Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: Ain’t That a Shane

By Steve Erickson

English director Julien Temple first made his mark in 1980 with the Sex Pistols’ pseudo-documentary The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. He went on to become a prolific and in-demand music video director in the ’80s, with landmark clips for Judas Priest, Culture Club, Tom Petty, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, ABC and many others. While he’s never been able to sustain himself as a narrative filmmaker – Absolute Beginners (1986) was an expensive flop and the production of his 2007 Marvin Gaye bio-pic shut down halfway through due to a lack of funds – he’s done well in the field of music documentaries. He made The Filth and the Fury (2000) as a corrective to the McLaren take on the Sex Pistols which shaped Swindle. And then the exemplary Joe Strummer portrait, The Future Is Unwritten (2007).

And, yes, he is the father of actress Juno Temple.

Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan is his latest film. While the documentary began at MacGowan’s behest, the former Pogues singer refused to do a proper interview with Temple for the project. However, he did permit the director to shoot him in conversation with his long-time friend Johnny Depp (who is one of the film’s producers), Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams, Primal Scream singer Bobby Gillespie, his wife Victoria Mary Clarke and his father.

Running more than two hours, the film devotes more time than one would expect to MacGowan’s childhood in Tipperary and his difficult adolescence, which included a mental hospital stay and his subsequent discovery of the London punk scene. The singer’s lifelong alcoholism is the inevitable throughline, and Crock of Gold does not shy away from showing the damage done. (Following a stroke, he’s now confined to a wheelchair.) But Temple also celebrates the mix of poetic reflection and anger that elevates the Pogues’ best work, making a case for MacGowan as a successor to such great Irishmen of letters as Brendan Behan and Flann O’Brien — rather than just the singer of “Fairytale of New York.” 

Julien Temple (courtesy Magnolia

I interviewed Julien Temple by phone in December 2020, just as the film was reaching various streaming services.

SE: Why was Shane willing to talk with friends but not to let you interview him directly? 

JT: After he asked me to make the film, he told me right up front he wasn’t going to do any interviews. I think that’s fair enough. I hate the cliché of a wrinkly, old rock star in an armchair being grilled by someone behind a camera. It’s very unnatural but often taken for granted. Shane talking to other people he knows or respects gave us a more scattershot approach. We shot him and Johnny for eight hours and probably only got three or four minutes out of it. But it was spontaneous and uninhibited.

We also got different sides of his personality. He’s a very different guy with Johnny Depp than Gerry Adams or Bobby Gillespie. I think everyone puts on different personas, whether they’re with a bank manager or their girlfriend. Shane being a person of epic contradictions, it seems a good way of presenting him. The fact that he’s difficult, legendarily so, makes him interesting to interview. If he doesn’t show up for three days while you’re running out of money to make the film, it forces you to be creative.

MacGowan says he would’ve joined the IRA but didn’t have the guts. The film brings out the politics of the Pogues’ early years, to the point where the BBC cut them off in the middle of playing a song. Do you think the British press used their “drunken Paddy” image or, more recently, the popularity of “Fairytale of New York,” outside the context of their whole body of work to make them more consumable as Irish artists in the UK?

The whole circus freak show they reduced Shane to is a way of caging a very dangerous person. They’ve wrapped him in this cliché of a dancing bear who can be prodded, inviting him to chat shows where they want to see him fall over drunk, and don’t realize how vicious and black his humor is. They end up looking stupid, not him.

His truly great songs, like “Body of an American,” “The Old Main Drag”…there are endless great songs people don’t get to hear because they’re told they should just listen to “Fairytale of New York” every Christmas. It’s overshadowed their work in a negative way. Even that song is dressed up every year in this ritual about whether it should be banned from the radio [because it includes a gay slur]. It’s become a cliché, which is a way of killing things off.  

You first met Shane in 1976. In what context was that?

The early punk scene. He was very much a face in the crowd. He had an interesting fanzine called Bondage, which we refer to in the film, which took on Sniffin’ Glue. When Sid Vicious joined the Sex Pistols and was no longer in the crowd at punk shows, Shane took his presence over. You’d find Shane at the front at shows, just feeding off the energy like photosynthesis. He was an impressive figure.

There’s two poles to your film and to his work: the beautiful evocation of Ireland and a sense of it as a lost paradise — and the fact that he’s lived most of his life in England, where he’s seen as the Other. 

The main dichotomy is between his childhood in Ireland and his experiences in London, where first-generation Irish immigrants were treated badly at that time. Had he stayed in Tipperary the whole time, rather than spending long summer holidays there, he wouldn’t have to romanticize it the way he did. I mean ‘romanticize” in the best possible way: he used it as a creative wellspring for the rest of his life. He looked back on these long summers that never end. It melts into myth. He was one of the last children who could have grown up in the countryside with no TV. His sister didn’t live that, a few years later. It was a strange and mythic place, which connected to the legends of Irish culture and literature. If his family had stayed there, he would’ve gotten bored with Ireland.  

You incorporate footage from John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley and Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Did you do reenactments as well, depicting his childhood? 

We went to his farmhouse. It’s unchanged, with smoke-blackened beams. They’re talking about making it a national monument, both because no one’s touched it since the ’50s and it’s the home where he spent his summers. I was trying to film a fairy tale. A Grimm’s fairy tale, but still a dreamlike memory of his existence, without the clichés of Darby O’Gill and that kind of nonsense the Victorians made up about Ireland and Scotland, while avoiding the serious damage they did to those places.  

In a lot of archival interviews, it seems obvious Shane is drunk, often very drunk, but he always speaks very intelligently. There’s no way to get around his alcoholism in making a film about him. How much have you talked about it with him? 

It’s not a subject he likes to discuss. He talked about it with his wife more than he would with me. You can’t avoid, but you don’t want to make that tragedy the defining thing about him. Unfortunately, that’s all many people know about him. There’s a triumph and a tragedy to his story. We hear him talking through the years about him. One thing he says, “You want Paddy, I’ll give you the fucking Paddy.” I think he means “I’ll blow the Paddy image up to such an extent you’ll be quaking in your boots,” which is basically what he did. 

Shane MacGowan (courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

You’ve made a lot of films about punk or punk-adjacent musicians. What keeps bringing you back to that period?

My whole filmmaking energy comes from that period. It gave me the ability to make films when I was young. I mashed things up in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. I’m still waiting for the next punk moment to come along. Not the same exact sound, but something as inspiring for young kids to live through. I hope these films get them to realize they can do similar things if they get it together. It’s harder to do that now, but while on one level these films are based in my personal experiences and working through what I’ve lived through, I was lucky enough that energy has never run out.  

You directed many music videos in the early days of MTV. I entered your name into YouTube and found a clip of you and Mick Jagger on a talk show after your video for the Stones’ “Undercover of the Night” had been banned. What are your memories of that period when the music video industry blew up? 

It was great because the record labels didn’t have a clue what you were doing. As long as the band were also into it, you were free to do whatever you like. I was lucky to be part of that scene in London, after punk, where a bunch of people were competing with each other’s music videos. MTV eventually came out of that energy in London. It was very exciting, because they were really personal films. You could go to sleep with an idea and two weeks later, it’d be playing around the world. It was very immediate and universal. It was a new medium, the first time you’d made films to be repeated endlessly. In my eyes, they were short films, where you gave information out over repeat viewings.

When the Stones called me up, I didn’t want to work with them at first because I was still a punk and I thought they were a jet-set sellout band. But I had loved them when I was in school, so I wrote a treatment I thought they would never do, about death squads in Central America with Mick being assassinated by Keith. Then I got the call {puts on Mick Jagger voice} “I love it!” It caused a big controversy because it showed what happened with the murders in El Salvador. ⦿

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