Given that The Pogues have announced that The Parting Glass Tour will be their last, I thought it might be worth a go to republish an interview given to me by Terry Woods back when the band first opted to get back together. The feature, titled Down all the Days, first appeared in Irish Music Magazine back in December of 2001. It’s been ten years. I’ve grown as a writer. Be gentle.
On October 4th 1982, a Celtic band with no definite name was booked for their second gig in an eighteen-month period. Their first go on stage brought a spectrum of reactions from their audience ranging from drunken indifference, to the angry throwing of chips and slander at the stage. Despite having a year to mull it over, band members Shane MacGowan and Spider Stacy simply could sort out a proper name for the unit. Tags like The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and The Noisy Boysies were bounced about over the phone to no avail. Three days before the gig, and more than a few pints into an evening of drinking, Spider jokingly told MacGowan that the band should be called Pouge Mahone.
Kiss my ass if the name didn’t stick. For the sake of gentle Gaelic-speaking radio listeners everywhere, the name was within the space of a few years shortened to The Pogues.
You know the rest.
They were like nothing the music world had ever seen. Rooted solidly with one foot in the Celtic genre with a extensive understanding of the tradition, at the same time kicking in the teeth of the punk scene that the majority of the band had come out of, The Pogues spat in the face of everything else on the charts of the day. Word of the band’s booze fuelled stage show spread across London, and soon across the country. Bands like Ultravox and the occasionally Celtic Dexie’s Midnight Rollers didn’t stand a chance. Heavily influenced by The Clash, The Pogues effortlessly married Irish folk tradition with punk mentality. In front man Shane MacGowan, the band had a musical juggernaut that could blend the rawer aspects of punk excess with beautiful melodies and haunting lyrics. The band’s second album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash raised the profile of the band. The bar was raised again with the Steve Lillywhite-produced If I should fall from Grace with God.
It was angry music: manic, and at the same time soulful. The band was everything that the synthesized, formula produced pop at the time were not. The Pogues appeared on BBC radio and TV. Directly after their appearances, they were thrown out of the building for their conduct. They toured in support of bands like The Clash, U2, and Elvis Costello and The Attractions. Costello had to plead with his management to allow The Pogues to stay on tour with him, after their bass player at the time, Cait O’Riordan, nearly killed one of the tour’s roadies with a beer bottle mistakenly thrown from an upper floor window.
1989’s Peace and Love, marked the introduction of Terry Woods, a seasoned veteran of groups like The Woods’ Band, Steeleye Span, and Sweeny’s Men, to the band. Where Shane MacGowan had the vision and the genius to have brought The Pogues and their music to life, it can be argued that Woods refined the band’s sound, raising their performance from that of a squad of musical savants to an angry eight-piece symphony.
December 20th is set to mark the launch of a short reunion tour for the band,: almost six years after breaking up, and twelve after MacGowan was sacked due to his substance abuse problems. In a phone interview with Terry Woods, the first question that sprung to mind was why jump back up on stage now?
“Six months ago if you had said to me that I would be playing music again, I’d have said don’t be ridiculous. Shane MacGowan and myself - we generally run into one another now and again - he rang me last summer with an idea, and we met up. I took the instruments out of mothballs and off walls and the other places they were stuck and we did a bit of playing, and it felt really good. The end result is The Pogues getting together for a one off tour at Christmas time. For the last few years people have been asking if we couldn’t get the band back together. Everybody had gone their own way, and we were all doing different thing. For some reason this year, it just seems the right thing at the right time. For me, The Pogues ended with a kind of a fizzle instead of a bang, and the band for me was too big and too good to end like that. So I have to say that I’m delighted that we’re doing it.” Speaking with Woods, you can hear the fondness he still holds for his time with the band, as well as his appreciation of what he gleaned from the playing. Always one to break with the convention of traditional music, he was more than at home in the band.
“I always had a kind of a problem with Irish music and traditional music in the strict sense of the word. I don’t see it as having to be played as tight-arsed - and I don’t mean that in a rude sort of a way. It just irritates me that some say you must play two notes there because somebody’s granny played two notes there. There’s room for every kind of music in my estimation. Irish music had become very precious to a number of people, and it was kept in a precious sort of way. I wanted to take Irish music into rock back in the sixties. One of the things The Pogues gave me was being able to be a lot freer about the music. When I joined the band, they were somewhat undisciplined. One of the reasons I think I was pulled in at the time was because of my experience. Shane knew where I was coming from. He’d run stuff by me. We’d organize bits of music and such. It was a good thing to have someone in the band that understood where Shane was coming from. He’s very knowledgeable about folk music The Pogues in general got a hard time from the traditional element over here. We figured that if people liked it, grand, if not, well that’s ok. Shane came from the punk element. He respects Irish music and has a very detailed knowledge of Irish music, and a lot of people don’t seem to understand that. But he never had that tight-assed view of the music. He was quite prepared to take the music wherever it could go. He’d open the door and off we’d go. That for me was brilliant. I loved that.”
In taking the music wherever it could go, MacGowan and the rest of the band were rumoured, and then confirmed to be taking anything else they could get their hands on as well. Well known being as drunk, drugged and simply out of their trees, The Pogues were feared by music journalist worldwide. Word that they were to have a luncheon interview with MacGowan was sure to send a chill down the spine far enough to turn the stomach of even the most seasoned writer. Woods, while apologetic for some of the band’s behaviour back at the height of their fame, says that the blame for it doesn’t fall entirely on them.
“We were kind of mad and we did kind of mad things. When you’re in a certain stage of playing and your reputation goes ahead of you, there are an awful lot of expectations. There’s a lot of stuff that went on that maybe shouldn’t have been going on. We worked fairly hard for a number of years, and when I say hard, I mean we passed ourselves by up in mid-air at it. It took its toll on us. There were times when we should have rested when we didn’t. We worked, and we shouldn’t have been working. We should have been taking care of ourselves in a better way. That led to a lot of the madness. I suppose there were times when we were talking to people when we really didn’t want to be talking to people. That on occasion led us to being difficult with journalists. One thing I used to find was that the PR people, they’d set up these interviews for you, without ever actually thinking of how you might be feeling physically. They don’t think of your well-being. They’re thinking of their agenda. Now, at the same time you have to understand that you’re in a business. There’s records to be sold, and concerts to promote. You’d be better off in bed.” So the debauchery and whatnot that removed the band’s wherewithal was to break up the stress of touring and a far too busy schedule.
Woods goes on to say that their hard working mentality took its toll on the band in other ways as well. After so many years on the road, Woods explains that knowing when to quit was a difficult thing. Joe Strummer of The Clash was enlisted to try and fill MacGowan’s shoes for their Hell’s Ditch tour. The band continued on through two albums, Waiting for Herb and Pouge Mahone, with Spider Stacy at the vocal helm. There is no bitterness in Woods to be found over his time with the band: only regret. On the top of his list is how poorly The Pogues were perceived at the time as musicians. They were not in it for the money. They were there to play – and when they did, they played damn well.
“I don’t think that enough people understood the band, and understood the power of the band. The Pogues, when we were in our heyday were a very potent, powerful force on stage. Everybody one the stage was up for it. I don’t think a lot of people understood the depth of work we put in and the commitment to the music that the members of the band had. Even though we might have been out of our trees, we were still totally committed.” Simply put, it is the commitment that Woods and the rest of The Pogues share that has brought them back together, even if it is only for a brief time.
“I think everybody was aware that The Pogues ended badly. We had to be taken out of it. Really, we should have gone off the road, but we didn’t see it like that. It was wonderful - I loved working with Joe Strummer, but it was a different band. The essence of the music had gone. With what we’ll be doing in December, I’d love to see that essence back in the music, with everyone saying ‘yes, this is what we were doing. This is what it was like.’ Even if this is the only time we do it, I don’t really mind. The main thing is that the eight of us end up on the same stage together and make some good music. The Pogues kicked me right up the ass. I was delighted to have it, and probably needed it. I remain thoroughly kicked up the ass.”