A Fairytale of how The Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl created a Christmas classic

Fairytale of New York was first released by The Pogues and Kirsty McColl in 1987
Fairytale of New York was first released by The Pogues and Kirsty McColl in 1987 Fairytale of New York was first released by The Pogues and Kirsty McColl in 1987

Over the years, Fairytale of New York has become a Christmas classic, a tipsy tale about two people falling out of love, blaming each other for their broken dreams and abandoned hopes, contrasting many of the more upbeat tracks on offer during the festive period.

“It was Christmas Eve babe, in the drunk tank” slurs The Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan at the beginning of the song acting as it’s narrator, an Irish immigrant who has been arrested on Christmas Eve and thrown in the drunk tank to sleep off his drinking binge.

After hearing an old man sing The Rare Old Mountain Dew, he begins to reminisce about Kirsty MacColl’s character in the song and so begins the annual argument between the two. Mixing dark humour with merry instrumentation throughout.

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Together MacGowan and MacColl created something that feels distinctly more realistic than the snow-covered winter wonderlands described in songs such as White Christmas and it is likely that this, in part, is the reason the song has re-entered the Top 20 every December since 2005.

Ironically, for a song based around an argument, there is some contention regarding how A Fairytale in New York came into being. MacGowan, who was born on Christmas Day in 1957 claims that Elvis Costello, who produced the Pogues’ 1985 album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, bet that he couldn’t write a Christmas duet to sing with bass player Cait O’Riordan (Cotello’s future wife).

The Pogues singer Shane MacGowan on stage in Belfast. File picture by Conor Madden
The Pogues singer Shane MacGowan on stage in Belfast. File picture by Conor Madden The Pogues singer Shane MacGowan on stage in Belfast. File picture by Conor Madden

Whereas The Pogues accordion-player James Fearnley maintains that their manager Frank Murray suggested that they cover the Band’s 1977 song Christmas Must be Tonight. In his memoir Fearnely says: “It was an awful song. We probably said, f**k that, we can do our own.”

Although the band started working on the anthem in 1985 it took over two years to write the version we know and love and surprisingly, it was recorded in July 1987 at RAK Studios near Regent’s Park in London. Although O’Riordan was set to sing the duet with MacGowan this fell through when she married Costello and left the band.

Steve Lillywhite, who was married to MacColl, took over as the band's producer and brought her in to record the test vocals to see how the duet would work. The Pogues were so impressed with her performance that the band offered her the part.

The title comes from the name of a novel written by Irish American author JP Donleavy, which banjo player, Jem Finer was reading at the time. In the novel, the protagonist, Cornelius Christian, refers to New York as “the city that is too rich to laugh at and too lonely and too ruthless to love.”

The song is filled full of cruel comebacks and spiteful sass. MacColl calling MaGowan a bum and punk and him calling her a slut and junk. It’s easy to envision the two staggering around the frosty streets of New York shouting profanities at each other, as many often do at Christmas!

However, some of the terms used in the song have started a new argument, often making headlines throughout the month of December. It has been a long-standing debate whether the words “slut” and “faggot” should be removed from the song. The 2019 Gavin and Stacy Christmas special came under fire for using the original version in a karaoke scene. Whereas up until last year BBC Radio 2 had continued to play the original, despite BBC Radio 1 opting to play a censored version since 2007.

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Watching the music video is as much a part of Christmas as the song itself, with MacColl leaning over the piano telling MacGowan how he took her dreams from her. It was decided that he would sit at the piano instead of Fearnley. However, as MacGowan could not actually play the instrument, the close-up shot featured the hands of Fearnley wearing MacGown’s rings on his fingers. Although Fearnley accepts that it made the video look better he says that he found the experience “humiliating”.

“The boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay” is a line many of us belt out every Christmas. However, the NYPD do not actually have a choir, the closest thing being the NYPD Pipes and Drums who featured in the video.

It transpired that the NYPD Pipes and Drums did not know Galway Bay and so instead sang the theme tune from The Mickey Mouse Club television series, Mickey Mouse March as they all knew the words to it. The footage was then slowed down and shown in brief sections to hide the fact they were singing a different song.

It is evident that creation of the ballad was as chaotic as the song itself launching both The Pogues and MacColl into mainstream stardom. However, MacColl’s fame was short lived after developing severe stage fright.

Although the song never made it to number one in the Christmas charts it has always been a firm festive favourite, being voted the nation’s favourite Christmas song in 2012 on and ITV television special. “Going to No 1 in Ireland was what mattered to me,” said MacGown, “I wouldn’t have expected the English to have great taste!” Lillywhite has also said that he liked the fact the song has never reached the top spot, “It’s for the underdog,” he said.