With the news that The Pogues’ frontman, lionised singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan, has died at 65, we look back to the band’s 1988 and 1990 tours of New Zealand. The tours proved pivotal over the band’s history and created stories that MacGowan would still extol decades later; from a failed festival in Pukekawa and hastily organised shows (and trips to Glengarry in Ponsonby) to interviews in cocktail bars and the band driving from Christchurch to Dunedin in a van.
The sharemarket crashed in 1987 and a few months later The Pogues crashed into New Zealand. The band would visit our shores twice — making headlines for their wild shows around the country, and bringing their distinctive melding of folk and punk to local fans.
“It’s like your roots hang on to you. You don’t hang on to them,” said Shane MacGowan while in New Zealand in 1988. He was sitting in the St George Hotel in Wellington, sunglasses on, chainsmoking, here for their Antipodean tour.
A couple of years earlier, the band had featured on the cover of local music magazine Rip It Up, with Russell Brown interviewing The Pogues for its July 1986 issue.
The then 24-year-old Brown was newly arrived in England.
“It was the first interview I’d done in London for Rip It Up,” he tells the Herald. “I went along to their local in Camden — they were kings of the place.”
MacGowan was hours late to the interview and while they waited for him to arrive the band kept Brown amused with games of pool and “lots of drinks”.
The frontman turned up eventually, with that famous MacGowan laugh, looking dashing. “I complimented his dress sense,” Brown says. “I told him he was a stylish man and he found that amusing.”
Brown has very fond memories of the experience. “They were very good to me,” he says. “But I had the worst hangover.”
Alcohol, substance abuse and chaos became part of the band’s mythology, garnering screeds of headlines and stories.
Being a touring band was not all fun and glamour Brown says, as MacGowan struggled with his substance abuse issues.
“It broke up the band; they hated him by the time he got to New Zealand,” Brown says. “But it was clearly part of who he was. There was something to quell in there.
“When you look at his childhood, he was clearly gifted, and he embodied that Irish literary tradition.
Helping launch an Irish renaissance - which was followed by the country’s economically buoyant Celtic Tiger period from the mid-1990s - MacGowan brought the culture into a modern context and did something genuinely new. “We forget that,” Brown says. “He was a poet.”
The Pogues first came to New Zealand in late January 1988, playing at The Galaxy in Auckland and Wellington and Christchurch’s town halls, and at Sammy’s in Dunedin.
Also scheduled to play were Bob Geldof, The Chills, Pātea Māori Club plus a number of other acts.
The Pogues did, however, play their own shows around the country. In Auckland, “the venue was fit to burst, both in crowd numbers and the mood. The audience was wound up, and as drunk as Shane MacGowan when he walked out on stage,” wrote Chris Bourke for Audioculture.
In the capital, a well-behaved MacGowan and bandmates James Fearnley and Spider Stacy were interviewed for Aotearoa’s pioneering music video show Radio With Pictures.
MacGowan “swaggered into the St George Hotel’s cocktail bar,” according to interviewer Richard Driver.
“Last night was quite cataclysmic,” Pogues accordion player James Fearnley told him, ambiguously, of the Wellington show.
“We knew that we were quite popular here because there’s quite a lot of New Zealanders in London,” added bandmate Peter “Spider” Stacy as MacGowan chuckled beside him.
The Pogues’ blend of folk, punk and rock particularly resonated with New Zealanders of Irish heritage, something MacGowan reflects on in the interview. “It’s like your roots hang on to you, you don’t hang onto them.”
MacGowan - whose parents were Irish immigrants to England - cites Ireland’s language, faith and the “whole struggle that’s gone on for hundreds of years for the right to be regarded as different” as pivotal to the cultural identity. “And the fact that the place has been crapped on so many times by so many people,” he said. “When you’ve got a culture like that, you’re not just going to kick it down the drain.”
It’s a perspective that would continue to define the band, and MacGowan’s, creative output, described in BBC Four documentary The Great Hunger: the Life and Songs of Shane MacGowan as a “defiant and poetic expression to a community which had never really felt able to proclaim itself”.
Alongside this battle for cultural identity was MacGowan’s ongoing struggles with substance abuse, which came to a head when he was in New Zealand.
Authorised biographer Richard Balls delved into the significance of the group’s wild New Zealand tours of 1988 and 1990 in his 2022 biography of the singer: Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan.
“It was amid that Antipodean heat that alarm bells about his sanity rang louder than ever,” writes Ball of the 1988 tour. “Shane’s erratic behaviour was hardly a news story. But it was getting worse.” Fans, he notes, played a role in ignoring, and even revelling, in MacGowan’s substance-fuelled behaviour and hedonism. “Audience members might not have minded what state Shane was in. In fact, some seemed to turn up wanting to see him wasted.”
There were stories of MacGowan painting hotel rooms - questioned lore that he recounts in the 2020 documentary Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan - while his band held crisis meetings about his wellbeing. After one show, long-time sound engineer Paul Scully called – or rather, yelled, according to Ball – for accountability from the rest of the band. “Is this how it’s going to be? You’re just going to watch the guy die in front of your eyes,” he said in the dressing room after the set.
Paul Rose worked on both New Zealand tours. “I saw them at them at their best and worst,” he tells the Herald. “At their best, they were a great band and wonderful people.”
He was working as the assistant to Doug Hood of Looney Tours during the 1988 tour. “Doug had the idea the week out from Neon Picnic that it wasn’t going to happen, all the signs were there that [the organisers couldn’t] pull it together,” he explains. “So we discussed a backup, got in touch with The Galaxy — now The Powerstation — which was closed at the time.”
They contacted venue owner Phil Warren, an entrepreneur of 1970s Auckland on the Monday, he got some white Steinlager cans, boxed wine and orange juice, and on the Saturday they put on the gig.
“Pogues fans are lucky that Doug had the foresight to come up with a backup plan,” Rose says.
Before the gig they drove Hood’s yellow Honda Civic to Glengarry liquor store.
“I’ll never forget driving down Ponsonby Rd in that Civic full of booze, our heads poking out.”
Rose worked the door that night, and the queue of fans snaked up Mt Eden Rd all the way to Symonds St as bouncers tried to close the doors to the already full venue.
“People were trying to throw money at me,” he says.
The band put on a good show.
“We were up all night talking to them,” Rose says. “Learning about their experiences with The Troubles, or as London-born Irishman.
“They were really interesting musicians and people,” he says.
The band returned to New Zealand in February 1990, playing at Auckland’s Powerstation and Wellington town hall.
MacGowan reportedly collapsed on stage in the capital.
Dunedin was the last stop. Rose, who was living there at the time working for Radio One and putting on gigs, worked on the gig.
“It was the last show on their tour,” he says. “The Pogues drove from Christchurch to Dunedin in a van like everybody else.”
The last date on a long tour, by then the band was unravelling he says.
In 1991, MacGowan was asked to leave The Pogues and the band broke up not long after.
The band (including MacGowan) reformed in 2001 and undertook a highly successful concert tour — New Zealand band The Datsuns played with The Pogues in New York in 2004.
They continued performing until 2014.
Promoting his book, A Drink with Shane MacGowan, in 2001, MacGowan met up with the Herald’s Time Out magazine reporter Lynn Barber in Dublin’s Bloom’s Hotel, discussing heritage, family, addiction and his tumultuous history.
“I’ve been holding my breath half my [expletive] life,” he told Barber. “I can only relax when I’m in Ireland or one or two other places.”
MacGowan passed away on Thursday, November 30, at the age of 65, with bandmate Peter “Spider” Stacey and wife Victoria Mary Clarkey sharing public tributes to the trailblazing frontman.