The Pogues released “Fairytale of New York,” an Irish-inspired folk ballad, in November 1987. It reached #1 on the Irish Single Charts and #2 on the U.K. Singles Chart. The tune is considered to be the best Christmas song ever by residents of Ireland and the U.K., even though it’s not especially sentimental. The title was inspired by J. P. Donleavy’s 1961 novel, A Fairy Tale of New York.
The song features British singer/songwriter Kirsty MacColl, who was married to Steve Lillywhite, the producer for the Pogues’ If I Should Fall from Grace with God album. Lillywhite asked MacColl to record a guide vocal on the demo of the song; however, the Pogues liked MacColl’s performance so much, they invited her to sing on the final recording.
The song tells the story of an Irish imigrant, Pogues’ lead singer Shane MacGowan, who is thrown into the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) drunk tank on Christmas Eve to sleep off an alcohol-infused binge. MacGowan hears an old man sing “The Rare Old Mountain Dew,” an Irish ballad, and reminisces about MacColl’s character, and the song morphs into a call and response between MacGowan and MacColl. A Sinatra references makes it unclear whether the song is set in the ‘50s or early ‘80s.
Supposedly, the song evolved from a story about a sailor and a distant ocean to the the tale of two lovers who are down on their luck at Christmas.
After being denied the #1 spot the week of Christmas by the Pet Shop Boy’s cover of Elvis Presley’s “Always on My Mind,” MacGowan is rumored to have commented, “We were beaten by two queens and a drum machine.”
After MacColl’s death on December 18, 2000, “Fairytale of New York” has been released in Ireland and the U.K. every Christmas season since 2005. Proceeds have been donated to various homeless charities and Justice for Kirsty, a campaign to investigate MacColl’s death in Mexico. Since songs can now chart without a physical release, “Fairytale of New York” has managed to place in the Top 20 for the past seven years, resulting in it being the 22nd longest runner of all time.
The song generated some controversy in 2007 when BBC Radio 1 decided to edit out the words “slut” and “faggot,” so as not to offend anyone. After receiving criticism from MacColl’s mother and listeners, the unedited version of “Fairytale of New York” returned to the airwaves.
Coincidentally, MacGowan was born on Christmas Day.
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The music video features actor Matt Dillon as a policeman throwing Pogues’ lead singer, Shane MacGowan, in the NYPD’s drunk tank, intercut with footage of the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl performing the song in a studio and MacGowan and MacColl walking the streets of New York City.
Although the lyrics refer to the NYPD choir singing “Galway Bay,” the NYPD does not actually have a choir. Instead, the NYPD Pipes and Drums unit is featured in the music video. Since Pipes and Drum unit did not know “Galway Bay,” the footage of them is slowed down to disguise the fact they were playing a different song.
I can’t remember exactly when I first heard “The Fairytale of New York,” but for the longest time I confused it with the Pogues’ and Kirsty MacColl’s “Miss Otis Regrets/Just One of Those Things” from the Red Hot + Blue compilation. I was quite surprised, however, to learn it was considered to be a Christmas song a few years after its release. Most holidays songs are nostalgic and recall details of happier times, whereas the subject and lyrics of “Fairytale of New York” contain about as much holiday cheer as acid thrown in one’s face. Perhaps that’s why it resonates with listeners, because sometimes life (and the holidays) aren’t all mulled apple cider and a slice of pumpkin pie.
What are your memories of “The Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl?