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Shane MacGowan: 15 Essential Songs

An anti-war epic, a Christmas classic, an incredible Sinead duet, and more

Shane MacGowan

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WITH THE POGUES, singer, songwriter, and rock & roll icon Shane MacGowan connected the sound and spirit of punk with his Irish roots to create one of the most distinctive bands of the past 40 years. Pogues albums like 1985’s Rum, Sodomy & the Lash and 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God remain classics, and his finest songs (both originals and covers) were full of heart, poetry, and ragged beauty. He was also a great duet partner for other artists. Here are some highlights from his brilliant career.

From Rolling Stone US

‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah’ (1988)

Anticipating the upbeat, ultra-optimistic, everybody’s-in-this-together euphony of Britpop before Blur and Oasis had even formed, the Pogues’ “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah” was a feel-good bullet of good will (with a Top of the Pops-themed music video that also predated Nirvana’s “In Bloom”). The lyrics are one great big apology in which MacGowan admits he was a total jerk to the girl he liked since school (with some tawdry tangents), then promises to be the man she hopes he’d be with lots of positive affirmation: Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah! “Now all that I can do is hope and pray that you’ll forgive me before it’s too late,” he sings. “There’s only one thing I can say to you, you know I’ll love you, you know it’s true.” It was the band’s first U.S. hit. (Don’t skip the “extended version” for extra yeahs.) Yeah! —K.G.

‘The Sunnyside of the Street’ (1990)

One of MacGowan’s great immigrant anthems, “The Sunnyside of the Street” bears one of his best choruses: “I saw that train and I got on it/With a heart full of hate and a lust for vomit/Now I’m walking on the sunnyside of the street.” When paired with Spider Stacy’s tin whistle melody and co-writer Jem Finer’s finest mandola playing, the song paints a realistic picture of the hope and anxiety of leaving your native land for something better. Thanks to expert production by the Clash’s Joe Strummer (who briefly replaced MacGowan when the Pogues kicked him out after this album), MacGowan’s growl rests gently in the sunnyside of the mix. “I knew that day, I was going to stay right where I am,” he sings. “… On the sunnyside of the street.” —K.G.

‘What a Wonderful World’ (with Nick Cave) (1992)

Could anyone growl “What a Wonderful World” as well as Louis Armstrong? No, but if anyone could come close to his guttural greatness, it was MacGowan, who recorded this rousing cover with Nick Cave in 1992, shortly after his ejection from the Pogues. In the music video, he closes his eyes (thinking to himself) and sort of melts into the lyrics as he and Cave shake hands during the “friends shaking hands” verse. It was an ironic vision of peace coming strangely from two of the era’s greatest hell-raisers. The song was a minor, wonderful hit in the U.K. that year. —K.G.

‘Haunted’ (with Sinéad O’Connor) (1995)

MacGowan might not appear to be a leading man, but on this melancholy duet with Sinéad O’Connor, which appeared on the soundtrack for 1995’s Two If By Sea, he steps effortlessly into that role. Offsetting the falsetto notes of O’Connor’s opening lines — “Do you remember that sunny day/somewhere in London in the middle of nowhere” — MacGowan’s gruff declarations of love give the song an endearing quality. The Pogues had recorded “Haunted” a decade earlier for the Sid and Nancy soundtrack, with MacGowan singing alongside Cait O’Riordan, but it was the chemistry between him and O’Connor that made the song a minor hit, reaching Number 30 on the U.K. charts. The two remained close friends, but in 2000 they had a falling out when O’Connor called the cops on MacGowan, hoping it would help him kick heroin. They eventually rekindled their friendship, but it’s this song — a ghostly ballad about enduring love — that will forever encapsulate their shared greatness. —E.G.P.

‘My Way’ (1996)

If anyone other than Frank Sinatra earned the right to sing this ode to willful stubbornness, it was MacGowan. By the mid-Nineties, when he turned the song into a Celtic-punk brawl, he was pushing 40 and had been through it. It all came out in his rendition, which was neither campy nor kitschy but a defiant statement of purpose. When he gargled, “Let the record show, I took all the blows/And did it my way,” he not only meant it; he was proud of it. MacGowan’s last shining moment, it naturally concludes with a touch of electrified Irish music, just to remind us where his roots lie. Somewhere, let’s hope he and Frank are tossing back a few together. —D.B.