Sometime before he was first sacked by The Pogues in 1991, Shane MacGowan took so much high-strength speed while on tour in New Zealand that he began to hallucinate Maori warriors rising up from their graves. They commanded him to “Prove you’re with us!” by stripping naked and painting his pale and trembling body bright blue. Shane obliged. First he blue himself, to borrow a phrase from Arrested Development, then he blue his entire hotel suite.
- Read more: Crock Of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan review: the poet laureate of punk and friends
Rock ’n’ roll tales of debauched excess like this pose a sticky problem for makers of biographical documentaries. Naturally, no video documentation of the event exists, and it’d be hard for actors to shoot this scene without the whole thing morphing into a twisted Crimewatch reconstruction. Punk director Julien Temple finds an elegant solution to this dilemma in his new film Crock Of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan. He animates each anecdote in the classic cartoon style best suited to the story. Thus we see the young Shane drawn like Plug from The Bash Street Kids during his school days, before he reappears in the psychedelic style of an R. Crumb comic as he embarks on an early acid trip. For the aforementioned ‘blue Maori’ escapade, Temple and his fellow producer Johnny Depp brought in Hunter S. Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman to give the tale the authentically gonzo visuals it so richly deserves.
“The animations hold up an unreal mirror to the times,” says Temple, explaining the art of stylish reconstruction down the phone from his home in the Somerset countryside. “They reflect the notion of the unreliable narrator. Anyone telling their own story has a myth about themselves, whoever you are. You use that as a defence mechanism, as a way of dealing with the world, and Shane’s no exception to that. He’s just rather good at it.”
Temple is no stranger to creative myth-making. His first film was The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980), a Sex Pistols mockumentary choreographed by manager Malcolm McLaren. He went on to direct cult musicals Absolute Beginners (1986) and Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), and the 67 year-old has also been the creative force behind some of the best music docs ever made – including The Filth and The Fury (2000), Glastonbury (2006) and Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (2007).
He had a head start when it came to making a film about MacGowan. Back in 1976, Temple was the first person to ever interview the future star. The grainy, black-and-white footage of a snarling young punk with a shock of short peroxide spikes appears in the film, with teenage MacGowan seizing the opportunity to talk about how much better his punk fanzine Bondage is than rival Sniffin’ Glue. He is brilliantly condescending, complaining that Sniffin’ Glue is “a bit like the Financial Times. It’s an institution. They don’t take any risks anymore.”
At the time Temple was making his name shooting early punk shows, where MacGowan was already a well-known fixture down the front. During a Clash gig at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in October 1976, he was photographed in the front row bleeding profusely from his ear, apparently having been bitten. The pictures appeared in NME under the timeless headline: “CANNIBALISM AT CLASH GIG”. As Temple remembers it, this was pretty standard behaviour for MacGowan at the time. “The ICA thing was obviously a big deal that brought him into focus, but I would say that after Sid [Vicious] left the crowd to join the [Sex Pistols], if you were filming the crowd your camera would then just go on to Shane instead of Sid,” he recalls. “He became the focal point down the front absorbing every atom of the energy that was coming off the stage at a Clash gig or a Pistols gig. He was very charismatic in the crowd as a London punk. You wouldn’t have known he was Irish, other than his name, so it was very surprising when he became a great Irish singer and songwriter.”
Crock of Gold does an excellent job of explaining exactly how MacGowan made that creative leap from bloodied punk to a songwriter capable of crafting songs that seemed to have been passed down through the ages. Temple says one of the most illuminating experiences during the making of the film came when they went to visit the tiny farmhouse where MacGowan spent his early years. “There’s something astonishing about his childhood connection with Tipperary, because it’s like going back to the 18th Century,” says the director. “There’s no electric light, no running water and just a horse and cart to get around. His family background is deeply rooted in the history of Ireland. He connected profoundly with the literature and myths, and he was on a crusade to bring back respect for Irish culture.”
The political significance of MacGowan’s songwriting is underscored in the film when he’s interviewed – at his own suggestion – by former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Temple says the experience of making Crock of Gold gave him a rapid education in English-Irish history, much of which is deliberately glossed over in English schools. “I knew the history sketchily, but I really didn’t realise how extraordinarily involved England has been in Ireland for 800 years,” he says. “Ireland was our first colony. We sent Irish slaves to the Caribbean. We think of Walter Raleigh as a sweet courtier who put his cloak down [over a puddle to keep Queen Elizabeth I’s feet dry], but he was really brutal in Ireland. I didn’t know these things, so I thought it would be interesting if this film could shed some light on that history through Shane’s take on it, for English kids like me who are woefully ignorant of what went on.”
Countries, it turns out, can be unreliable narrators just like rock stars. “Cultures self-mythologise, because the truth is a bit nasty, and it might stop you sleeping at night,” says Temple. “Right now the English self-mythology is being questioned in a way that it has never really been questioned before. It’s an interesting time to reassess those myths which cultures and nations wrap themselves in.” Who better to give fans a history lesson than rock’s greatest living storyteller?
‘Crock Of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan’ arrives in cinemas on December 4 and digital and DVD from December 7