For many, it is indisputably the greatest Christmas song ever, and to hear it for the first time each year immediately brings on that anticipatory festive tingle. It is not about sleigh rides, or snowmen, or stockings or Santa. There are no chestnuts roasting, no candy canes, no rocking around any tree. There are no kisses under the mistletoe, no gifts, no dreams – only lost ones. It is the saddest, most desolate and miserable duet. Yet for millions, it is THE Christmas song.
Of course the song in question is Fairytale of New York by The Pogues featuring Kirsty McColl which is now 26 years old. Last year for its 25th birthday it was re-released, but it didn’t have to be. It has been in the Top 20 every year since 2005 and you are not going to get through Christmas without hearing it again – and again. It’s a song about an argument, and maybe some may argue that it truly represents Christmas. How so? It is curiously anti-Christmas. Christmas in the lyrics is not a magical solution, a miracle, it is more of a problem. Yet, somehow, it captures all the essences of homesickness, ribald jollity and hope that other Christmas classics hint at, but fail to completely deliver.
With its wild mood swings from euphoric to broken-hearted, elated to enraged, the four minutes of this song somehow combine all that is best and worst about every Christmas for everyone. The narrator is in the drunk tank on Christmas Eve but he is still optimistic, he can still envisage a “better time/When all our dreams come true.” It whirls off into giddy expectation, but then plummets into bickering. How familiar a scenario is that? “Happy Christmas your arse I pray God it’s our last.” Yet, hauntingly, it ends with love and hope. Since the tragic death of Kirsty McColl in 2000 that melancholy promise “Can’t make it all alone/I’ve built my dreams around you” seems ever more beautiful.
Written in London in the 1980’s it is predicated on a fantasy, indeed, a “fairytale” of what New York might have been in the 1940s. It was not born easily. It took two years to craft it, and once it was born, it grew into something far bigger than the musicians could have imagined. As the accordion player James Fearnley said “It’s like Fairytale of New York went off and inhabited its own planet.”
Characteristically, the band were unimpressed when their manager Frank Murray suggested they cover another Christmas song, and said “F**k that, we can do our own.” Lead singer Shane McGowan always claims he was bet by Elvis Costello that he couldn’t write a duet to sing with Cait O’Riordan, later Costello’s wife. Whatever the seed was, the idea for a Christmas song was planted and they decided to go ahead. It seemed a good omen that McGowan was born on Christmas day (in 1957).
“Pogue Mahone” means “Kiss my arse” in Gaelic, and the band had a strong Irish influence, although most of them were not in fact Irish. However they loved the Irish traditions of folk song, ballads and historical storytelling. Jem Finer, the banjo-player and co-writer says that they were rooted in every tradition except the present and the concept was a “no-brainer.”
The storyline then apparently came from Finer’s wife, Marcia Farquhar,who came up with the idea of a couple who were down on their luck. Finer then worked on the uptempo sections while McGowan concentrated on the chorus and the slow verses. McGowman had never been to New York, but he had watched Once Upon a Time in America, numerous times.
When they came into the studio in 1986 to record the first demo version, it was a flop. At that stage, it began in Ireland. McGowan admits he took a long time to nail the lyrics. He has said it is the most complicated song he has ever had to write and perform and is proud that it now sounds so deceptively simple.
Another thing that was missing was a title. Elvis Costello suggested Christmas Day in the Drunk Tank but no-one thought that sounded like a hit. It so happened that Finer was reading a JP Donleavy novel, A Fairy Tale of New York. The author later gave his blessing to the use of his title but has said that although he loves the song, he soon realised it didn’t have anything to do with his book. They may have found their title but the song was still not ready.It was still far off from being the greatest Christmas song of all time.
Roll on another year to 1987 and the Pogues had finally been to New York which was “a hundred times more exciting in real life than we ever dreamed it could be!.” They decided to try again with “Fairytale.” U2 producer Steve Lillywhite came on board and solved one problem straight away by suggesting they record the different sections separately, and then edit.
It was finally coming together, with one glitch. Cait O’Riordan had left and they didn’t have a female vocalist. Lillywhite was married to Kirsty McColl but was unsure of putting her forward as she suffered so badly from stage fright. He needn’t have worried. McGowan loved her and she made the song her own.
The video was filmed in Thanksgiving week in appropriately twinkly and chilly weather. Matt Dillon famously plays the part of the NYPD officer. Ironically, and contrary to the lyrics, the NYPD do not have a choir, so they had to use a pipe band. The pipe band had never heard of Galway Bay so in fact are mouthing the words to the Mickey Mouse Club anthem.
Although it has never got to Christmas Number 1, this is part of the song’s relevance. As Lillywhite has said “It’s for the underdog.” That is part of the allure of the song and its charisma. McGowan’s line “I could have been someone” and McColl’s reply “Well so could anyone” strikes chords of recognition across all peoples. But it is not just about defeat. She says, “You took my dreams from me” and he retaliates with something oddly profound, “I kept them with me babe/I put them with my own.’ This extraordinary twist, from a descent into despair, then lifts the lament away from dwelling on better days, to a promise, albeit faint, of possible reconciliation. As McGowan attests, the “ending is completely open.” It is neither happy nor sad, but it has potential.
Funnily enough, the band have followed the same trajectory. They split up in 1991 and reunited in 2001. They too went from all the high hopes of youth to bitter fallings out and dispute and back again to truce.
It is all these elements that combine in this exceptional song to make it more than just a Christmas jingle or a seasonal sedative. It is so much more than the sum of its parts. It is probably the greatest Christmas song of all time.
Listen, and rejoice.
By Kate Henderson