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THE MORNING LEAD

Fairytale of New York: How a lifelong punk wrote the seminal Irish Christmas song

More than three decades on, a campaign is under way to get the song back to the top of the charts.

THE OPENING NOTES of Fairytale of New York have never lacked poignancy, but those famous keystrokes will resonate more deeply than ever this Christmas – the first without the song’s co-composer Shane MacGowan.

Born, serendipitously, on Christmas Day, it seems unlikely that it was ever MacGowan’s intention to be best remembered for the kind of the song that slots between All I Want For Christmas Is You and Do They Know It’s Christmastime on the playlist of every restaurant and retailer each festive season. 

In that sense, Fairytale of New York – originally released in 1987 – is perhaps the purest example of what happens when an artist can’t help their own brilliance.

MacGowan’s Pogues were a trad-infused punk band whose high octane performances set the standard for bands such as Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. That was the case before their seminal seasonal hit, and remained the case up until their final reunion show in 2014. 

How, then, did a man who only years before had been playing in a band called The Nipple Erectors end up writing the definitive Irish Christmas song?

In an an interview from 2015, MacGowan said that he and The Pogues’ banjoist Jem Finer began writing Fairytale of New York after they were dared to write a Christmas duet by Elvis Costello.

The development of the song was chronicled in a 2006 BBC documentary which saw members of the Pogues return to the studio where the track was recorded.

Originally, Finer took charge of the lyrics. Speaking in the documentary, he would deride his first version:

“The words were crap and the whole idea was sentimental Christmas rubbish.”

After working on it for a while, he took it to bandmate MacGowan. 

“We decided to make it about two Irish immigrants on their way out,” MacGowan said. “They’ve had their glory years.”

MacGowan finalised the lyrics while lying in a hospital bed in Malmo, Sweden, recovering from double pneumonia.

The song took two years to gestate into its final iteration, and an early demo – featuring The Pogues’ one-time bassist Cáit O’Riordan singing the female lead – can still be found online.

While the accordion and mandolin instrumentation remains instantly recognisable, the lyrics lack the combative back-and-forth that makes the narrative of the finished track so enthralling. 

SwindonByf / YouTube

It was of course Kirsty McColl, who shared a manager with The Pogues, who would end up gracing the finished article.

The recording band was made up of MacGowan, Finer, drummer Andrew Rankin, bassist Darryl Hunt, mandolinist Terry Woods, pianist James Fearnley, guitarist Phillip Chevron, and tin whistler Spider Stacy. 

Fairytale producer Steve Lillywhite – who, across his long career, has also worked with U2, The Rolling Stones and The Killers – revealed in the BBC documentary that McColl and MacGowan didn’t record their vocals together.

Instead, McColl recorded her vocals while listening to a pre-recorded version of the track, creating the call-and-answer affect of the song that gives it such depth.

“I was very lucky to get them when I got them,” Lillywhite said of the Fairytale recording sessions – referring to the momentum The Pogues had gathered by the late 1980s.

Costello – the man whose bet set off the ensuing phenomenon – suggested that the song be named “Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank”. MacGowan derided that idea as uncreative and “not pretentious enough”.

Eventually MacGowan borrowed the name from the novel The Fairy Tale of New York by JP Donleavy, an author who his father admired.  

MacGowan always said that song was about two Irish immigrants who had tried and failed to make it on Broadway, but it would seem naive to divorce the themes of Fairytale from his own lifelong struggle with addiction. The song makes repeated references to alcohol and heroin, two substances MacGowan struggled with for much of his life.

Lyrically, the song conveys a mood of desperation and destitution that tends to be absent, rather naturally, from the average festive jingle. In that sense, while Fairytale is regarded by many as the definitive Christmas song, it seems painfully reductive to categorise it as  a Christmas song. It is a song about immigration, alcoholism, broken dreams and lost love. It simply takes place at Christmas. 

Perhaps the appeal of Fairytale of New York, then, is that it shatters the illusion of Christmas propagated by many of the other songs on the airwaves at this time of year. Or, maybe it just sounds really good.

Such is the depth of the song, both musically and lyrically, that you can really decide for yourself which are the elements that make it such a classic. 

In 2020, the song was named by music licensing company PPL as the most-played Christmas song of the century, overtaking Last Christmas by Wham.

Kirsty MacColl died tragically in an accident in December 2000. With MacGowan’s death yesterday, the two singers and storytellers who brought Fairytale of New York to life are gone.

The original song was kept off the top spot in the Christmas UK charts by The Pet Shop Boys – although it did take the number one slot in Ireland. 

Already – more than three decades on - a campaign is under way to get it back to the top of the charts.

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