(c) Pogue Mahone
Christmas, which involves forced bonhomie in the workplace, family politics at home, and raw naked commercialism just about everywhere else, is for many people an endurance test. It becomes even more of an endurance test as, from the radio, from PA systems in department stores and from the soundtracks of countless TV advertisements, you’re bombarded by Christmas music – or by the drivel that mostly passes for music at Christmas-time. Wham’s Last Christmas, Wizzard’s I Wish it could be Christmas Every Day, Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is you, the overrated Bruce Springsteen croaking and wheezing his way through Santa Claus is Coming to Town… I almost had a psychotic episode in my local Sainsbury the other evening while I was combing the shelves, trying to find a maddeningly elusive bottle of lemon juice, and Cliff Richard started to seriously get to me with Mistletoe and Wine.
So for yet another Christmas I find myself filling a glass with Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey and raising it in honour of the mighty Celtic punk / folk band The Pogues. Their anthem Fairy Tale of New York, which first made the Christmas charts back in 1987, is possibly the only good popular song to have ever cashed in on the festive season. When you’re struggling with your yuletide shopping and being subjected to an endless loop of Christmas-music torture by Shakin’ Stevens, Slade and all the other usual suspects, those opening chords of Fairy Tale of New York come like a gentle, soothing massage to your frazzled synapses. I just hope that the Irish author J.P. Donleavy, from whose novel Fairy Tale of New York the song’s writers Jem Finer and Shane McGowan nicked the title, was so charmed by the tune that he never bothered to sue.
Yes, Fairy Tale of New York evokes such familiarity and affection from me these days that, hearing it, I almost feel I’ve bumped into an old friend at Christmas-time and am exchanging season’s greetings with him or her. Like a proper friend, you know the person’s idiosyncrasies and character nuances – their negative traits as well as their positive ones.
You’re aware of a charming, expectant innocence – “They’ve cars big as bars / They’ve rivers of gold” – that at times bursts into a joyous euphoria – “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay / And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.” (Actually, the New York Police Department doesn’t have a choir at all, just a pipes-and-drums band, which you catch a glimpse of during the song’s video. But we’ll let that pass.)
At the same time, you sense a stubborn streak of melancholia – “An old man said to me, ‘Won’t see another one…’” And you know there’s even a worrying potential for violence, as is demonstrated when singers McGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl start tearing into each other with lines like, “Ye’re an old slut on junk!” and “Ye scumbag, ye maggot, ye cheap lousy faggot!” – lyrics that have always caused discomfort amongst the politically-correct watchdogs of the Radio One playlist and amongst lily-livered light-entertainment singers who, over the years, have attempted to do cover versions of the song. (Ronan Keating from the Irish boy-band Boyzone, when doing his own take on Fairy Tale of New York, changed the “ye cheap lousy faggot” line to “ye’re cheap and ye’re haggard”. That was brave of you, Ronan.)
Kirsty MacColl’s death on the Mexican island of Cozumel 13 years ago – whilst swimming with her two sons she was struck by a speedboat belonging to Guillermo Gonzalez Nova, a supermarket magnate and one of Mexico’s richest men, in an dodgy accident that’s never been investigated to her family’s satisfaction – only makes the song sound more poignant now. McGowan, thankfully and against all odds, is still with us. I saw him discussing the song the other night on a TV survey of the nation’s 50 favourite Christmas songs, in which Fairy Tale of New York got to number ten – ten! – and he looked like a man who’d done some serious living in his time. He was wearing an eye-patch, which I hope doesn’t indicate he’s reached a point in his dissolution where parts of him have started to drop off.
The Guardian saw fit to interview McGowan about his ‘family values’ the other day. Here’s a link to the article, although none of the information will come as a surprise to anybody who’s read his entertaining book of memoirs, A Drink with Shane McGowan.
Incidentally, in the same issue of the Guardian, I see there’s an article about this Christmas’s appeal by music fans (proper music fans) to the Ancient Rock Gods to deliver them from Simon-Cowell-orchestrated / X-Factor-winner / Christmas-number-one evil. This time they have launched a campaign to get Highway to Hell by the venerable Australian heavy-metal outfit AC/DC to the top of the Christmas charts, thus thwarting the single released by this year’s X-Factor victor, Sam Bailey.
There… I’ve just written her name and already I’ve forgotten what it is. Can anybody out there remember the names of anyone who’s won The X-Factor in previous years and gone on to enjoy a musical career of mayfly-like longevity? Maybe apart from, you know, what’s-her-name? Lennox Lewis. Or Jerry Lewis. Or whatever.
I always thought it said volumes about the cultural differences between Australia and Britain that in Australia Highway to Hell is the song that is most requested by people to be played at their funerals. Whereas in Britain the number-one funeral song is the vomit-inducing Angels by Robbie Williams.
The AC/DC campaign, of course, is inspired by the success in Christmas 2009 of a similar campaign to frustrate the Christmas-single ambitions of the then-latest wimp-bot to roll off the Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke. This involved getting Rage Against The Machine’s Killing in the Name of to the number-one slot instead. (How gratifying it must have been for the nation’s parents on the morning of December 25th, 2009, to discover their young offspring jumping up and down on their beds and shouting out a new Christmas anthem: “F**k you, I won’t do what you tell me!”)
However, for me, the Christmas musical moment that rekindled my faith in humanity actually came long before Simon Cowell, The X-Factor and Internet campaigns. In Christmas 1990, Cliff Richard released Saviour’s Day – following the success of Mistletoe and Wine in 1988, Cliff had obviously decided that his best bet for a pension plan was to corner the ‘old grannies’ market by releasing a heart-warming Christmas single every couple of years. But after one week, Cliff was knocked off the number-one position by Iron Maiden singing Bring your Daughter to the Slaughter, a song that Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson had originally written for the fifth Nightmare on Elm Street movie. This was despite the BBC refusing to play the song on Radio One and giving it almost zero coverage on Top of the Pops.
At the time, this unexpected yuletide turn-of-events prompted the As We See It editorial column in Scotland’s old-granny-loving newspaper the Sunday Post to lament that we were living in a sad, sick world. Nonsense. In my book, any world where Iron Maiden can usurp Cliff Richard from the Christmas number-one slot is a wonderful world indeed.