The Story Behind “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl
“Fairytale of New York” is a drunken hymn for people with shattered dreams and abandoned hopes. So it’s a perfect contrast to some of the cheerful perennial favorites that we release every Christmas.
The song begins with its narrator, an Irish immigrant, thrown into a drunken tank to sleep after his Christmas Eve binge.
Hearing an old man sing the Irish ballad “The Rare Old Mountain Dew”, he begins to dream of his memories of the female character in the song, and so begins the story of two people who fell in love in America, only to see their plans for a bright future shattered.
Some of the best songs combine uplifting instrumentation with downright miserable lyrics, and this is the case with “Fairytale of New York”. It has nothing of the gooey “All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey or “Last Christmas” by Wham !.
Shane MacGowan’s bitter and offensive delivery of these opening vocals is played over fictionalized piano chords. Then to those wonderful playful strings and mandolin from Terry Woods.
MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl really step into their roles, and their call-and-answer lyrics are brilliant, filled with nerve. He calls her a bitch and a junkie, she calls him a punk and a maggot … and there’s an underlying, albeit dark, humor to it all. As he closes the chorus each time, you can imagine the two characters reeling around town, yelling at each other.
In 2007, Radio 1 deleted the words’ bitch ‘and’ queer ‘from the song, backing down when the move was criticized by audiences and MacColl’s mother, who said the censorship of the words was’ too ridiculous. “. However, in recent years more and more radio stations have chosen to broadcast a censored version, mainly due to the homophobic context of the word “queer”.
There are differing views on how “Fairytale of New York” came to be. MacGowan, who was born on Christmas Day in 1957, claimed Elvis Costello had bet 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 band’s 1977 song “Christmas Must be Tonight”.
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“It was a horrible song,” Fearnley writes in his memoir. Here is everyone: The history of the Pogues. “We probably said. ‘F ** k that, we’ll do ours.’ ”
It took over two years to perfect and was recorded, oddly enough, in the sweltering heat of July 1987, at RAK Studios near Regent’s Park in London. The initial plan to record with O’Riordan fell through when she married Costello and left the band. Costello was replaced by Steve Lillywhite, who brought in his wife (MacColl) to record the test vocals so they could see how the duo would perform. However, they were so stunned by her performance that they had to keep her.
The title was chosen after writing and recording the song, taken from the title of Irish American author JP Donleavy’s novel. A New York fairy tale. The main character of the book, Cornelius Christian, refers to New York as “the city which is too rich to laugh, too lonely and too ruthless to love and where happiness is a big cat with a mouse on a square mile of 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 “humbled”, especially when he had to wear MacGowan’s rings for the close-ups of his hands.
A young Matt Dillon stars as the cop who has to stop MacGowan – he was already a huge fan of The Pogues and would have been so nervous about manhandling him in the scene that MacGowan slammed: “Just kick the s ** t out of me and throw me in the cell and then we can be warm!
The song provided a launching pad for the mainstream success of The Pogues and MacColl, the latter with the ambition of becoming a pop star but was crippled by severe stage fright. The song never reached the top Christmas spot in the UK, but remains one of the most popular holiday songs of all time.
This article was originally published in 2017