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Last Updated: Friday, 21 December 2007, 11:34 GMT
Fairytale of a fairytale
Shane MacGowan

Classic pop, reappraised by the Magazine

Radio 1 execs have decided to stop censoring The Pogues' Fairytale of New York. But what is such unfestive language doing in a song often voted the nation's favourite Christmas tune?

On the radio and in the shops, you can hear a junkie and a wino hurling abuse at each other: she's a slut, and he's a faggot. It must be Christmas again.

Fairytale was held off the Christmas #1 spot by the Pet Shop Boys' Always On My Mind. Other Yuletide #2s include:
I Believe In Father Christmas - Greg Lake
Caravan Of Love - The Housemartins
Especially For You - Jason & Kylie
Heal The World - Michael Jackson
All I Want For Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey
The Millennium Prayer - Cliff Richard
Sacred Trust - One True Voice
Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End) - The Darkness
Father And Son - Ronan Keating & Yusuf Islam

Except this year, on Radio 1, the terms of abuse became "sl--" and "fa----", with thousands of listeners complaining that they couldn't hear, respectively, Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl.

Looking over this week's comments from music fans and gay rights groups, the message seems to be: if you want to hear a song about a blazing row between an alcoholic and a heroin addict, you have to expect some salty language.

And it's just such a blazing row that many people the world over do want to hear as Christmas looms.

Back in the charts for the fifth time, Fairytale is easily The Pogues' biggest hit - and was always meant to be so. Tin whistler Spider Stacey told Radio 1 at the time: "It's a straightforward attempt to get a hit with this kind of lush ballad."

Not Cliff Richard

But this isn't one of those songs where a dark message is cleverly hidden inside a deceptively lovely arrangement.

Indeed, the first verse - before the band and the strings kick in - has an alcoholic gambler spending Christmas Eve in a New York police cell trying to ignore another emigre as he foresees his death and sings a folk number about drinking poitín, an illegal and incredibly potent moonshine.

In other words, the subject matter is clear from the outset, and for four minutes, we stick with emigration, death, regret and substance abuse.

Shane MacGowan takes refreshment at a concert
The song is about washed-up characters

But if you're trying to "get a hit", why would you reach for the bleak? Well, because it works. Emigration, death, regret and substance abuse don't tend to show up in Cliff Richard's Yuletide chestnuts, but they're staples of traditional music - and the trick played by Fairytale is to convey these aspects of twentieth-century Irish experience in three snapshots.

And how do we know that the dysfunction works? At Pogues gigs and Christmas parties, the loudest parts of the singalong are the contentious argument in the fifth verse and the killer exchange where MacGowan's "I could have been someone" is met with MacColl's "well, so could anyone".

It's safe to say that the song would have been less popular if it had had a lyric about tobogganing.

Groundless optimism

What's in those three snapshots is a bit blurry, linked by a drunkard's logic. According to MacGowan, the wino is kicked out of the cells and joins his wife at her hospital bed - which is where the abuse starts.

The good times were back when the American Dream seemed to be in the couple's reach, when the New York police - immigrants also - were singing about going across the sea to Ireland rather than locking up our hero.

This is not the first time that Fairytale has been censored:
On TOTP in 1987, Kirsty MacColl was asked to sing "ass" instead of "arse"
In the version by Ronan Keating & Máire Brennan "you cheap lousy faggot" becomes "you're mean and you're haggard"

Reminiscing works at first, they can both recall a time when they were attractive. But back then, he was promising the moon on a stick and she was more sceptical: New York is "no place for the old". And while it's her that's been proved right, it's hard at Christmas not to fall for his sentimental and boundless - possibly groundless - optimism.

The question of whether the "slut" and "faggot" lines make the song sexist and homophobic is getting good mileage elsewhere. Here, it's worth mentioning MacGowan's comment to the Melody Maker in 1987: "I haven't got anything in common with the actual part that I'm singing - Yul Brynner isn't really the King Of Siam - except in the sense that I've had arguments with women and it's usually ended up with some kind of reconciliation."

MacColl influence

But if Shane MacGowan isn't the old soak (in this particular song), still less is Kirsty MacColl a bag lady wishing for death - and after her untimely death in 2000, the song has an unexpected extra sadness.

It's MacColl's vocal that makes Fairytale more commercial than Pogues singles like, say, Boys From The County Hell. MacGowan's plans for a "gay duet" version with Bryn Terfel have not yet come to pass, and the Kirsty role has passed on to singers including Cerys Matthews and Katie Melua.

They may have come close, but the song remains MacColl's - which is what makes it surprising to learn that she was such a late addition to the mix.

Kirsty MacColl
Kirsty MacColl's death has added new poignancy

Fairytale started as a song by the Pogues' banjo player Jem Finer about a sailor missing his wife. Finer's own wife found it "naff" and suggested a couple trying to crank up the Christmas spirit, but ending up fighting.

Finer said: "She warned that the song shouldn't end on a bleak note and there should be some kind of redemption. It should end in a weird romantic truce that just couldn't be helped, a little glimmer of uncanny hope amidst the torture of packaged party time."

That may sound like Fairytale, but they're not the same. MacGowan took the melody from the first song and the storyline from the second, moved the row to New York and wrote the familiar words.

The female vocal would have been performed by the Pogue bassist Cait O'Riordan, but after she left the band and married their former producer Elvis Costello, the band's new producer, Steve Lillywhite, suggested his own wife: one Kirsty MacColl.

Referring to her folkie father Ewan, MacColl recalled: "I was a bit dubious, as I had a fear of folk music that only someone with a folk-singing parent could have. But I said I'd give it a go, and if they didn't like it, they could get someone else. They liked it."

Incorrigible rakes

"It took two years to get that song right," MacGowan said recently. "It went through a hundred variations."

Was it worth it? Twenty years on, there's little that anyone but a churl would change about Fairytale.

In his sort-of autobiography, MacGowan sums it up as "an Irish-based romantic ballad with an orchestra [that] didn't sell out". Drummer Andrew "Clobberer" Ranken is more direct still: "If I ever hear it now, I think: Well, that's another couple of bob."

And it might be doing the rest of us some good, too. There's a legacy in Irish literature and song of celebrating the riotous brawl - the donnybrook - during hard times.

The songs of the Pogues are populated by incorrigible rakes and ne'er-do-wells with bad language and worse behaviour who are more celebrated than condemned. In a smaller way, when Christmas gets a little intense, there may be a comfort in hearing Fairytale Of New York and thinking: at least everyone else is rowing as well.

If this is you, just try and keep the language clean.

Smashed Hits is compiled by Alan Connor.


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