Philip Chevron 1957-2013: A song for our times, and the importance of being Irish

October 10, 2013
Philip Chevron
Philip Chevron.

“I am a gay, Irish, Catholic, alcoholic Pogue who is about to die from cancer — and don't think I don't know it,” Philip Chevron, who passed away on October 8, told the Irish Daily Mail in June.

The 56-year-old Chevron was best known as the guitarist for legendary Irish folk punk band The Pogues. However, his music career goes back to the founding of The Radiators From Space in 1976 — described as Ireland's first punk band.

Chevron, who befriended Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan while living in London, had become a full-time member of the band of London-based Irish musicians by the time of The Pogues second album, 1985's Rum, Sodomy and the Lash.

Today, The Pogues are probably best known for their classic Christmas song, “Fairytale of New York”. But at the time, The Pogues combination of traditional Irish instruments and tunes with the raw aggression and energy of punk rock was revolutionary.

It created an entirely new genre (“Celtic punk”) and re-energised Irish folk music, bringing it to life for a new generation.

But that doesn't tell the full story of The Pogues' impact. What is less understood is the (sometimes literally) explosive social context. The Pogues arose as an explicitly, and proudly, Irish band in London in the 1980s — a time when the large Irish ex-pat community faced racism and attacks on civil liberties reminiscent of that directed at Muslims today.

Today, in a world of big St Patrick's Day celebrations and “Kiss Me I'm Irish” T-shirts, this might sound odd. But at the time, anti-Irish sentiment in England was powerful enough that one of the most iconic “Irish” brands, Guinness, seriously considered downplaying its Irish connection and emphasising the fact the company was (and is) actually a British-owned multinational.

In this context, to actually play up your Irishness in London was an act of defiance. But The Pogues went beyond mere cultural symbolism.

The 1980s were the height of “The Troubles” in Ireland's north, as Britain's military occupation drove armed resistance that increasingly spilled over into mainland England. This meant all Irish people in England, but especially young men, were considered suspect.

Margaret Thatcher's government granted police extraordinary powers in the name of “fighting terrorism”, including the right to hold suspects for seven days without charge — measures that paved the way for even more extreme police state powers today.

But the case of the “Birmingham Six” and “Guildford Four” — 10 men framed by police for two Irish Republican Army bombings in Birmingham and Guildford respectively — showed British police didn't need special powers to railroad Irish men into jail.

They simply tortured them until they signed fake confessions, with all 10 sentenced to life in jail in 1975.

As a campaign for the men's freedom began to grow, The Pogues released “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” on their 1988 album If I Should Fall From Grace With God. “It's not meant to be a happy song,” MacGowan said of the track. “You're meant to feel bad enough to fucking do something.”

The authorities certainly did something — when the band began performing the song during an appearance on Channel 4, the broadcast cut suddenly to ads. Then the Independent Broadcasting Authority banned the track, bizarrely claiming its lyrics insisting the 10 men were innocent of terrorist acts could “incite terrorism”.

An account of the banning of 'Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six'. Video: The Pogues: Birmingham Six. SteveRes.

MacGowan's lyrics certainly pulled no punches: “In Birmingham there's six men, in Guilford there's four/picked up and tortured and framed by the law/and the Filth got promotions, but they're still doing time/for being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time.”

Of the “whores of the Empire” responsible for the frame-ups, MacGowan spits: “May the judged be their judges when they rot down in Hell.”

The song came at a time when British authorities had gone so far, in one of the more surreal police state measures, as to actually ban the voice of advocates of Irish republicanism from being broadcast.

Statements from Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams insisting on the need for peace could only be broadcast if read with a hired actor's voice — presumably the very sound of Adams' west Belfast accent would provoke a fresh round of pub bombings.

The Birmingham Six and Guildford Four were eventually cleared of wrongdoing and released from jail — and the ban on “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” was quietly dropped.

So next time you see a fluffy report on the BBC on how much-loved “Fairytale of New York” is in England, remember the broadcaster went so far as to ban a track from the same album for exposing British state crimes.

This was the England in which The Pogues achieved critical and commercial success — no mean feat.

Chevron's best known contribution to The Pogues is another song, less explicitly political but filled with social commentary that remains as relevant as ever.

The Chevron-penned “Thousands are Sailing”, also from If I Should Fall, is an evocative and poignant tale of Irish emigration to the United States.

Video: The Pogues - Thousands Are Sailing. tatsuyoung.

'The island it is silent now, but the ghosts still haunt the waves...'

The song travels through the ages of Irish emigration to America, vacillates from hope at a chance to “break the chains of poverty” to the tragedy of the mass deaths en route and the struggles of the working-class immigrants who made it.

The narrator starts by asking an unknown Irish immigrant questions about their life in the States (“Were your dollars from the White House/or were they from the Five and Dime?”), only to get the tragic response: “Ah, no, says he, 'twas not to be/On a coffin ship I came here/And I never even got so far/That they could change my name.”

Depicting the difference between the dream and reality for migrants in class-divided America, the song states: “Postcards we're mailing/Of sky-blue skies and oceans/From rooms the daylight never sees/Where lights don't glow on Christmas trees.”

“But we dance to the music, and we dance,” the narrator continues.

This story of desperate people pushed into forced emigration in search of a decent life is very much a song for our times — and not just because there is a new generation of Irish immigrants as thousands more flee the crippling effects of austerity.

It is a reminder the US was built by immigrant labour at a time the US builds walls in a futile bid to keep out equally desperate immigrants from its south.

And the chorus's recurring reminder that the US was a land “that some of them will never see” brings to mind the recent horrific deaths of refugees seeking safety in the Mediterranean and off Australia's shores.

It is not just a song for our times, it is one our politicians should be locked in a room and forced to listen to on repeat.

“Thousands Are Sailing” — as well as other songs such as “Faithful Departed” most famously recorded by Irish folk legend Christy Moore — goes a long way to explaining why Irish novelist Joseph O'Connor described Chevron as “one of the greatest Irish songwriters of all time, certainly the best of my generation”.

Chevron eventually left The Pogues in 1994 to seek treatment for alcoholism — three years after the band dramatically sacked MacGowan for his out-of-control drunken excesses. The band reformed in recent years, touring the world with Chevron usually singing “Thousands are Sailing”.

Chevron was known for being down-to-earth and accessible, often frequenting online forums to talk directly with Pogues fans. He never made a big deal of his sexuality, but once said he thought it was important to be openly gay as a member of a band with a very macho reputation.

On October 8, Philip Chevron was taken far too soon — but not before he helped transform popular music.

'And we danced to the music, and we danced...' Philip Chevron singing 'Thousands Are Sailing'. Video: The Pogues - Thousands Are Sailing (Philip Chevron Vocal) - Live Japan 1991. Moog Bass.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.