Years ago I was in Woolworths (remember Woolworths?) looking for… something? It might have been 2001 and I was looking for Ladybird branded baby clothes because my daughter, Lily had been born that year. Anyway, I had a disturbing experience> I felt something viscerally familiar and yet… wrong. Woolworths of course sold records and CDs, and piped music around the store. I heard a familiar tune. One that I knew I was meant to like, to enjoy even, but somehow, I just … couldn’t. And then they sang “You’re cheap and you’re haggard” and my brain snapped. An inner fury swelled up in me.
You are turning my music into Muzak you bastards!
Then, I didn’t now who it was. I didn’t want to know. But I later found out it was a cover by boyband alum, Roan Keating and collaborator Moya Brennan.
Keating puts on a wavering warble for this rendition. The Pogues-like piano is accompanies by a full string orchestra, because … I guess because its Christmas. There are some Irish touches, a penny whistle or two, but its not … its not great. Its not so bad that I can enjoy it for its mediocrity, except when they start singing “na na na nah na nah.” Its good enough to be really, really really annoying! Close enough to the original to hook me, and yet so distant that it makes me want to vomit.
I hate it.
One of the reasons I hated it at the time was that altered lyric: swapping out “you cheap lousy faggot” for “you’re cheap and you’re haggard.” What does that even mean? It replaces an invective spat through clenched teeth for an expression of concern that the other party looks a bit under the weather. At the time I was ready to blame Keating and his producers for bowdlerising the poetry, but I latter found out the change was made by Kirsty McColl in the studio at the BBC just before performing live (?!) on Top of the Pops. So the “you’re cheap and you’re haggard” version is in fact older than I imagined.
Since then the lyrics have become contentious. The song has been banned, then un-banned in previous years. And this year, the BBC last month announced that Kirsty will sing “you’re cheap and your haggard” on BBC Radio 1, “you cheap lousy faggot” on Radio 2, and both or rather either on Radio 6, where the music is curated by individual presenters.
So Keating and Brennan were ahead of the curve.
Is it offensive? Of course it is. The Guardian recently asked LBGTQ+ listeners to explain how the word makes them feel. In that article Luke Turner says “This is a song suited to being bellowed out by absolutely hammered people at their seasonal dos, a last collective singalong for the office party before everyone disperses to be sick into a McDonald’s bag on the commute home. I’ve heard it happen, and as a bisexual man, a load of straight people suddenly singing “cheap lousy faggot” has made me feel uncomfortable.”
I am not going to argue for the “original” version, given that the Pogues and McColl themselves created the alternative lyrics. But I do wish the alternative had been slightly better. There is indeed a version with a better alternative which I will present later in the month.
I note that the annual furore over the lyrics now also includes another line. The BBC will censor “You’re an old slut on junk” on Radio 1. A line which, I note, the Keating version retains.