The Old Main Drag
The song starts with the sustained drone of an accordian note. It sounds like a horn ringing out across the docks, telling the roustabouts they have to get to work. A winding, driving banjo figure begins a semi-reel which leads into light, fairy-winged acoustic guitar strumming. Then comes Shane’s voice, matter of fact, mobile, and comparatively young sounding.
When I first came to London I was only sixteen
With a fiver in my pocket and my old dancing bag
I went down to the Dilly to check out the scene
And I soon ended up on the old main drag
“The Dilly” is Picadilly Circus, a main thoroughfare in Central London and the heart of the tube network. At the time of the song’s writing, it was the British equivalent to Times Square in New York, dangerous, dirty, and filled with rats. Today, with gentrification, it’s the equivalent to 21st century Times Square. It’s clean, Disneyfied, and a great place to buy Royal Wedding merchandise.
The song details a nihilistic descent into homelessness, drug addiction, and sex work. From the 1970s onwards, the London that MacGowan begrudgingly called home saw homelessness rise exponentially as neoliberal policies were implemented first, with sad eyes and apologetic shrugs by a dying Labour government at the behest of the International Monetary Fund as security on a multi-billion pound loan, and then with gleeful abandon by Margaret Thatcher’s government, stripping the needy of the services that the public had funded through taxation and funnelled up to the wealthiest. The people at the bottom, on the ground, suffered. Almost nothing, as has been proven again and again, trickles down.
When fame and riches came his way, Shane MacGowan, skinny and underdressed for the bitter winter nights, could be found on the streets of London, desperately pulling bundles of twenty pound notes from his pockets and pushing them into the hands of those on the streets. His attitude was, considering his own alcoholism and drug abuse, “there but for the Grace of God go I.” Through imagination and observation, he sends the listener this missive from the bottom rung. Unlike the joyless sanctimony of Ralph McTell’s Streets of London, which rings with paternalistic pity, Shane knows enough to be able to hint at the escape that the early days of a dead end lifestyle can offer and even some of the pleasure that can be found at the bottom of the heap before forces out of your control overwhelm you. Shane has described himself, in an effort to contextualise his songwriting, as a journalist and this song is one of his best claims on that title.
There the he-males and the she-males paraded in style
And the old man with the money would flash you a smile
Reportedly, The Old Main Drag was one of the first songs written for the band (hence its position at the opening of this project) so this is one of Shane’s earliest references to the LGBT experience. True to form, he uses politically incorrect language mixed with a prurient interest in what he perceives to be the interestingly subversive sexual activities of gay men topped off with compassion with their shared humanity.…