- 08 Jan 21
Julien Temple’s Crock Of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan film explains how the singer weaponised his Irishness with The Pogues. Bowie, Ray Davies, the Stones and Gerry Adams are also up for discussion as the legendary rock documentarian meets Stuart Clark. Photo: Stephen Organ
“If you want Paddy, I’ll give you fucking Paddy!”
That was the mission statement in 1982 when, having previously fronted punkabillies The Nipple Erectors, Shane MacGowan came up with the equally offensive Pogue Mahone as the name for the new band he formed with Jem Finer, Spider Stacy and James Fearnley.
Taken aged six from the rural idyll of Tipperary and plonked in an unwelcoming part of London where ‘No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish’ signs were still commonplace, the then 25-year-old Shane had decided to weaponise his Irishness.
While not exactly the tin whistle arm of the IRA, there was a strong nationalistic zeal about Mr. and Mrs. MacGowan’s eldest, which manifested itself in his writing of 1988’s hugely controversial ‘Streets Of Sorrow/Birmingham Six’.
Partial to a pint of plain since before his First Communion – one of his aunties fed him pints as a reward for getting up and singing in pubs – Shane made sure that this fucking Paddy came with a keen intellect and choruses big enough to fill Madison Square Garden.
For English rock ‘n’ roll documentarian Julien Temple, it wasn’t a case of if but when he’d point his camera at this errant son of Erin who he’d first encountered in 1976 when he was known to the punkeratti as Shane O’Hooligan.
“I was actually the first person to do an interview with Shane, which is in the film,” Temple says proudly.
“When you became a punk rocker in ’76 the first thing you had to do was put peroxide on your hair and go blonde – and some people, like Shane, did it with more peroxide than others! It kind of waned a bit but early on a lot of those guys had that sort of Marlon Brando/Julius Ceasar look.
“Sid Vicious had been King of the Crowd – those legendary Sex Pistols gigs weren’t really rock ‘n’ roll shows, but theatrical madness where the audience was as important as the band – but when Sid actually joined the Pistols there was a vacancy that Shane filled. If you were filming those early Clash and Pistols gigs, your camera would pan across the crowd and end on Shane and stay there ‘cause you just felt this sense of him absorbing all the energy and the meaning of it and the life-changing challenges that it spat out.”
Shane told me in no uncertain terms to “Fuck off!” when I mentioned Shane O’Hooligan’s wearing of a Union Jack shirt, which didn’t appear ironic at the time but probably was.
“I once said to him, ‘I think you’ve still got a little punk in you’ and he went, ‘Fucking punk, I’m not a punk, don’t call me a punk, you Brit bastard’, but he obviously does,” Julien reflects. “That time was indelibly stamped on him. Many people who went through it became better versions of themselves. Everyone in the early scene had different ideas of what punk meant, which was great because it was about individual trips and journeys; it wasn’t about conformism and leather jackets and studs and all the bollocks it became afterwards.
The original thing was ‘be yourself.’”
Having previously zoomed in on the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Ray Davies, Dr. Feelgood, Keith Richards and David
Bowie, Julien is used to working with big, sometimes dysfunctional personalities. Even so, Shane presented unique challenges.
“It’s the most difficult film I’ve done because Shane is by definition difficult. I can see that a film, which shows your whole life before you is going to be unsettling and weird and raw, and it’s never going to be right because it’s two hours some idiot’s put together. I totally understand his resistance towards being interviewed for it.”
In one toe-curlingly awkward scene, Bobby Gillespie’s innocuous enquiry viz-à-vis when Shane first came to London is met with a hissed “Stop interrogating me!”
“Yeah, he goes for Bobby’s jugular,” Julien laughs. “He was very gracious to let it all stay in, Bobby. He holds his own but it does show you the aggressive side of Shane, which is a big part of it.
“He’s a prickly character but I’ve always found that difficult people are the best people because they’re defending their creativity. There are elements of spoiled rock star in him – you can’t go through the adulation without having some sort of damage on that front – but at times he tried very hard to keep it under control. The fact he’s difficult, and we had to find other ways of telling the story, made a better film than if he’d said, ‘Yes, I’ll tell you everything’ in one go.”
The only time during Crock Of Gold when Shane can be accused of good behaviour is when Gerry Adams takes over the questioning. The cackling MacGowan bravado is replaced by puppy dog adoration as Gerry recalls how he passed on Shane’s ‘Tiochfaidh ár lá!” to Tony Blair during the Good Friday Agreement negotiations. Whose idea was it to bring him in?
“I don’t know who exactly, but it was one of his people. Gerry obviously had a pre-existing relationship with Shane and it’s a conversation with an old mate he looks up to rather than a stilted interview.”
It strikes me that Gerry Adams was the kind of rock star revolutionary that The Clash so desperately wanted to be.
“Well, I suppose so,” Julien says sounding not entirely convinced of the analogy. “I found Gerry Adams very charming and gentle and good with Shane the time I met him – and full of interesting insights. It’s good for English kids to get an Irish perspective on the history between the two countries, and Shane has obviously been a great proclaimer of that.”
To help bankroll his seven night a week gig, booze and amphetamine lifestyle – it’s the cheap speed that did for his choppers – Shane used to dispense hand-jobs for a tenner a time in the seedy parts of Central London described with unflinching detail in The Pogues’ ‘Old Main Drag’.
“Well, that was a big part of pop music at that time,” Temple reflects. “Boy George was there and the punk thing was connected with that kind of underworld sexuality including the MP whipping sessions and all of that. It was a bizarre time where that darkness weirdly coincided with the youth culture and the pop charts. The whole punk thing was centred on Soho and it was very much in your face.”
Another of the Crock Of Gold interviewers is Johnny Depp who’s also listed as one of the producers. Given his recent legal travails, how hands-on was he able to be?
“Well, he stopped the boat from capsizing on a few occasions (financially),” Julien reveals. “In situations like that you need someone whose voice really carries weight in the industry and Johnny’s certainly does.”
Would he be interested in making an, if you will, Deppumentary?
“Errrrrm. I don’t find it… uuuuuuhm. No, not necessarily. I like him as a friend more than anything. I admire him but he doesn’t fascinate me in the same way that Ray Davies or Shane somehow do. Johnny’s too nice a man and not difficult enough!”
Having not caught up with him properly since their shared punk days, was Julien shocked by Shane’s state of health?
“Yeah, it reminded me of Sid Vicious actually,” he sighs. “I was slightly like, ‘In the position he’s in does he want to make a film?’ I’m sure there’s anger about being in a wheelchair, but his mind and his mental acuity is still as sharp as ever. He’s very aware of his limits and, actually, when you’re with him, he’s drinking but you realise it’s just a sip. He’s not glogging it, it’s a little top-up. It’s the other stuff that’s more dangerous. I think he’s reining it in.
“It’s definitely among other things a cautionary tale, but not in a banging-you-over-the-head-with-it way. Let that come out of the film rather than making a statement. He’s survived for like how many years, though? People were saying, ‘He’s gonna be dead’ in 1976. The guy’s nothing but an amazing specimen.”
The sense of London Irishness has receded since the Pogues formed, largely due to Ulster finally saying “Yes!” and the Good Friday accord being struck.
“Yeah, going into Kilburn or Camden Town during the ‘70s you were immediately aware of that culture, but it’s far less visible now. I guess it’s been absorbed or people have gone back to Ireland with the economic situations changing. The contradictions in Shane are what make him great. He’s such an Irish soul but he speaks with a London accent. He’s a public schoolboy and a street punk. These are the things that make people have their own unique take on things.”
There’s a very poignant moment in the film when Shane says, “I wish I could write songs like I used to.” Does Julien think he mourns for the records he never got to make?
“I think by that he means the ease with which he came up with songs. He could write them and throw them away – and write another one at a certain point. I feel that’s the same with Ray Davies and Keith and Mick Jagger. When they were young it seemed to flow out of them, didn’t it? But it’s hard for them now to confront their own body of work without second guessing it. Like everyone of that status you’re faced with, ‘Can I do better than I’ve done before; am I going to be judged by songs that are very hard to top?’”
At the height of their success a friend of mine was commissioned to write a Pogues biography, but returned the advance when they realised they’d either have to leave parts of the story out or delve into some really dark stuff. Did Temple hit that same wall of darkness and have to pull back?
“I was aware of what could’ve gone on at times in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” he says picking his words carefully. “There wasn’t much evidence of it on film, really. People claimed to film it but it was all lost. I’m sure there was real darkness there. I think you get a sense of hinting at it. I’m not into glamourising that sort of stuff, so I didn’t particularly need to go there. I’m not sure you have time in a film like this to properly explore that because I want to celebrate the guy without whitewashing him. His fans would rightly stick your head on the gates of Dublin Castle if you did that.”
Was it a conscious decision not to involve any of the other Pogues in the making of the film?
“No, we extended invitations to them but they declined. I don’t know why that is, but obviously the band have a history and you’d have to ask them why they didn’t honour it. Again, I’m glad in a way because it takes away from the rockumentary thing I hate so much. I prefer to see music as a window into people’s souls rather than the story of a band and when they recorded this and that, and which mixing desks they used.”
Crock Of Gold’s most reliable witness is Shane’s younger sister Siobhan, herself a fine singer, who looks haunted by the fact her brother could die tomorrow. What did Temple make of her?
“She has the MacGowan gift of the gab,” he smiles. “She speaks so insightfully and with such clarity. Shane is wrapped in self-mythology; that’s part of the job description. So to have someone who can, with respect and love, give another perspective on it was a key part of the film. She obviously grew up with him and saw the evolution of his extraordinary personality. And she is worried about him. There’s a tragedy about Shane and a triumph; these things co-exist.”
Johnny Depp is a massive ‘no’, but is there anyone from, say, the hip-hop world Temple would like to give the documentary treatment?
“Skepta and Stormzy are really emblematic of now, but like Steve McQueen with Mangrove, it should be a black kid that does that with them, not some old fart like me,” he notes.
Sticking with the journalistic tradition of asking the hardest question last, who’s the most charismatic person he’s pointed a camera at?
“That is so hard because charisma comes in and manifests itself in so many forms,” Temple answers. “Sometimes understated charisma is more powerful than overt charisma. You’ve got dark charisma; you’ve got upbeat charisma.
But whatever form it comes in it’s still pretty intoxicating. Mick Jagger is hugely charismatic, but in a completely different way to Ray Davies who’s far more internalised but brilliant and funny as well. Keith Richards drips charisma. David Bowie was born in a charisma waterfall.”
We don’t have bad jobs, do we?
“No, we lived in a good time, so were lucky.”
• Shane MacGowan: A Crock Of Gold is in selected Irish cinemas and on VOD now.