Subscribe to our newsletter

Credit: Alamy


Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Shane MacGowan

“I’m just following the Irish tradition of songwriting, the Irish way of life, the human way of life. Cram as much pleasure into life, and rail against the pain you have to suffer as a result. Or scream and rant with the pain, and wait for it to be taken away with beautiful pleasure…” – Shane MacGowan

The Irish-English singer, musician and songwriter revolutionised the traditional Irish folk ballads and protest songs in a way no one had done before. Not only that, drawing nourishment from his deep roots, he evoked a pre-Celtic rural Ireland that was fast disappearing in his own songs. MacGowan’s writing was as transparent as himself- Unadorned and edgy yet full of emotions.

Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream rightly said, “His songs, even though they are hard-edged, always have empathy for the characters in them, He has a brutal eye for detail, and he can tell a story in a concise but almost cinematic way using these amazing images that just hit you in the heart with their tenderness and emotion.”

A carefree soul, MacGowan spent most of his youth and adult life in a reckless way which though had consequences on his physical well-being later, couldn’t dampen his spirits. Whenever confronted on this matter he would come up with creative arguments such as “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” or “Why should I hold back? I mean, I’ve got one life to live. It’s my choice to die when I want to.”

Being one of the early faces of the London Punk scene he hopped from one band to another creating some memorable music with The Pogues, The Nipple Erectors and The Popes followed by a solo career in collaboration with talented artists such as Nick Cave, Kirsty MacColl, Ronnie Drew and so on. On the occasion of his 62nd Birth Day let’s take a look back at his thrilling musical journey.

Six definitive songs of Shane MacGowan:

‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’

After forming The Pogues in 1982 MacGowan was bent towards using more traditional Irish sounds. The band though created a sizzle in clubs, used UK’s Channel 4’s Tv show The Tube to attract the mass attention to the band’s unique performance of ‘Waxie’s Dargle,’ a traditional Irish folk song.

Using the newfound popularity, the band released their second studio album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash in February 1985 where ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ was featured. Composed by MacGowen it was based on the tune of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme.’ The single release of the song saw the band’s first hit by reaching number 72 in UK Top 100.

‘Fairytale of New York’

After suffering a little setback in their career, The Pogues re-established themselves with this single number. Written by MacGowan and Jem Finer, it was a folkish Irish ballad. Designed to be performed as a duet, the group roped in Kirsty MacColl for the female lead vocals.

The song creates an atmosphere that is perfect for the festive season. Releasing in December 1987 it shot up to the number 2 position in the UK Christmas Charts. It remains the band’s most popular and defining songs as well as a must-listen Christmas number.


The Pogues separated their ways in 1991 after the majority decided to throw MacGowan out of the band for his frequent improper behaviour. MacGowan quickly git back on his feet to form Shane MacGowan and the Popes in the following year. The team worked together for more than a decade, creating some amazing post-punk music.

Originally a Pogues song created in 1986, it was popularised by MacGowen and the Popes who re-recorded the song in 1995. Among other changes, the song was made a duet and sung by Sinéad O’Connor along with MacGowan. This version was used in the 1996 film Two if by Sea/ Stolen Hearts and swiftly conquered the UK charts reaching number 30.

‘That Woman’s Got me Drinking’

The first studio album of MacGowen and the Popes was The Snake which included the Hollywood star Johnny Depp and band members of The Dubliners, The Pogues and Thin Lizzy.

Depp who featured in the video of ‘That Woman’s Got Me Drinking’ said that MacGowan was ” a special being and one of the most important poets of the 20th century”. The number is peppy and upbeat the mood of which is picturized through a light-hearted, funny video.

‘The Minstrel Boy’

Originally written by Thomas Moore ‘The Minstrel Boy’ is an Irish patriotic song. Moore allegedly wrote the song for several friends from Trinity College in Dublin who had participated in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and were killed during the course. The tune is a traditional one that evokes a number of other songs.

A widely popular song among the Irish, it was sung by a myriad of artists including MacGowan. His version was released during the last days with The Popes in 2001. MacGowan’s gritty voice well depicts the Irish glory.

‘I Put a Spell on You’

After breaking away from the Popes in 2005 and the momentary reunion with The Pogues, MacGowan embarked on a solo journey occasionally accompanied by some friends from the industry. ‘I Put a Spell on You’ is originally a 1956 song by blues artist Jalacy Hawkins, AKA Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Originally meant to be a blues ballad, a mellow love song, it was turned upside down by the suggestion of the producer who ” brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version … I don’t even remember making the record. Before, I was just a normal blues singer. I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death” said Hawkins.

MacGowan and his long-term girlfriend, writer Victoria Clarke, were moved by the plight of Haiti after the massive earthquake in 2010. To help them, the couple contacted their friends and began recording the track and donated the money to a charity named Concern who assisted some of the poorest countries, including Haiti.