Shane MacGowan, the Pogues, and a Christmas Classic

Posted on December 15, 2023

by Eric P

Christmas music is a conservative form. Its listeners aren’t typically looking for something startling or complicated or subversive. If it’s a song they remember listening to at their grandparents’ house when they were kids, so much the better. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” just went to number one on the charts and it came out in 1958. It’s telling that Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You” is treated as the shiny newcomer among holiday standards, and it’s thirty years old.

That conservatism extends to tone and content as well; these are songs that tend to be pretty staid and reverent. When the most fun activities the lyricists can think of include roasting chestnuts (who does that?) and pretending that a snowman is an ordained clergyman (get help), you know you’re a long way from anything resembling rock and roll hedonism. I mean, have you heard “Jingle Bell Rock?” It doesn’t even rock. This genre-wide sense of sober mildness may be why, whenever a holiday song tries to crank up the knob on humor or raucousness, the machinery implodes and the result comes out all try-hard like “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” or that thing about the hippopotamus.

“Fairytale of New York,” though, is something else altogether. Nestled unassumingly on The Pogues’ great 1988 album If I Should Fall From Grace With God, the song – pairing lilting music with occasionally scabrous lyrics – is the unlikeliest standard on the Christmas radio rotation, and maybe the only one that never gets tired. Like many Pogues songs it combines singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan’s hard-drinking gutter lyricism with the ragged snarl of his vocals, which always sound like he’s trying to push words through his mouth that are the wrong shape. He’s joined by the sweetly steely Kristy MacColl and in under five minutes they chronicle the journey of an Irish couple from dreamy-eyed romance to embittered enmity to tender forbearance – it’s a masterpiece of economical storytelling that would impress Hemingway.

It’s also the only holiday standard where the characters sling straight-up slurs and invective at each other in the middle, unless your family sings a really intense version of “Rudolph.” Basically, while most Christmas songs convey at best only one emotion, “Fairytale of New York” churns convincingly through at least half a dozen – a roller-coaster of feels that better approximates what most of our holiday seasons are probably like.

MacGowan died recently, at a too-young 65 – but then again, those were 65 Shane MacGowan years. That’s probably like 110 to you and me. If your acquaintance with MacGowan and the Pogues is limited to “Fairytale,” check out the rest of their stuff – Rum, Sodomy and the Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace With God are both packed with folked-up punked-out classics.

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash


If I Should Fall From Grace With God


Peace and Love


Hell’s Ditch


The Snake


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