Me and this geezer, we used to go down to Cabaret Futura. It was alright for a posers' club but it was still a posers' club. We used to go down there and ponce drinks. And we thought "fuck this" so we went up to Richard Strange and said we wanted to do a set of Irish rebel songs and he said" ... here the speaker switches from his normal nasal London accent to affect a B.B.C. hip mode ...: 'Oh wonderful darling, that sounds really avant-garde'"
"And half the point of it was to shock these ponces out of this smug little synthesized heaven and when we got on, they didn't know what the fuck was going on. But of course with our luck, there happened to be about 20 British Army squaddies there and they didn't like it. The manager went apeshit and we got pelted with chips. Luckily they had plastic glasses and the plugs were pulled on us."
"But we caused a real reaction and then I thought I enjoyed this a hundred times more than the Nips. So then we started and made it a going concern."
Shane McGowan speaking and possibly with mild exaggeration but no matter. So often, the best bands are born in madness and badness.
The Pogues seem an impossible notion. Irish and country music have been fused before, but the Pogues add an outraging element — punk velocity and couldn't-care-less-ness. They will never be accused of being an academic exercise.
Naturally, the Pogues can cause suspicion at first sight and hearing. At worst, they might seem yet another calculated London fashion scam, the latest ethnic disorder to be foisted on the pop public, or else, they could be more charitably viewed as a well-intentioned but ultimately futile attempt to kidnap the tradition and take it through the punk safety limit. Yet another unavailing scheme to graft Irish music onto rock roots.
Initially I condescended to take the second view but now I'm not so sure. Without any cultural or commercial masterplan, the Pogues are on a rocky road to Stiff knows where. But they are a natural brew. It would be most unwise to think them contrived.
A history lesson shouldn't be required. Most Irish families have at least one relative who emigrated to Britain in the first dismal 15 years after the War, But we forget their children. They haven't all been assimilated so completely as to blot out their parents' culture.
A coincidence of punk was how that generation also arrived with the '76 mob. Claiming the likes of Lydon for auld Ireland can be spurious yet he and others came from the same crop, the children of the mid and late 50s born after Carlow building workers had set up homes with Mayo nurses.
Those emigrants had exported their culture with them and it was never rubbed out. Particularly in London. That a madcap mutation like the Pogues should happen there is neither surprising nor objectionable.
But certain purists may object to the area of Irish music that the Pogues redevelop. Shane doesn't rescue rural ballads from the era of the Penal Laws. Instead he's definitely a 20th century man, concentrating on the urban and often unashamedly commercial ballad tradition, the music of the Fureys, the Dubliners and the man who straddles all traditions, Christy Moore.
Our encounter turns out to be the Pogue's first press conference rather than a conventional interview. Ranged around the table in a pub close to the Hammersmith Clarendon where the Pogues will play that Saturday night are myself, Shane, the band's bassist and foremost Frankie Goes To Hollywood fan, Cait O'Riordan and Romford Ron of Everything Counts fanzine, a London mag devoted to a healthily non-cultist view of music.
For me, it's fascinating hearing Shane and Cait explain themselves simultaneously to both Dublin and London and watching Ron grapple with the idea of the Pogues. He's sympathetic but admits most folk music is foreign to him. Dealing with English audiences much less open-minded than Ron is the Pogue's most pressing problem.
Still the rebel yell of punk and The Pogues makes shared ground. Rejoicing in the nom de guerre of Shane O'Hooligan, Shane was an original punk, ie., someone who really did march into the GPO of the 100 Club. But he didn't develop with the artsier, more elevated wing like Sioxsie and the Bromley contingent. Instead he can speak unself-consciously about his associations with Joe Strummer which earned The Pogues a spot supporting the Clash on their latest London dates.
Much younger, Cait speaks with a a more transparent enthusiasm of that date. "It was marvelous working a really professional sound-crew. We didn't expect them to do us any favours but it was really good. I couldn't believe it when we first went on because the whole place was packed. An then the best thing was that Paul Simenon was in the wings watching us. He could have been upstairs ligging or down in Brixton smoking ganja with his mates. And then in an interview, we hear Joe Strummer was saying that the only decent band going are the Pogues. That's really nice."
If Cait speaks with the eagerness of a fan, Shane's experience makes him more sceptical in his assessments. Of punk, he says: "You can only be a punk once. You can push it till you're 20 at most. and after that, it gets ridiculous. It's like still being a Kajagoogoo fan when you're 30. There's no excuse for it."
"Punk in London only meant something for a year or so when it was underground and on the streets, when none of the older record-buying people could understand it, as long as the record companies couldn't understand it. The moment it was understood, it was sucked in."
The Pogues relate in contrary ways to that experience. "We're not an underground, we're not a movement," Shane will claim. "Hopefully anyone open-minded can understand it because it's got no generation gap, it's not cult of youth. You don't have to be hep into the Pogues."
Shane doesn't flee from the "family audience" tag but though older relatives of Cait's happily attend the later Clarendon gig, the Pogues' definition of family entertainment is much rowdier than the sedate Chas 'n' Dave knees-up, record companies and television producers prefer. He's correct to believe Irish music can cross generation barriers but that abstract belief may not commend itself to the Stiff marketing team and the specific problems they must face to sell the Pogues. Band and record company aren't yet in perfect accord.
The Pogues may now be too chaotic for Stiff in their post Wreckless Eric regime but perhaps too chaotic for themselves too. Says Shane: "When we first signed to Stiff, we had to pretend we'd stopped drinking. And in the photo sessions, we had to hide our drinks behind our backs. If you see those photos, we look really miserable and uncomfortable because we're sitting on our beer cans."
Already they've had their 15 seconds of "controversial" publicity. Originally operating as Pogue Ma Chone, they trailed that ultimate Irish joke past oblivious London promoters and radio programmers till a more educated producer on BBC Scotland spotted the meaning "Kiss my arse," banned their first single "The Dark Streets Of London" and forced them to shorten their name to the Pogues.
Cait accepts a change was inevitable because "we knew that if we ever went to Ireland and wanted to get played on Irish radio, we'd have to call ourselves the Pogues over there. We were all perfectly happy to do that. But we're still Pogue Mo Chone for gigs."
They've already caused some tremors on the English folk scene. English folk-rock did have its daring day but though the music of Fairport Convention evoked marvels, it never entered the city as it settled into a pastoral fantasy. By their very existence, the Pogues could make English folkies question the conventions of their own culture.
The only time they played a folk club, Shane was non-plussed. "They clapped really politely at the end and apparently that was a thunderous reaction," he says. "That was like our normal audience screaming for more for 15 minutes."
Later a letter in The Southern Rag, a leading folk mag championed the Pogues. According to Cait, it's writer argued that "all those people sitting in their pathetic little folk clubs, they should go see the Pogues. That's why the clubs are so empty because the Pogues appeal to the young people and that's how folk could could get back on it's feet."
Shane chimes in: "The whole point about folk is that it's music of the people, stuff that most people listen to. That isn't what English folk is. Hardly anyone listens to it."
Which is the difference. Their London-Irish background gives Shane (of Tipperary and Dublin parents) and Cait (half-Irish, half Scottish) a popular base to work from. Romford Ron mentions Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" in comparison and Cait explains her understanding:
"The point is that as long as the song has got a emotion, whatever the emotion or theme be, either freedom from England's tyranny or "I Love Maggy" or "Johnny Got Slain In The Battles," as long as people can still feel things, they're going to write the songs. If they write it the way the Fureys and Dubliners write it it's going to be termed folk. But Shane can write things about getting pissed or being shat on by the police or not having enough dole money and it's the same thing. It's just never been done like that before."
Inevitably Ron touches on politics when he asks "Most Irish people seem sincere patriots. Are you patriotic Irish?" Cait's immediate reply is "On this subject, we just can't make a Pogue Ma Chone statement."
The answer is honest rather than evasive in that besides Spider, their tin-whistle player, the remaining three members of the group drummer, Andrew Rankin, bandist Jem Finer and accordion-player, Jimmy Fearnley are all English. Rebel songs and the I.R.A. (freedom-fighters or terrorists?) will always be a tender topic.
Another potentially controversial topic is their relation to the other part-acoustic groups now emerging on the London scene, most with a comparatively similar line-up and playing skiffly versions of country, rockabilly and all connecting stations. Beyond accepting that all bands represent an instinctual response against hi-tech music, the Pogues pair don't want to be corralled onto any movement.
"Anyone can see there's something going on - I don't know what it is. But there's a lot of people listening to bands with banjos and accordions" Shane will reflect later, but Cait becomes spiritedly caustic about the notion of any wider "countrybilly" movement including the Pogues.
"I'd like to grab the guy who thought up "countrybilly" and knock his brain out with a bottle of Guinness...you look at the Shillelagh Sisters and the Boothill Foot Tappers and you think what's the connection between the Pogues and them apart from the fact they all happen to have exceptionally gorgeous females in them? There's a no connection but the instruments. You can't draw a connection between the Rolling Stones and the Smiths because they use electric guitars. How can you draw a connection between the Pogues and the Boothill Foot Tappers just because they both use banjos. It's fucking narrow-minded. It just makes me seeth."
Even if she's half-laughing in her outspokenness, Cait is now unstoppable. "The band nearest to us is The Men They Couldn't Hang because they have spirit in them. They're just total fucking lunatics. Like us, they do country songs and they do Irish songs."