Shane MacGowan and The Greatest Christmas Song Ever?

“I truly believe that a hundred years from now most of us will be forgotten. But I do believe that Shane’s music is going to be remembered and sung,” Bruce Springsteen said in 2020 about the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan.  Shane’s croaky voice and his lyrics layered over traditional Celtic music never won over the masses. The Pogues’ top-selling album, The Best of the Pogues, only moved 375,000 units.

Yet with his signature growl and distressing paucity of teeth, MacGowan, who passed in November of 2023, was a truly unique character. How did he get that way? Maybe it was the two bottles of Guinness he got from his uncle each day — starting when he was five. Maybe it was being appointed “Minister of Torture” during his school days. Or perhaps his time undergoing psychiatric care and electroshock therapy shaped his worldview.

In the thick of London’s punk movement, Shane gained notoriety when he and his blood-soaked ear landed in the pages of New Musical Express with a caption under a photograph reading “Cannibalism at Clash Gig.” Shane insisted the bloody ear was caused by a broken bottle and not by well-placed bites. Shane then started a group called Pogue Mahone, an English version of a Gaelic phrase that means “kiss my arse.”  When BBC Radio informed them that the name would be a commercial kiss of death, Pogue Mahone became the Pogues.  But after five albums, Shane had had his fill of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Groupies never excited him: “I never bothered with the ones you had to talk to. Whoever had the energy to capture me and drag me back to the hotel got the lollipop.”

While on tour in Tokyo in 1991, he ate 100 tabs of acid and a Beach Boys record. His fellow Pogues fired him. Shane then started his own group and continued drinking, rationalizing: “Having to stay off drink for a week nearly killed me, so which is worse? The reason I keep drinking is that I hate hangovers.”

But his drinking and drugs took a toll. Sinead O’Connor called the cops on him because he was shooting heroin in her home. He broke his pelvis in 2015 and was in and out of hospitals for a myriad of medical issues, including a broken knee, which permanently landed him in a wheelchair.  His wife, Victoria, noted: “When I met him [she was 16, he was 25], he was very much a hell-raiser, who would drink everything that was in front of him, take any drug you could think of and always step out in front of cars.”  Even Shane was surprised by his longevity, stating in the early 2000s: “I was given six weeks to live, about 25 years ago! I’ve been lucky. I’ve been beaten up a lot. I’ve had a lot of illnesses and accidents. I’ve been run over three times.”

Amidst the drama, chaos, and headlines, MacGowan created an offbeat Christmas song that remains a kind of classic, “Fairy Tale of New York.” Elvis Costello, who was producing the Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy and the Lash album, bet Shane that he couldn’t write a catchy Christmas song. Shane recalled, “It was a sportsman’s bet because he was too tight to put money on it.”

Elvis’ handshake bet ultimately brought Shane handfuls of cash with the song raking in an estimated £386,000 (about $488K US) a year in royalties.

In the video, Matt Dillon plays a cop who tosses MacGowan in the drunk tank. Matt was nervous about manhandling Shane, causing MacGowan to snap: “Just kick the s**t out of me and throw me in the cell!”

In 2012, Shane said of “Fairytale,” “It’s pretty good. I hardly ever sing it unless it’s a request from someone I really like because Kirsty [co-singer MacColl] is gone.”

Today, millions sing and/or view this bleak masterpiece (91 million YouTube views and counting).  Shane was not impressed: “’Fairytale’ is a fine record but the Christmas song I like best is by Nat King Cole. Ours is good but his is better.”

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Shane MacGowan (2008; Marcus Lynam via Wikimedia Commons)

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Mark Daponte is a copy/blog writer for an advertising company and has published/sold four short stories, three full length screenplays, nine short screenplays (including two animation scripts) and punches up screenplays—because they don’t punch back. He has had six short comedic plays performed by various theater companies, including one in Los Angeles, (Sacred Fools) and Sacramento, CA (Sacramento Actors Theater Company). When he isn’t sinking down to a thirteen-year-old’s level to make his teenaged sons laugh, he can be found seeking signs of intelligent life in his hometown of Brooklyn, NY.

2 comments on “Shane MacGowan and The Greatest Christmas Song Ever?

  1. Dennis Lake

    Check out the great Shane doc If I Should Fall From Grace. Out of print and circulation but some DVD copies available on Amazon. Takes a pretty good dive into this incredible song as I recall.

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