Thirty-five years after its release, many articles have deemed “Fairytale of New York” the best Christmas song in history. The superlative is supported by polls of doubtful veracity. Christmas has never been about statistics, though, but feelings. And the song, recorded by Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues in 1987, has more than enough of those. It’s not the bubbly pop of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” nor a sappy ballad like Wham’s “Last Christmas,” two of its fellow contenders. It is a sad Christmas song, a genre that goes back to Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” through Prince’s “Another Lonely Christmas” and Coldplay’s “Christmas Lights.” But “Fairytale” goes further. It is raw. It is real. It is a song for adults.
And it is a jewel that begins with 85 seconds of piano, in which Shane MacGowan, the lead singer ofThe Pogues, a group formed in London in 1982 that gave a new air to Irish folk music, sounds like Tom Waits. The video shows the band patiently waiting their moment to join in. Among them stands Jim Finer, the composer, with his banjo. He recounts that it was going to be the song of a sailor who missed his wife, but his own wife thought it was “corny.” “So I said OK, you suggest a storyline and I’ll write another one. The basic plotline came from her: this idea of a couple falling on hard times and coming eventually to some redemption,” he recounted.
That’s what the song became: the story of what we would today call a toxic relationship, between a couple of losers in the streets of New York. Those characters inhabit Shane MacGowan’s songs: vagabonds enjoying a lucky night, alcoholics with a way with words, a punk folk version of the classic Irish romanticization of drunkenness. As the poet Brendan Behan wrote, “I’m a drinker with writing problems.” There’s nothing to be scandalized about: drinking heavily and bar-hopping while singing euphorically is one of the most Christmassy things around. And so is fighting with your partner when the hangover comes and your pockets are empty.
That’s the story the song tells. It seems we are in the 1940s. It begins with MacGowan speaking of the Christmas Eve he spent in the drunk tank. She seems to be an aspiring artist. He has won at the races, and they wander New York in love, fascinated with their surroundings. Then the chorus enters, and no human being can resist their joy.
But then the tone changes. She calls him a bum; he calls her an “old slut on junk.” Furious, she hurls back, “cheap lousy faggot,” adding, “Happy Christmas your arse. I pray God it’s our last.”
That verse, and specifically the word “faggot,” have caused the song to be censored by certain broadcasters. Some play a version in which MacColl, who changed the lyrics in her live performances after 1992, says “haggard.” MacGowan argues that it’s part of the persona: “The word was used by the character because it fitted with the way she would speak and with her character. She is not supposed to be a nice person, or even a wholesome person. She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history and she is down on her luck and desperate.”
“Fairytale” is one of the most covered songs around. Each artist gives that polemical verse their own twist. Billy Bragg and Florence Welch maintain the original lyrics; Ed Sheeran and Lisa Hannigan change the word; Gary Barlow makes a joke to skip it; Jeff Tweedy eliminates the entire portion. The saltiest is Christy Moore, a singer of classic Irish folk, who first replaces the verse with “lololo,” then belts the full, uncensored version. Another trick is to fill in with instrumentals, as in the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.
Two versions of the song’s origin story exist. James Fearnley, the accordionist of The Pogues, writes in his autobiography that the group’s manager proposed that they cover “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” by The Band, but they thought the song was horrible and decided to write their own. Shane MacGowan says it was born because Elvis Costello challenged him to write a Christmas song that he could sing with the bassist of The Pogues, Cait O’Riordan. Costello had become The Pogues’ satellite scene 1985, when, while producing The Pogues’ masterpiece Rum, Sodomy And The Lash, he fell in love with the bassist, who he married in 1986.
The former version is more believable, and not only because Costello has politely denied the latter several times. MacGowan tends to mix truth and fiction, and he doesn’t seem too fond of Costello. He didn’t like the artist’s meddling in the group, and rubbing the bet in his face could be a form of vengeance.
It took two years to finish. MacGowan refers to it as “our Bohemian Rhapsody.” When they began recording it, O’Riordan had already left the group. Chrissie Hynde was going to step in, until producer Steve Lillywhite showed up with a tape in which his partner, Kirsty MacColl, sang the female part. The group loved it. MacColl is majestic.
Redemption comes at the end. The two lovers reunite. It seems that years have passed since the fight. It doesn’t start well: “I could have been someone,” he said. “Well so could anyone,” she answers, before adding, “you took my dreams from me.” He seems to ask for forgiveness in his own way: “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.” Then the chorus returns for one last time. The ending is open-ended but hopeful.
“Fairytale” never reached number one in the United Kingdom. It stayed at number two, thanks to the Pet Shop Boys. (“Going to no. 1 in Ireland was what mattered to me,” MacGowan said.) In 1991, The Pogues kicked out Shane MacGowan, sick of his erratic behavior due to alcohol. (“Why did you take so long?” He is said to have replied.) MacColl died in 2000, run over by a speedboat while diving in Mexico. And year after year, the song returns to the lists of most-sold albums in many countries.