Christmas is a season full of the wonder of magic and music, with many songs specially dedicated to this special time of celebration. While most deal with themes of love, and some are tinged with sadness, others hope to promote peace. Some are mere novelty records, but one song is in many ways unique. Seasonal songs are often considered saccharine, but this term does not apply to a fairy-tale angry ballad in which the two central, largely unlikeable, characters have a rowdy row. This is the unique tale of 'Fairytale of New York' by the Pogues, a song that repeatedly seems to delight and offend in equal measure.
The Pogues were an Anglo-Irish1 Celtic band named after the popular Irish expression Pogue Mahone, meaning 'kiss my arse'. By the time of the release of 'Fairytale of New York' most of the band members had been together for a decade, though the band had used other names. They included banjo player Jem Finer and gnarly singer Shane MacGowan. His rough, working-class Irish persona was achievable only through being born in Kent in England on Christmas Day and by attending one of England's most prestigious public schools2, Westminster School3.
Tale As Old As Time (Well, Starting in 1985)
MacGowan and Finer have different stories of whose idea it was originally to write a Christmas song, with MacGowan claiming the band had been bet that they couldn't by their producer Elvis Costello. They both agree that Finer began trying to write a Christmas single in early 1985. By the middle of the year he had written two mediocre efforts, one about a sailor in New York wishing he was home in Ireland at Christmas and another about a rowing couple in Ireland at Christmas. At this time the band included female vocalist and bass player Cait O'Riordan, who recorded the female vocals in the earliest demo versions of the songs. Finer described these songs with the words:
I had written two songs complete with tunes, one had a good tune and crap lyrics, the other had the idea for 'Fairytale' but the tune was poxy, I gave them both to Shane and he gave it a Broadway melody, and there it was.
When ill with pneumonia Shane MacGowan combined the best bits of both songs into one and added some ideas of his own, with the title still unsettled on. He has since said:
I wasn't thinking about 'Fairytale [of New York]', I was just wishing I could stop feeling ill! For some reason that is when I managed to nail the lyrics and the arrangement.
Costello wanted to call the now-taking-shape song 'Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank', though the band felt this was uncommercial and by this time the song was too late to record and release it in time for Christmas 1985, so it was shelved. New lyrics were written for the song following the March 1986 US tour, which included visiting New York, while on that tour the Pogues befriended actor Matt Dillon and producer Peter Dougherty. However later that year the band fell out with Costello and severed links to their former producer. O'Riordan, who had married Elvis Costello in April 1986, also left the band, leaving the Pogues without a female singer.
In March 1987 the song was in its final shape and an early take was recorded at Abbey Road with all the vocals sung by MacGowan, but the band still needed a female vocalist so they worked on other projects. In the middle of the year they had a hit with The Dubliners with the old classic 'The Irish Rover'. The Pogues returned to their song in late July/early August, with the run-up to Christmas in mind. Knowing they needed a female vocalist their recording producer Steve Lillywhite suggested they record guide vocals with his singer-songwriter wife Kirsty MacColl4 (1959-2000). MacColl worked hard to provide a perfect vocalisation of the song. The Pogues were delighted with her performance and refused to replace it, with MacGowan feeling the need to re-record most of his vocal to match the high standard she had set. The title was settled on, inspired by JP Donleavy's novel A Fairy Tale of New York (1973), an adaptation of his earlier 1961 play Fairy Tales of New York.
The song was recorded as if it were two separate songs. It begins with a slower introduction sung only by MacGowan up until the line 'and dreamed about you'. This was recorded separately to the main, and faster, section of the song, which begins with MacColl singing.
On initial release MacGowan described the song with the words,
My part is the man who's got kicked out of the drunk tank on Christmas Eve night. His wife's in hospital. She's ill, and he's just out of his skull. Then they're having a row... I haven't got anything in common with the actual part that I'm singing… except in the sense that I've had arguments with women and it's usually ended up with some kind of reconciliation.
Video: When the Band Finished Playing They Howled Out for More
Once the song was performed and recorded, a music video was needed. The Pogues got in contact with their friends from New York: MTV producer Peter Dougherty, who agreed to direct the music video, and Matt Dillon, who agreed to cameo in it. Dillon played the cop who arrests Shane. The scene was filmed in a real NYPD police station. Sadly, despite the many years since 'Fairytale of New York' was first recorded, there still isn't a NYPD choir, though there is a NYPD Emerald Society of Pipes and Drums who actually appear in the video as the choir. To compound matters, at the time of the recording the Society did not know the 1947 song 'Galway Bay' and so are actually playing The Mickey Mouse Club March5, with their filmed performance slowed down to match the song they were supposed to be playing. Despite being filmed sat at a piano and singing his song, MacGowan could not play the instrument and so the Pogues' pianist James Fearnley's hands were filmed playing while wearing MacGowan's rings.
Reception: Rivers of Gold
There is no denying that this song has, since first release, proven to be extremely divisive and controversial – but popular. On original release it became the UK 1987 Christmas no 2 for two weeks, behind only the Pet Shop Boys' 'Always on My Mind'. Since then it has frequently recharted in the UK6 showing that it is consistently considered one of the UK's favourite seasonal songs. Music channel VH1 UK and its viewers certainly liked it, voting it the best Christmas song of all time three years running in 2004, 2005, and 2006 and also the 27th greatest song never to reach Number 1 in another VH1 poll in collaboration with The Sun 'newspaper'. It was also voted as the 84th greatest song of all time by BBC Radio 2's 'Sold on Song' top 100 poll. It has become the first Christmas song to be in the UK's top ten three years in a row and been in the top 20 every year since downloads were first counted as part of the official UK Singles Chart in April 2005.
Warning: The following section contains, in an analytical context, words that may be considered offensive.
Curiously, while the song 'Fairy Tale of New York' has been considered offensive since original release in 1987, the actual word considered to be offensive has changed over time. Most of the criticism has concentrated on the use of three words, which in alphabetical order are 'Arse', 'Faggot' and 'Slut'. The first word, 'Arse', is unlikely to attract much comment today. The word 'Faggot' can mean either a bundle of firewood, a meatball (often pork), someone extremely lazy or even an embroidery term. Unfortunately the use of the word as an offensive homophobic slur original in the United States, including New York, where the song is set, with this practice spreading worldwide. This makes it difficult to determine whether an example of its use is automatically homophobic or being used in a wider context as a general swear word interchangeably with other general swear words. MacGowan has also always maintained that the use of the word 'faggot' in the song was always intended to mean 'lazy' which, in context of the other insults MacColl's character calls MacGowan's character including 'bum' and 'arse' seems consistent. Nothing in the song calls either characters' sexuality into question.
The word 'slut' is similarly used as a pejorative term to refer to a loose-moraled woman who has multiple sexual partners. That said, as MacGowan strongly slurs his words it is difficult to hear exactly what words he is singing at this point of the song7. This may explain why this word appears to have caused less offence than the other two, or is perhaps otherwise considered a less offensive term in the shadow of the larger controversy.
The use of these words in the song was intended to provide a sense of verisimilitude and truthfulness of what two arguing characters would shout to each other. MacGowan defended the use of the word 'faggot' in 2018 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. 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.
In other words if the line in question had been written as, say, 'You're egotistical and haughty and sometimes a bit naughty' it just wouldn't sound accurate.
You're a Bum
The controversy surrounding the song's lyrics began immediately in 1987, when the BBC opposed the use of the word 'Arse' on their flagship programme Top of the Pops. As a compromise the inoffensive word 'Ass' - meaning 'Donkey' in the UK and 'Arse' in the US – was substituted instead. Curiously enough no objection had been raised at the time to the use of the word 'Bum', which means 'Arse' in the UK and 'Tramp' in the US.
In 1991 when promoting the reissue of this song once more on Top of the Pops, Kirsty MacColl was allowed to sing 'arse' but this time the BBC objected to the use of the word 'faggot' and so MacColl sang 'you're mean and you're haggard' instead.
In 2000 Ronan Keating and Moya Brennan covered the song as a B-side to his song 'The Way You Make Me Feel'. This has 'you're cheap and you're haggard' used as a substitute. His version has often been listed as one of the worst cover versions of all time, largely because of the way Keating starts off gently crooning the song, gets halfway through, realises what song he is singing and spontaneously gets snarly. Curiously in 2016 his cover version again became controversial when outraged Spotify and Apple Music users found that this was the version of the song being offered on Christmas playlists rather than the original.
In 2007 Radio 1 controller Andy Parfitt decided to avoid causing offence by dubbing out the words 'faggot' and 'slut' when playing the song that Christmas, only to be inundated by complaints by offended fans of the song demanding the song be played uncensored. This led to a swift U-turn and Parfitt apologised for having censored the song, saying:
[The decision to censor 'A Fairytale of New York' was] wrong [though…] Radio 1 does not play homophobic lyrics or condone bullying of any kind. It is not always easy to get this right.
There the matter stood, simmering under the surface, for 12 years with the song still played in full and continuing to be incredibly popular year after year, but still attracting comment and criticism from those upset by the lyrics contained within.
Gavin & Stacey is one of the BBC's most popular ever sitcoms, originally airing 2007-10, written by and starring James Corden and Ruth Jones. In 2019 as part of the BBC's Christmas Day television schedule they broadcast a Christmas Special. This attracted a huge audience of over 17 million which was the largest audience for a non-sporting event of the decade and most-watched comedy programme in the UK for 17 years. 'Fairytale of New York' featured in the episode in which characters Nessa, played by Ruth Jones, and Bryn, played by Rob Brydon, sing it in a pub Christmas karaoke8.
Following this broadcast newspapers reported that there were over 800 complaints about the use of the song on the BBC's social media, yet broadcast regulator Ofcom – the Office of Communications – announced that they had only received 11 official complaints. The BBC issued a statement:
The descent of their relationship is reflected in the increasingly abusive and offensive terms they use to address each other; insults which are intended to reflect the language that such characters might have used in that era. The origin of the word includes a definition which describes it as a contemptuous and antiquated word for laziness, and the author of the song has cited this inference behind his inclusion of that line. While the word is now widely acknowledged as having the potential to offend, the song never suggests or implies that this is, or was ever, an appropriate way to address another person, nor does it link it to homosexuality. [Characters] Nessa and Bryn were seen singing the original lines and we can assure you there was no intention to offend viewers. We understand that some people will find it offensive in any context but we also recognise that the song is widely played and enjoyed in its original form. Ofcom have previously stated that they feel it is 'unlikely that audiences would widely perceive [the song] as a serious attempt to denigrate the homosexual community'.
I’ve got a Feeling This Year's for Me and You
With the controversy freshly awakened and strong feelings on both sides of the increasingly polarised divide, in November 2020 the BBC announced a new policy aimed to compromise. They will continue to broadcast the popular song unaltered on their most popular radio station, BBC Radio 2. On BBC Radio 1, which has a younger audience, the word 'slut' will be silenced and the line 'cheap lousy faggot' replaced with MacColl's line from the Top of the Pops performance where she sang 'cheap and you're haggard'. DJs on BBC Radio 6 Music are able to play either version of the song as their conscience dictates.
Conclusion: Won't See Another One?
'Fairytale of New York' is an example of how the use of language and its perception continuously changes over time. Does it mean that the song as originally written will inevitably be censored, kept locked up in the drunk tank and should only the less controversial version played? Or will the words considered beyond the Pale pale in offensiveness and be able to be used freely again, as the once censorious 'arse' is no longer considered unacceptable? Or will the use of language change once more – it is not inconceivable that the sentence 'you're an old slut on junk' may one day be controversial with the use of the word 'old' considered unacceptably ageist.
It can be argued that irrespective of the writers' intentions the use of an often-offensive word in any context should be considered wrong as it normalises its use and gives it legitimacy. However in this case the word cannot be banned outright as faggots are a recognisable type of food stocked on supermarket shelves across the UK9. It would also be difficult to use an outright ban of all words that have frequently been used offensively, for example in the 20th Century the word 'fruit' was occasionally used as a similar insult but would be impossible to remove from daily use. Other words that have been used in a pejorative manner have been reclaimed and adopted by some members of the community that they were targeted against and this subversion and reclamation approach can be considered to be positive and effective, but not necessarily appropriate for every example.
Similarly the same criticism for the use of the word 'faggot' has been made against Dire Straits song 'Money For Nothing' (1985). While it would be possible to interpret the word – used to describe a character who 'ain't working' and is getting 'money for nothing' - to mean 'lazy', songwriter Mark Knopfler made his intention clear in live performances of the song where he has replaced the word 'faggot' for similar slur 'queenie'.
It should also be noted that this isn't the only classic Christmas song whose lyrics have caused controversy in recent years. In 1999 Sir Cliff Richard's song 'The Millennium Prayer' - the only pop song to credit Jesus for the lyrics - was banned by the BBC and many other radio stations, only to promptly become 1999's best-selling single. In 2018 the 1944-written duet 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' popularised in the UK in 1999 by Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews10 hit headlines. The debate was about whether lyric 'Say what's in this drink?' would in the 21st Century be interpreted to refer to rohypnol, which did not exist when the song was written. As this interpretation believes the song is promoting date rape it has been called unacceptable in a post-#MeToo world. In 2019 Kelly Clarkson and John Legend recorded a cover version of the song replacing the lines with a double rhyming-couplet intended to promote consent, but this has been criticised for being more sexually explicit than the original line:
What will my friends think? / I think they should rejoice
If I have one more drink? / It's your body, and your choice.
It is only natural that as time progresses and sensibilities change, more songs' lyrical content will seem out of phase with current values.
The big question remains whether 'A Fairytale of New York's lyrics as originally written are acceptable, and the existing divisions of opinion are unlikely to change. Proving the old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity, the more the debate rages, the more often the song returns to the public's consciousness helping its longevity in recharting year after year. The song's lyrics would still make sense if the most offensive word was not used as a homophobic insult in America. Is taking action against words rather than attitudes effective at solving the real issues? Word use is fluid and frequently changes and eliminating one offensive term does not prevent the creation of another. Only changing what society finds acceptable – changing the world, not a word – does that.