Pogues’ singer’s controversial Christmas classic

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By Nicholas BarberFeatures correspondent

Brian Rasic / Getty Images Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl

Brian Rasic / Getty Images

Shane Macgowan Of The Pogues With Kirsty Maccoll (Credit: Brian Rasic / Getty Images)

Shane MacGowan’s rambunctious festive classic Fairytale of New York stirred controversy for its contentious lyrics – but could be headed for the top of the UK charts this Christmas, writes Nicholas Barber.

When the death of Shane MacGowan was announced on Thursday, fans everywhere discussed which of his songs were their favourites. As the lead singer of Anglo-Irish band The Pogues, and then as a solo artist, MacGowan was renowned as one of pop’s most distinctive writers, and as someone who brought rambunctious, punky new life to Irish folk music. But one song of his will be remembered above all others. Fairytale of New York is a bona fide Christmas classic that is currently being played in a bar, shop or home near you – although some people would prefer if it were never played again.

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First released as a single in November 1987, the song begins as a maudlin piano ballad sung by MacGowan at his gravelly, slurring best: “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank.” MacGowan’s friend Nick Cave has called that “one of the greatest opening lines ever written”. Then the tempo picks up, whisking the listener out of their chair and on to the dance floor. Kirsty MacColl joins in as MacGowan’s dueting partner, and, in cinematic fashion, the lyrics flash back to the days when a starry-eyed young Irish couple was elated by their arrival in the Big Apple: “They’ve got cars big as bars, they’ve got rivers of gold!” A jigging chorus climaxes with the triumphant line that everyone can sing along to, whether they know the rest of the song or not: “And the bells were ringing out for Christmas day!”

This hilarious, heartbreaking narrative speaks to you whether you’re merry or miserable, in company or on your own

Alas, the euphoria doesn’t last. By the next verse, the lovers are bitter drug addicts, hurling abuse at each other. Finally, they seem to be resigned to being together. A happy ending? Well, maybe not, but the glorious chorus is enough to make you believe it is for a moment.

Co-written by MacGowan and The Pogues’ banjo player, Jem Finer, this hilarious, heartbreaking narrative speaks to you whether you’re merry or miserable, in company or on your own. It crams all of the emotions of a long, boozy Christmas party into four rousing minutes, so it’s a nice coincidence that MacGowan was born on Christmas Day. In 1987, the single was kept off the top of the British chart by the Pet Shop Boys’ You Were Always On My Mind, but you would be foolish to bet against it reaching number one this Christmas. In the meantime, Fairytale of New York has been covered by everyone from Jon Bon Jovi to Travis and Jason Kelce, the American football-playing brothers, to the characters in James Corden’s BBC sitcom, Gavin and Stacey. And the (far superior) original regularly tops polls as Britain’s favourite Christmas song.

Controversial lyrics

Just as regularly, though, it is criticised for its contentious language. When the lovers are berating each other, she spits: “Happy Christmas, your arse, I hope it’s our last.” They go on to use swear words and derogatory phrases that were problematic from the moment the record was first played. Some radio stations bleeped them out, and The Pogues themselves had no qualms about toning them down when required. On the BBC’s Top of the Pops in 1992, MacColl replaced the homophobic slur with a different, less offensive word that almost rhymed: “You’re cheap and you’re haggard.”

Arguing about Fairytale of New York has become a festive tradition in itself

That hasn’t stopped the debate returning so often that arguing about Fairytale of New York has become a festive tradition in itself. The song has grown in popularity at roughly the same pace as sensitivities around offensive and homophobic hate speech have increased.

In 2018, MacGowan defended the expression used by MacColl’s character: “Not all characters in songs and stories are angels or even decent and respectable.” But in 2020, the BBC declared that the contentious words would be removed when the record was played on Radio 1. The aforementioned Nick Cave railed against the decision on his question-and-answer website, The Red Hand Files. He hailed Fairytale of New York as “the greatest Christmas song ever written”. But without the removed word, he argued: “It becomes a song that has been tampered with, compromised, tamed, and neutered and can no longer be called a great song.”

Cave says that the only people who could disagree with him are “those that know nothing about the fragile nature of songwriting”. Perhaps he’s right. But the know-nothings among us maintain that MacGowan’s crowning achievement shouldn’t be defined by one word in one verse. Leave it in or take it out, Fairytale of New York is still a great song – one of the greatest.

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