Fairytale of New York: story behind the Pogues' classic Christmas anthem 25 years after its release, a xmas song about hard times is still considered by many to be the greatest Christmas song ever
The Pogues feat Kirsty McColl: Fairytale of New York - music videoIt's for the underdog' Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan of Fairytale of New York. Photo: Tim Roney
Once upon a time a band made a Christmas song of lost youth and ruined dreams. A song where Christmas is a problem. A sort of anti-Christmas song that ended up being the Christmas song.
Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, has just been reissued for its 25th anniversary and has already re-entered the Top 20 every December since showing no sign of losing appeal. It feels emotionally real but it contains elements of both a story it tells and a fantasy of 1940s New York. The story of the song is a yarn itself of how it took more than two years to get it right and how over time it became far bigger than those who made it. James Fearnley Pogues accordion-player says: "It's like Fairytale of New York went off and inhabited its own planet."
Singer Shane MacGowan maintains that Elvis Costello, who produced the Pogues' 1985 masterpiece Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, bet him that he couldn't write a Christmas duet to sing with bass player (and Costello's partner) Cait O'Riordan.MacGowan himself was born on Christmas Day 1957.The Pogues were formed in pubs and bedsits of London's King's Cross in 1982. Their name ("Pogue mahone" means "kiss my arse" in Gaelic).
The basic plotline came from a "secret history" to the story: "a true story of some mutual friends living in New York." MacGowan, contribution comes in the dialogue written by partner Victoria Mary Clarke, declines to elaborate: "Really, the story could apply to any couple who went anywhere and found themselves down on their luck."
MacGowan worked the slower verses and chorus. The singer never saw New York but it was on his mind. When the Pogues toured Europe in 1985, they wore out a video Once Upon a Time in America, an epic tale of Jewish mobsters in interwar New York. (Ennio Morricone's elegiac title theme seeped into Fairytale's opening melody, all good fairytales start with "Once upon a time"?
Fearnley writes: "A stable perception was never reachable as to whether Shane was a genius or a fucking idiot." There is the public image of MacGowan as a wayward alcoholic with a bombsite mouth and a wheezing ghost of a laugh.
The first demo was recorded by Costello at the same time as The cinematic romance of A Rainy Night in Soho, MacGowan's first song to draw on his love of Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. When he brought that song into the studio in early 1986, Fearnley remembers: "He meant business, much more than before. It was awe-inspiring to see him in the rehearsal room with his suit on and an attitude."
But Fairytale of New York and its lyrics stumbled into action beginning in Ireland: "It was a wild Christmas Eve on the West coast of Clare," sings Cait O'Riordan. "I looked 'cross the ocean, asked what's over there?" Finer says, "Shane and I batted arrangements around for ages and we'dperiodically try and record it. Shane's a tireless and meticulous editor."
"Every night I used to have another bash at nailing the lyrics, but I knew they weren't right," says MacGowan. "It is by far the most complicated song that I have ever been involved in writing and performing. The beauty of it is that it sounds really simple."
Finer was reading JP Donleavy's 1973 novel A Fairy Tale of New York, the story of a bereaved Irish-American's returning from Ireland to Manhattan. MacGowan later asked Donleavy's blessing to borrow the title. Donleavy later said that he loved the song but "realised straight away that it didn't really have anything to do with my book".
In February 1986, the Pogues made it to New York, to start their first ever US tour, and they weren't disappointed. "It was a hundred times more exciting in real life than we ever dreamed it could be!" says MacGowan. "It was even more like New York than the movies!" After their debut at a club called the World, their backstage visitors included Peter Dougherty, who came to direct the video for Fairytale of New York, and actor Matt Dillon, who appeared in it. MacGowan remembers Dillon, the rising star of Rumble Fish and The Outsiders, kissing his hand and saying: "I dig your shit, man, I love your shit!"
One hurdle remained, Cait O'Riordan left the band in October 1986 with nobody to complete the duet. "I think at some point almost any female with a voice was a contender," mentioning fellow RAK clients Chrissie Hynde and Suzi Quatro. "One person I certainly hadn't thought of was Kirsty MacColl and I don't think anyone else had."
"To be honest they weren't 100% convinced that Kirsty was the right person," says Lillywhite, who was married to MacColl. She was well-liked but her solo career was becalmed due to stage fright and contractual problems. Lillywhite suggested recording MacColl's part at his home studio over the weekend and seeing what the band thought. "I spent a whole day on Kirsty's vocals. I made sure every single word had exactly the right nuance. I remember taking it in on Monday morning and playing it to the band and they were just dumbfounded."
However MacGowan, who was so impressed that he re-did his own vocals, insisting: "I was madly in love with Kirsty from the first time I saw her on Top Of The Pops. She was a genius in her own right and she was a better producer than he was! She could make a song her own and she made Fairytale her own." After MacColl's tragic death in 2000, her part was taken by singers like Sinéad O'Connor, Cerys Matthews, Katie Melua, Victoria Clarke and Jem Finer's daughter Ella.
In the finished version the story finally acquires the ring of truth. Once Upon a Time in America is told almost entirely in flashback. And while the "cars big as bars" and the singing of Galway Bay a 1948 hit for Bing Crosby place the action in the 1940s, MacGowan suggests that the characters are much older.
Can we trust the narrator? "The guy is a bum who is living on the street," says MacGowan. "And he's just won on a horse at the unlikely odds of 18-to-one, so you're not even sure he is telling the truth." He says that both characters are versions of himself. "I identified with the man because I was a hustler and I identified with the woman because I was a heavy drinker and a singer. I have been in hospitals on morphine drips, and I have been in drunk tanks on Christmas Eve."
The song's brilliance is sealed by its final verse when MacGowan protests, "I could have been someone", and MacColl shoots back: "Well, so could anyone." Then MacColl accuses, "You took my dreams from me," and MacGowan responds, with all the warmth he's been withholding: "I kept them with me babe/I put them with my own." So in its final iteration the chorus is no longer a tauntingly ironic reminder of better times but the tentative promise of reconciliation. "You really don't know what is going to happen to them," says MacGowan. "The ending is completely open."
The Pogues shot the video in New York. The air was bitterly cold and fairy lights twinkled in the trees. Matt Dillon played the NYPD officer who arrests MacGowan but he was too nervous to manhandle him until the shivering singer snapped: "Just kick the shit out of me and throw me in the cell and then we can be warm!" Contrary to the lyrics, the NYPD didn't have a choir, so Dougherty hired the force's pipe band instead. When it turned out that they didn't know Galway Bay, they mouthed the only lyrics they all knew: the Mickey Mouse Club chant.
In the black-and-white performance footage, closely modelled on a BBC2 documentary about Billie Holiday, it was decided that MacGowan should sit at the piano while Fearnley wore the singer's rings to imitate him for the closeups. "I'm the fucking piano player and I wanted people to know that," says Fearnley. "It was absolutely humiliating. But it looks better. You have to find your proper place for the benefit of the project."
When MacColl joined the Pogues on tour, she gained the confidence to relaunch her solo career, and the Pogues onarrowly lost the Christmas No 1 to the Pet Shop Boys' Always on My Mind. "Going to No 1 in Ireland was what mattered to me," MacGowan says now. "I wouldn't have expected the English to have great taste!" For Lillywhite: "I love the fact that it's never been No 1. It's for the underdog."
This Christmas, as the song enters the charts for the 10th time, the Pogues will play a show to celebrate their 30th anniversary. Although they fired MacGowan in 1991 ("What took you so long?" he replied), they reunited a decade later. So Fairytale of New York has ended up being a parable of the band's life together: the youthful optimism, the bitter recriminations, the uncertain detente.
"We told a similar story ourselves," agrees Fearnley. "We've all had hopes and we've had our conflicts, but there's some other damn thing that's binding us all together and hopefully always will."