It’s arguably (undeniably) the best Christmas song of all time.
‘Fairytale of New York’ is a drunken hymn for those with broken dreams and abandoned hopes, that begins with its narrator, an Irish immigrant, being thrown into a drunk tank to sleep off his Christmas Eve binge.
Hearing an old man sing the Irish ballad ‘The Rare Old Mountain Dew’, he begins to dream about 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 of a bright future dashed into a muddy puddle on the sidewalk.
Some of the best songs combine uplifting instrumentation that contrasts with lyrics that can be downright miserable, and such is the case for ‘Fairytale of New York’. It has none of the sickly-sweet sentimentality of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ or Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’.
Shane MacGowan’s slurring, bitter delivery of those opening vocals is played out over romanticised piano chords. Then to those wonderful, jaunty strings, with Terry Woods’ mandolin part giving the song an additional Irish brogue.
MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl’s call and response lyrics are brilliant, filled with sass – he calls her a slut and a junkie, she calls him a punk and a maggot – and there’s an underlying, albeit dark humour to the song thanks to the lyric “and the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day”. As it closes the chorus each time, you can picture the two characters staggering around the city, completely removed of traditional Christmas spirit (but certainly soused with a different kind).
In 2007 Radio 1 actually banned the words “slut” and “faggot” from the song in a bid to “avoid offence”, backtracking when the move received criticism from the public and MacColl’s mother, who said censoring the words was “too ridiculous”.
There are differing views on how ‘Fairytale of New York’ came to be. MacGowan, who was born on Christmas Day in 1957, claims that Elvis Costello bet him that he wouldn’t be able to write a Christmas duet to sing with bass player Cait O’Riordan (Costello’s future wife).
Accordion player James Fearnley claims that their manager Frank Murray suggested they cover the Band’s 1977 song ‘Christmas Must be Tonight’.
“It was an awful song,” Fearnley writes in his memoir Here Comes Everybody: The Story of The Pogues. “We probably said ‘F**k that, we’ll do our own.”
It took more than two years to perfect, and was recorded, oddly, in the sweltering heat of July 1987, at RAK Studios near Regent’s Park in London. The original plan to record with O’Riordan fell through when she married Costello and left the band. Costello was replaced with Steve Lillywhite, who brought in his wife (MacColl) to record the test vocals so they could see how the duet would work. They were so astounded by her performance, however, that they had to keep it.
The title was chosen after the song had been written and recorded, lifted from the title of Irish American author J. P. Donleavy’s novel A Fairy Tale of New York. The book’s main character, Cornelius Christian, refers to New York as “the city that is too rich to laugh at and 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 part of the song as the music itself; Kirsty MacColl leaning nonchalantly over the piano and telling Shane MacGowan how useless he is. It was decided that he would sit there instead of Fearnley, who said that he was “humiliated”, particularly when he had to wear MacGowan’s rings for the close-up shots of his hands.
Matt Dillon stars as the cop who has to arrest MacGowan – he was already a big fan of The Pogues and reportedly so nervous about manhandling him in the scene that MacGowan snapped: “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 both The Pogues and MacColl, the latter of whom had ambitions of being a pop star but was crippled by severe stage fright, despite the song never making it to the Christmas number one spot in the UK.
‘Fairytale of New York’ is estimated to have sold more than 1.18 million copies. In 2013 the OCC reported that it earns those involved around £386,000 a year, while the Mail claimed in 2015 that this figure is now at £400,000.
It consistently makes the number one spot in polls on Britain’s favourite Christmas song. And as it celebrates its 30th anniversary, that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.