Shane MacGowan, Pogues Frontman, Dies at 65

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Shane MacGowan, Pogues Frontman, Dies at 65

The storied Irish punk singer was both a national icon and, for the band’s hit “Fairytale of New York,” a festive institution

The Pogues Shane MacGowan at his parents home in Tipperary Ireland 1997

The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan at his parents’ home in Tipperary, Ireland, 1997 (Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

Shane MacGowan, the frontman and songwriter of the Irish punk band the Pogues, died this morning (November 30), BBC News reports, citing an Instagram post by his wife, Victoria Mary Clarke. A spokesperson confirmed the news to the BBC, saying he died peacefully with his wife and and sister by his side. He was 65 years old.

MacGowan was best known for his tongue-in-cheek, cranky delivery as the frontman of the Pogues, chronicling the misadventures of Ireland’s residents and diaspora in raspy, whiskey-ravaged tones. Coming up in the early 1980s, he and the Pogues welded Irish pride with the volatile, rebellious energy of punk, often incorporating the nation’s classics and pop tunes into their repertoire. Their legendary bacchanalian antics, on and off stage, were as much a part of the band’s philosophy as the music. As MacGowan told Melody Maker in 1991, “The most important thing to remember about drunks is that drunks are far more intelligent than non-drunks. They spend a lot of time talking in pubs, unlike workaholics who concentrate on their careers and ambitions, who never develop their higher spiritual values, who never explore the insides of their head like a drunk does.”

Born on Christmas Day, 1957, in the English county of Kent, MacGowan was raised by his mother and father, both of whom were Irish immigrants at a time of severe tension between the two countries. He graduated with a literature scholarship from a Kent preparatory school, playing music and talking up his Irish heritage from an early age. Aged 18, he graced the cover of the local papers after his ear was bloodied during a concert by the Clash. The same year, he formed his first band, the punk rock group the Nipple Erectors—later renamed the Nips—with Shanne Bradley.

MacGowan met his future bandmate Peter “Spider” Stacy in the bathroom at a 1977 Ramones show in London and the two formed a casual group called the Millwall Chainsaws with Jem Finer. The trio welcomed former Nips accordionist James Fearnley into the fold in 1982, naming themselves Pogue Mahone (an anglicized translation of which means “kiss my arse”) and eventually adding Cait O’Riordan on bass and Andrew Ranken on drums. In 1984, opening for the Clash, they caught the attention of Stiff Records, which released their debut album, Red Roses for Me, under their new name: the Pogues.

With new guitarist Philip Chevron, the Pogues tapped Elvis Costello to produce their second album, 1985’s Rum Sodomy & the Lash. Although the album was fairly popular, the band struggled to steer through their proximity to fame. After the sessions, O’Riordan married Costello and quit the band, bassist Darryl Hunt joined in her place, and MacGowan earned a reputation for excessive indulgence in substances.

In 1988, they recorded their third LP, If I Should Fall from Grace with God, featuring the classic Christmas single “Fairytale of New York,” featuring Kristy MacColl. In the decades to follow, the song routinely landed on the charts, earning 4x platinum status in the UK. The Pogues recorded four more albums: 1989’s Peace and Love, 1990’s Hell’s Ditch, 1993’s Waiting for Herb, and 1996’s Pogue Mahone. During that final stretch, however, MacGowan’s substance use plagued the band as he missed tour dates and failed to promote records. He was kicked out in 1991 and did not return until the Pogues’ reunion in 2001, which continued until a 2014 split due to infighting. As MacGowan put it in an interview with Vice Magazine, “We’re friends as long as we don’t tour together.”

Outside of the Pogues, Shane MacGowan and the Popes recorded two albums, and the Shane Gang performed several live shows in Ireland. In recent years, MacGowan was the subject of multiple documentaries, including 2015’s Shane MacGowan: A Wreck Reborn and 2020’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan. His influence continued to permeate music: He teamed up with Nick Cave and Lou Reed for benefit songs and was covered by Bono, Hamilton Leithauser, Iron & Wine, and more.

On Instagram, MacGowan’s wife and partner of several decades, Victoria May Clarke, wrote, “I don’t know how to say this so I am just going to say it. Shane who will always be the light that I hold before me and the measure of my dreams and the love ❤️ of my life and the most beautiful soul and beautiful angel and the sun and the moon and the start and end of everything that I hold dear has gone to be with Jesus and Mary and his beautiful mother Therese. I am blessed beyond words to have met him and to have loved him and to have been so endlessly and unconditionally loved by him and to have had so many years of life and love ❤️ and joy and fun and laughter and so many adventures. There’s no way to describe the loss that I am feeling and the longing for just one more of his smiles that lit up my world. Thank you thank you thank you thank you for your presence in this world you made it so very bright and you gave so much joy to so many people with your heart and soul and your music. You will live in my heart forever. Rave on in the garden all wet with rain that you loved so much ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ You meant the world to me.”

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