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Three wise men: The riotous time Shane MacGowan, Nick Cave and Mark E. Smith met

In 1989, post-punk had finally started to wrestle music away from the ubiquitous use of synths and drum machines. Three of the most important frontiers in this fight were the wild forces of Shane MacGowan, Nick Cave and Mark E. Smith. To celebrate these vagabond pariahs of the mainstream, NME fatefully brought them all together for a rather riotous chat that the history books would do well to forget. With the three wise men in the nativity heralding good tidings at this time of year, now seemed like the perfect time to revisit their wittiest remarks.

“So the NME thinks we’re the last three heroes of rock ‘n’ roll, do they?” Nick Cave begins, at the gothic pub The Montague Arms in central London. “Smarmy fuckers,” Shane McGowan counters, “What they actually mean is that we’re the three biggest brain-damaged cases in rock ‘n’ roll.” To which Mark E. Smith explains, “Apart from Nick. Nick’s cleaned up”. Thankfully, Cave remarks: “Yeah, my brain’s restored itself”.

It isn’t just substance abuse that marked them as outsiders either — their unique creative intent was a sui generis storm that freshened up the music industry with a touch of novelistic brilliance. It was this that Cave mused on when he added: “I think we’ve all tended to create some kind of area where we can work without particularly having to worry about what’s fashionable.”

And for once in his life, Smith found himself in agreement with someone, opining: “Yes, fair enough. But I think there’s a lot of big differences in this trio here. Nick was very rock ‘n’ roll to me but he’s turned his back on it which was cool. Shane’s more, I dunno. To me, The Pogues are the good bits from the Irish showband scene, like The Indians. You had that feel, probably lost that now. Your work’s good though.” 

And MacGowan kept it simple when he looked at his own artistic pariah status: “Fuck it man. Who wants to work in a place where there’s all these people looking at you?” But not content with his former note of sincerity, Smith quickly returned to form and quipped: “Are you talking about your gigs? You should stop doing them, then.” Thereafter a brief friendly squabble was said to ensue before the debate was wrestled back towards something resembling an interview.

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It has to be said that the trio of artists are also an oeuvre in of themselves. With books to their names and art exhibitions aplenty, they were (and are) creatives crafting a world of their own. However, MacGowan sees a lot of this as secondary. “Nobody created my mythology,” he claimed, “I certainly didn’t.” And then as if to prove that mythologies come from afar, he added: “It seems to me that in your songs, Nick, you’re doing a Jung style trip of examining your shadow, all the dark things you don’t want to be. A lot of your songs are like trips into the subconscious and are therefore nightmarish.”

Poetically continuing: “You’re exploring the world through the subconscious. I’ve done that on occasions for various reasons, whether it be illness or self-abuse, or whatever. Once things start to look grotesque I don’t write them or sing them. I couldn’t write them the way you do, I couldn’t – making nightmares into living daylight…” To which a blushing Cave said: “I think you do a pretty good job of it in some of your songs.”

Perhaps most remarkable of all in the rambling chat is that the mic was wrestled from Smith from time to time, but he did allow himself one longwinded spleen spill, as he extolled: “I’m an adult. I’m working class, me. I come from a generation that fuckin’ created this nation pal. You lot, you just sit around and talk about socialism, you’re the bloody problem. Eighty per cent of this country are white trash, working class. How come they don’t vote Labour? ‘Cos the Labour Party area is a fuckin’ disgrace, that’s why. I’m against socialism on principle. Engels – he was a factory owner in Manchester exploiting 13-year-old girls,” he wildly opined. 

Adding: “Learn your history, pal, learn your history. I suppose you blame all Ireland’s problems on the British. All the problems of the world are down to Britain. That’s what you think, why don’t you say it? You can’t bloody tell me anything about oppression cos, I’ll tell you something pal, if you’d been part of Germany, you’d have been liquidated. If you were part of Russia, you wouldn’t even exist. Don’t tell me about oppression, my parents and grandparents were exploited to the hilt. Sent to wars, they had gangrene in their teeth. My grandfather was at Dunkirk and all you can see is Margaret Thatcher on my face when, actually, she’s on Nick’s face. Isn’t she Nick? Come on, Nick, help me out. Basically, I like to discuss things right down the line and I don’t agree with anybody…”

Never a truer word has been spoken from Smith than when he remarked: “I like to discuss things right down the line and I don’t agree with anybody…” The raving iconoclast was nevertheless a treasure to behold, and his influence is still very much being felt. The trio might be pariahs, but it is clear that they meddled with the future of music like a marionette that they could dance and jive from afar. 

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