The legendary song by Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues took two years to compose and record, but it was well worth the wait, as 31 years after its release, it remains a Christmas anthem.
The Pogues, described as a “Celtic punk band”, had been founded by singer and songwriter Shane MacGowan in 1982. They rose to prominence when they supported The Clash on their 1984 tour. Signed to Stiff Records, they released their first album, Red Roses for Me, that October. Their follow-up, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, was produced by Elvis Costello in 1985.
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MacColl was a well-known vocalist from Croydon, who had been singing in punk bands since 1978. She won a solo recording deal with Stiff Records in 1979 and moved to Polydor in 1981, enjoying a big hit with There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis.
Christmas song’s origins
The idea for Fairytale of New York (released in 1987) reportedly came from a wager between Costello and MacGowan two years earlier.
The Pogues’ manager, Frank Murray, initially suggested they should do a Christmas song, but he wanted to record a cover version of The Band’s 1977 song, Christmas Must be Tonight. MacGowan hated the song and thought it was an awful idea, believing they could write a better original song themselves.
Costello bet the singer that he couldn’t write a Christmas duet to sing with the Pogues’ bass player Cait O’Riordan. MacGowan accepted the challenge and teamed up with the band’s guitarist and banjo player, Jem Finer, to compose the masterpiece.
It was tougher than it looked. Finer’s first effort was a song about a sailor, who was out at sea at Christmas and missing his wife.
Finer’s own wife, Marcia, said it was “corny”, so they scrapped the idea before it even got off the ground. He told Marcia that she should have a go at writing a Christmas song herself, so she came up with the basic plot. It revolved around a long-time couple living in New York who had fallen on hard times as Christmas approached.
Finer later said it was loosely based on a true story, but the real couple’s identity was never revealed. After Marcia had the original idea, Finer and MacGowan wrote the music and lyrics, with the latter coming up with the title, named after J P Donleavy’s 1973 novel, which he was reading at the time.
The song is a “call and response” duet, with the lyrics written for two people, as if they are having a conversation with each other. This genre of song was common throughout the 20th century, with the lyrics normally written for a male and a female.
Fairytale of New York featured a conversation between the couple as they looked back over the years. MacGowan said in an interview that he wrote the song by pretending it was Christmas, adding he “got the sherry and peanuts out”, ending up with a song that was “quite sloppy” and a cross between a country and an Irish ballad.
He said the couple in question in the song were old Irish-American Broadway stars of the 1940s and ’50s, who were sitting reminiscing about how their life was going and whether everything was okay. It was set in the 1980s, but many of the lyrics went back 30 years earlier to their youth.
The song is deliberately ambiguous, so that at the end, listeners are left wondering whether it is actually happening in real time, or whether the whole thing is being remembered by the inebriated man, who’s had a few too many at Christmas.
MacGowan said the idea was that you didn’t know what was going to happen to them – the ending was left completely open.
The Pogues recorded the song with Cait O’Riordan singing the female part, but they weren’t happy with the results and the idea was shelved for some time. As time went by, the song didn’t come to fruition, and after O’Riordan left the band in October 1986, it looked less likely to be released.
In early 1987, the Pogues started work on a new album, produced by Steve Lillywhite. MacGowan resurrected Fairytale of New York and sang both the male and female parts.
However, they weren’t particularly happy with this, following the recording at Abbey Road Studios. Suggestions for singing the female role included Chrissie Hynde and Suzi Quatro.
At the third recording session, they chatted about the song and decided Lillywhite, who was married to Kirsty MacColl at the time, should ask his wife to try singing the female role. He took the half-finished track home for her to hear, she loved it and rehearsed her role to perfection at home.
Lillywhite recorded her vocals at home and took the track back to the studio. With MacColl’s melodious vocals contrasting sharply with MacGowan’s rasping, deep voice, this made the song perfect. Everyone was finally happy.
The song was completed in the studio, with the two lead vocalists never having met in person at that point! MacGowan later described it as “the most complicated song” he had ever written and performed – yet the beauty of it was that it sounded so simple.
MacGowan later admitted to having been “madly in love” with MacColl since he first saw her on Top of the Pops, describing her as a musical genius. In an interview in 2017, his sister, Siobhan, confirmed he had a soft spot for MacColl, who tragically died in a boating accident in December 2000.
When MacGowan met MacColl and they recorded the video for the song in New York, they had an easy rapport and friends said there was some chemistry. MacColl later went on tour with the Pogues and she and MacGowan remained good friends until her untimely death on holiday in Mexico, at the age of 41.
Fairytale of New York has remained popular ever since it was released at Christmas 1987 – it was kept off the top spot by the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of You Were Always on my Mind.
It was released again in 1991 and again in 2005. The proceeds from the second re-release were donated to a number of charities, including helping homeless people. It remains just as popular today as it was 31 years ago and has made it into the UK top 20 every Christmas since 2005.
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