Norfolk author reveals what it was like to 'live' with the Pogues' Shane MacGowan

Norwich writer Richard Balls with Shane MacGowan.

Norwich writer Richard Balls with Shane MacGowan. - Credit: Paul Ronan

“What do most people know about Shane MacGowan?” muses Norfolk writer Richard Balls. “Probably that he drinks a lot and he wrote Fairytale of New York. That’s probably most people’s sum total of their knowledge about him. And I just thought that he’s so much more than that.” 

Three years and hours of conversations with Shane, his family and friends later, the result is the biography Furious Devotion: The Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan.  

It’s a compelling and eye-opening portrait of the complex, contradictory and talented man who shot to fame – and infamy - as frontman of The Pogues. 

Richard has been a fan of Shane since 1984, when he saw The Pogues play a raw and energetic set at the UEA in Norwich, supporting Elvis Costello and the Attractions. It was a gig that had a profound effect on him. 

“I had never heard of The Pogues, I had no idea who they were,” says Richard. “I walked into the UEA, heard this racket clattering away on the stage. I was transfixed, I had never seen anything like it. 

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“The 80s pop scene was Wham!, Duran Duran on yachts in the Caribbean, it was quite a materialistic culture at that time. 

“This band was different. They had an accordion, a banjo, this guy smashing a beer tray off his head, Shane was really drunk...and I was just really struck by them. So after that I found out a bit more about them and after that I got to see them at Hammersmith Palais, when they were much bigger and then bigger again at the Brixton Academy.” 

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Seeing The Sex Pistols live for the first time was a pivotal moment in Shane’s life – and, says Richard, The Pogues were imbued with that same punk spirit.  

“Cait O’Riordan was a really intimidating figure on bass, you didn’t know whether she was just going to jump in the crowd. Shane would be swigging away from a bottle of whiskey, the guy with the tin tray would be smashing about, there was a sense of complete abandonment. It was just chaotic, but it was fun.” 

Years later, Richard met Shane for the first time when he went to interview him for a book he was writing about Stiff Records, the maverick label The Pogues were signed to. It was his first glimpse into Shane’s world. 

He had got in touch with Shane’s wife, Victoria Mary Clarke, and arrangements were made via Shane’s old friend Paul Ronan for them to meet up in London. 

“I had to meet Shane and Paul outside a private clinic in London, so I’m basically standing on the corner of the street at the allotted time and out comes Shane MacGowan with black shades on.  

“I shook hands with him, said ‘alright’, but he was on a mission, he was powering on. I understood straight away that this wasn’t going to be that we sit down and I start firing questions at him in the way you would normally interview somebody. So we sat in a pub and were chatting away, and Paul indicated to me that maybe now I could start asking something.” 

It wasn’t a meeting that was without incident - at one point Shane fell asleep on Richard’s tape recorder – and he also managed to get himself locked in the toilet and the pub staff had to let him out. 

But Richard was totally intrigued by Shane – and how different he was to how he expected.  

Read the full interview in your Weekend magazine, out this Saturday.

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