For nearly thirty years, an unlikely candidate has appeared amongst favorite and greatest Christmas song lists. Pristine and profane, The Pogues’ classic ballad “Fairytale of New York” mixes hard feelings with elegant arrangements—Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl’s back and forth vocals reminding us that Christmas is not a happy time for everyone. Written by MacGowan and Jem Finer, it is described by Pogues accordion player and pianist James Fearnley as an argument “between a straw-clutching loser and the girl he’s trying to impress”, the song is amongst the most played seasonal songs of the 21st Century and a regular on UK and Ireland holiday charts. Its opening piano notes are instantly identifiable and, as Fearnley tells BBC Radio 4, were the cause of much anxiety at the time the song was recorded. “I’d never done so much practicing on anything. Shane’s not the most predictable of singers to accompany but it was thoroughly fantastic to record with Shane and link musically like that with him.”
For more of Fearnley’s recent BBC Radio 4 interview, click here.
The Chicago Ambassador had a chance to catch up with James Fearnley to discuss his memoir Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues (Chicago Review Press) at Book Cellar in Lincoln Square.
Interviewed by James Clarke for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) You play multiple instruments but mention in the memoir “the presentiment of a common destiny “ between you and the accordion. What was the progression from your early experience in music to the accordion?
FEARNLEY) That’s unusual. I took piano lessons when I was eleven, ten actually, and I kept going with it a little bit after that at school then I got bored with it—the practicing, I didn’t like to do. Once I got my hand in practicing we had to fill out cards to say how many minutes we’d done that day of practice. I’d put the right amount for the first three or four days and then I’d just add it all up to make the required amount by the end. I’d have to make it up by doing 75 minutes of practice in one week and she knew I was lying. So I got fed up with it, with being taught. I came up to my last lesson with bandages around both wrists—saying it’s from the doctor and I couldn’t play—and it was all over after that. Once I was finished with the piano lessons I wasn’t allowed to go into the music wing at school because I wasn’t part of the program, but I used to go in anyway. There was a friend of mine who was doing the same thing, basically. We used to race for the nicest piano in the school and play it —sort of like Outlaw Piano, it was. That’s how the piano playing was…making up tunes ourselves and not being taught.
And then there was a group that wanted to form after the summer holidays. We agreed we’d all come back with instruments—a guitar player, the drummer would bring drums, I’d come back with a bass. My dad said “You don’t want to start with a bass, you want to start with a guitar. We’ll buy you a guitar.” So my group had a guitar player and a drummer and now the Spanish guitar my parents bought me—the kind that you put your foot on a stool. I was locked out of the rehearsal right straightaway.
Then I bought a cheap acoustic guitar and took it off to Germany with me when I was in my early twenties and this guy I was playing with out there in a club said “you ought to go for lessons”.
I got back to England and bought myself an electric guitar and went out and played and that’s how the guitar got started. I didn’t know how to decide what to do. After a year or two of working at the building sites—my dad’s family building company —well, I got a soft job. At the end of that I’d had enough money to buy a Telecaster and then out to audition.
The accordion came from Shane knowing I could play piano. I suppose in a sense that the type of accordion player I was is a Magpie—a bird who picks shit up from all over the place and makes it your own if you put it all together. That’s what I did.
CA) From the earliest pages of the memoir you are adamant that writing was going to be your priority. How did this goal survive your many years on tour with The Pogues?
FEARNLEY) In the year and a half between The Nips and The Pogues I sold my amp and everything—that’s what I wanted to do to the extent of telling Jem and Spider and Shane if The Pogues gets in the way of my writing I’ll have to junk it in. The Pogues moved along and the writing went to the well. It went underground. Well, it didn’t really go underground. I was always sort of driven to write throughout The Pogues with the diary keeping and the letter writing. I couldn’t stop, really.
CA) I wanted to refer to your years on the road, but with all the seafaring references—
FEARNLEY) I suppose we always equated ourselves to the guys in Das Boot. I suppose loads of bands—American bands—like to use the travel analogy of a train—whereas, a pirate ship is much more exciting. If Bon Jovi tried to do a pirate song, it would not go so well. That’s ours. Or, being out at sea and confined to small places without being able to escape. That’s like our tour—piratical. Keelhauling type imagery—a metaphor we played with rather a lot, I would say.
Those early gigs were piratical on stage, too, because we never bothered with a set list. Chaotic. There were arguments between each gig…each song. Why we never thought to agree we were going to play in this order. We never did. Loads of those gigs we just turned up as if we would discuss. Discuss being a euphemism.
CA) The book examines relationships— the band as a whole ; individual relationships ; your relationship with Jem.
FEARNLEY) Jem and I are similar in many respects although Jem is a lot more analytical, but temperamentally we were and still are. We go back a long way. If we get into London Jem is the first person I call up. We are very close. We’re friends for 30 years. Jem and myself did a lot of the finishing work with Shane. It wasn’t dragging the songs out of him because I think they were more or less formed in any case, but harmonically. I suppose I felt it was my job to make sense of them because some of the chords he hadn’t gotten right. It was never like him to. I suppose it’s like the smithy analogy I used someplace else – in like Shane was the metal coming out of the fire and me and Jem like slugged it into a point, basically is what we did. The fire and heat was Shane. It wasn’t just a block with no structure to it, but we helped to fashion it as well.
CA) Jem’s daughter Ella shows up twice in the memoir, each time putting you in check. You write about the day she was born—
FEARNLEY) What are we all doing here?
CA) Big picture questions? Perspective?
FEARNLEY) Someone asked me what kind of music I played—I wasn’t quite sure how to answer yet.
CA) And then her school visit years later?
FEARNLEY) Nursery school. Terrifying. I don’t know why though? They were going to judge us? A couple of grown-ups going into a primary school and playing stuff without the rest of the band—felt very exposed. What puzzlement must have gone through them to listen to these two guys playing these odd instruments?
CA) The opening chapter of the memoir ends with the band asking Shane to leave. Coincidentally, Record Store Day in the US just released a concert from October, 1991 featuring his then replacement—
FEARNLEY) Joe Strummer
CA) How was the adjustment from Shane to Joe—an established and charismatic front man you described in one scene as giving you “a wink of comradeship”?
FEARNLEY) —-for what was happening off stage at the time. I came across a photograph—I don’t know where it was from. Boy we’d gotten into the colorful shirt period of our career at that time which was really weird to see. As I say in the book there was a timeless quality about The Pogues and as soon as we started to become timely it—I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but it was a shock to see us in the jazzy shirts which seems to be trendy. We thought it was funny as well. This photography has us in the jazzy shirts and it looks like all mayhem is going on on the stage—like the rumpus from Where the Wild Things Are. It was a bit of a rumpus, but also a lot of heads down. Joe was great at rallying troops. There was an occasion when he spotted something going on—a ruckus in the audience—and he was off the stage, over the barrier, into the crowd to sort it out. We just stood around watching like idiots: mouths open, not really knowing what to do. “Where’s our singer going?” When we came off stage afterwards, Joe lit into us. “When one of you goes off, you all go off.” He expected us to go down into the crowd with him and sort it out. He was a one out, all out kind of guy.
CA) We’ve discussed terms like chaotic, piratical, rumpus, mayhem—but the flip side of The Pogues –lyrical content. Musicianship. How was this balanced?
FEARNLEY) Knowledge. History. Politics. Shakespeare—but it came down to spending a lot of time in a van wondering and discussing whether or not a dog can think. That, or do I want conversations about Samuel Beckett—which could have been a choice? Once you become conscious that that’s all you’re talking about there’s a kind of disappointment that goes along with that. Or, maybe it’s just like a thankfulness that’s all you end up talking about?
Individually we are all really clever. Collectively we were really stupid. Our decision making was very diplomatic and pragmatic. Even now. We do the same thing that we’d done by ways of e-mail now. Message says “what do you think of doing this?” and the replies come. “Not sure if I want to do that, but if the consensus is that we all want to do it, then I will”…which could endlessly repeat itself. If everybody else does that then there’s no consensus other than there’s a consensus.
We did a club gig in Glasgow I think it was. Spider and Shane were trading quips with one another. Spent the whole gig that way— talking to the front row of the crowd and nobody else in the audience could understand what they were saying. No one could. It was the type of understanding Shane and Spider had. And we told them about it and asked if they’d stop because it’s not reaching out to anybody—it’s not doing anybody any good. It’s only making you two laugh. It had gone on and they still did it. The confrontation, when it came, didn’t really do anything but it made me feel bad because I let loose with as much anger as I’d ever had, knowing that it really didn’t matter what I said. Mostly I would never say anything for the fear of the effect it would have on somebody or the resentment it would bring back. In this case it was like shouting into the void. It stopped eventually not through me—but it was kind of a nice release, just to bellow at the top of my voice. I’ve never shouted like that. It felt good to do.
CA) When describing Shane’s room in the flat on Cromer Street there’s a portrait of Brendan Behan hanging on the wall. Who would we find on James Fearnley’s wall?
FEARNLEY) A photograph of James Joyce’s Death Mask. I drew it and hung it up on my wall. I suppose a few others, too—like Gerard Manley Hopkins, some overlap with those two—stylistically and rhythm of their speech. Proust. I like long sentences—-such an English teacher! And, well Chicago, Sinclair. The Jungle is one I’m thinking of…
CA) The memoir starts at the end of that storyline—with Shane asking the question “What took you so long?” Then no reactions.
FEARNLEY) I don’t think it’s a copout, but I feel some of the most exciting writing is to leave the reader to figure it out, actually, both sides to what it could be. Keep it legitimate.
CA) The memoir closes with gratitude winning over betrayal?
FEARNLEY) Stretching it. Thinking I was going a bit poetic in a sense there was a kind of betrayal. It sounds like something he decided to do, but it was witless. He couldn’t help the betrayal…not of us, but what we were doing.