What I Learned From Shane MacGowan

By Nathan Payne | pablosmoglives | 2 Dec 2023

"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 wherever they may be"
Lullaby of London


I've been dreading this day for a long time.  I was thinking about it recently, in fact.  Within the last month.  "Shane MacGowan will turn 66 this Christmas."

Assuming, y'know, he makes it.

Shane MacGowan is my all-time favorite frontman.  The impish swagger isn't half of it.  That part is fun, but the massive body of incredible songs are what makes him great.  He has been perhaps the greatest influence on my writing and performance, more even than Nick Cave and Johnny Cash.  Only Kerouac gives him a run for his money, an actual contest to catch whatever loose bills are fluttering around in the gutters of my mind.  Kerouac might beat him to it.

Then again, he might not.

It's been obvious to me for awhile, even before MacGowan became bound to a wheelchair, that this 2012 concert in Paris was going to be The Pogues' last great show.  If you're not familiar with it, look it up.  It's everything a concert should be.  This track in particular showcases 2 of the main things I learned from Shane MacGowan.  Two vocal traits I have to consciously keep a lid on, lest I come off like a MacGowan clone.  The wonderful nasal snarl, and the hard Irish "R."

Shane MacGowan is one of the best songwriters in the history of song, but I have spent decades absorbing his vocal technique.  Watch how his mouth droops at the end of the phrase "gasworks wall" around the :48-49 second mark of the video above.  I love that lazy vocal droop at least as much as any pure, soaring note performed by a trained opera singer.  It's a tiny detail that speaks volumes about MacGowan's approach to his material.  Which I have adopted as my own.  Loving, but irreverent.  And anyway, he doesn't soar.

He snarls.

I love the soaring MacGowan snarl, and I love the hard Irish "R."  Only in America and Ireland do people bludgeon their R's with a blunt, mellifluous instrument.  In every other country in the world, with the possible exception of Canada, the "R" is glossed over, forgotten and ignored, like a drunken stepchild no one wants.  I embrace the hard, aborted homeless syllable, and try to make it feel as comfortable as possible in my material.  In fact I have to keep a lid on it, lest I sound too much like a MacGowan wannabe.  Every time I sing, whether live or recorded, I have to be conscious of my R's, and my howling nasal snarl.

It's fairly obvious in "The Heart I Know By Heart," which is a Pogues cover song I wrote.  The "R" is basically a vowel in the Irish vocal style, and holy smokes is it fun to take it for a ride, to spin the wheels of the hard consonant "R" on the vocal pavement until the smoke rises and the skidding sound creates a screeching Irish vowel that rips chandeliers from the heavens and sends them crashing to the floor.  The sound of broken glass you make while doing vocal donuts around the hard Irish "R" is exquisite.

The other thing about Shane MacGowan that influenced me was the monotone vocal harmonies.  The chorus of "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" is the exception that proves the rule, at least in my mind.  There are vocal harmonies in that song, and probably other Pogues songs as well, but I have a great appreciation for what I perceive to be the monochromatic "Irish" vocal harmony.  I like complex vocal harmonies, just not in my own material.  I have a strict, Pogues-influenced rule for any other vocalists I may be playing with:  No Harmonies.  We All Sing The Same Note.  I tell anybody who has microphone duties in my band to pretend they're swinging around in the belly of a pirate ship when they sing.  We're not a bunch of harmonizing hippies.  Our vocals should sound like a fistfight, a brawling chorus of arguing words.  Come as close to the root note of the melody as possible.  The main thing is that you sound like an outlaw while you're singing it.

This technique is obvious in "The Heart I Know By Heart."  Of course, it's alright if the vocalists part ways on the last note.  He rises, she falls, at the end, if we feel like it.  But throughout the chorus, or whatever part is sung in tandem, we sing the same note.  Like this:

One of the best songs ever written, by my all-time favorite frontman in any genre.  I've been dreading this day for a long time.  It hurts as much as I knew it would.

Sláinte, MacGowan.  Rest in peace if you can.

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Nathan Payne
Nathan Payne

I am a songwriter and bandleader who travels the world in search of the golden ticket.


Replacing my blog at

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