Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan was born on Christmas day in 1957 in Kent, England, and on his 30th birthday, he narrowly missed landing the Christmas No. 1 on the UK charts with “Fairytale of New York” (the Pet Shop Boys held it off at No. 2). MacGowan founded the Pogues in 1982, paying tribute to his Irish roots by playing Celtic folk with punk aggression. The band became a chart fixture with hits like “Sally McLennane” and “Dirty Old Town.” “Fairytale of New York,” MacGowan’s duet with the late Kirsty MacColl, stands as the band’s crowning achievement as well as the most profane, hilarious, heartbreaking Christmas song in the pop canon.
MacGowan’s hoarse voice, slurred singing style, crooked teeth, and disarmingly intelligent lyrics made him one of the most unique and beloved rock stars of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. His hard-drinking lifestyle cut his original run with the Pogues short after five albums together, though, and MacGowan was fired for his erratic and unreliable performances in 1991. The band recorded two more albums with co-founder Spider Stacy on lead vocals before disbanding in 1996. In 2001, the classic Pogues lineup reunited, frequently commemorating “Fairytale” with annual December tours. The band ultimately split for good in 2014. In 2018, MacGowan won the Ivor Novello Inspiration Award and was honored with a 60th birthday gala in Dublin and presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by Irish President Michael Higgins.
Shane MacGowan died on Nov. 30, 2023 at the age of 65, a few days after being discharged from the hospital following years of infections, injuries, and other health problems. Here’s a look back at the Pogues catalog, which included seven full-length albums and many singles, EPs, and soundtrack appearances.
8. Pogue Mahone (1995)
Band co-founder Peter “Spider” Stacy came up with the band’s original name Pogue Mahone (an anglicized spelling of a Gaelic insult meaning “kiss my arse”). After MacGowan’s 1991 firing, Stacy, who played tin whistle, became the band’s lead singer for two final albums that retained the Pogues sound and spirit, but lacked some of the fire and charisma of classic lineup. Bassist Darryl Hunt’s greatest song for the Pogues, “Love You ‘Till the End,” was planned as the album’s second single, though the release was canceled when the group decided to split. The disarmingly beautiful song has endured, however, becoming one of the Pogues’ top streaming tracks after appearing in the films Mystery, Alaska and P.S. I Love You. Lorraine Ali of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Pogue Mahone sounded “like dull FM-rock with a dash of Irish flavor.”
7. Peace and Love (1989)
The Pogues were at their commercial peak in 1989. Their popularity was tested, however, by the curveballs on Peace and Love, the album that strays the furthest from the band’s signature Celtic rock sound. To make up for McGowan’s declining output, Jem Finer, Phil Chevron, and Terry Woods stepped in as songwriters and lead singers, with mixed results. It becomes clear on the opening track, Finer’s hard-swinging jazz instrumental “Gridlock” that Peace and Love is a change of pace, although MacGowan delivers some familiar magic on “Boat Train” and “White City.” “Shane MacGowan will remain the only Pogue in the down-and-out hall of fame,” Robert Christgau wrote in the Village Voice review.
6. Waiting for Herb (1993)
Shane MacGowan was arguably even more famous than the Pogues by the time the band fired him in 1991. At first, though, the band weathered his absence well with continued commercial success. Perhaps that’s because Spider Stacy’s raw, hoarse vocal style was so close to MacGowan’s that many listeners may not have even realized that the band changed singers. “Tuesday Morning” peaked at No. 18 on the UK Singles Chart, the band’s biggest hit since “Fairytale of New York,” as well as reaching No. 11 on the U.S. alternative charts, and Waiting for Herb was good enough to sustain the illusion, temporarily, that the band could continue indefinitely. However, it was the band’s last album with Phil Chevron and Terry Woods, the only two Pogues born in Ireland.
5. Poguetry in Motion EP (1986)
The Pogues reunited with Rum Sodomy & the Lash producer Elvis Costello for a follow-up EP released just six months later. It would be the last time they worked, together. After an argument about whether the gorgeous “A Rainy Night in Soho” should feature a cornet solo or an oboe, McGowan told Costello to “get his fat arse out of the studio and never come back.” Costello didn’t leave alone — that year he married Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan, who’d leave the band to accompany her husband on tour. Despite boasting only four songs, Poguetry in Motion is an essential Pogues release, and “The Body of an American” was memorably featured in HBO’s The Wire. In 2015, Spider Stacy began performing Pogues material with a group under the name Poguetry In Motion, later shortened to merely Poguetry.
4. Hell’s Ditch (1990)
The Pogues had a long history with Joe Strummer. The band opened for the Clash in 1984 and acted alongside Strummer in the 1987 film Straight To Hell, and recorded a track together under the alias the Astro-Physicians, before Strummer was enlisted to produce the band’s fifth album Hell’s Ditch. MacGowan’s lyrics were as dense with allusions to literature and history as ever on “Lorca’s Novena” and “Hell’s Ditch,” but his addictions affected his vocal performances so severely that Strummer had to stitch together different takes, word by word. When the band fired MacGowan mid-tour a few months later, Strummer stepped in as a temporary lead singer, even performing a few Clash songs (a recording of a Strummer-era Pogues concert can be heard on 2013’s 30 Years box set).
3. Red Roses for Me (1984)
“There was a time when everything was very boring again. It was like, the tail end of New Romantics and all that,” McGowan said in the 2020 documentary Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan. “The only alternative was these world music bands playing South American music and African music. I thought, ‘We’ve got our own indigenous ethnic folk music on our doorstep.’” After beginning his musical career with punk bands called Hot Dogs With Everything and the Nipple Erectors (later the Nips), MacGowan embraced his heritage the Pogues, playing traditional Irish folk songs like “Waxie’s Dargle” and “Poor Paddy” with punk aggression. It was MacGowan’s remarkable original songs like “Streams of Whiskey,” however, that saved the Pogues from being a one-trick pony.
2. Rum Sodomy & the Lash (1985)
Early in his career, Elvis Costello spent time behind the mixing board for great albums by the Specials and Squeeze, but the Pogues’ sophomore album remains his high watermark as a producer. At first, producing the classics “Sally McLennane” and “A Pair of Brown Eyes” for a single, Costello was then hired to oversee the entire album, aiming to “capture them in their dilapidated glory” and bring the livewire energy of a Pogues concert into a recording studio. O’Riordan’s only lead vocal in the Pogues catalog, on the lovely “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day,” reveals a secret weapon in the band’s arsenal that should have been utilized more often. “The Pogues are a crudely affecting bunch of romantics,” John Leland wrote in a 1985 SPIN singles column reviewing “Dirty Old Town,” the hit Ewan MacColl cover from Rum Sodomy & the Lash.
1. If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988)
Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan sang on the “Fairytale of New York” demo, recorded shortly before she left the band in 1987. Kirsty MacColl, who was the wife of Pogues producer Steve Lillywhite and the daughter of “Dirty Old Town” songwriter Ewan MacColl, recorded a guide vocal that sounded so good that she became MacGowan’s duet partner on the band’s classic song. As the stars aligned, “Fairytale” became the Pogues’ biggest hit in December 1987, boosted in part by the BBC airing a censored version of the song’s obscene lyrics, a controversy that persists to this day. With Hunt, Woods and Chevron joining the band on its third album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God presented a richer, more cinematic Pogues sound that couldn’t possibly dull the edge of MacGowan’s jagged voice. “The group stands revealed as the most inspiring trad-fusion band since Fairport Convention,” Kurt Loder wrote in the Rolling Stone review.