Nick Cave’s Defense Of Shane MacGowan’s Offensive Pogues Hit

The Pogues’ 1987 single ‘Fairytale of New York’ became a hit in the UK and landed on Christmas playlists. The song, a duet with Kirsty MacColl, was considered controversial from the beginning due to a line in which Shane MacGowan and MacColl’s characters insulted each other using a gay slur in the song.

Shane described his intention behind using slur words in 2018 to Virgin Media TV where the singer said:

“The word [faggot] 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.”

The singer emphasized that he intended the character to be an honest storyteller by adding:

“Her dialogue is as accurate as I could make it, but she is not intended to offend…Sometimes characters in songs and stories have to be evil or nasty in order to tell the story effectively.”

However, the BBC announced in 2020 that Radio 1, would be playing an alternate version of the track that does not have the original recordings gay slur. Longtime friend and collaborator Nick Cave gave his take on BBC’s decision to change the word to ‘haggard’ in a 2020 post on The Red Hand Files site.

Here’s what Cave said about the situation:

“‘Fairytale of New York’ [is] the greatest Christmas song ever written. One of the many reasons this song is so loved is that beyond almost any other song I can think of, it speaks with such profound compassion to the marginalized and the dispossessed. With one of the greatest opening lines ever written, the lyrics and the vocal performance emanate from deep inside the lived experience itself, existing within the very bones of the song.”

Nick added that changing the word diminishes the portrayal of the character within the song by saying:

“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.”

He also shared that even though it might seem like a minor change, it takes away from the greatness of the track. He expressed:

“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 honor and integrity — a song that has knelt down and allowed the BBC to do its grim and sticky business.”

You can read Nick Cave’s 2020 post on The Red Hand Files site here and Shane MacGowan’s 2018 response to Virgin Media TV here. You can also listen to ‘Fairytale of New York’ below.