Music

'Rail against the pain': Shane MacGowan's most unforgettable quotes on life, death and music

Shane MacGowan defined punk rock for a generation. Here are some of his best reflections on music, life, and love.

Shane MacGowan

Shane McGowan of The Pogues at WOMAD festival, Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan, 30 August 1991. credit: Masao Nakagami, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

“Cram as much pleasure as you can into life and rail against the pain that you have to suffer as a result.”

These are the immortal words of Shane MacGowan, lead singer and songwriter of The Pogues, who has passed away aged 65.

The legendary Irish musician defined punk rock for a generation. From smash hit albums with The Pogues to the Christmas classic Fairytale of New York, his music is beloved the world over.

Born on Christmas Day 1957, MacGowan grew up in a family of Irish immigrants between Kent and rural Tipperary. He taught himself to play guitar and mandolin and soon was playing gigs in and around London.

He formed The Pogues in 1982, leading the band to the heights of stardom.

As tributes to the musician pour in, here are a few of Shane MacGowan’s own reflections on life, Ireland and music.  

On life and death

“Cram as much pleasure as you can into life and rail against the pain that you have to suffer as a result.”

“The British press have been giving me six months to live for the past 20 years – they must be getting pissed off interviewing me by now.”

“Of course I like life!”

There’s more to Shane MacGowan than meets the eye, says his biographer Richard Balls. Illustration: Joseph Joyce

On Irish music

“Irish music is guts, balls and feet music, yeah? It’s frenetic dance music, yeah? Or it’s impossibly sad like slow music, yeah? Yeah? And it also handles all sorts of subjects, from rebel songs to comical songs about sex, you know what I mean, yeah? Which I don’t think people realize how much innuendo there is in Irish music.”

Shane McGowan of The Pogues at WOMAD festival, Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan, 30 August 1991. credit: Masao Nakagami, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

“I’m not so much a rock star, d’ya know what I mean? I play Irish music. There’s really no age when you stop playing Irish music. Even if I retired from playing onstage, I’d still be singing in pubs.”

“I play Irish popular music, yeah? Calling it folk is like putting it in a box. It’s a living tradition, you know?”

On The Pogues

“It became obvious that everything that could be done with a standard rock format had been done, usually quite badly… We just wanted to shove music that had roots, and is just generally stronger and has more real anger and emotion, down the throats of a completely pap-orientated pop audience.”

“I was happy during punk. Incredibly happy. You call it chaos. I don’t regard it as chaos. I regard it as natural living.”

“With The Pogues, at least the first three albums I’ll stand by completely, yeah? Because I was in artistic control then, yeah? And the last couple of albums I’ll stand by anything that’s got my name on it, yeah? But I’ll stand by anything that is on The Popes’ albums, you know? I wouldn’t put stuff out that I didn’t like. I don’t put out bad music. And I can tell the difference. I know that”

On drinking

“The most important thing to remember about drunks is that drunks are far more intelligent than non-drunks — they spend a lot of time talking in pubs, unlike workaholics who concentrate on their careers and ambitions, who never develop their higher spiritual values, who never explore the insides of their head like a drunk does.”

On Ireland

“I always felt guilty because I didn’t lay down my life for Ireland. I felt ashamed that I didn’t have the guts to join the IRA, so The Pogues was my way of overcoming that guilt.”

On Kirsty MacColl

“I was very grateful to Kirsty MacColl – I don’t think it [Fairytale of New York] would have been such a big hit without her contribution.”

“It’s a good song – it’s a great song – I’d never get tired of it. But I can’t really get excited about it any more and for a while it used to depress me to sing it after Kirsty died but now I think of it as a tribute to her.”

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