Norfolk-based music author Richard Balls is the authorised biographer of Shane MacGowan, the lead singer of The Pogues who passed away in the early hours of this morning. Here, Richard pays tribute to one of the greatest songwriters of his generation
I stumbled upon The Pogues when they supported Elvis Costello & The Attractions at the University of East Anglia in 1984 and have been a diehard fan ever since. As a music biographer, I first interviewed Shane back in 2012, when I was researching a book about Stiff Records, which first signed The Pogues. We had a few drinks at a bistro in Belgravia, London, and six years later I would find myself staying in his Dublin flat and watching the World Cup with him.
It was to be first of five trips to Ireland over the next two years, meeting his sister Siobhan and his dad Maurice in Tipperary, plus other members of his family at the old cottage where Shane had stayed as a child. It was a place which had a profound influence on him.
I think that one of the things that surprised me most about Shane was how quiet he was off stage – he was very different to his on-stage persona. Despite that, he had been a powerful voice for the Irish diaspora – the second generation of Irish people living in the UK – many of whom felt cowed by widespread discrimination and distrust around the time the IRA was carrying out a bombing campaign on the mainland. Shane’s songs and The Pogues’ music made Irish people here in the UK feel proud of their identity.
As for his wider musical legacy, in a programme for Irish television Bruce Springsteen said that he considered that his own music would be forgotten but that in 100 years people would still be listening to the songs written by Shane MacGowan. That is quite some tribute.
His most famous song, Fairytale of New York, is not some kind of gaudy bauble on the pop Christmas tree – it’s a song of real substance; an incredibly complex song with many layers. It’s really about emigration. Yes, it has a Christmas setting but it’s really about the hopes and dreams of people who went to America from Ireland – some of whom would find life very difficult there. It’s just an amazing song that has resonated with people from around the world.
It would be great to see it get to number one this year, as it didn’t make number one at the time (it was beaten by the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Always On My Mind) although it was number one in Ireland and that made Shane extremely proud. Although he was born in Kent, his Irish heritage was hugely important to him.
Tonight, I expect many of his fans will be raising a glass of something alcoholic to mourn the passing of Shane and will probably listen to Fairytale of New York, or another of his timeless songs, such as Rainy Night in Soho or A Pair of Brown Eyes.
Shane had been ill for some time and had been in hospital in Ireland since June, but it’s still incredibly sad to hear the news today. It’s left me feeling very flat when I think about his life cut short.
Shane was a one-off, a powerhouse on stage and one of the finest songwriters of his generation. His poignant songs mean his legacy will be a lasting one. As a man he was modest, private and unerringly kind. He also had a fierce intellect and an extraordinarily sharp wit, and he was a pleasure to spend time with. We will never see his like again.
A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan, by Richard Balls, is published by omnibuspress.com. Richard is also the author of The Life of Ian Dury: Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘N’ Roll (amazon.co.uk) and Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story. Richard is a former Eastern Daily Press journalist and lives in Norwich.