Christmas tunes seem to blast from the speakers of our local supermarkets earlier and earlier each year, in much the same way as no sooner has that New Year hangover worn off, that the shelves are being stocked with Easter treats. While many Christmas songs just subliminally loiter in the periphery of your mind, there is one tune that resonates with all of us, year upon year.
It is, of course, the drunken duet Fairytale of New York which has an enduring place in our hearts. Celebrating 30 years since its release, it’s astonishing to think everyone’s favourite festive ditty never actually reached Number 1 in the British charts.
Here at The MALESTROM, we decided to take a look at how the song was conceived and some of the lesser known facts surrounding it. So put your shattered dreams and broken promises to one side and let’s dive into the Fairytale of New York.
The story behind this classic anti-Christmas sing-a-long is laden with myth and intrigue, the root of which is how a wild folk punk band managed to become synonymous with Christmas.
The Pogues were formed in the seedy underbelly that was Kings Cross in early 80s London. Scratching around in bedsits Shane MacGowan had formerly been in a band called The Nips before working with other soon-to-be Pogues members Peter “Spider” Stacy and Jem Finer, in Stacy’s group, The Millwall Chainsaws, in the late 70s.
They formed The Pogues originally under the name Pogue Mahone or póg mo thóin, the Gaelic term which translates appropriately as ‘kiss my arse’.
Having followed the well-trodden path of performing on the London pub and club scene, it was an appearance on Channel 4’s hit music show The Tube that brought these punk folksters to the attention of a wider audience.
With the legendary musical maestro Elvis Costello at the helm as producer the band went on to garner commercial and critical success, however of course it is the epic ode to faltering relationships, the pressures of Christmas and how in a drunken stupor a down on their luck couple reflect not on the future but the past and what they haven’t achieved, that truly made their name.
In a remarkable twist of fate, it would appear MacGowan was destined to pen his most noteworthy masterpiece, given that he was born on Christmas Day in 1957, and will celebrate his 60th year this time around. As with all great pieces of work, it is in the origins where intrigue and dispute reign supreme.
According to then manager Frank Murray, it was indeed his suggestion that the band should attempt a Christmas song. However, Shane MacGowan recollects a rather different turn of events having insisted throughout the years he had struck a bet with Elvis Costello who had suggested that he couldn’t write a Christmas hit.
Presumably wagered over a night of heavy drinking. At this time it was Elvis Costello’s future wife and Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan, who was earmarked to duet with MacGowan.
In fact, it’s her voice you can hear on this very early version of the song, which in parts is unrecognisable to the tune we now know.
Cait would leave the band along with her now husband and producer Elvis Costello and the song seemed even further from completion.
The title came about as co-writer Jem Finer was reading JP Donleavy’s novel A Fairytale of New York, although interestingly both MacGowan and Finer had never been to New York, and had only grand perceptions that flooded their creative juices.
Finer has stated that initially having composed the melody, he was working on a concept about a fisherman who was missing his wife whilst at sea during the festive season, however, apparently, his wife (Marcia Farquhar) felt it lacked depth and suggested a new route, that of a couple falling on difficult times. He stuck with the composition and handed the reigns to MacGowan.
Shane MacGowan set about working on the lyrics, a challenge that would see the song take two years to reach completion, and something that caused him huge frustration.
He eventually finished the song in Scandinavia, having been bedridden with a bout of pneumonia, citing the delirium he experienced as aiding the creative process. He developed the idea of a couple of Irish immigrants whose glory days are behind them.
Speaking about writing the song with Melody Maker in 1985, MacGowan said,
“I sat down, opened the sherry, got the peanuts out and pretended it was Christmas. It’s even called ‘A Fairy Tale of New York’, it’s quite sloppy, more like ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ than ‘Sally MacLennane’, but there’s also a céilidh bit in the middle which you can definitely dance to. Like a country and Irish ballad, but one you can do a brisk waltz to, especially when you’ve got about three of these [drinks] inside you… But the song itself is quite depressing in the end, it’s about these old Irish-American Broadway stars who are sitting round at Christmas talking about whether things are going okay.”
With producer Steve Lillywhite taking the helm the song could finally come together, not least because Steve was married to Kirsty McColl and the rest, as they say, is history.
Did you know?
- Matt Dillon features as the police officer arresting MacGowan in the video, which was actually filmed in a working New York Police Station.
- Kirsty McColl never actually recorded the lyrics in the studio with MacGowan, they were recorded separately by Steve Lillywhite at their home studio.
- There is no NYPD choir as mentioned in the song’s chorus, it was actually the police department’s Irish pipe band.
- The song has been in the Top 20 every Christmas since 2005.
- Although it never made Number 1 in Britain, it did so in the Irish charts.
- It was the Pet Shop Boys who actually kept it off top spot with their hit Always On My Mind.
So there you have all the facts and the folklore around this peerless Christmas classic, now pour yourself a large Irish whisky, click play on the video below and delight in the timeless lament that is Fairytale of New York…
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