When Mark Met Nick & Shane: Three Horsemen Of The Apocalypse

From Rock's Backpages this month, an infamous NME pop summit from 1989. James Brown and Sean O'Hagan took Mark E Smith, Nick Cave & Shane MacGowan to the Montague Arms (RIP) in New Cross. Great merriment ensued... (republished 24th January 2018)


A note from James Brown: "we also recorded them jamming on a drum kit, an organ and a stick with bells on it. The cover was shot in my kitchen in Camberwell, Shane went off with one of my Nick Cave books. I think i’ve some polaroids of the session somewhere." Visit James Brown’s website Sabotage Times and follow him on Twitter.

For its second pop summit of the year, NME lent SEAN O’HAGAN and JAMES BROWN £10 each to buy SHANE MACGOWAN, MARK E SMITH and NICK CAVE a drink, and discover what motivates and aggravates rock’s three wise men.

SO THE NME thinks we’re the last three heroes of rock ‘n’ roll, do they?" laughs Nick Cave.
"Smarmy fuckers," adds Shane McGowan, "what they actually mean is that we’re the three biggest brain-damaged cases in rock ‘n’ roll."
"Apart from Nick", jabs Mark Smith, "Nick’s cleaned up."
"Yeah", drawls Cave, "my brain’s restored itself."

A bottle’s throw from Millwall FC, The Montague Arms, a mock Gothic fun pub for morbid tourists, plays host to a bizarre summit meeting. Amidst stuffed horses’ heads, skeletons on bicycles and mocked up corpses, three of contemporary music’s most infamous individuals are gathered at the NME‘s request.

Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, Mark Smith of The Fall and Nick Cave all share an outsider’s attitude that informs their respective musical output. Both championed and castigated for their obsessiveness and extremism, this Unholy Trinity are dogged by reputations that precede them.

That they agreed to such a meeting is surprising. What ensues is inspired and insane by turns. The fractured, and often fractious, conversation sprawls between the amiable and the aggressive – Presley to Nietzsche, songwriting to psychology, football to fanatics. In an afternoon of sheer psychotic hellishness, Cave plays the diplomat to Smith’s bursts of contentious rhetoric whilst MacGowan transmits his thoughts from his own singular, rarefied wavelength.


Do you think it’s accurate to describe the three of you as outsiders?

Nick Cave: I think we’ve all tended to create some kind of area where we can work without particularly having to worry about what’s fashionable.

Mark E. Smith: Yes, fair enough. But I think there’s a lot of big differences in this trio here. Nick was very rock ‘n’ roll to me but he’s turned his back on it which was cool. Shane’s more, I dunno. To me The Pogues are the good bits from the Irish showband scene, like The Indians. You had that feel, probably lost that now. Your work’s good though.

Shane MacGowan: Fuck it man. Who wants to work in a place where there’s all these people looking at you?

MES: Are you talking about your gigs? You should stop doing them, then.

SM: Can’t afford to.

MES: Fuck it, you could fight not to if you don’t like it.

SM: …and leave the rest of them in the lurch?

ESM: Nah, the rest of your band will always complain about not working. If you’re paying them a wage tell them to stay at home and behave themselves.

SM: It’s a democracy, our band.

MES: Why aren’t they here with you then?

SM: Cos the NME didn’t want to interview them.

MES: Cos nobody’d recognize them.

SM: That’s it! They want to interview us because we’ve got distinctive characteristics. They just want to interview three high-brow loonies. (Laughs)

MES: In that case you should have brought your mate Joe Strummer along.

SM: I said high-brow loonies.


You must be aware that, consciously or otherwise, you’ve each created a particular mythology that has arisen, in part, from your songs.

SM: Nobody created my mythology, I certainly didn’t.

NC: No, you (the press) created it.

SM: The media has a lot to answer for, you’re all a bunch of bastards however friendly you are.

NC: Let’s not talk about the media. Why the hell are you talking about mythologies? That tends to suggest it’s somehow unreal.

SM: It seems to me that in your songs, Nick, you’re doing a Jung style trip of examining your shadow, all the dark things you don’t want to be. A lot of your songs are like trips into the subconscious and are therefore nightmarish.

NC: Possibly.

SM: You’re exploring the world through the subconscious. I’ve done that on occasions for various reasons, whether it be illness or self abuse, or whatever. Once things start to look grotesque I don’t write them or sing them. I couldn’t write them the way you do, I couldn’t – making nightmares into living daylight…

NC: I think you do a pretty good job of it in some of your songs.

SM: The minute it gets dark I shoot back, retreat. I haven’t always but I do now ‘cos…

MES: Don’t give too much away Shane, don’t tell them. Hold a bit back.

SM: I haven’t told them anything yet. (laughs)

How do each of you approach the actual mechanics of songwriting?

MES: When you ask about that, you just induce fear in a songwriter. I just go blank.

NC: It’s not a cut and dried process.

SM: For a start I ‘ve got to be out of my head to write. For a lot of the time it’s automatic writing. ‘Rainy Night In Soho’ was automatic.

MES: It’s gotta be subconscious and off the wall. He says he’s got to be out of his head, and a lot of the time I have too. Sometimes, I just wake up and do it. It’s one of the hardest questions you ever get asked. For instance, you sometimeshear things that would make a great idea for a song but you never carry them out.

SM: I do. Like ‘The Turkish Song Of The Damned’ was a Kraut trying to tell me something and I misheard him. He said ‘Have you heard ‘The Turkish Song’ by The Damned’. Then I woke up.

MES: My German song’s better than yours, I bet. This is like one of those night-time discussions on Channel 4.

NC: I write songs in batches and then record them and then can’t write again for ages. I try and build one song upon another, they may not obviously look inter-related but often one song acts as a springboard into another.

SM: You haven’t been back to the swamps for a while, have you.

NC: The swamps? Heh, heh. I’ve written a novel about that.

MES: Nick thinks a novel’s two pages long. Very novel, heh, heh.

SM: What’s it called?

MES: It’s called It’ll Be Ready In Another Five Years. You should write more aggressive songs, Nick, you’re getting too slow.

NC: I haven’t sat down and thought about the mood before I wrote them.

MES: I find your work almost English Lit oriented, like Beckett, things crop up again and again.

NC: And your songs are very deceptive Mark, in the way they’re sung. They may appear at times like streams of consciousness but that’s deceptive.

MES: One thing that really annoys me is that stream of consciousness thing. I wouldn’t let on to it normally, but it annoys the shit out of me. I put a lot of hard sweat into them, I think about them. They have an inner logic to me so I don’t really care who understands them or not. I see writing and singing as two very different things. My attitude is if you can’t deliver it like a garage band, fuck it. That’s one thing that’s never been explored, delivering complex things in a very straightforward rock ‘n’ roll way. My old excuse is if I’d wanted to be a poet, I’d have been a poet.

SM: And starved.

MES: I listen to your songs, Shane, and I see the old Ireland coming up there and it moves me and I boogie to it. I like your stuff believe me or not. I can listen to Peter Hammill and I know he’s not enjoyable, not even entertaining but I like it. I’ve got a very old fashioned attitude that I shouldn’t give any of my secrets away.

SM: What are you doing here then?

MES: I can write, boy, I can write. That’s what I do. People like you sit round moaning about the state of pop music… The trouble is that it’s too bloody easy for people, that’s why music is in the sorry state that it is. Any idiot, actors mainly, can go in there, sing a chord, bang on a machine… I’m not objecting to that but when people get at me for trying to say something in a rock ‘n’ roll mode it’s as if I’m the freak.

SM: All this talk about the state of music, rock ‘n’ roll music, Irish music, soul, funk.

MES: Salsa.

SM: It’s been proved by Acid House that anyone can make a record.

MES: We’re not thick, we all know that.

SM: Look, I’m talking about the implications of Acid House.

MES: There’s nothing new in Acid House for me, pal. I’ve been using that process for years. Bloody years. It might be new for you but don’t assume it’s new for anyone else, because you’re fucking wrong, pal.

SM: What the fuck are you talking about? Have you made an Acid House record?

MES: It’s the same process, right. Have you had some sort of bloody revelation about Acid House?

SM: Hah! It’s obvious if you listen they put Eastern melodies over it, bits of this and that…

MES: That’s what music should always have been like.

SM: It always was.

MES: Why haven’t you been doing it for years then pal?

NC: I think they have been doing it. I’ve heard zithers and so on. Eastern stuff, Turkish stuff.

MES: We had jazz arrangements in ’82 when the rest of those tossers were playing cocktail lounge music and fucking pseudo new wave, so don’t talk to me about it because I know what I’m talking about pal.

SM: Fucking hell, what’s he on about?


MES: The trouble with the music biz is that it’s become so bourgeois A middle class executive business like the police force.

SM: A middle class executive police force? You must be mad! They’re stormtroopers nowadays, thicker then they ever were.

MES: Can we drop the cop talk? It’s the same with everything else, like lurries…

SM: Lurries? What are lurries?

MES: Lurries. Containers that deliver your fucking food to your fucking house, alright?

SM: Lorries! Yeah right.

MES: The drivers are paid the lowest wages because everyone wants to sit in the office and be a ponce. You can’t just go into a hotel and write your name, you’ve got to fuck around on a bloody computer. Nobody wants to bloody work anymore.

SM: Oh God! You make me wanna puke sometimes, you do. Of course nobody wants to work. Who the fuck in their right mind wants to work?

MES: Alright, alright, that’s obvious, the sky’s fucking blue. Soccer’s the same. None of the fuckers want to hit the ball in the back of the net. They’re all too fucking muscly. And thick. Running up and down the field like bloody morons. The England team are all bloody minor executives who can’t kick the ball in the back of the net, can’t do the bloody job they’re hired to do. I do loads of gigs, that’s my job to play a load of gigs, I’m not an executive, I don’t mind playing in front of a load of sweaty people.

Do you two still enjoy playing live?

SM: No.

NC: I don’t know if I do. The first Kilburn show was a nightmare.

MES: What’s new with The Bad Seeds?

NC: I used to hate playing live totally, just the whole physical exhaustion was too much for me.

MES: Bleeding workshy Australian. Australians never do any work.

NC: The last tour, going on stage was a release.

MES: Sexually?

NC: As my life get’s more constipated and cramped going on stage I’m able to purge myself in some way.

MES: A bowel release.

NC: I feel more relaxed.

MES: With Mick Harvey behind you with the vaseline.

NC: Put a muzzle on this guy.

SM: The gigs I enjoy are the ones where I’m so angry and paranoid, and I hate the audience so much, that I put everything into it to feed off the aggressive side of it. I don’t actually hate the fans but when I’m feeling angry, pissed off, and full of hate, it’s a good gig for me.

NC: An audience is the perfect thing to unleash that venom and hate on. It doesn’t necessarily mean you hate everyone in the audience but when you’ve got a so-called adoring mass in front of you, it’s a perfect target for that kind of disgust. Sometimes you find yourself in a position where you’re venting your disgust on an audience and a lot of them keep coming back ‘cos they actually like that aspect. In a way that diffuses the feeling and you don’t gel the same release.

MES: You gotta reassess your audience, make sure they aren’t just coming to throw ashtrays at your head for fun. Shane says he goes on full of twist, you’ve got to. If you don’t you’re fucking fucked. that’s what’s wrong with a lot of acts these days, they do
 fucking yoga before and go on all fucking relaxed. I’ve been with Fad Gadget and he was doing incense and headstands. The English soccer players could do with a lot of twist, they should be put in a room and made logo round in circles, and told ‘If you don’t do a good gig tonight then you’re not getting paid.

Shane, you obviously don’t enjoy playing live anymore, Is that through being on the road to much?

SM: I feel like I’ve spent the last five years of my life on the road. It hasn’t affected my songs but it’s probably affected everything else about me. Obviously, the more you travel, the wilder the things that keep happening to you, the more likely it is you’ll get complete strangers knocking on your hotel room door.

MES: Nick and I don’t relate to that ‘cos the people who come up to us either hate our guts or wouldn’t really want to be in a room alone with us. You’re a very amiable guy, Shane.

NC: I’m not sure what you’re talking about here but the way people reacted to me in dressing rooms and so on was incredibly aggressive. They know every record and they seem to think they should nudge me or bump into me as they go past. It was this incredible performance that used to amuse me. I think we share something in common on that level ‘cos, like, in the early days, people were drawn towards us like they’d be drawn towards a car smash…

SM: I read about all the fan mail that Freddie Krueger from the Nightmare On Elm Street movies gets – real sicko stuff, loads of letters from genuine corpse freaks and child killer types. It frightens him shitless. That sorta thing freaks me out.

NC: There is a definite relationship between that fanaticism and the fan that, as a performer, you expose more of yourself, of the undercurrents of your personality. Most rock personalities subdue that or choose not to explore it.


Mark, of the three of you, would you admit to being the professional cynic?

MES: No. Cynicism and defensiveness are two things constantly levelled at me. Look, I’ve got time for people, I’m good mannered. I usually find that when you’re down, nobody has a bloody minute for you. If I was a nobody, you wouldn’t even talk to me.

SM: You are nobody.

MES: Fuck off. It’s bloody true. Neither would you, Nick.

NC: Bullshit! That’s bullshit. I take offence at that.

MES: I’m not levelling anything at you. People, in general, don’t like you being upfront and civil. They hate you for it. They label you a cynic ‘cos you’re reasonable.

SM: You’re not reasonable, though. You’re a rude bastard. That’s fair enough.

MES: OK, I’m cynical. But I’m not defensive. I’m slightly paranoid which is healthy.


MES: Listen, Sean, do you walk around London embracing everybody? If I was in the bleedin’ gutter, you wouldn’t piss on me.

NC: Your reaction is becoming very defensive, Mark.

MES: You’re a failed psychiatrist.

NC: I’ve analysed you, alright – defensive paranoid with delusions of grandeur.

MES: I have discussions like this all the time in pubs. I end up beaten half to death on the floor. I try to be civil and people assume I’m attacking them.

SM: You attack people all the time. In the press.

MES: I used to. It became too routine so I gave it up. Nietzsche said Embrace your enemies’. You two aren’t my enemies, so I won’t embrace you.

SM: Read a lot of Nietzsche, have you?

MES: All his stuff. I cant quote him. I’m not into him anymore, gave up three years ago. He taught me a lot, though. I didn’t go to college. We’re not all born public school boys like you.

SM: I’m not a born public schoolboy.

MES: Do you like Brendan Behan, he’s good.

SM: Yeah, he’s not a fascist maniac posing as a philosopher.

MES: If we’re gonna talk philosophy, that’s a load of crap! The Nazis adopted his creed and distorted it, they misquoted him all the time.

SM: The Will To Power Try reinterpreting that statement. You can’t, it says what it says.

MES: He wasn’t a Nazi – you’re only saying that ‘cos some polytechnic fuckin’ lecturer told you he was.

SM: I’m saying it ‘cos I read two of his books where he dismissed the weak, the ugly, the radically impure, Christianity, Socrates, Plato. He was anti anyone who hadn’t got a strong body, perfect features…

MES: That’s the coffee table analysis. He was the most anti-German, pro-Semitic person…

SM: His books were full of hate.

MES: You just said you’re full of hate when you go on stage.

SM: I don’t go round saying Socrates was a c***, Jesus Christ was an idiot, do l?

MES: Jesus Christ was the biggest blight on the human race, he was. And all them socialists and communists – second rate Christianity. It’s alright for you Catholics. I was brought up with Irish Catholics. Some of my best friends are Irish Catholics.

SM: Listen to him.

MES: Hitler was a Catholic vegetarian, non-smoker, non-drinker. The way you’re talking about Nietzsche is that anyone who’s a non-smoker, non-drinker is a Nazi. That’s the level of your debate, pal.

SM: You’re anti-socialist, too. Ain’t you?

MES: Yeah. I’m an extreme anti-socialist. You don’t live on a housing estate in a city where there’s been socialism for 30 years and they keep saying it’s gonna get better all the time and it never does. Thirty fucking years of it getting worse and worse. You obviously haven’t experienced that, living in London.

SM: What’s the alternative?

MES: I don’t have to worry about that. I’m an adult. I’m working class, me. I come from a generation that fuckin’ created this nation pal. You lot, you just sit around and talk about socialism, you’re the bloody problem. Eighty per cent of this country are white trash, working class. How come they don’t vote Labour? ‘Cos the Labour Party area fuckin’ disgrace, that’s why. I’m against socialism on principle. Engels – he was a factory owner in Manchester exploiting 13 year-old girls. Learn your history, pal, learn your history. I suppose you blame all Ireland’s problems on the British. All the problems of the world are down to Britain. That’s what you think, why don’t you say it? You can’t bloody tell me anything about oppression cos, I’ll tell you something pal, if you’d been part of Germany, you’d have been liquidated. If you were part of Russia, you wouldn’t even exist.

Don’t tell me about oppression, my parents and grandparents were exploited to the hilt. Sent to wars, they had gangrene in their teeth. My grandfather was at Dunkirk and all you can see is Margaret Thatcher on my face when, actually, she’s on Nick’s face. Isn’t she Nick? Come on, Nick, help me out. Basically, I like to discuss things right down the line and I don’t agree with anybody…


This is getting out of order, can we talk about something less acrimonious. Heroes?

SM: You’re into Presley, Nick.

NC: I think his best period was the Vegas years.

MES: A lot of Presley’s good stuff was overlooked. Like, the NME viewpoint that he died when he came out of the army. I think the opposite, his best stuff came after the army.

SM: That figures. He was a pile of shit when he came out of the army compared to before he went in. His mother died when he was in the army, that was one of the causes. "Anyway, he did some good stuff in the late ’60s after the army – ‘Kentucky Rain’, ‘Suspicious Minds’, ‘In The Ghetto’ as opposed to ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’, ‘That’s Alright Mama’. I suppose that’s all shit to you, is it?

MES: I’m not sayin’ that but everybody writes the later stuff off…

SM: Who ever writes off Elvis?

MES: Look pal, Elvis was the king, right? To me, Elvis were king. He was only the king ‘cos he sustained it. You probably think he’s some kind of criminal ‘cos he went in the army for a few years. You’re insinuating that I’m pro-army and if you have anything to say on that score, say it now, pal and I’ll fuckin’ argue right through you!

SM: What!? He’s off again.

MES: I’m into Merseybeat at the minute – The Searchers. I respect Dylan. The only good thing I’ve heard of his is that LP he did with George Harrison and Roy Orbison.

You seem to prefer older music, Is there nothing contemporary that appeals?

NC: It’s rare when a group comes along that has any real soul to them. Rock ‘n’ roll history isn’t long enough. There’s three or four blues people I like after filtering through loads of blues stuff. There’s about three gospel bands, a handful of Country ones. I have to draw on the… what are you laughing at, Mark?

MES: Oh, nothing, heh, heh. I’m really into John Lee Hooker myself. He’s great, solo, without a band. His bands are crap. I was always into more experimental bands – Can, Faust. I won’t say German, ‘cos Shane’ll have an epileptic fit. I think Nick’s more traditional and I respect that but, I’m into things like Stockhausen, The United States Of America and Gene Vincent and rockabilly. That’s my influences. And I always preferred Lou Reed to The Velvet Underground.

What do you think of the blanket critical approval of Morrissey?

MES: Morrissey’s another Paddy! A South Manchester Paddy, Shane’s got more to say than Morrissey.

NC: I think you guys are encouraging Mark to be like this. You journalists love it.

MES: Of course they do. That’s the NME policy, they love a good argument. Don’t you, lads?

Things fall apart. The Unholy Trinity climb on the pub stage, MacGowan on drums. Smith on guitar and Cave on organ. A jam of sorts ensues- The Velvets meet Hammer Horror with a hint of Acid House. Totally wired. Summit mental.

© James Brown, Sean O’Hagan, 1989

This article is published courtesy of Rock’s Backpages. Rock’s Backpages is an archive of the best music writing and criticism of the past 50 years. Sign up here for the weekly RBP newsletter, listing all new additions to the library

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today