Like many of us, my favourite Christmas song is ‘Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues. From the very first lines its sentimentality is grounded in a hard realism, “It was Christmas Eve babe / In the drunk tank / An old man said to me, won’t see another one / And then he sang a song / The Rare Old Mountain Dew / I turned my face away / And dreamed about you,” sings Shane MacGowan, who wrote the song alongside bandmate Jem Finer and recorded the famous duet with singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl. You can almost feel the cold wall the song’s protagonist has turned their face to, as they try to catch some sleep. The song goes on to chronicle the heady early days of their relationship, followed by the inevitable breakup, going from going from the hopeful line “I’ve got a feeling /This year’s for me and you” to the infamous second verse:
“You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last”
Over the years radio stations and television broadcasts have censored the terms “slut”, “faggot” and “arse” and in the early nineties on the BBC music show Top of the Pops, MacColl modified the “faggot” line to, “You’re cheap and you’re haggard”. This change has been used subsequently by Ronan Keating and others, including by Radio 1 this year. Sadly MacColl died in 2000, run over by a multimillionaire’s speedboat while on holiday with her family, and while her mother has campaigned for the slurs to be left in it’s unclear what MacColl herself would have wanted.
My feelings on the verse are complicated. In terms of lyrical importance, the swear words and slurs need to be sufficiently cutting to demonstrate the resentment that has seeped into the relationship. In many ways the “faggot” is almost throwaway, compared to the way the partner’s drug addiction is described. But culturally, “faggot” has more impact than “slut”. Since “slut” comes in the middle of the line it doesn’t have the finality and emphasis that people like to put on the “faggot”. Like white people who relish using racial slurs when singing along to Kanye West’s Gold Digger, the original lyrics serve to encourage people to say a word they know they can’t say in their everyday lives. And when I use the term “can’t say” I mean they can’t say without being revealed as a homophobe and causing the LGBTQIA+ community, and especially gay and bisexual men, considerable pain.
It’s normal to bleep out or replace swear words on the radio, and in many ways having this conversation each year about the so called censorship of ‘Fairytale of New York’ detracts from the meaning of the song itself – that we’re all here together, at Christmas, trying our best. A couple of years ago MacGowan defended the song, explaining the song-writing intention behind the slurs. Speaking particularly about the use of the word “faggot” he said, “The word was used by the character because it fitted with the way she would speak… 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.”
But he added, “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.”
Some songwriters have tried to modify the lyrics, including Artificial Womb favourite Grace Petrie. Her version, released this month, has Petrie and The Resistance Band completely stopping the song to shout “We love Diane Abbott” (a reference to the shadow home secretary, whose history of radical black activism and loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn has made her a left-wing darling). This is a welcome move from Petrie, as fans may have seen her performance of ‘Fairytale of New York’ with Andy Waterfield, footage of which was uploaded by a fan onto YouTube in 2011 and which clearly shows Petrie singing the original lines – with a fan even whooping as she says the word “faggot”. With the release of the new single, Petrie writes on her website, “Tis the season to bring Lefty Christmas into your own home, now you can celebrate both the festive season and also the true MVP of politics. Much better than homophobic slurs, eh?” as she also touts jumpers and t-shirts that say, “You scumbag you maggot, I love Diane Abbott”.
While it’s very on-brand for Petrie to modify the song in this way, to me the best approach would be to agree – as a society – that “you’re cheap and you’re haggard” is the line going forward. That way we can get back to appreciating the words I personally enjoy singing the most:
“I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can’t make it all alone
I’ve built my dreams around you”
As we go back to the chorus… “The boys of the NYPD choir / Still singing Galway Bay / And the bells are ringing out / For Christmas day.”
You can buy Grace Petrie’s version of ‘Fairytale of New York’ for £1 on Bandcamp.
Words: Ana Hine