It’s the most popular Christmas song of all-time – an ode to the dark side of Christmas as much as it is the lights and festive cheer – but do you know the story behind the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York?
In our latest blog post, we take a look at how the song came about, how it was recorded and why it’s become a Christmas anthem, despite its rejection of traditional Christmas sentimentality.
A tale of two songs
Like much of the Pogues’ history, there are conflicting accounts as to why and how Fairytale of New York was written. This will come as no surprise to those who have followed the Pogues and know that the band were often a little worse for wear during recording sessions and that much of its history is lost in the haze of youth.
The first version, as recounted by the Pogues’ accordion player, James Fearnley, is that the band’s manager had asked them to cover The Band’s 1977 Christmas hit, Christmas Must Be Tonight. The group hated both the song and the idea and decided to show that they could do one better and record their own Christmas single.
The second, as told by frontman Shane MacGowan, is that Fairytale was the result of a wager with Elvis Costello. Costello, having produced the Pogues’ 1985 album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, bet MacGowan that the band couldn’t write a decent Christmas duet with his future wife, Cait O’Riordan. MacGowan decided to take the bet and the band began writing and working on their Christmas hit.
While we may never know for sure how the song was born, we do know writing the track wasn’t smooth sailing. In fact, it took more than two years to get the track finished and released.
MacGowan’s craft and an underwhelming Christmas classic
Beginning life as a shanty-esque ditty about a sailor missing his wife at Christmas, Fairytale went through an extended period of development.
Despite never having been to New York, MacGowan drew on his fascination with the city and on cinematic portrayals of the Big Apple, like those in Once Upon a Time in America. Though the lyricist is often portrayed as nothing more than a drunken loudmouth, the reality was that he was devoted to his craft and would slave over phrasings and lines for weeks on end.
In 1986, the band attempted to record the song with O’Riordan. It was evident that it simply wasn’t finished and that it lacked the necessary magic to make it a memorable Christmas hit. The song was once again placed on the back burner. However, a few months later, the Pogues travelled to New York for the first time. Their trip didn’t disappoint and provided the necessary inspiration to get the song finished.
The fairytale becomes a reality
Having returned from the United States, the scorching summer of ‘87 saw them back in the studio to record their next album. With things going well, the band decided to have another go at their Christmas single, which had, by this time, become officially known as Fairytale of New York.
It is often argued that Steve Lillywhite is the individual responsible for making Fairytale a reality. With experience producing U2, Lillywhite was brought in by the Pogues to manage the recording sessions for their new album. Not only did Lillywhite overcome the problems the band had putting the various parts of the song together, but he also found a solution to the difficulties the Pogues had with the female vocals.
Kirsty MacColl provides the vocals
Cait O’Riordan had left the band in 1986 and the Pogues had yet to come up with a suitable replacement. Fortunately, Lillywhite had a suggestion – his wife, Kirsty McColl. Though there were concerns that McColl’s notorious battles with stage fright may prove problematic in the long term, Lillywhite recorded her vocals in his home studio and then played them to the band the following week. MacGowan was so impressed that he insisted on re-recording his own vocals for the song.
With all hurdles overcome, the band went on to film the song’s video in New York, over the Thanksgiving period. It was released in time for the 1987 Christmas charts and reached number one in Ireland but was beaten to the top spot by the Pet Shop Boys in the English charts.
What makes it one of the all-time classics?
When you take a closer look at Fairytale’s lyrics, it doesn’t necessarily seem like a guaranteed Christmas hit. In fact, a song that revolves around an intoxicated narrator spending Christmas Eve in a police cell and an argument between abusive romantic partners feels like the opposite of what Christmas songs are typically about.
Which may reveal something about both the song’s success and its longevity.
Fairytale of New York is adored by millions because of the way it rejects the crass sentimentality of Christmas songs and instead celebrates reality. It takes a story about two people with serious personality flaws (which they’re more than happy to tell each other about) and wraps it up in a Christmas scene, giving us an emotionally authentic tale set in a mythical New York.
Though it’s been the subject of a fair few controversies, the song remains popular because it feels and sounds more raw and real than the music we’re used to hearing at this time of year.
A final twist
That being said, there is one traditional Christmas trope hidden amongst MacGowan and MacColl’s bickering. The final verse starts with McGowan claiming,
I could have been someone
Well, so could anyone / You took my dreams from me / When I first found you
I kept them with me, babe / I put them with my own / Can’t make it all alone / I’ve built my dreams around you
Despite all the insults and arguments, Fairytale’s final verse gives us a glimpse of redemption – the love that keeps this seemingly disastrous couple together through thick and thin.
And if modern cinema and music have taught us anything, there’s nothing more Christmas-y than true love.
What do you think?
You can check out our collection of Pogues photography prints to find a fairytale photo for your home.