For The Sake Of The Song: The Pogues “Sally MacLennane”

The death of Shane MacGowan on 30th November last year meant that the radio airwaves were awash with ‘Fairytale Of New York’; it’s a great song but has suffered, in my mind, from being overplayed, especially during the festive season. However, it was not this song that came to my mind on the announcement of MacGowan’s passing, but ‘Sally MacLennane’, a single which when it was released, in 1985, didn’t even make the top 40. It was this riotous song, with its shout-along chorus, which first attracted me to The Pogues.

The song was inspired by drinking sessions that MacGowan used to participate in around Euston railway station, prior to taking the boat train to Holyhead on his way back to Ireland. The Pogues’ accordion player, James Fearnley, said that, “A lot from that song had also come from Shane being a barman himself at the Great Ormond Street hospital bar. He knew about watering whiskey down from that I’m sure“. For many years, I thought it was about a man returning home to his beloved sweetheart, ‘Sally MacLennane’, but it’s actually about a brand of stout. The elephant man in the song was, according to MacGowan, “a huge bloke” who used to come into his uncle’s pub in Dagenham and start fights with the workers from the Ford car factory.

I first saw the band on 15 March 1987 at the Southampton Mayflower, shortly after it had been refurbished at a cost of £1 million, a tidy sum back then. With the officious security personnel trying to prevent people dancing in the aisles, people started jumping on the newly upholstered seats, which soon broke off their hinges. The fans were also spilling into the orchestra pit. By the time ‘Sally MacLennane’ was played the stewards had given up on maintaining any type of order. I have vivid memories of standing in one of the aisles next to a well-oiled, good natured, exuberant audience member who was hitting his head with a beer tray in time to the song.

The next day the band were promptly banned from ever playing the venue again. The Pogues’ manager, Frank Murray, told The Southampton Echo that, “There’s never been any seats broken at a Pogues’ concert before”, quite possibly because the band had never played somewhere that had any. The Pogues had the last laugh though and on 13 March 1988, where were they be to found? Back at the Mayflower! RIP Shane.

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