Shane MacGowan, the principal singer and songwriter for the Pogues, first became famous in London as “Shane O’Hooligan”: After his ear got bitten in the scrum of a 1976 concert, his photo was featured in the NME weekly music paper with the headline “Cannibalism at Clash Gig.”
MacGowan, who died on Thursday, was a punk enthusiast (with a fanzine called “Bondage”) without much certainty on how to contribute to the scene beyond bleeding all over it. Before the Pogues, MacGowan toyed with playing Cretan music, with making rock seasoned with industrial noise, even with starting an imperial-Rome act where band members would wear togas and gladiator outfits.
Although MacGowan spent most of his youth in England, his parents were Irish: Once he settled on mixing punk rock with traditional Celtic music, he found his natural idiom.
Listen to nine of his greatest tracks:
The Pogues, “Dark Streets of London” (1984)
The Pogues’ debut single was a blueprint for joyful music about hard times: the song told of being poor in London, feeling the good times slip away as the days grow shorter and colder. The Pogues, then seven members strong, had multiple personnel changes over the years, but their sound was defined from the beginning by James Fearnley on accordion and Spider Stacy on tin whistle. This single was credited to “Pogue Mahone” — until the BBC learned that every time it announced the group’s name, it was saying “kiss my ass” in Gaelic. A D.J. substituted the name “the Pogues” and the band went along with it.
The Pogues, “Sally MacLennane” (1985)
“Rum Sodomy & the Lash,” produced by Elvis Costello, was the Pogues’ breakthrough album. With MacGowan front and center, the record captured the raucous sound of the band’s live shows and its ambition to make off-kilter music like Tom Waits. Full of shouts and drum fills and a river of words, the song is the tale of a bartender saying goodbye to his friend as he leaves town. The other Pogues were surprised to learn that it was a MacGowan original, not a traditional Irish song.
The Pogues, “The Body of an American” (1986)
Reuniting with Costello on the EP “Poguetry in Motion,” a disc designed to help the Pogues break through in the United States, MacGowan wrote a song about the life of Irish immigrants returning to their ancestral land. “I’m a freeborn man of the U.S.A.,” one sings in the chorus. The twist: He’s a dead man who’s come back home to be buried. MacGowan often sang about his own decline and inevitable death, but rarely with such finality.
The Dubliners & the Pogues, “The Irish Rover” (1987)
While some Irish musicians initially looked askance at the Pogues, thinking of them as interlopers, the band was eventually accepted as heirs to the Irish folk tradition, albeit loud and soused heirs. The Dubliners had a 50-year run as Irish folk giants: They recorded this collaboration with the Pogues for a 25th-anniversary celebration, trading verses with MacGowan on a revved-up version of a traditional song about a doomed sailing ship.
The Pogues, “Fairytale of New York” (1987)
This heartbreaking duet between MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, a short story that begins in a drunk tank, captures the hard-edged beauty of Christmas in New York City. (Contrary to the chorus, the N.Y.P.D. does not actually have a choir.) The two vocalists cling to each other, full of bile and desperation and dreams. With every syllable, MacGowan makes a promise that he can’t possibly keep: Their love will triumph over their troubles and they will grow old together.
The Pogues, “Turkish Song of the Damned” (1988)
The bassist Cait O’Riordan quit the Pogues in the middle of a 1986 tour to be with Costello, whom she later married; she was replaced by Darryl Hunt, the band’s roadie and sound man. Steve Lillywhite produced the group’s next album, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” giving it the cleanest sound it ever achieved on disc: chaos contained in a jar. This boisterous highlight was inspired by MacGowan misunderstanding a German fan who was touting a favorite punk B-side, “Turkey Song” by the Damned.
Shane MacGowan and the Popes, “The Church of the Holy Spook” (1994)
After suffering through years of MacGowan’s increasingly chaotic and hostile behavior and his worsening addictions, the Pogues fired their frontman in 1991. According to Fearnley’s 2012 memoir, “Here Comes Everybody,” when the band informed MacGowan, he replied, “What took you so long?” On his own, MacGowan unexpectedly made an album, “The Snake,” that mimicked the Pogues’ sound and rivaled his former band’s high points. “I ruined my life by drinking,” he sings here, declaring that giving up his hometown’s church in favor of rock music was a mistake — but the pummeling groove tells you that he doesn’t mean it.
Shane MacGowan and Sinead O’Connor, “Haunted” (1995)
This song, inspired by girl groups like the Shangri-Las, was written as a vocal showcase for O’Riordan; the Pogues recorded it for the soundtrack to “Sid and Nancy,” the 1986 biopic starring Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols and Chloe Webb as his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. On this remake, MacGowan teamed up for a sandpaper-and-velvet duet with Sinead O’Connor. Five years later, when O’Connor found MacGowan collapsed at his home, she called the London police and alerted them to the heroin in his possession, hoping to push him into recovery.
Shane MacGowan & the Popes, “St. John of Gods” (1997)
“See the man/The crushed-up man,” MacGowan sings over an accordion groove. Hearing him struggle to get the words out through a mouthful of bad dental work, it’s hard not to think that he’s singing about himself. The chorus is a pained kiss-off to the world: “F yez all, F yez all, F yez all.”
Bonus Song: Various Artists, “Perfect Day” (1997)
This improbable all-star single commissioned by the BBC took a Lou Reed cover to the top of the British charts for three weeks. Slotted between Tammy Wynette and Dr. John, MacGowan sang just three slurred words — “it’s such fun” — but did it with such dissolute presence, he evoked decades of being drunk and disorderly. Whether he was leading his own band or appearing on other people’s records, MacGowan always sounded like a chaotic party crasher.