The cancelled Neon Picnic festival of January 1988 had one good spinoff – the amount of copy it generated for Rip It Up (even if I am still $200 out of pocket for hiring a caravan for the magazine’s campsite). I interviewed Roy Orbison, Murray Cammick interviewed Nona Hendryx, and Kerry Buchanan tried to talk to James Brown. Although Orbison died shortly after I talked with him, especially memorable was an interview I did with Philip Chevron of the Pogues. While the rest of the band was on tour, he was at home with an ulcer, and handling the interviews. He turned out to be exceptionally articulate and knowledgeable about the history of Irish pop music. Besides the courteous closing line – the idea had simply never occurred to me – for years I have been quoting his line about the boorish Irish expatriates and wannabes who appear around the world on St Patrick’s Day: “We’re a bit more subtle about our Irishness over here.”
Sadly, Phil Chevon has recently died, of oesophageal cancer, aged 56. Contrary to the Pogues image, he was a well-read, historically minded, highly astute musician, and quite philosophical. Shortly before his death he said, “I am a gay, Irish, Catholic, alcoholic, Pogue who is about to die from cancer – and don’t think I don’t know it.”
Along with Bob Geldof, the Pogues were one of the few acts that made it to New Zealand for the Neon Picnic. With so many people in Auckland to attend the festival that never happened, the Pogues’ gig at the Galaxy was packed to the ceiling with an audience that had already been partying all weekend. MacGowan won few friends among the audience for his slurred, out-of-it performance, and even fewer backstage where he insisted on limitless supplies of white wine and go-fast.
THE IRISH are plagued by ignorant stereotypes, but they know how to have a good time— I can personally recommend their funerals.
Sunday night is certain to be hoedown night at Neon Picnic, with the Pogues and Los Lobos on the same bill. Both bands have brought a contemporary edge and spirit to sounds that reach back over generations, and both bands know how to move the soul and the feet.
The Pogues are currently in New York, filming a video for their new single ‘Fairy Tale of New York.’ Then they tour the East Coast and Canada, finishing up at the Hollywood Palladium as guests of their friends Los Lobos.
But one Pogue who has stayed home in London is guitarist Philip Chevron. “I’ve had to stay behind because I’ve had a recurring duodenal ulcer which I need treatment for. But I’m feeling a bit better now,” he says.
Filling in for Chevron in North America is Joe Strummer. Last year the Clash singer and the Pogues starred, together with Elvis Costello, Grace Jones and Dennis Hopper, in Straight to Hell, a spoof spaghetti western by Sid and Nancy director Alex Cox. It received mixed reviews...
“Well I liked it!” laughs Chevron. “It was great fun to make, basically our annual summer holiday which we filmed and then forced on people in cinemas... no, it was a lot of hard work actually.”
Chevron joined the Pogues temporarily in 1985 before Rum Sodomy and the Lash – when their banjo player Jem Finer needed a rest. “I liked it so much I stayed, well they invited me to.” Prior to that, he was in the seminal punk combo Radiators from Space. “We were the only punk band in Ireland, so we were quite well known for a while.” The Radiators, who had “terrible trouble” battling with an Australian outfit of the same name, made two albums, and Chevron has made two solo LPs, one produced by Elvis Costello.
A LOT IS MADE of the Pogues’ punk origins, with Finer and million-dollar smile Shane MacGowan being part of the Nipple Erectors. But through the Pogues’ concertina player Terry Woods, who helped form Steeleye Span, there are links back to an earlier era when traditional music was popular:
“There’s a long gap between that folk rock and us,” says Chevron. “Very early Steeleye Span were very good and adventurous, as were early Horslips and early Fairport Convention. But somewhere along the line something went wrong and it got more rock than folk, and the two elements didn’t blend very well.
“I think it took another few years before the vital ingredient came along to make it work, and that was punk rock. That had the same sort of energy that Irish folk music has. It said, stop taking it seriously ’cause it’s supposed to be fun. Stop sticking your finger in your ear.”
And the respected Irish singer Christy Moore approves: he covered a song of the Radiators in the late 1970s, and the Pogues’ ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ on his latest album. “Christy always had a good ear for what’s going on, it doesn’t matter which strand of music of music it comes from. It was quite a radical thing to do then for a performer like Christy Moore to record what on the surface looked like a punk rock song. And to have him record ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ was like a progression of that.
“Because the Radiators, although they never ended up sounding like the Pogues, their attitude was similar in that they were using the long standing tradition of Irish ballad writing, and playing it a different way, with an upfront energy and force, but respecting the tradition.”
Chevron says that when he grew up in Dublin, traditional Irish music was “shoved down my throat, and I hated it. It was part of the same misguided government policy which shoved the Irish language and sport down people’s throats, to the point that all you could do was vomit it back up again. That’s the wrong way to interest people.
“It took till that attitude cooled off a bit – for me it was a band called the Horslips, an Irish band in the 70s, who said, well fuck that, we’re gonna make this music sound like fun again. That had a big influence on me, it made it sound exciting again, and for my generation, kindled for the first time a love for Irish music.
“Now things are more relaxed, and they don’t force music or the language on you, so it’s easier to appreciate. Though there still purists who despise what we do. But there will always be those people, always.”
ALONG WITH U2, the Pogues are known throughout Ireland. But Chevron stresses that only three members of the eight Pogues are actually Irish. “We’re a London band, all based there except for Terry who still lives in Ireland. But in London, there’s a very strong Irish music thing there in the Irish pubs. So that’s where a lot of the Pogues’ Irish music comes from, for the people who weren’t actually born in Ireland.
“But we’ve been adopted as an Irish band in Ireland. Irish people are very proud of people who become internationally successful, particularly if they wear their Irish-ness on their sleeves.”
Irish pub bands play in the background, “they wouldn’t have their jobs very long if they did what we do,” says Chevron. “But a lot of what those bands play, country and Irish, has some bearing on the Pogues. ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ is in that sort of mode, an Irish waltz. The pub bands play in that spirit – only we play it with a great deal more feeling than they would!”
The Irish immigrants to America had a large influence on early country music. “And therefore rock ‘n’ roll, so it’s very integral to the way rock music turned out,” says Chevron. “It’s amazing it’s taken so long for Irish music to be this popular internationally.”
Now the Pogues (particularly in their version of ‘Jesse James’ on RSL) reflect the way country has flowed back across the Atlantic. But the links go further: ‘London Girl’ thumps along with the zydeco rhythms of Louisiana. With Los Lobos, the Pogues have brought the accordion back into favour:
“Yeah – it’s been a very underrated instrument until recently. Someone like William Schimmel who plays accordian with Tom Waits is brilliant. There are people who are using the accordian in an intelligent way these days. For a long time it had a justifiably terrible reputation.”
THE “Irish ravers” image of the Pogues has tended to obscure the fact that the band is full of excellent musicians. Shane MacGowan has done the bulk of the writing, though on the new LP If I Should Fall From Grace With God various members of the band contribute. “Shane’s songs are pretty hard to beat – they have to be pretty shit hot to better him.
“Songs are everything. That’s one thing that unites us. With eight people in the band, there are lots of different influences and preferences. But we all have got great respect for the songs. The art is the songs, which I think has become grossly devalued and debased over the past few years. We’ve got production and marketing and so on, and the songs seem to have got lost. I’ve always regretted that.”
It’s been two years since Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. “We’ve had a lot of problems with our record company, and it’s taken this long to iron them out. We’ve had the album recorded for quite a while, but we weren’t prepared to let them release it except on our terms. That’s been a source of great frustration for us. We’ve been playing the stuff off the album for quite a while, but it helps if people know what you’re playing. And the band is very prolific, we write a helluva lot of material, so it’s frustrating not being able to record it and get on with the next one. However it’s been worth the wait.”
Fall From Grace has been produced by Steve Lillywhite, and Chevron is enthusiastic about his approach:
“Without knocking anyone else who has produced the band, they haven’t really been producers but musicians. Steve Lillywhite’s a real producer, and it’s a different discipline from being a musician, you think differently. This time the album was pretty much recorded live in the studio. We added some colouring to it afterwards, but the essence of each track is live.
“Steve Lillywhite captured that, he didn’t impose anything on us at all, he was brilliant. He’s probably the best producer in the world — apart from his technical brilliance, he knows how to get the performance out of people. That’s what a producer should do. He hasn’t done anything to the sound that isn’t us, he’s listened very carefully to what we do and translated it onto vinyl. So it won’t sound like a Steve Lillywhite record, but like a Pogues record. I was so full of admiration for the man, on every level. He was easy going, intelligent, imaginative.”
NEVERTHELESS, the production work Elvis Costello did on RSL and the sublime EP Poguetry in Motion seemed sympathetic to the band.
“Yeah, to some extent, but actually it was on that EP that things came to a head. ’Cause we had to argue for a lot of things that we felt were right, and he didn’t. So our working relationship with him soured a little bit during that. In the end we more or less got what we wanted, but we felt, it’s really stupid to have to argue with your producer about what you should sound like. There are one or two things on that EP that, quite frankly, he had a lot less to do with than his credit would suggest. Because we went away and re-did certain things after he’d finished.
“But Elvis is a nice man, he’s a nice man to work with, but our working relationship with him came to an end there ’cause we were thinking differently about our sound. We had ambitions about our sound that Elvis felt weren’t really in keeping with what the Pogues should be doing. Our feeling was, well fuck that, ’cause we’re the Pogues, and we know what we should be doing! I think he was a bit nervous about experimentation. But around the time we made Rum, Sodomy, he was in tune with our ideas.
“You see, people don’t always give the Pogues credit for invention or imagination or musical know-how really, and Elvis was slightly guilty of that in the end, I think. But we’ve never been as we’re popularly imagined. We’ve always been as ambitious musically as the circumstances would allow, and now they allow us to be as adventurous as we want. At the time of Poguetry in Motion it was in a state of transition. So it wasn’t entirely Elvis’s fault. I don’t want to blame him for it. It was a natural period of transition.”
The Pogues’ music has the ability to cross over to any audience, from fans of a garage sound, country or folk, to Gaelic grandmothers.
“Maybe it’s a lot to do with the eclecticism of the band,” says Chevron. “Irish music is very strong, but that’s only a part. There’s country, but on the new album it’ll be obvious there’re bits of jazz, Spanish music, Eastern folk music, ’60s rock — there’s a lot going on there.
“So it’s gratifying that people who just love music love what we do. Because we obviously love music, and I think that comes across in what we play. There’s so much music that you hear now on the radio that seems so loveless, it sounds as if the people who made it don’t really care about it, maybe they care more about their haircut or their bank balance.”
The Pogues supported U2 on many of the Joshua Tree dates, including Madison Square Garden. “There are people who would have us playing small pubs in London forever,” says Chevron. “But the nice thing about what we do is it seems to translate to huge audiences. We still manage to make it seem intimate. We really enjoy stadiums, but also enjoy playing small places, like recently we did a short tour of Ireland, playing in dance halls and large clubs. It was great fun.”
THE BAND HAS made a tradition, though, of returning to London each year to play St Patrick’s Day in a small venue. But now it’s a problem: “As we get bigger, St Patrick’s Day has tended to become extended because not everyone can see us. We could go and do Wembley Arena and cover most people, but what we’re doing, which is nicer, is we’re gonna have St Patrick’s Week – playing six shows at the Town and Country, holding 2000 people. St Patrick’s Week with the Pogues.”
Perhaps you could stain the river green, like they do in Chicago.
“I think we’ll leave that to the Americans, actually – we’re a bit more subtle about our Irishness over here.
“The further you get away from a country, the more you celebrate your nationality, if you’re an immigrant. Sometimes it’s embarrassing, but I can understand it, ‘cause if you take this country where the Irish, alongside the Scottish, are still ... curiosities as citizens. Irish people over here are regarded by English people as one step above Asians and blacks and so on, which is all of course inherent racism. But in those circumstances where a national identity is sublimated, well then I think a slightly ... kitsch element comes out. You have to show your national identity a bit louder than you would in your own country. So I don’t really knock that sort of thing.
“You have a lot of us over there, and a lot of us in America. There’s a song about it on the new album: ‘Thousands are Sailing.’ The economy isn’t there to sustain the population, unfortunately. The song links the new immigration with the mass immigration of the 19th Century potato famine. People are leaving at the rate of 30,000 a year, I believe, which is a lot in a population of three million.”
But despite the dispersion forced by economics, music from the likes of the Pogues and Los Lobos means cultural identities are not forgotten, but celebrated. A last word from Philip Chevron:
“... Thanks very much for not asking us about drinking.”