The very best Christmas song is, of course, also the only one to involve someone being called “an old slut on junk”. ‘Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl is a glorious drunken hymn to broken dreams and bitterly cold recriminations. In the last quarter of a century it’s become rightfully regarded as a classic. However, when it was first released in 1987 it didn’t even take the Christmas number one slot. Who kept them off the top? That and more in our behind-the-fairytale guide to the 25 things you should know:
Despite the wintery subject matter, the song was actually recorded in July, in sweltering heat.
The song started life as a bet. Pogues producer Elvis Costello bet Shane MacGowan and co-writer Jem Finer, the band’s banjoist, that they couldn’t come up with a Christmas record that wasn’t slushy.
The song was originally planned as a duet between Shane MacGowan and Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan. However, O’Riordan married Costello and left the band in 1986, before the song was recorded.
Costello was replaced as producer by Steve Lillywhite, who asked his wife, Kirsty MacColl, to record test vocals to help the band hear how the duet could work. They were so astounded by her performance they had to keep it.
Before hearing MacColl, MacGowan had suggested Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde as a possible partner for the duet.
The song was recorded not in New York, but at RAK Studios near Regents Park in London.
Due to illness, guitarist Philip Chevron had to drop out of the American tour that coincided with the video shoot for ‘Fairytale Of New York’. He was replaced by Joe Strummer, and the band added ‘London Calling’ and ‘I Fought The Law’ to their encores.
Although Shane MacGowan appears to play the piano in the video, the instrument was actually played by James Fearnley. Much to his chagrin, Fearnley had to wear Shane’s rings for the close-up shots of his hands.
When the band arrived back from their American tour they went straight onto Top Of The Pops to perform the song with MacColl. It features some spectacularly bad miming:
The lyrics mention: “The boys of the NYPD choir still singing ‘Galway Bay’.” The NYPD doesn’t actually have a choir, but it does have an Irish pipe band who are featured in the music video. They didn’t know ‘Galway Bay’, so they played
the ‘Mickey Mouse Club March’ instead, and the video was later slowed down to fit the beat.
Sign up for the newsletter
Shane and Kirsty returned to Top Of The Pops as a pair in January 1992 following the song’s re-release for Christmas 1991.
The title, which is lifted from Irish American author J. P. Donleavy’s novel ‘A Fairy Tale of New York’, was chosen after the song had been written and recorded. 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 song’s story begins with an Irish immigrant being tossed into a drunk tank to sleep off a Christmas Eve binge. It’s only when he hears an old man sing Irish ballad ‘The Rare Old Mountain Dew’ that he begins to dream about his memories of the song’s female character. ‘The Rare Old Mountain Dew’ dates from 1882 and is, unsurprisingly, about getting hammered on the wildly alcoholic potato spirit Poitín.
The “Sinatra was swinging” lyrics could place the song in the ‘50s, although his 1980 recording of ‘Theme from New York, New York’, was still in regular rotation when the song was released.
The video featured Matt Dillon as the NYPD patrolman who arrests the intoxicated MacGowan.
Shane MacGowan was born on Christmas Day.
Ella Finer, daughter of co-writer Jem Finer, now often sings Kirsty’s parts at live concerts.
In 2005 The Pogues performed the song on a Jonathan Ross Christmas special on BBC One, with Katie Melua singing the female part. It was the first time the full band had performed it for TV since 1988.
The song features string arrangements by Fiachra Trench. Trench also arranged the strings on The Boomtown Rats’ ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’, composed music for films including Pearl Harbor, The Tailor of Panama and The Ring and taught Linda McCartney to play the piano.
In 2007, Radio 1 banned the words “faggot” and “slut” from being broadcast as part of the song, a move they said was to “avoid offence”. The words were dubbed out. MacColl’s mother Jean referred to the ban as “too ridiculous”, while the Pogues said they found it “amusing”.
The song went to number two in the UK charts when it was first released in 1987. It was kept off the top spot by the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Always on my Mind’.
MacGowan reaction to be being pipped to the post was: “We were beaten by two queens and a drum machine”
It was re-released in 1991 and then again in 2005. All proceeds from the ‘05 release were donated towards a mixture of homeless charities and ‘Justice for Kirsty’, a campaign to find out the truth behind MacColl’s death in a powerboat accident in 2000.
The song has made an appearance in the top 20 every year since 2005.
Bookmakers Paddy Power are offering odds of 20/1 on the song being Christmas No. 1 this year.