Fairytale of New York

Shane MacGowan celebrated his 53rd birthday yesterday and I’m sure that the celebrations are still in full swing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he sang a song or two and perhaps even my favourite Christmas song got an airing. My sister and I have been fans of MacGowan and The Pogues for over twenty years and I still remember the first time we heard Fairytale of New York. It was late November in 1987 and we had both been surprised to hear that the lead single from their third album would be a Christmas song. We thought that only acts like Wham! and Shakin’ Stevens released Christmas songs and couldn’t imagine The Pogues doing one. Nevertheless, Irish DJ Dave Fanning had announced that he would be giving the song its first spin on his radio show and we tuned in to listen to it. The song began with just a piano and MacGowan’s distinctive voice. The use of the piano wasn’t all that unusual as that instrument had been to the fore a year earlier on Rainy Night in Soho. As we listened, the words sounded like some of MacGowan’s best material and were as far from traditional Christmas fare as you could imagine. After a couple of verses, the rest of the group came in, the tempo increased and the familiar vocals of Kirsty MacColl proved a perfect counterpoint to Shane’s growl. The song turned into a symphony and it even sounded like there were strings on it! By the time the song reached the chorus, it was apparent that this had the makings of a fine song. Then the tone of the song completely changed and Shane and Kirsty started a slagging match as they traded insults with each other. The rather mild uses of “bum”, “punk” and “old slut on junk” gave way to a sentiment that I hadn’t heard in a Christmas song up to that point. Kirsty sings:

You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

This was certainly a unique use of language for a Christmas song, but it wasn’t completely out of place for The Pogues. We’d been used to a lot worse in some of the songs on the first two albums, though not in those chosen as singles. The above verse gave way to a final, sentimental one before the chorus returned to give some hope. This sense of hope was also present in the song’s final minute as the strings and drums combined to create an uplifting finale. The song was accompanied by a fine video that was frequently aired over the following weeks and it became that year’s Christmas number one in Ireland. It nearly matched this feat in England, but was kept off the top by a pretty cold version of an Elvis song by The Pet Shop Boys. Fairytale of New York has proven to have had more longevity, however, as it has made it into the English charts on a further seven occasions. It made it back into the top ten three times between 2005 and 2007 and this year represents the sixth year in succession that the song has finished in the top twenty

Fairytale of New York began life in 1985 when the band’s manager suggested that the group should record a Christmas single in an effort to get into the singles charts. Frank Murray thought they should do a cover, but MacGowan and Jem Finer tried to write their own. Finer was the group’s banjo player and had often added music to MacGowan’s lyrics on the first two albums. He came up with the idea for doing a duet between a couple down on their luck. Then MacGowan took Finer’s song and added a bit of magic to it. At first, bassist Cait O’Riordan sang the female part and she can be heard on a couple of early demos, but she left the band in 1986 when she married Elvis Costello. Meanwhile, the band had started touring the States and MacGowan and tin whistle player Spider Stacey had been absorbing the Sergio Leone film, Once Upon a Time in America. The duo had started watching the film over and over in an attempt to learn its lines. As a result, Ennio Morricone‘s wonderful score for the film became a huge influence on the strings that give the song its cinematic sweep. The song still didn’t have a title, but it was decided that it would be set in New York. The Irish immigrant experience in London had been a common theme in their first two albums, but they decided to go further afield for the third one

Finer and MacGowan kept working on the song and MacGowan turned a bout of pneumonia to his advantage in Scandinavia. Possibly not for the first or last time in his life, he became delirious and used this bout of delirium to finish the song’s lyrics. More fortune arrived in the shape of the producer of the new album. Steve Lillywhite had been more used to producing stadium rockers U2 and Simple Minds, so producing The Pogues was a challenge for him. The band were still without a female vocalist for Fairytale, so Lillywhite took a demo of the song home to his wife to provide a guide vocal. She happened to be none other than Kirsty MacColl, who’d had a few minor hits in the UK by then. She was also the daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl, whose Dirty Old Town had been recorded by The Pogues on Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. When Lillywhite played them back the song with Kirsty’s vocals they knew they didn’t have to look any further. The final result was a song full of nostalgia and sentiment that drew on romantic notions of what it meant to be Irish in America. However, the dreams and hopes of the two immigrants in the song are balanced by the use of simple and realistic language to create a Christmas song that has already become a classic. Sadly, this month also sees the tenth anniversary of the death of Kirsty MacColl in a boating accident in Mexico. Over the years, many singers have attempted to do justice to the original version, but it’s unlikely that the wonderful interplay between Shane and Kirsty will ever be matched. Here’s the original version that goes out to all my Irish compatriots all over the world

Fairytale of New York – The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl

The 12 Songs of Christmas Archive

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4 thoughts on “Fairytale of New York

  1. P.S. I read that lil drummer boy cover with those priest fellows wasn’t too good, got any insight?

    • It’s not great, Jenny. Not a patch on the Bing Crosby/David Bowie version. You can check it out here:

  2. Didn’t know he was born on Christmas, poor fella must get cranky about not having double presents for both holidays. heh. Happy Birthday, Shane: I hope you got somethin nice.

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