It’s a bit late in the day, but I can’t talk about The Pogues without at least mentioning the recent brouhaha over the re-release of their classic seasonal hit Fairytale of New York (AKA The Greatest Goddamn Christmas Song Ever).
In case you missed it, BBC Radio 1 hit the headlines exactly a week before Christmas Day when they announced that they would censor the song for broadcast. The offending lyrics were embedded in the song’s penultimate verse, in which Shane MacGowan memorably exchanged a barrage of earthy insults with the late Kirsty MacColl:
You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last
Radio 1 announced they would dub out the words “faggot” and “slut” and told the BBC News website: “We are playing an edited version because some members of the audience might find it offensive.” According to BBC News, a Radio 1 spokeswoman said the station’s management met on 18th December, discussed the issue and ‘”had made their decision’ and would not be backing down.”
Later that day – and with almost textbook comic timing – the BBC News website announced: “Radio 1 backs down in Pogues row.”
It made me laugh; things like that always do. But it didn’t make everybody laugh. Veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell said: “The word ‘faggot’ is being sung as an insult, alongside ‘scumbag’ and ‘maggot’. In this abusive context it is unacceptable.” There was even a lively debate on the rehabilitation of the term “slut” BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. The Pogues, of course, got their name from a quaint Irish expression. Someone should explain to these people what “pogue mahone” means.
The news media seems to have overlooked the fact that a variation of this non-story has happened before. Some years ago former Boyzone frontman (frontboy?) Ronan Keating recorded a cover of the song and changed one of the offending lines to “you scumbag, you maggot you’re cheap and you’re haggard.” I saw him in an interview on a Pogues documentary last year and he claimed that he was pressurised into doing this and – apparently – still feels bad about it. Now, I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone that I’m not exactly a fan of Ronan Keating and his oeuvre, but when the former front man of a boy band – a class of performer not renowned for their fierce artistic integrity – expresses guilt over an act of cultural vandalism you know it must be pretty serious.
I don’t have the time or the inclination to write a lengthy essay on Neo Puritanism so I won’t. Let’s just say that it seems to me that if we were to delete from every song, movie or book every word, phrase or pejorative term that somebody somewhere finds deeply offensive we’d live in a world with a lot of dead air. The only safe option for artists would be instrumental-only tracks, silent movies and Bowdlerisation. I don’t think I want to live in that world. I’d probably get a rash.
There’s plenty of things in this world I find deeply offensive and the list seems to grow every day. Most of what I hear on Radio 1 nowadays offends my sensibilities, but that’s just me being an old fart and having an atavistic hatred for bland, production-line pop and charisma-free DJs. Peter Tatchell often offends my sensibilities, not because of his gay rights activism – I’ve no problem with that – but because I get the impression he’s a pinch-faced, self-righteous, humourless churl. I am rather fond of Woman’s Hour, however, but that’s because I’m an unrepentant Radio 4 junkie.
But while there are plenty of things that offend me, I wouldn’t want them to be censored. On a more personal note, as an Irishman I don’t much care for the term “mick”. I’m sure Shane MacGowan doesn’t like it, either. It’s a racial slur, and I don’t like racial slurs. But I don’t let the use of it in one of my favourite films – Withnail & I – interfere with my enjoyment of the film. And I certainly wouldn’t want it to be dubbed out or exchanged for something more benign. That would be dumb as rocks.
A spokesman for The Pogues said that the band “found it amusing” that Fairytale of New York “should suddenly have been deemed offensive.” I find it all a bit amusing, too. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether which other twenty year-old songs would upset the Neo Puritans.
Would Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ be condemned for encouraging binge eating?