Singer’s fightback fails to disguise his fall from grace
Shane MacGowan and the Popes, Forum, London
It is nearly midnight at the Forum. St Patrick’s Day is coming to a close, though you’d never think it from the crush at the bars. The place is packed to bursting with late night revellers who waited until the football was over before venturing out knowing quite well that the man they’d come to see would never be on time.
But would he arrive at all, and if so, what state would he be in? By nine, there were reports that Shane MacGowan was at least in the country, having just flown in from Dublin.
‘He might make it by 3am,’ suggested the man at the box office hopefully. But in the event he arrived just before 11, playing to an excited capacity crowd but looking as if he was the only one there not having fun.
For those who have queried whether Shane MacGowan would survive the nineties, let alone rediscover the manic genius that made him such a compelling figure in the eighties, his eventual appearance late last night offered a few hints that he might pull through, but only just. Dressed all in black, and clutching a pint, he staggered to the microphone, moving painfully slowly.
When he started singing, with a rapid-fire burst of If I Should Fall From Grace With God, his voice was almost inaudible, drowned out by painful feedback. There had been no rehearsal, and it showed. So far, very bad indeed, and the frantic playing from the Popes, also dressed in black, like some biker gang did little to help. But he kept going, and gradually his voice began to fight back against the band. This wasn’t quite the disaster one had feared, even though he wandered off after just half an hour to let the band bash through a frantic instrumental before he returned for a spirited version of Dirty Old Town. Now, at least there were echoes of the old days, though only echoes.
Watching him, it was impossible not to think back to his triumphs on this same stage in 1988, when he was rightly treated as one of the few great performers who had rescued the eighties from the synthesised clutches of the New Romantics. That was the year the Pogues celebrated St Patrick’s Day by playing a whole week of concerts here before moving off to pack Brixton Academy.
It was the year when he waltzed on this stage with Kirsty MacColl as they sang Fairytale of New York, and when If I Should Fall From Grace With God was hailed as the album of the year. He had tempered his manic post-punk treatment of Irish traditional themes just enough to attract a mass following, and he was writing great lyrics.
But then came the nineties, his departure from the Pogues blamed on drink and the advent of the Popes, whose recording contract with ZTT has not been renewed. Can he pull back from all that? Well, he can still pull in a massive St Patrick’s Day crowd. It’s something, but surely not enough.