It’s a song about alcoholism and a darkly dysfunctional marriage, it’s replete with crude swear words and insults, and it has found itself at the centre of an escalating culture war for years. And yet Fairytale of New York by The Pogues remains one of Britain’s favourite Christmas songs. The sad death of the band’s hell-raising singer Shane MacGowan after a long period of ill health will give the song a new lease of life this festive season, as if it ever needed one.
Despite being recorded 36 years ago, Fairytale has returned to the top 10 in the singles chart every year for the last six years. It is the third most-streamed Christmas song of all time in the UK, according to the Official Charts Company. It’s a song that MacGowan once described as “by far the most complicated song that I have ever been involved in writing and performing”, and yet it is belted out in pubs, kitchens, Christmas parties and karaoke bars by millions of revellers every year. It’s more popular than Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody, and more listened to than Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone. What is Fairytale’s secret? And how did this unlikely perennial come about?
First, the allure. Fairytale – and bear with me here – is a song about a dipsomaniac’s nostalgia. It’s about love amid chaos. The song centres around the alcohol-fuelled memories of a man locked up “in the drunk tank” on Christmas Eve. Kicked out, he visits his ill wife in hospital. She’s equally drug–addled, and MacGowan refers to her as both “an old slut on junk” and “Queen of New York City”. They joust with each other in the most un-festive way, calling one another “bum”, “punk”, “scumbag”, “maggot” and “cheap lousy faggot” before toasting each other with the line, “Happy Christmas your arse/ I pray God it’s our last.”
And yet the romance that MacGowan recalls blossoming between the pair on an earlier Christmas Eve in Manhattan begets some of pop’s most affecting lyrics. “Sinatra was swinging/ All the drunks they were singing/ We kissed on the corner/ Then danced through the night,” they both sing. He recalls the New York Police Department choir performing the Irish lament Galway Bay just as “the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day”. Rarely has a song dripped with such misty-eyed longing. “I can see a better time/ When all our dreams come true,” he sings.
But it’s the last verse that delivers the track’s emotional sucker punch. MacGowan is accused by his wife of robbing her of her dreams when they first met. To this, MacGowan retorts that he actually kept her dreams and folded them into his own. “I’ve built my dreams around you,” he explains. Co-opting someone else’s dreams into his own is a recurring theme in MacGowan’s songs. In the earlier Rainy Night in Soho he tells a lover that “you’re the measure of my dreams”. MacGowan’s propensity for such grand romantic statements is why so many people loved him. It gave him what journalist Nick Kent affectionately described as “a rare talent for mixing the Byronic with the moronic”.
Written by MacGowan and bandmate Jem Finer, the song came about after a period of upheaval for The Pogues, an Anglo-Irish band formed in London in 1982. By 1987 the band had released two well-received albums of raucous folk-punk, the second of which was 1985’s Elvis Costello-produced Rum, Sodomy & the Lash. But in the intervening period their label Stiff Records had gone into administration and their bassist Cait O’Riordan had quit, having married Costello. The Pogues moved labels, recruited new members and hired U2, Peter Gabriel and Rolling Stones producer Steve Lillywhite. Professionally, they’d stepped up a gear. “Steve has this knack of getting everyone involved with a project to perform at a higher level than they normally would,” studio engineer Chris Dickie has said of the period.
Their new album, which was to be called If I Should Fall From Grace With God, was a more expansive affair than what had gone before, containing jazz elements. Having hired Mickie Most’s RAK Studios in north-west London in the late spring of 1987, The Pogues recorded Fairytale of New York in tranches, starting with 80 seconds of James Fearnley’s slow piano, over which MacGowan set the scene with his vocals.
The song’s faster second half was recorded separately later the same day. They’d been toying with the song for years and it had finally found form. So far, so good. However, there was a problem. The song’s female vocal part was due to have been sung by the departed O’Riordan. At a slight loss over what to do, Lillywhite asked his wife to provide a guide vocal for the song’s demo. Her name? Kirsty MacColl.
Singer-songwriter MacColl was a well-known artist in her own right having had a top 20 hit in 1981 with There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis. The daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl, she’d married Lillywhite in 1984. MacColl recorded her vocals in the couple’s home studio. The band liked her performance so much that they decided to keep her vocals on the completed song. Strings and French horns were added, and the song was complete.
Fairytale was the first single to be released from the album, in time for Christmas 1987 (the video featured actor Matt Dillon as a New York cop). Its climb up the charts was slow. It entered at number 40 in the first week of December before edging up to number 19. A Top of the Pops performance by The Pogues and MacColl on 17 December saw it enter the top ten (it would eventually reach number two, held off number one by the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Elvis Presley’s Always on my Mind). Mindful of the song’s rough language, the BBC made the pair change the word “arse” to “ass” for Top of the Pops, a supposedly less offensive word. According to an essay about the song by New York Times writer Richard Buskin, MacColl made a point of slapping her backside while singing the word “just in case anyone might think she was referring to a donkey”.
It was not the last time the song’s lyrics landed the band in hot water. Fairytale of New York became has become involved in the culture wars in recent years due to its use of the words “slut” and “faggot”. In December 2007, Radio 1 started muting the words when the song was played as “members of the audience might find it offensive”. However the decision was reversed within hours after a backlash, not least from MacColl’s mother who called the ban “too ridiculous” (MacColl was killed after being struck by a powerboat off the coast of Mexico in 2000). The Pogues were said to find the BBC’s decision “amusing”.
The debate has reared its head almost annually since. In 2020 the BBC announced that Radio 1 would play a censored version once more – with the same two words removed – while Radio 2 would play the original (Radio 6 Music DJs could decide for themselves which version to play). Also in 2020 a new version of the song emerged, with MacColl singing “you’re cheap and you’re haggard” instead of “you cheap lousy faggot”. The words seem to have been spliced in using studio wizardry from another, less rude Top of the Pops performance she gave in 1992.
The same words were used when Ronan Keating and Moya Brennan covered the song in 2000. However, the uncensored version of Fairytale appeared in a 2019 Christmas special of TV comedy Gavin & Stacey, only to be edited out of a repeat of the show in 2020 after the BBC received over 800 complaints.
MacGowan was a poet filled with fervour. His talent will be sorely missed. Renditions of Fairytale will probably be sung with just that bit more passion this year. He would have been 66 on Christmas Day, an apt birthday given his most famous song.