James Fearnley recalls early days with the Pogues in Here Comes Everybody

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Here Comes Everybody
By James Fearnley. Faber and Faber, 406 pp, softcover

Books on defunct bands are usually about collapse and ruin, the slide from brilliance into chaos. A smart new memoir of the Pogues’ unlikely career goes one better: it’s about the collapse and ruin of a band that was itself about collapse and ruin.

Goading traditional Irish music until it snarled like punk, the Pogues’ finest albums brimmed with death, horror, and blackout drinking. It was as if lead singer Shane Macgowan, writer of some of the band’s most enduring songs, believed that mud was the best setting for the beauty that shimmered in the lyrics on such classic LPs as 1985’s Rum, Sodomy & the Lash and 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God. This contrast was reflected in the man’s own presence: an awkward genius in a booze-crippled frame, a raspy but warm voice passing through blackened teeth.

As a bandmate, James Fearnley knew Macgowan from the start, and some of the most intriguing passages in his book Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues have to do with early days. Roaming London in the late ’70s, the multi-instumentalist Fearnley narrowly misses a chance to join a new little outfit called Culture Club. Instead, he auditions for the Nips, a tatty punk band run by Macgowan (who is, amazingly, a bartender in the staff lounge of a hospital for “nervous diseases” at the time). Gradually, as this pair fuses with other London outfits and Fearnley improvises a place for himself as accordionist, the dark-suited lineup of the Pogues takes shape.

Their approach is both jagged and sweet, wholly original even at a time when Billboard artists such as John Mellencamp are turning rootsy and loading up their records with mandolins and autoharps. Still, as Here Comes Everybody shows, the Pogues’ arc is an old one, like those of countless groups that have stumbled into fame and then been flattened by alcoholism and venues too big for their material. The gangly Macgowan is always filthily dressed and slugging straight from the bottle, pausing every now and then to puke into a wastepaper basket. His own descent quickly becomes steep, so that as the Pogues reach their peak he’s already wrecking live performances by garbling songs beyond recognition.

He also drifts away from Fearnley and the rest of the band, and so fades from the story as he holes up in the back of the tour bus. This silence at the centre seems to leave the author with less and less to do. It leads, for example, to overly thick descriptions of the Pogues’ role in the much-forgotten Alex Cox movie Straight to Hell, and to far too little about the making of If I Should Fall, which came out shortly afterward. It also draws attention to Fearnley’s tendency to overwrite, as in his remark that bassist Cait O’Riordan had “an obduracy that suffered no interruption”.

Nevertheless, an insider’s view of this genuine musical oddity is enough to keep things afloat. Here Comes Everybody is an amiable, well-crafted record of a timeless sound that came from an era now remembered mostly as a source of retro kitsch.

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