale of how troubles (“Rock n’ Roll you crucified me”) and express regret for losing his way (“I should have never turned my band on the old folks back at home”)

The Pogues – “Sally Maclennane”

Songs about growing up and chasing your dreams are a dime a dozen. “Sally Maclennane” is unique. It captures MacGowan’s strangely romantic view on the subject. It’s the story of Jimmy, a young bartender who goes out to “make money far away” and who ultimately “drank until he choked and took the road to heaven in the morning.”

Shane’s poetry is exceptional, and The Pogues play like a band possessed. The song’s hook, however, might just be MacGowan howling “Far Away!” at the top of his lungs. It’s the highlight of “Rum, Sodomy & The Lash.”

How many songs did Shane Macgowan write? Likely much more than were ever released. In Victoria Mary Clarke’s book “A Drink with Shane MacGowan,” Nick Cave, with whom MacGowan performed a couple of duets, recalls that the singer once had hundreds of songs scribbled on pieces of paper littered across his bedroom.

Shane MacGowan & The Popes – “Back in The County Hell”

Unfortunately, the prediction that “The Crock of Gold” would be Shane MacGowan’s final album proved to be true. The fact that would be released in 1997, twenty-six years early of his tragic passing, is, however, surprising.

By this stage, boozing and drugging were threatening to rob Shane of his enormous gifts. This is why the album suffers.

“Back in The County Hell” is a marvelous oddity. The music is a reworking of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” The lyrics are meant to be a follow-up to The Pogues’ blistering “Boys from County Hell.”

While it depicts the squalor surrounding MacGowan, it never has been funnier (“I missed the smack, I missed the crack/I missed the killings too”) or more intent to live life on his own terms until the end. Shane MacGowan’s songs are great poems first.

Did Shane MacGowan write all the Pogues songs? No, MacGowan always envisioned Pogues as a collaborative effort. He didn’t even desire to be the sole lead singer. Jem Finer and Phil Chevron also had compositions on the band’s records. However, Shane did get writing credits on the band’s most famous songs.

The Pogues – “Streams of Whiskey”

The Pogues were a force to be reckoned with from the get-go. It’s all the more amazing considering how little planning had been put into how they were to present themselves.

True, the group had been started by MacGowan with the goal of adapting traditional Celtic music to punk-rock. Yes, he likely had a few songs written already. But, according to him, he never wanted to become the band’s frontman. And he never desired to work with music professionals. After all, the wonderful Cait O’Riordan only learned to play bass guitar to join the band.

Arguably, no early song captures The Pogues’ mission as well as “Streams of Whiskey.” The lyrics tell a story of meeting the Irish playwright Brendan Behan and receiving vital information about how life is to be lived: “When the world is too dark, and I need the light inside of me/I’ll walk into the bar and drink fifteen pints of beer.”

MacGowan and The Pogues were true to their words and to the power of their music for the next years without a moment’s respite. The best Shane MacGowan songs, like those of Van Morrison or Phil Lynott, are meant to make listeners feel that better days are on the horizon.

The Nips – “Vengeance”

According to the biography “A Furious Devotion” authored by Richard Balls, MacGowan had a life-lasting fascination for violence. The singer could spend hours upon hours watching bloody war films and would brag about maiming individuals in a fit of rage. It’s one of the best punk songs ever written.

The latter part is, very likely, a fabrication. But it’s the kind of anger he put to good use. The first trace of it can be found in the excellent song “Vengeance.” The somewhat cartoonish depiction of gore and the catchiness of the tune, ought to make many contemporary bands consider covering it.

The Pogues – “A Rainy Night in Soho”

Few more beautiful love songs than “A Rainy Night in Soho” have ever been written. (Let’s count “A Pair of Bown Eyes,” a love song meets war epic, as a not too distant second). It’s no wonder that Nick Cave opted to cover it or that many hopeless romantics have had some of the lyrics tattooed on their skin.

The gorgeous ballad contains such memorable stanzas as” 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,” and, of course, “Now this song is nearly over/We may never find out what it means/Still there’s a light I hold before me/And you’re the measure of my dreams, the measure of my dreams.”

The Pogues – “The Rake at the Gates of Hell”

I read ” A Drink with Shane MacGowan,” a book consisting of interviews and descriptions written by Shane’s wife Victoria when I was a kid. It is still one of the greatest books that I have had the pleasure of reading.

In it, MacGowan boasts of having written hundreds of songs. But where are they? According to the legendary figure of Irish pride, most of them could be found on crumpled pieces of paper littered across his bedroom.

“The Rake at the Gates of Hell,” with its exceptional lyrics about love & hate, damnation & salvation, could’ve easily ended up that way.

The song is best documented on “The BBC Sessions 1984 -1986” and is one of many lesser-known Shane MacGowan compositions that are well worth tracking down.

The Pogues – “Fairytale of New York (feat. Kirsty MacColl)”

“Fairytale of New York” is the greatest Christmas song ever written. The 2023 celebration will be the first one where the bells will be ringing out without the song’s author in a world that he confessed loving dearly.

The truth is that most people have a horrid time around Christmas. MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl’s duet, part love song and part wretched accusations, is a better representation of what folks go through around the holidays than the majority of festive songs.

Musically, it’s a tune that hasn’t aged even after millions of drunken singalongs. No song list of Pogues material would be complete without it. It’s Shane MacGwoan’s most famous song and biggest hit. Even he wouldn’t mind it this way.

It is one of Shane MacGowan’s many great songs, but the one for which he will be best remembered. Just like MacGowan’s life, it is bittersweet, filled with hope and with despair. Nobody else in this world could have written it except for Shane Patrick MacGowan.

About author

Eduard Banulescu is a writer, blogger, and musician. As a content writer, Eduard has contributed to numerous websites and publications, including FootballCoin, Play2Earn, BeIN Crypto, Business2Community, NapoliSerieA, Extra Time Talk, Nitrogen Sports, Bavarian FootballWorks, etc. He has written a book about Nirvana, hosts a music podcasts, and writes weekly content about some of the best, new and old, alternative musicians. Eduard also runs and acts as editor-in-chief of the alternative rock music website www.alt77.com. Mr. Banulescu is also a musician, having played and recorded in various bands and as a solo artist.
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