Spider Stacy remembers the early days of The Pogues.
[Updated] The Pogues have become an institution. Their recent shows in London have been at the O2 Arena, and "Fairytale of New York" has entered the British Top 20 during holiday season yearly since 2005. "It's far bigger than the band every was or will be," says Pogues founding member Spider Stacy. "People know 'Fairytale of New York' but they don't know The Pogues. They don't even know it's by The Pogues. I think that's cool, really. They don't know it's by you; it's just that song."
Not surprisingly, that song is included on The Very Best of The Pogues, a recent Shout Factory retrospective on the band. Stacy now lives in New Orleans, and he wrote the album's liner notes. "'Streams of Whiskey' was the first song we ever performed live," he writes. "In front of about 30 people at the Pindar of Wakefield, Gray's Inn Road, London, near the band's point of origin, Burton Street in Bloomsbury." That was the first Pogues song and its first show proper in 1982. The band's roots were in The New Republicans in 1980.
Shane MacGowan was part of The New Republicans along with Stacy, and he while he hadn't yet shown his talent as a songwriter, he already had a following from his days in The Nipple Erectors - a very second generation punk band name - which was eventually shortened to The Nips. The New Republicans decided to play Irish songs and rebel songs "really fast," Stacy says. "They have enough vitriol in the lyrics, and you can do them with such vehemence that they lent themselves to it. They worked really well as punk songs." Musically, the band was in over their heads, the songs requiring more skill than The New Republicans possessed, but that only added to punk noise. MacGowan was the guitar player and Stacy was going to share vocal duties with him, but he was so excited about the first show that between talking it up all day and chatting with people in the bar over beers before their set, his voice was spent by show time.
"Just as well since Shane's a much better singer than I am," he says. Stacy switched to the penny whistle, but he would eventually become The Pogues' singer in 1993 after MacGowan and the band had parted ways. He sang on the band's last hit, "Tuesday Morning."
The show took place at Cabaret Futura on Wardour Street in London's West End, a New Romantic club. Cabaret Futura had a good crowd of regulars, and MacGowan had enough followers from his days with The Nips that The New Republicans played to a sizable audience. Stacy remembers the show passing without event, though legend has it that off-duty British soldiers were in the crowd throwing french fries at the band. He thinks it unlikely that they'd have been in such a club, and "I have a feeling that if British soldiers were there and they were offended, they would have thrown something a bit more dangerous that french fries," he says. The setlist was made up entirely of covers, most of which would fall by the wayside over the years. They did play "Poor Paddy," which would appear on the band's debut album, Red Roses for Me.
It wasn't long before the band started to change, though. "We dropped the rebel songs because in London in the early '80s, you wouldn't have gone very far," Stacy says. Songs chosen because they were subversive and punkly confrontational became harder to live with as it was difficult to draw a line between the songs, the Irish Republican Army, and violence. "They were entirely legitimate protest songs about a time when Ireland was an occupied country, [but] I think it was a good idea not to do them in a situation when people were being blown up in pubs." Even after the band's focus moved, the centrality of Irish music in their sound meant members found themselves being asked to comment on Irish politics, though The Pogues were British with the exception of MacGowan and Cait O'Riordan.
"When people were asking me about Northern Ireland, I felt it really wasn't my place to answer," Stacy says. "People were always asking the wrong people what they thought about Northern Ireland. Nobody was asking the people who lived in Northern Ireland what they thought."
Putting aside those songs made artistic sense because MacGowan was developing his writing voice. "Dark Streets of London" and "Streams of Whiskey" were his first two songs, and it became clear he was on to something. "We were aware that there was this ferocious creative talent that was just beginning to find its feet," Stacy says. "He had the vocabulary. He had soaked up all this knowledge, and he had the talent to take that and put it there." Part of his gift from early on was to write songs that mirrored the lives of the young people in the pubs that saw the band. Folk was the people's music, and he translated that to a rock 'n' roll context. Stacy wrote as well in the early days, but he soon decided there was no point.
The name "New Republicans" was a zero-hour choice when the band realized it had a gig and needed a name. When they realized they might have a musical future, they needed something better. That didn't make them cautious, as they chose the more subtly punk Pogue Mahone - "Kiss my ass" in Gaelic. Their self-released version of "Dark Streets of London" played on BBC 1 without incident or complaint since Gaelic was hardly a common tongue, but eventually someone in Radio 1's Gaelic department noticed the name, knew what it meant and raised a furor. Fortunately, the controversy came at a low cost. Just as The Nipple Erectors became The Nips because that's how the fans referred to them, Pogue Mahone had already become The Pogues, no matter what the band called itself.
The band under any name caught on quickly. For second and third generation Irish youth in London, their shows were places where they could be Irish without anxiety, and The Pogues added members who could better realize MacGowan's songs. "It was always steady progress until we started tripping ourselves up toward the end of the '80s," Stacy says. In '85, they toured opening for Elvis Costello, and the next time they toured they were headliners.
Record company reps periodically checked The Pogues out but didn't get it - none but Stiff Records' Dave Robinson. Stiff was the musical home of The Damned, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Madness and countless other musical acts that no one else knew what to do with at the time. "I can't believe Dave Robinson was the only Irishman in the British music industry at the time, but he had the wit to see the potential, which had been his modus operandi."
Stiff released Red Roses for Me in 1984, produced by their manager Stan Brennan. He was more manager than producer, so the production's a bit "thin," in Stacy's words. "I'm glad we have something that's underproduced rather than the first Heartbreakers album - the first Johnny Thunders Heartbreakers album - which is just badly produced. It's just really fucking muddy, and that's a real shame." Red Roses for Me is one of the albums well-served by recent efforts to remix and remaster older albums, according to Stacy. "It got the rawness back to it, and it's a very appealing sound."
The Pogues reunited in 2001, and though they have no plans to record again, they still perform. MacGowan's drinking issues have been well-documented, but Stacy says he's "almost always on the case these days, not half-on, half-off," and the reports of onstage drunkenness often have more to do with what people expect to see than what's actually there. He concedes that New Orleans saw MacGowan at his worst the last time he was in New Orleans to play Voodoo. "He was not really there, but that seldom happens. He doesn't like doing bad shows." In that case, there were mitigating circumstances which left him exhausted and unhappy.
"It's really important for him to do good shows," Stacy says. "He's an extremely intelligent man, and he knows what people think he's going to be like. He likes ramming that down their throat sometimes. You think I'm fucked up? Watch this, then. He switches it and he's there. One of the things I really love about this band is that I think we're doing gigs now that are better than they were back then."
Updated 2:01 p.m.
In the original text, I wrote that Jem Finer was in The New Republicans. Stacy says that he wasn't, so the text has been changed to reflect that.