The song starts with the sustained drone of an accordian note, sounding like a horn ringing out across the docks signalling that it's time to get to work. A winding, driving banjo figure begins an almost 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 called home saw homelessness rise exponentially as neoliberal policies (at the time called monetarist) 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. The people at the bottom, on the ground, suffered.
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 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, 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. MacGowan can err too far away from that compassion and, despite the bulk of his work being nearly forty years old at this point, the tendency to occasional unthinking bigotry will not be easily forgiven as being from another less tolerant era.
In the dark of an alley you'd work for a five
For a swift one off the wrist down on the old main drag
Rod Stewart was gearing up to do a cover of this song but he, or possibly one of his people, baulked at croaking the above lines about wanking men off in an alley for a five pound note. It's possible he considered that work to be worth more renumeration. Stewart did a respectable version of Ewan MacColl's song Dirty Old Town on his 1969 album An Old Raincoat Won't Ever Let You Down album, though the Pogues' D.O.T. is widely considered to be definitive. The Pogues would later cover his signature song Maggie May live with the opening line changed to "Fuck off, Maggie..."
In the cold winter nights the old town it was chill
But there were boys in the cafes who'd give you cheap pills
If you didn't have the money you'd cajole or you'd beg
There was always lots of tuinol on the old main drag
The song blearily relates time spent knocked out on tuinol, the barbituate derivative that Sid Vicious took thirty of at the Chelsea Hotel the night that Nancy Spungen was murdered. The bridge comes in, with the band holding the same chord five times like a stuck record. In cinema, we would see calendar pages falling away before our eyes to wordlessly signify time passing, but Jem Finer's conceptual idea of staying on the same note to do the same is a neat way of expressing that musically. It's the kind of playful musical ingenuity that traditional folk music would sniff at. Then, with a skip and a surge, a new, higher musical figure begins.
One evening as I was lying down by Leicester Square
I was picked up by the coppers and kicked in the balls
Between the metal doors at Vine Street I was beaten and mauled
And they ruined my good looks for the old main drag
In 1895, Oscar Wilde charged the Marquess of Queensbury with libel on the dead end of Vine St, where the police station sat until 1997. The street was named after a very old public house called the Vine, which itself possibly took its name from a vineyard which existed on that site since the Roman days. An apt place for the narrator to take a beating from thug policeman who can brutalise the dispossessed with impunity. The police appear again in the next verse to push around the "old ones who were on their way out."
And now I'm lying here I've had too much booze
I've been spat on and shat on and raped and abused
That second line is Spider Stacy's, who laughingly uses it as evidence for his being the secret genius behind the Pogues. It's telling to learn that the words, so often credited solely to Shane MacGowan, were also open to the genuine collaborative process of the band.
I know that I am dying and I wish I could beg
For some money to take me from the old main drag
Shane stops singing and simply says the last three words, as the music grinds to a dead halt and hopelessness overcomes, pulling the listener away from this world with as much quickness as they had been gently brought in. This last section reminds me of the feeling you get as you refuse to stop and talk to a figure who sits on the street and hear their story because you've got to be somewhere and don't want to spare any change. Time has not made this song less relevent. In 2018, the reported numbers - no doubt a fraction of the true figure - of those sleeping rough rose for the seventh year in a row.