The Pogues on record are never short of inspirational, and in person, they might be a life-changing experience. This hackle-raising blend of traditional Irish folk music, politically charged broadsides and electric rock ‘n’ roll, delivered by charismatic frontman Shane MacGowan flanked by a grizzled band of veterans that includes penny-whistle virtuoso/alternate vocalist Spider Stacy, was formed in the King’s Cross district of north London in 1982. Despite occasional time off for good behavior, they’ve been playing ever since and have a handful of festival dates planned for this summer. Here’s hoping it lasts for at least another 10 years. We are proud to say that Stacy, who is currently appearing as a street musician in season two of HBO’s Treme, will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. We recently caught up with him via phone.
MAGNET: Hey, Spider. Jud Cost of … uh, uh … MAGNET magazine here. Sorry, I do so many of these things I forgot who it was for.
Stacy: Well, I’m glad you remembered, anyway.
I tellya, some days I can’t remember anything.
Same with me, really.
Well, you have an excuse. You’re in a hard-drinking band.
I haven’t had a drink in 14 years.
Is that right? Good for you. I saw the Pogues play in 1987 at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. I seem to recall you guys gave the impression that you weren’t adverse to wetting your whistles. I must confess, I got into Irish music through the Clancy Brothers, stuff like “Brennan On The Moor” and “Roddy McCorley.”
We do “Roddy McCorley” at soundchecks. I like some of their stuff. I don’t actually come from an Irish background. I grew up in north London, and there are a lot of Irish pubs in north London. And if you’re going into Irish pubs, you will inevitably hear Irish music. When I got friendly with Shane, I started getting into it more. Hearty And Hellish!, which if I remember, is a Clancys live album, that’s actually a really good record. They are what they are, the Clancy Brothers. You can’t expect anything different from them. I mean, they’re not hair metal.
Right, and they aren’t Norwegian death metal, either. So, how did you meet Shane?
The first time I met Shane was at a Ramones show at the Roundhouse, which is in Chalk Farm. They were headlining with the Saints and the Talking Heads. It was a really, really good show, the best gig I’ve ever been to, really. They played two albums’ worth of material in exactly the same time it would take to listen to the two albums. Actually, a little bit less than that, because they played them a little bit faster. And they were so tight. I discovered afterward that Johnny Ramone used to make them run through the set acoustically before every show.
You once had a band called the Millwall Chainsaws.
That’s my band, yeah. I was born in Eastbourne and grew up in north London since I was eight years old in an area called Golders Green, middle class and safe. My family moved around a bit, lived in Guyana and Libya. Millwall is in Dockland, and Millwall football club are notorious for their supporters. And a chainsaw is a chainsaw. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that’s really cool. Typical middle-class white kids. We did seven gigs in two years. It was more the idea of having a band than actually being in one. But, as far as I’m concerned, we’ve never actually split up. It’s still an on-going concern.
Love the name, reminds me a little of the Guildford Stranglers.
I can’t really say I prefer the name the Millwall Chainsaws to the Guildford Stranglers, because my wife absolutely loves the Stranglers, more so than she does the Pogues. I love the Stranglers, too, their malevolence: I don’t give a fuck if we are too old to be doing this, we’re gonna do it anyway. What are you gonna do about it?
How did you learn how to play the tin whistle?
Well, the original idea was that me and Shane were gonna share vocals, but it became immediately apparent that he was a much better singer than I was. I mean, I’m a much better singer now than I was then. There is a certain technique. When you’re doing the kind of things the Pogues are doing, you can’t just bark into the microphone. Which wasn’t the case with the Chainsaws. That’s what I was supposed to do, so it didn’t matter. So, yeah, it became apparent there wasn’t any need for an additional vocalist, especially one who really couldn’t sing. It was Shane’s idea: “You should have a try at the whistle.” I’ve made several attempts to learn to play the guitar. But I want to be able to do everything yesterday. When you start playing the guitar, it takes you forever to change from one chord to another. I was too impatient. The whistle, on the other hand, it’s easy to get the right sound out of it.
I imagine embouchure is not a problem.
Yeah, well, some can’t, but I think most people can do it. They just need to relax and make sure you’re breathing right. And as far as the fingering is concerned, it’s very straightforward. And I had book, Teach Yourself How To Play The Tin Whistle, with charts to show you which holes to cover. Actually, the first tune in the book was “Silent Night”—”OK, I’ve played one song, therefore, in the fullness of time, I can play anything.”
Sure, Bach, Beethoven, the works. So, what’s the difference between the tin whistle and the penny whistle? Is that the one that has a slide. I had no idea yours had finger holes. Do you have holes and a slide both?
No, no, no, you don’t have a slide.
Well, there is some whistle that has a slide. It’s kind of like a miniature trombone.
Oh, yeah, yeah. I think I know what you mean. Here’s where I betray my ignorance. It might be some kind of American folk instrument that I’m only vaguely aware of. They certainly don’t use ’em in Ireland, anyway.
OK, here’s one you get asked every time, I’m sure. Tell me about the name. You’re the one who thought up “Pogue Mahone,” were you?
I suppose everybody goes through this. We were ages trying to come up with the right name, and they were all shit. And it just came to me. Shane speaks [cough, cough] the barest amount of Gaelic. So yeah, “pogue mahone” means “kiss my arse.” It occurred to me, and we thought that’s perfect. Then we had this kind of thing, referring to us as the Pogues.
Yeah, a shorthand for the headlines that the British music trades have been using since the days of the Manfreds.
We put out “Dark Streets Of London” as our first single, and it was getting quite a bit of airplay, and somebody at BBC Scotland in the Gaelic department pointed out to Radio One what “pogue mahone” means. The BBC, in a fit of horror, promptly banned the song. The record was never banned in Ireland. They thought it was extremely funny. But because the purists, that’s putting it politely, at BBC thought it was offensive, we became the Pogues.
You played recently with Patti Smith at the National Theatre on Southbank. Tell me about that.
Yeah, that was a couple of years ago. She was curating Meltdown, a week of stuff that the person in question chooses. So Steve Earle was on one night, and we went down to see him and went backstage. I’ve known Steve a long time. And Patti Smith was there, and I said to Steve, “I know I’m going to sound like a real wanker, but please introduce me to Patti Smith. You must.” She was doing a folk night that Lenny Kaye was supervising. So he tells me, “Patti is going to sing this English murder ballad from the 14th century, and would you like to play whistle on it?” And I stupidly said, “Yes.” So I winged it, I guess. Then he asked if I knew any American folk songs, and the only one I could think of was “Joe Hill.” And he said that’ll be perfect. So, I went home and put on the Woodstock CD and listened to Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill.” And I’m thinking, “What the fuck am I gonna do with it? I’m following Joan Baez. Nice one. Yeah, brilliant.”
Good fucking luck.
Good fucking luck, indeed! But no, I really enjoyed that. And Patti Smith, for chrissakes.
As long as we’ve laid out the celebrity red carpet, tell about when you made Straight To Hell with Dennis Hopper, Joe Strummer, Grace Jones and Jim Jarmusch.
And the rest of the Pogues. That was in ’85. That movie has acquired a sort of cult status. If you know anybody who’s in it, I tell people, and if you’re a bit out of it, it’s fine. But don’t watch it with a straight head on, in any sense. It was a real laugh making it. I enjoyed the process of filmmaking.
Where did you shoot it?
In Almeria in Spain, where Sergio Leone shot the spaghetti-Westerns. My only story about making that film is purely self-aggrandizing. It concerns Dennis Hopper, and it’s total name-dropping. I was in the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel the following year, and Dennis Hopper was just checking out. And I went, “Ahh, Dennis.” And he went, “Spider!” and threw his arms around me in the middle of the lobby. Oh, and I did get to point a gun at Grace Jones’ head in Straight To Hell, possibly more germane to the film itself. That was actually in the script. I didn’t draw a gun on Grace Jones in a private moment. I think that would have been an extremely foolish move.