Christmas is about many things; turkey, family, snow, office parties, Jesus and incessant consumerism to name but a few. The fact that one of Britain’s most loved Christmas songs starts with ‘It was Christmas Eve in the drunk tank’ maybe shows us that the holiday season is about more unsettling things too. ‘Fairytale of New York’ is a song of the unfortunate and the addicts; the struggles of the downtrodden at a part of the year which is usually reserved for wholesome images of joy and serenity. It also has wider themes about emotions that are widely felt among all of us during this period. Emotions such as nostalgia, disappointment, and what could have been are sung with a cracked melancholy that allows us to sing it through drunk teary eyes arm-in-arm at the local Christmas get-together. It truly captures a certain uncomfortable aspect of the seasonal zeitgeist.
To spend Christmas Eve in prison for being drunk would be horrific and indeed this is the frame for the entire song. The rest of the lyrics are snapshots of previous days experienced by the character sung by Shane McGowan and his partner whose performance is wonderfully wrought by Kirsty McColl. Apparently, the producer, none other than Elvis Costello, wanted to name this song ‘Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank’ but the powers-that-be deemed it inappropriate for a ‘hit-in-waiting’. The change of title actually reflects the movement that happens in the song; from harsh reality to a nostalgic daydream, comforting but ultimately not reflecting the reality of an alcoholic who is destroying his own life.
The first verse Is a slow melancholy mood piece (apparently inspired by Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for Once Upon a Time in America, which is random) that reflects the sombre tone of the subject material. A drunk is in the ‘drunk tank’ with an old man who remarks they probably won’t see another Christmas, it sets a bleak outlook. Though even within that despair of pessimism and confinement the old man still has music as he sings an old Irish folk song, as Andy Dufresne says in The Shawshank Redemption: ‘That’s the beauty of music. They can’t take that away from you’. This song takes the grizzly-voiced drunk on a Proustian style nostalgia trip to a time when he knew a woman who, I presume, he used to be in a relationship with. The music then quickens and jollies up and we go a trip and a tour of the gleaming metropolis of New York City.
The mood is very much now celebratory with the full band jauntily playing their violins, accordions and other assorted folk instruments accompanying Kirsty McColl’s almost mythical recounting of a city that has ‘rivers of gold’ and ‘cars big as bars’. It sounds like a young couple in the warm glow of new love moving to a big city and being enchanted by it all. They have ambitions; ‘broadway’ is waiting for them, the world is an open-ended space full of flowering opportunities. The drunks are ‘singing’ and the couple kiss and dance through the night and the bells ring out for Christmas day. All is calm, all is bright, but not for long.
The next verse feels like a fast cut to the end of the relationship which, following the beautiful description of the promise of the beginning, hits us even harder. Christmas, of course, is often a time of tense relationships, of emotions boiling over, of things that have built up for years and years then come out in the white heat of the joyous revelling. Drunken words, repressed sober thoughts, and all that. They curse each other for being junkies and wasters, they take out their own self-destruction on each other, it is an unpleasant passage of words and the fact that people will sing along to this with glee is a bit worrying.
I should probably deal with the problem of the f-word being used as it has long been a topic of controversy. In fact, not long ago, Shane MacGowan released a statement regarding the word which sort of but not really said it was fine to bleep the word. There is a truth to his argument (you can read the statement here) that a depiction of unpleasant people who say unpleasant things is not necessarily an endorsement. It is also true that the word has historical connotations that are different from the homophobic insult – in Irish English it means someone who is lazy or useless (but even then it was mainly directed towards woman, the fact that McColl says it to a man in the song of course complicates this).
Regardless, the connotations it has now in modern culture are completely different, language evolves, acquires new meanings and has tangible emotional impact. Shane MacGowan basically said he didn’t agree with censoring the word but didn’t want to ‘get in an argument’ so he allowed it, which I think is a bit of a pathetic response. Would it have killed him to try and empathise with someone listening to that song and hearing a word that reminds him of a time he was kicked in the teeth at school for being who he was? Is that really too much to ask? Anyway I digress, the answer to these questions is of course no and the song still has the emotional punch without the word – great art is a product of its time and that has to be taken into account, but also that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss the problems with them.
So, there are problems with this part of the song, but the people depicted in the song do challenge us to try and sympathise with unsympathetic people. It also reminds us that these people are products of their own social situations, alcoholics and drug addicts don’t come out of nowhere, they are not that way due to some genetic fault that makes them morally inferior to the rest of us – this we must bear in mind. And their problems are causing the direct destruction of something that appeared so hopeful in the previous verse, now they hope that this Christmas will be their last – just like the old man in the drunk tank.
After the second chorus, there is a slowdown and a melancholy back and forth that sounds like the late-night Christmas Day chat about failed hopes and dreams. ‘I could have been someone’ grunts MacGowan, ‘but so could anyone’ retorts MacColl almost instantaneously. The point being you don’t need to be a Sinatra or for that matter a MacGowan to be ‘someone’, the horrible cult of celebrity has convinced millions of people that their lives are of less value than those who are paraded in front of us like livestock at some sort of livestock convention (I have no idea whether such things exist but you get the idea). And perhaps it is those ‘dreams’ of possibilities of fame and glamour that are exactly the problem, the things that makes us depressed at Christmas, that force us into overdraft, that drag people down into the gutter never to return.
Maybe the fact that he took her dreams from him is a good thing. Maybe bundling our dreams together so that they may be built around others is as beautiful a thing to do as writing a song or entertaining a crowd. It is a beautiful sentiment, but the tragedy of the song is that this is the remembrance of someone in a prison recounting a relationship that has been broken. The evils of substance abuse have run roughshod through their collection of lovingly curated dreams, love dies in the face of misdirected excessive behaviours. At Christmas this is important to bear in mind in all of its grisly truth, and surely there’s nothing more appropriate for the religious origins of the season than a song that is about what Jesus called ‘the least of these’, the sick, the unfortunate, the homeless, the downtrodden and, of course, the marginalised. The bells will ring out for Christmas Day, and it will be accompanied by joyous music but also heartache, pain and regret for many – including the pain of hearing a particular word in this song. Let us not forget them: at its best, music doesn’t allow us to forget our shared humanity.
For more on the f-word controversy, I would encourage you to read the thoughts of people who are actively affected by the historical abuses that are bound up in certain words - https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2018/11/20/fairytale-new-york-straight-faggot/