When the National Concert Hall announced a 60th birthday tribute to Shane MacGowan, there was a collective wtf double-take that he’d managed to make it this far — and the same cliches were flying around on his 50th.
Of all the rock’n’roll stars, MacGowan is fetishised as the ultimate reckless hellraiser — the quintessential Irish hedonist genius. As leader and songwriter of the Pogues, he’s the voice of multiple generations — an outlaw punk hero and a renegade who kicked the back doors in on trad conventions.
The Pogues may be part of the wallpaper and sticky pub carpets all over Ireland, and most of us have a sort of love/hate relationship with Fairytale of New York, but MacGowan transcends the diddly-aye old Ireland trad establishment and the H&M folk of young chancers like Gavin James and Picture This.
Born in Kent to Irish parents, Shane spent his early childhood in Tipperary, before moving back to England when he was six. Somewhere along the line, a bad crowd must have been involved, as the first rock’n’roll footage of a skinny teenage MacGowan was shot by Don Letts for his infamous documentary The Punk Rock Movie, leaping round gobbing and pogoing to the Clash’s White Riot, in a Union Jack vest.
After pissing round London fronting punk band the Nipple Erectors (or The Nips if you’re censoring), MacGowan formed the Pogues in 1982 with Jem Finer and Spider Stacy, hitting trad at a punk angle. MacGowan’s themes of Irish republicanism, oppression, the famine, emigration and straight-up getting steaming drunk were a jolt to the charts, and they were true outliers in the new wave and post-punk era.
It’s these early to mid-80s records that still strike a chord with fans further afield, as the songs are already part of our DNA after sessions through the decades. Nick Cave – who duetted with Shane on a brilliant bar-room cover of What a Wonderful World – famously admits that he has to go to the studio and write as if it’s a 9-to-5 job, but he’s often jealous of MacGowan’s ability to just channel a song that flows from the ether through him to the microphone.
Cave is one of the top tier artists joining in the celebrations at the National Concert Hall, along with other collaborators, friends, artists and famous fans having a rake through Cave’s bulging songbook, presented by RTE’s John Kelly.
Musical director Terry Edwards has put together a band featuring Spider and Jem of The Pogues, with an assumed revolving door of guests and impromptu hook-ups. Shane will thankfully be turning up to his own party, and he’ll be joined by Cave, Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, Glen Hansard, Camille O’Sullivan, Johnny Depp, Cerys Matthews, Carl Barat of The Libertines, Lisa O’Neill, Finbar Furey, whenyoung, Glen Matlock of The Sex Pistols, Clem Burke of Blondie with ex-Pogue Cáit O’Riordan and fellow former Pogues man Terry Woods – and more.
From boisterous drinking songs and rebel heart anthems, to some of the sweetest balladry in Irish history, MacGowan is a true outlier – a singular artist who deserves the party, and maybe the rowdiest night in the history of the NCH.