No banal sentimentality. Only gritty realism. Three minutes and fifty seconds of it. Sunil Murthy recalls ‘Fairytale of New York’, by the raucous Anglo-Irish band The Pogues.
In the days ahead we in the cities will have to weather flurries of festive music blowing out of every nook and cranny. Shops, malls, and restaurants will resound with endless loops of “White Christmas”, “Silent Night”, “Jingle Bells”, and carols galore, until they become background noise and make no sense. They are old commercials for brand Christmas, dusted and aired every year-end to give false hope, make us nostalgic, and spend more.
But the one gem that rings with truth gets no airplay in the silly season. It is “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues, a raucous eight-piece Anglo-Irish band like no other, who mated punk with Celtic folk and rose to prominence in the 1980s. It was written by wild poet, vocalist, and frontman, Shane MacGowan, and Jem Finer, the banjo player, and features Kirsty MacColl in the female lead. The single was released in December 1987 and was on the band’s best album, “If I Should Fall from Grace with God”. It is quite simply, the best Christmas song ever.
“It was Christmas eve Babe,/ In the drunk tank/ An old man said to me/ Won’t see another one…” is how the duet begins, with just some piano chords and a male voice, and ends a few short verses and chorus later. But within that short span of three minutes and 50 seconds, it surges with a mixture of honesty, hope and despair, redolent of a well-crafted short story that leaves the characters living inside listeners’ heads.
The song took more than two years to spawn. Written at the instigation of their manager, it’s a paean to thousands of Irish immigrants who have sailed to the great city over the generations. It was meant for bassist Cait O’Riordan to sing the female part. But she quit the band soon after recording, with the production still incomplete. After that, the demo lay around awaiting the right touch. The lyrics were finally nailed by MacGowan while recovering from pneumonia while on tour in Scandinavia. After which he kept looking for a proper title, until one day saw J.P. Donleavy’s novel of the same name and used it. Then it lay around marinating while the band recorded and toured. Finally, in July 1987 producer Steve Lillywhite was roped in to fix it and produce a new album. He liked what he heard, took it home and got his wife, singer Kirsty MacColl, who had tried various styles, to sing the female part, replacing O’Riordan’s existing vocals. It worked beautifully. Her clear voice carries like a bell ringing through sunshine. In contrast, MacGowan sounds like he has whisky on his breath and hints at derring-do and guilt. He is, after all, riding his luck on a horse carrying odds of 18-to-1. The song actually has two parts: the slow plaintive beginning with just piano and male vocals is grafted to another melody with the whole band kicking in with the typical Irish swirl of tin whistle, accordion, mandolin, guitar and drums. The melody takes flight, swinging along with the duet up to the first chorus. And then follows the extraordinary second half that lifts the song out of banal sentimentality, into a realm of gritty realism. No room for Santa Claus and mince pies here, but a kitchen-sink gusto in the lyrics and delivery. Lillywhite added a harp and brought a multi-track symphonic feel to the chorus, so it swells with emotion and majesty, heightening the drama. The band then filmed a video on location in the Big Apple in B/W with a cameo by Matt Dillon who was a fan. (Yes, dear Reader, you can watch it on Youtube.)
Released as a single in December 1987, the song gathered momentum in the crucial weeks before the year’s most important UK Top Ten countdown, but lost out to a mindless little ditty that nobody remembers, by the powder-faced Pet Shop Boys, which made it to the top. The boys of the NYPD choir/ Were singing “Galway Bay”,/ And the bells were ringing/ Out for Christmas Day.
That’s how the “Fairytale” ends, with a symphonic crescendo after the chorus, and fade-out. When asked if the ending is happy or not, MacGowan has said repeatedly that he does not know. One of the strengths of the song is that it leaves the end hanging in the air. Unfortunately, the ending for the singers was not happy. MacColl divorced her husband and tried unsuccessfully to launch a solo career. She never recorded with the Pogues again. Then in 2000, while swimming off the coast in Mexico with her two sons, days before Christmas, she was decapitated by a motor boat that should not have been slicing the waters there. Miraculously, MacGowan is still alive. He got himself kicked out of the band he had founded, in the early 1990s. He then formed the Popes, releasing one album with them, before attempting a half-assed solo career that got nowhere. All the while he drank rivers of booze that rotted his teeth until they fell out, leaving a blank like Hell’s Gate in the front of his mouth. Then he switched to heroin, got arrested, kicked the habit, and went back to booze. Nowadays, he is often referred to affectionately as The Man with the Magic Liver. The band have now regrouped after many years, and have roped MacGowan back in — fearing for his life perhaps — to sing for them again. An English reviewer wrote last year that MacGowan sat slumped on a bar stool on stage for ages during a gig, a full pint glass balanced precariously on his head.
The Pogues have recorded no new material in years, but regularly tour and play small to medium-sized venues in the UK and the US, almost always bringing down the curtain with the marvellous “Fairytale” helped along by the audience, singing in unison the famous last lines full-throated, like believers at a religious rally. At the time of writing this, the single reissued again in this, its silver jubilee year, was number 27 on the UK charts, and rising. The bookies in the UK have tipped it be No.1 on Christmas Day. Then justice will be done, and it would make a fitting birthday present for MacGowan, who was born on December 25. Long may you live, you bloody sod, and write more songs for the world.