The story behind The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale of New York

“Fairytale of New York” is a drunken anthem for those with broken dreams and lost hopes. It’s therefore a perfect contrast to some of the bolder perennials we launch every Christmas.

The song begins with its narrator, an Irish immigrant, being thrown into a drunken tank to sleep off his Christmas Eve binge.

Hearing an old man sing the Irish ballad The Rare Old Mountain Dew, he begins to daydream about his memories of the female character in the song, and so begins the story of two people who fell in love with America just for theirs seeing plans for a bright future dashed.

Some of the best songs combine uplifting instrumentation with lyrics that are downright abysmal, and that’s the case with Fairytale of New York. It has none of the stickiness of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” or Wham!’s “Last Christmas”.

Shane MacGowan’s slurred, acrid rendition of this opening chant is played over romanticized piano chords. Then to those beautiful, carefree strings and Terry Woods’ mandolin.

MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl really get into their roles, and their call-and-response lyrics are brilliant and full of sass. He calls her a slut and a junkie, she calls him a punk and a maggot… and it all has an underlying if dark humor. As the chorus ends each time, you can picture the two characters stumbling through town shrieking at each other.

In 2007, Radio 1 removed the words “slut” and “faggot” from the song, backing down after the move drew criticism from the public and from MacColl’s mother, who said the censorship of the words was “too ridiculous”. However, in recent years, more radio stations have chosen to play a censored version, largely due to the homophobic context of the word “fag”.

There are differing views on how Fairytale of New York came about. MacGowan, who was born on Christmas Day 1957, claimed Elvis Costello bet him that he couldn’t write a Christmas duet to sing with bassist Cait O’Riordan (Costello’s future wife).

Accordionist James Fearnley claimed their manager Frank Murray suggested they cover the 1977 song “Christmas Must be Tonight”.

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“It was a terrible song,” Fearnley writes in his memoir Here Comes Everyone: The Story of the Pogues. “We probably said. ‘Fuck it, we’ll make our own.’”

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It took more than two years to perfect and was oddly recorded in the sweltering heat of July 1987 at RAK Studios near Regent’s Park, London. The original plan to record with O’Riordan fell through when she married Costello and left the band. Costello was replaced by Steve Lillywhite, who brought his wife (MacColl) to record test vocals so they could see how the duet would work. However, they were so amazed by their performance that they had to keep them.

The title was chosen after the song was written and recorded, derived from the title of Irish-American author JP Donleavy’s novel A fairy tale from New York. The book’s main character, Cornelius Christian, describes New York as “that city too rich to laugh at and too lonely and ruthless to love, and where fortune is a big cat with a mouse on its back.” a square mile is linoleum”.

The video is as much a part of the song as the music itself; Kirsty MacColl casually leans over the piano and tells Shane MacGowan how useless he is. It was decided that he would sit there in place of Fearnley, who said he was “humiliated”, especially when he had to wear MacGowan’s rings for the close-ups of his hands.

A young Matt Dillon plays the cop who has to arrest MacGowan – he was already a huge fan of The Pogues and was reportedly so nervous about abusing him on the scene that MacGowan snapped, “Just slap the shit out of me and throw me.” into the cell and then we can be warm!”

The song provided a launch pad for the mainstream success of The Pogues and MacColl, the latter of whom had ambitions to become a pop star but was paralyzed by severe stage fright. The song never made number one for Christmas in the UK but remains one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time.

This article was originally published in 2017 The story behind The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale of New York


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