Nick Cave Is Mad About BBC Radio Playing The Censored Version Of The Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York”
What do you do with “Fairytale Of New York”? It’s a question that comes up again every year. The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s 1987 single is a legit holiday classic with a legit claim to the title of best Christmas song ever written. In the UK, where it was a #2 hit upon its release, “Fairytale Of New York” often charts around Christmastime. But “Fairytale Of New York” also features the late Kirsty MacColl singing these lines: “You scumbag, you maggot/ You cheap lousy faggot/ Happy Christmas, your arse/ I pray God it’s our last.” Over the weekend, BBC Radio 1 announced that it would not play the uncensored version of “Fairytale Of New York” this year. Today, Nick Cave has weighed in.
As you might imagine, this is not a new issue. Two years ago, Pogues frontman and “Fairytale Of New York” co-writer Shane MacGowan released a statement about the use of that one word: “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… 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.”
The BBC, which has played both censored and uncensored versions of “Fairytale Of New York” in recent years, announced that Radio 1 would only play the censored version, which MacColl recorded for a Top Of The Pops appearance in 1992. On that take of the song, she sings, “You’re cheap and you’re haggard.” On Radio 2, DJs will get to choose which version of the song they want to play.
In the latest edition of his Red Hand Files newsletter, Nick Cave, Shane MacGowan’s friend and occasional collaborator, takes the position that the BBC shouldn’t play the song at all if the station is only going to play the censored version:
Now, once again, “Fairytale” is under attack. 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. The changing of the word “faggot” for the nonsense word “haggard” destroys the song by deflating it right at its essential and most reckless moment, stripping it of its value. It becomes a song that has been tampered with, compromised, tamed, and neutered and can no longer be called a great song. It is a song that has lost its truth, its honour and integrity — a song that has knelt down and allowed the BBC to do its grim and sticky business.
I am in no position to comment on how offensive the word “faggot” 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…
The BBC, that gatekeeper of our brittle sensibilities, forever acting in our best interests, continue to mutilate an artefact of immense cultural value and in doing so takes something from us this Christmas, impossible to measure or replace. On and on it goes, and we are all the less for it.
Cave has previously used The Red Hand Files to promise that he won’t alter his own problematic old lyrics and to complain about “cancel culture.” You can read his full statement on “Fairytale Of New York” here.