It seems as though The Pogues’ song ‘The Fairytale of New York’ is as destined to be a bone of contention forevermore as it is a Christmas classic. The song may well have its detractors in 2020 thanks to its use of a homophobic slur, and rightly so, it may have also become the go-to Christmas song that doesn’t make you want to pop your own eardrums. However, one thing many people don’t know about the song is that its conception is rooted in the history of literature and one book in particular.
In truth, The Pogues were always set on a collision course with Christmas. The band, prevalent at a time when cashing in on Christmas was something many rock groups pursued, would see their Celtic punk sound bring a different meaning to festive music. After all, a Christmas windfall comes around every year and those PRS cheques are no joke. That said, solidifying their relationship with the holidays, the group’s enigmatic leader and lyric writer, Shane MacGowan was also born on Christmas day. It’s as close to kismet as one gets in the music world.
MacGowan is an enticing figure of music. His style, as garbled and brutish as one can expect, is somehow intoxicating, least of all because it has the undoubted whiff of whiskey on every note, one cherished by those that love him and widely adored every year in December when ‘Fairytale of New York’ once against hits the radio stations. While Kirsty MacColl’s addition to the song is simply beautiful — bolshy and perfectly in line with the character she’s singing for — its MacGowan’s all-too-accurate portrayal of the drunk tank hero that steals the show.
It was a motif that MacGowan lifted from JP Donleavy’s 1961 novel of the same name and saw The Pogues gain another hefty dose of fandom. The song is very keenly attached to the novel, using many of the same characters in the song as in the book, which focuses on two Irish immigrants trying to make it in New York. It could have seen MacGowan and the band in hot water, if not for Sahne’s father. The author told the Daily Mail in 2009: “Technically I could have taken legal action for piracy but as I know Shane MacGowan – I believe his father is a fan of my work – I decided not to bother.”
It is this use of characterisation that MacGowan has recently leant on in defence of the word “f****t” in the song. When the argument raged last year, the singer responded on The Tonight Show by saying: “The word was used by the character because it fitted with the way she would speak and with her character.
“She is not supposed to be a nice person, or even a wholesome person. She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history and she is down on her luck and desperate.”
He continued, “Her dialogue is as accurate as I could make it but she is not intended to offend! She is just supposed to be an authentic character and not all characters in songs and stories are angels or even decent and respectable, sometimes characters in songs and stories have to be evil or nasty in order to tell the story effectively.
“If people don’t understand that I was trying to accurately portray the character as authentically as possible then I am absolutely fine with them bleeping the word but I don’t want to get into an argument,” he added. Someone who seemingly does want to get into an argument is Nick Cave who this week was attacking the censorship of the song claiming: “The idea that a word, or a line, in a song can simply be changed for another and not do it significant damage is a notion that can only be upheld by those that know nothing about the fragile nature of songwriting.”
It’s something which Cave clarified further: “I am in no position to comment on how offensive the word ‘f****t’ is to some people, particularly to the young – it may be deeply offensive, I don’t know, in which case Radio 1 should have made the decision to simply ban the song, and allow it to retain its outlaw spirit and its dignity.
“In the end, I feel sorry for ‘Fairytale’, a song so gloriously problematic, as great works of art so often are, performed by one of the most scurrilous and seditious bands of our time, whose best shows were so completely and triumphantly out of order, they had to be seen to believed. Yet, time and time again the integrity of this magnificent song is tested,” continued the Bad Seeds singer. One thing that cannot be contested is the validity of the track.
‘Fairytale of New York’ has become ubiquitous with Christmas and while the song certainly has literary roots, it actually came about thanks to a bet between MacGowan, Jem Finer and the new wave hero Elvis Costello, who wagered with the Pogues members that they couldn’t come up with a Christmas single that wasn’t slushy. It’s fair to say that the band certainly excelled in that department and ‘Fairytale of New York’ censored or uncensored, is one of the finest Christmas songs ever written.