Even as a massive Pogues fan, there’s so much about them I never knew and so much about their appeal that I never understood. For instance, I knew I liked punk music, and I knew I liked The Pogues, which was also true of just about every Pogues fan I’ve ever met. Which seemed somewhat odd considering that The Pogues brand of often slow and sentimental Irish folk is, at least musically speaking, decidedly not punk.
Crock Of Gold – A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan helpfully fills in many of those gaps. In a documentary out everywhere this Friday, filmmaker Julien Temple, using a mix of interviews, period footage, and stylized animation, chronicles how Pogues founder Shane MacGowan went from being the most famous punk fan in London — a sort of jug-eared, Ostrich-eyed, clearly addled mascot for the whole dissolute yet oddly intense movement — to founding a legendary group of his own, The Pogues, who would go onto produce far more iconic albums than the Sex Pistols ever did (and I write this as someone who wholeheartedly loves The Sex Pistols).
Temple is something of a punk legend in his own right, having directed two Sex Pistols films — The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980) and The Filth And The Fury (2000) — as well as 2007’s Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, about the frontman of The Clash. In Shane MacGowan, Temple has found arguably the ultimate documentary subject. A pathetic, goblin-faced drunkard everyone assumed would die years ago (truly, there are articles about Shane MacGowan from 20 years ago that note with wonder the fact that he’s still alive), Shane MacGowan has the soul of a poet and the mind of a professor. The Simpsons episode in which barfly Barney is revealed as a sensitive auteur actually undersells the real Shane MacGowan, an archetypal drunken bard who has become an Irish National hero in spite of an accent that sounds for all the world like pure London, and a band name that’s short for “kiss my ass” in Irish.
Just who the hell is Shane MacGowan and how the hell did that happen?
That’s the story Temple sets out to tell in Crock Of Gold. Along with a nostalgic road trip through the Pogues catalog (what is it about The Pogues brand of barely intelligible Irish history that consistently brings me, an American with zero Irish ancestry, to tears?) Crock of Gold corrects the record, fills in the gaps, and even offers a few revelations along the way. Temple manages to find MacGowan’s moments of clarity without soft-pedaling his destructive lifestyle (and occasional surliness). He shoots MacGowan alongside luminaries such as IRA mouthpiece-turned-politician Gerry Adams (who charmingly seems to be a huge Pogues fan), and Johnny Depp, a producer on Crock Of Gold who shows up briefly as just another of Shane’s surprising friends. Not to mention Shane’s father, who is not only still alive but apparently lucid.
For us punk rockers and Pogues fanatics, Crock Of Gold is both an essential watch and a shoot-it-in-my-veins feast of comfort food. It’s also a filmmaking achievement, considering Shane MacGowan is as hard to interview as he is to fully understand — both spiritually and verbally. I spoke this week to Julien Temple, about both the joys and challenges of attempting to explore Shane MacGowan’s glorious legacy.
I enjoy that Johnny Depp is in the film, but that you don’t make a big deal about it. He’s just like one of the people that Shane is friends with. What was his involvement?
He produced it. I was asked to do the movie originally by Shane and his manager, friend, Gerry O’Boyle, but I couldn’t really do it because I was finishing another thing at that time. They wanted me to film Shane’s 60th birthday concert, but someone else filmed that. And then Johnny got in touch, and said, “Would you reconsider doing this?” He was big friends with Shane, and I’d known Johnny in LA when I lived there in the eighties. He actually used to babysit my daughter. I thought, Shane’s got a reputation, I do want to finish this film if I start it, and I had thought Johnny would have my back on that, which he did. It was great having him part of the film, because he kept the boat from capsizing at points where it easily could have done.
You got your start shooting the Sex Pistols. And in this movie, we see the version of Shane as a young punk fan. Did you guys know each other at all at that point?
I did the first interview with Shane, which is in the film, where he’s got the blonde peroxide hair, that was back in ’76, when the punk thing was just beginning, really. I’ve known him since then, though not intimately. I knew him then for a moment, and I was fascinated by him then, because when Sid Vicious left that London punk crowd, [Shane became] this kind of focal point in a very theatrical group of people. The crowd was important to this band, really, it was a kind of theater of madness. It wasn’t rock n’ roll, really. And Sid was just so the king of the crowd, and when he joined the band, Shane was next in line. The energy seemed to come from him. I was filming it and my camera would naturally go to him and see how he was just so intensely receiving the energy off the stage, you can see in his face. There’s stuff that I shot of him, actually one of them is a Clash gig. You just feel him feeding off the music and the time. You would never guess he would go on to be such an important Irish, cultural, musical figure. You wouldn’t have known he was Irish, particularly. He was very London.
Right, so the concept that he was famous for being a punk fan was a little hard to wrap my mind around in 2020. Can you explain how that could happen around that time?
It was such a “new shocking youth culture” that the media inevitably went bananas over it. It existed for about six months without anyone knowing anything, but then the Sex Pistols, you probably know the story, they went on TV and swore at the drunken old interviewer, and the whole thing went ballistic. Every newspaper in England, it was headlines everywhere. This band no one had heard of suddenly became the most famous band in England without having had a single out. Suddenly, all the eyes of the media are on this little punk scene, which ruined it pretty quickly. But amongst them, they found such characters as Shane MacGowan. You see him when he was the face of ’77 with a very… He wasn’t Peter Frampton, let’s put it that way. Frampton was the face of ’68, I think. Yeah, he was great punk.
That idea that, saying the F word on television could be so shocking that it transfixed a nation… what was happening at the time that that was such a huge deal?
You have to remember how boring and how innocent and how there were three TV channels, and they all stopped at 11:00 and everything closed at 11:00 pm. Anywhere to drink after that was gone. It was also kind of depression recession in the seventies after the oil crisis that really hit England bad, and there was a lot of unemployment. Kids were very angry about being thrown on the dust heap kind of thing. In that environment, the color and the vivid kind of shocking reality of punk, just… It couldn’t really happen now because it’s so diffuse, but then, you had so few newspapers, media outlets, and everyone got it in one go. The whole nation was blitzed by it. Now where it would happen, it would be all these different little tribes on the internet, so you wouldn’t get a whole nation getting it in the same way anymore. It’s all in little pockets and it’s all online. It’s not for real. These days you always ask is it fake or is it real? You knew this was real.
What are the challenges of interviewing Shane MacGowan now? There are one or two shots where he yells at you or gets crusty.
Obviously, he has a real reputation for aggression towards interviews, but that’s part of the charm, isn’t it? You got to take the abuse, you got to somehow convince yourself it’s a term of endearment, and then move on and not walk off the film. That’s the challenge, to hang in there. But the fact that he is difficult and didn’t want to do interviews made us approach the film in different ways that we wouldn’t have done if he just sat down in an armchair and gave you everything you got in one talking head kind of interview. We have to go out and find all these bits of fragments of microcassette recording, where you could actually hear something that was being said in a bar in Zurich in 1989 at 4:00 in the morning, and he’s suddenly making blinding sense for a moment. And that’s more immediate, more feral, more exciting, more like stolen secret recordings or something than just a boring talking head interview.
And then, because he wouldn’t do the conventional interviews, we had the conversations with people that he wanted to do them with, which was interesting as well, because you saw different versions of Shane. With Johnny Depp, he’s one person, just mates, guys in a bar. With [IRA leader turned politician] Gerry Adams, he’s looking up to the guy, it’s a different version. And with Bobby Gillespie, he is that dangerous interviewee, can snap pretty viciously at things out there, going on all over and the people around. I didn’t want to make a film that demonized the guy or canonized him. I wanted to try and show the very multifaceted personality that Shane is. That’s where the energy comes from, and I didn’t want people telling you what to think. You know, “I think Shane MacGowan’s this, I think he’s that.” I wanted him to lay it out in different ways at different times, different versions of himself, and have people make their own mind up of what they feel. On one level it’s a tragedy, but on another level, it’s a triumph, his life. To me, he’s hilariously funny, but then you’re very saddened at times, I think, shocked at times. He’s a very combustible personality, but a fascinating one and an impressive one, his mind is still firing.
Coming to the Pogues, a little later, I knew I liked punk and I knew I liked the Pogues, and everybody I knew who liked punk generally also liked the Pogues, but I didn’t really understand what the connection was.
Shane MacGowan is the connection, but I think actually the two musics are connected. I think Shane makes the point that in a way, the Irish music tradition had been put in a folk museum, it wasn’t relevant to what was going on at the time. He gave it a good kicking, but I think the point he made is that the sessions in the pubs in Ireland, where people get together and play and drink, had a rowdy, punky feel. On the concert stages or on record, this music had become fossilized and in a way too precious, but the real beating heart of the music still existed, in London Irish pubs, as well as in Ireland. He wanted to focus in on that raw energy of the music and the humanity that he talks about and fuse that with the raucousness and full-on attack of punk rock, the thing he’d emerged through. He put those together. I think there was a sense that it was staring him in the face, everyone was playing around, “let’s do Latin American music, let’s do African music, let’s do all these fusions.” And then, as he says in the film, had his own ethnic music that he’d grown up with and decided to go with that. So that’s how it came about, I think.
As an American, it stupidly never occurred to me that his accent was an English accent and not an Irish accent. Did Irish people have a hard time accepting him because of that at first? Is that ever a sticking point?
I think it was, definitely. I think they also took a bit of offense at how he dragged their music by the scruff of the neck and kicked it around a bit. There is the funny interview, which was the first time they performed on TV in Ireland where the guy’s going, “What are ye, Shane MacGowan? Are ye the punk rocker or are ye the Irish?” They didn’t really know what to make of him. But the thing is, there was a huge Irish population in London and other cities, like Manchester, in England at the time. They had to leave Ireland to come and work in England in the fifties and sixties. I’m sure there were connections, but I think there was a sense in Ireland that the people who left were a bit rowdy and crazy and a good riddance kind of thing. The London Irish coming back and showing them how to really be Irish probably was a bit weird for them. Probably true if an American Irish band had done the same thing.
[Sex Pistols singer] Johnny Rotten is Irish too, right?
It’s funny, Irish is so much part of English pop music and English rock ‘n’ roll. So many Irish — Morrissey, it’s endless, Billy Fury, right from the beginning. John Lennon, what about that? These are all Irish background people from Irish families.
Because of all the Irish in London at the time, there was some anti-Irish sentiment at the time, right?
Yes. I think it’s quite moving when Shane says he had his first nervous breakdown at age six. He cried himself to sleep thinking of Ireland. That was a kid coming into a world where there was real racism against Irish people. They couldn’t get rooms to live in, there were so many jokes based on Irish people. There was a real sense that they were second-class citizens. Yeah, hard, and then kids beat them up for being Irish at school. It was bad. I wasn’t Irish, so I wasn’t on the receiving end, but I was very aware that it was all around me, when there was an Irish kid, they gave him a hard time, which was bad to see, really. That must’ve affected him deeply. I think it did. It comes out in the film that it did. And then it got really weird in the seventies and eighties when the war started in the North of Ireland, with bombs going off in England. It’s a very complex history between England and Ireland. The English people don’t necessarily know so much about it, but Shane certainly does. He’s very much an Irishman, as well this contradiction that he’s got a London upbringing, London accent. It’s a great dynamic in his work.
You interviewed Shane’s father. Is he still doing well, is he still alive?
Yeah, I think so. We shot that last year, and the guy is very witty, very funny. You see where Shane gets his wit from. Also a very, very well-read, educated guy. I was surprised how really much Shane read and knew about Irish literature. I guess it makes sense when you hear the lyrics of the songs, but you don’t necessarily think that, but when you meet his dad, it makes sense. Because his dad was a poet himself and was reading and encouraging Shane to read all the great works of Irish literature at home.
I appreciate you talking to me. I really, really enjoyed the movie.
Thanks a lot. I hope you get it in America, and listen to his songs as a result. That would be great.