Shane MacGowan’s Gothic London

Posted by Tom Paskins on November 23, 2010 in Blog tagged with , , , ,

With Christmas practically just around the corner, you know it isn’t going to be long before you can’t  listen to the radio without hearing The Pogues along with the late Kirst Maccoll sing Fairytale of New York. This song in spite of its reference to drug addiction and use of mild expletives has managed to become associated with family friendly Christmas images such as fire sides, mince pies and tinsel. There is however a much darker side to The Pogues than their much loved seasonal song would suggest and the three I have picked for discussion here are Transmetropolitan from their first album Red Roses For Me (1984), The Old Main Drag from Rum Sodomy and the Lash (1985) and Lulluby of London from If I should Fall From Grace with God (1988) which incidentally also featured Fairytale of New York .

The lyrics to all three of these songs were written by Shane MacGowan and rather then provide an exhaustive analysis of the three songs I simply want to put forward the argument that all of them have the effect of rendering London as a Gothic space. Then I want to pick out a few points to support such an argument which could be developed in further discussion.

Both Transmetropolitan and The Old Main Drag appear to be dealing with the experience of impoverished Irish immigrants in the capital. The former deals with themes of degeneracy and carries with it the threat of an attack on the BBC – which can be seen as a symbol at least of British cultural identity – thereby suggesting that their very presence in London constitutes a threat of a destabilization of British identity. The latter reworks Gothic themes explored by Dickens in Oliver Twist in that you have a young boy coming to the city only to fall pray to the criminal underworld. Unlike Dickens’ novel this has no happy ending and the tragedy is played out against a gothic back drop of dark alleyways and tube stations which are filled with their own degenerates. The British police force are  here being figured as the source of tyrannical patriarchal authority.

Lulluby of London is a somewhat more gentle affair which employs familiar gothic imagery of the howling ghost and the ‘haunted graves’ seemingly as a way of suggesting the haunted nature of the central protagonists mind as he walks alongside the banks of the Thames, taking on the role of the gothic other. He is aware of the city around him but he seems to be  just walking aimlessly with nowhere to go. He feels as though he doesn’t fit in anywhere. To me all of them seem to say that Shane MacGowan and The Pogues are much more than just another commodity to be marketed each Christmas. Below are the audios followed by lyrics to the songs.

Listen to ‘Transmetropolitan’ here


In the rosy parks of England
We’ll sit and have a drink
Of VP wine and cider ’till we can hardly think
And we’ll go where the spirits take us
To heaven or to hell
And kick up bloody murder in the town we love so well

Going transmetropolitan, Yip-ay-aye
From the dear old streets of Kings Cross
To the doors of the ICA
Going transmetropolitan, Yip-ay-aye
We’ll drink the rat’s piss, kick the shite
And I’m not going home tonight, Yip-ay-aye

From Brixton’s lovely boulevards
To Hammersmith’s sightly shores
We’ll scare the Camden Palace poofs
And worry all the whores
There’s lechers up in Whitehall
And queers in the GLC
And when we’ve done those bastards in
We’ll storm the BBC

Going transmetropolitan, Yip-ay-aye
From Surrey Docks to Somers Town
With a KMRIA
Going transmetropolitan, Yip-ay-aye
We’ll drink the rat’s piss, kick the shite
And I’m not going home tonight, Yip-ay-aye

From a five-bob bet in William Hills
To a Soho sex-shop dream
From a fried egg in Valtaro’s
To a Tottenham Court Road ice cream
We’ll spew and lurch, get nicked and fixed
On the way we’ll kill and maim
When you haven’t got a penny, boys
It’s all the bloody same

Going transmetropolitan, Yip-ay-aye
From Pentonville Road on a sunset eve
To the beauty that’s Mill Lane
Going transmetropolitan, Yip-ay-aye
We’ll drink the rat’s piss, kick the shite
And I’m not going home tonight, Yip-ay-aye

This town has done us dirty
This town has bled us dry
We’ve been here for a long time
And we’ll be here ’till we die
So we’ll finish off the leavings
Of blood and glue and beer
And burn this fucking city down
Every the summer of the year

Going transmetropolitan, Yip-ay-aye
From Arlington House with a two-bob bit
To the Scottish shores today
Going transmetropolitan, Yip-ay-aye
We’ll drink the rat’s piss, kick the shite
And I’m not going home tonight, Yip-ay-aye, Yip-ay-aye, Yip-ay-aye!

Listen to ‘The Old Main Drag’ here

The Old Main Drag

When I first came to London I was only sixteen
With a fiver in my pocket and my ole dancing bag
I went down to the dilly to check out the scene
And I soon ended up on the old main drag

There the he-males and the she-males paraded in style
And the old man with the money would flash you a smile
In the dark of an alley you’d work for a fiver
For a swift one off the wrist down on the old main drag

In the cold winter nights the old town it was chill
But there were boys in the cafes who’d give you cheap pills
If you didn’t have the money you’d cajole or you’d beg
There was always lots of tuinol on the old main drag

One evening as I was lying down by Leicester Square
I was picked up by the coppers and kicked in the balls
Between the metal doors at Vine Street I was beaten and mauled
And they ruined my good looks for the old main drag

In the tube station the old ones who were on the way out
Would dribble and vomit and grovel and shout
And the coppers would come along and push them about
And I wished I could escape from the old main drag

And now I’m lying here I’ve had too much booze
I’ve been shat on and spat on and raped and abused
I know that I am dying and I wish I could beg
For some money to take me from the old main drag

Listen to ‘Lulluby of London’ here

Lulluby of London

As I walked down by the riverside
One evening in the spring
Heard a long gone song
From days gone by
Blown in on the great North wind
Though there is no lonesome corncrake’s cry
Or sorrow and delight
You can hear the cars
And the shouts from bars
And the laughter and the fights

May the ghosts that howled
Round the house at night
Never keep you from your sleep
May they all sleep tight
Down in hell tonight
Or where ever they may be

As I walked on with a heavy heart
Then a stone danced on the tide
And the song went on
Though the lights were gone
And the North wind gently sighed
And an evening breeze coming from the East
That kissed the riverside
So I pray now child that you sleep tonight
When you hear this lullaby

May the wind that blows from haunted graves
Never bring you misery
May the angels bright
Watch you tonight
And keep you while you sleep

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