Shane MacGowan (far left) and Spider Stacy (far right) formed the Pogues in London in 1982.
The Pogues have endured many turbulent times, but the songs are as strong as ever, writes Michael Dwyer.
THE place was called Cargo's: a good name for a beer barn shaped like a shipping container in the port of old Fremantle. The local salts were well-refreshed, and the Pogues, a pack of ship rats from London via Ireland, should have taken the joint apart plank by plank that night in 1989.
The fact that their captain, post-punk poet laureate Shane MacGowan, chose to perform lying flat on his back, intermittently barking, slurring and absenting himself entirely, seemed at first a colourful peccadillo.
Halfway through the gig, however, it was clear to the blindest on deck that this baby was going down.
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MacGowan performing with the Pogues last July. Photo: Getty Images
''Yeah, that was quite a fraught tour,'' sighs tin-whistle player Spider Stacy of the Pogues' last trip to Australia. ''Things were coming to a head, definitely.
''It was only that Shane had obviously gotten very, very sick of touring and he'd just gone off the rails as a result. We'd really worked ourselves into the ground over many years and all he wanted to do was to be at home.
''It never really got ugly as such. Everybody was just really tired and Shane was far from the only one who was getting f---ed up. He was just the most visible. And the most spectacular,'' Stacy says.
It took all the estimable faith of producer Joe Strummer to wring another album from the band Stacy and MacGowan had formed in London in 1982. Hell's Ditch would be their last stand. In 1991, during a similarly spectacular tour of Japan, MacGowan was sacked.
Stacy expresses regret about that today. With hindsight he believes that a good break was all they needed. As it happened, the rest of the Pogues gradually fell apart over the next five years while MacGowan bounced back immediately with a band cheekily called the Popes.
While Stacy plays down any suggestion of ''bad blood'' that act of ambush branding suggested at the time, the inevitable offer to reunite the Pogues in 2001 was not accepted lightly, he says.
''It kind of came out of the blue. If you'd asked me six months before, or even six weeks before … ''
''Six minutes!'' his wife interjects in the background.
'' … yeah, six seconds, maybe, I would have said it was highly unlikely that we'd ever play again.
''Some of us hadn't seen each other for a long long time. It just seemed like something that had really had its day.''
Nevertheless, a tentative British Christmas run went well. Summer dates in London were added the following year. Since then, the Pogues have played limited tours of Britain, the US and/or Europe almost annually. Six years ago, on one such outing, McGowan broke his silence to the press with a blog forThe Guardian. ''Some of the touring party are as bickering and bitchy as ever from time to time, but that's to be expected with the group history,'' he wrote. ''These days, it's all carefully managed into a productive, well-oiled machine, pun intended. The cracks are smoothed over and the old animosities aren't flattered with the opportunity to make waves. Once we're on that stage we become the troubadours of old, and we make our joyous noise.''
All of which puzzles Stacy on several levels.
''The mood, particularly on the last three or four tours, has been really, really good. Also, I have to confess I'm not entirely convinced as to the provenance of that blog,'' he says with a loud laugh.
''I just can't picture Shane sitting down and … unless he was dictating. And if he decided there were 'old animosities', his language would have been a lot more, er, piratical, put it that way.''
For all their hell-raising Celtic-rock energy, MacGowan's way with words has always been the engine in the Pogues' machine. Stacy remembers their unlikely union of poetic tradition and punk momentum erupting spontaneously one night at a friend's house in London in the early 1980s.
''The whole idea came about, to the best of my recollection, with Shane picking up an acoustic guitar and singing [the 19th-century shanty] Paddy on the Railway in the manner of the Ramones,'' he says. ''It just made perfect sense.''
About the same time the new romantics were buttoning their blouses, the pair formed a band called the New Republicans to sing ''rebel songs'' that sustained the rage of the punk revolution. With Jem Finer on banjo and James Fearnley on accordion, the Pogues were born. Stacy credits their impetus to such ''savage and poetically twisted'' visions as Streams of Whiskey and Boys from the County Hell.
''Nobody really thought of the idea of picking up acoustic instruments and taking that lyricism and musicality, and also the inherent savagery that you get from a lot of Irish music,'' he says.
''It certainly can be very stirring if played in the right way. We can actually get quite violent, in a sense. I'm not suggesting people should go out and beat each other's heads in when they listen to us but you know what I mean. It's a good, positive violent energy.''
Nor is he suggesting we imbibe to excess while enjoying such drunk tank classics as Sally MacLennane, A Pair of Brown Eyes, The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn and Fairytale of New York. ''Drinking is not an option for me anymore,'' Stacy says. ''I quit ages ago. The songs stand as they are anyway … it's useful to have been there though.''
The Pogues play Festival Hall on Wednesday, April 4, ticketmaster.com.au