Song of the Week 32: Fairytale of New York – The Pogues & Kristy MacColl

Fairytale of New York cover

“It was Christmas eve babe, in the drunk tank…”

From the first line, it´s clear that this isn´t going to be your typical sugar-coated singalong Christmas song, although it is sentimental and you can sing along to it. But there´s a heavy dose of reality in there. It´s a very well crafted song, with lyrics that swing from cruel to romantic. It´s a love song, but also an argument between a couple. It’s almost an anti-Christmas song, but for many it’s the best Christmas song.

“It’s a classic New York tale isn’t it? Two people coming to New York all wide eyed, and she ends up as a junky… and he’s in a drunk tank, so it’s a great Christmas song, there should be more of them!” Nick Cave

So, let´s start at the beginning. Ireland has a long history of emigration to the States, and when the Irish got there, with dreams of a new life, they were nostalgic for the homeland. This nostalgia was passed down through generations and it´s the reason we get so many overly sentimental films, that Hollywood Irish thing, the imagined Ireland.

In the 80’s when the song was written, emigration from Ireland to America was at its peak. People travelled to the States in search of that elusive American Dream. And for many, those dreams were dashed on the Ellis Island rocks. Furthermore, Christmas isn’t a happy time for everyone. And the jingly schmaltz often jars with the reality, especially if, like Shane, you’ve spent many a Christmas eve in the drunk tank.

Shane McGowan (born on Christmas Day in 1957) had never been to New York before he wrote it, but he was already obsessed with the city, the cinematic dream of America. He went to New York on tour with the rest of the band and proclaimed:

“It was a hundred times more exciting in real life than we ever dreamed it could be! It was even more like New York than the movies!”

Once Upon a Time in America Ennio Morricone

Shane and fellow Pogues member, Spider Stacy, were obsessed with Sergio Leone´s Once Apon a Time in America before they made it  across the Atlantic, and were described as being in-character by other band members during the tour. In fact, part of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack made in into the opening piano sequence.

The Pogues

The Pogues are often thought of as an Irish band, but they´re mostly made up of Londoners, and back then their only “thoroughbred Irishperson” was a London/Irish fella by the name of Shane McGowan. Shane can be seen in the front of the crowd at a Clash gig in the “making of documentary”, a London punk who went on to form his own band. They were called the Nipple Erectors (or The Nips) and never had any hits, until the day they decided to break up when one of their singles reached number one in Italy.

Spider describes how Shane called around to his flat and played an Irish American folk song Poor Paddy on the Railway at “900 miles an hour”. From that moment The Pogues Irish-folk-punk formula was born. The band did one gig (playing Irish Republican war songs) as The New Republicans in an Irish pub in London in front of British soldiers who proceeded to throw fish and chips at them. The early 80´s was not a good time to be Irish in London, as the IRA was in the middle of a bombing campaign, and the Irish over there suffered plenty of prejudice as a result. So, it wasn’t the best time to be playing Irish rebel songs, but then they were punks!

The band were christened Póg Mo Thóin after that, which is the Irish for “Kiss My Ass”. It´s probably the most famous Gaelic phrase, it’s generally the first thing tourists are taught when they arrive in Ireland. It was later shortened to The Pogues.

Jem Finer, guitarist, saxophonist, banjo player etc with the group, came up with a tune about a couple down on their luck at christmas, and took the song to Shane, who had the idea to set it in New York, with the couple as two Irish immigrants. It was originally written as a duet, with the bassist Cáit O’Riordan in mind as the singer. Here’s the demo:

The title came from a 1973 book by Irish American writer JP Donleavy, after Shane caught sight of his father’s copy. Shane travelled to see him to get his blessing to use the title for the song.

A Fairytale of New York book

The band weren’t happy with the first recordings of the song, feeling they could do it better, so they didn’t include it on their second album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (recorded with Elvis Costello as producer). It wouldn’t ready in time for Christmas either, so the recording was shelved when the band went back on tour. They included it in their live set, and as a result their playing of the tune got tighter. Meanwhile, Shane kept working away at the lyrics.

“I don´t think the band was capable of playing the song as it needed to be played at that point. Shane and I batted arrangements around for ages and we’d periodically try and record it. Shane’s a tireless and meticulous editor.” Jem Finer

“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.”

Shane finished the song after a bout of pneumonia in Scandanavia. He “got quite a few good images” from the delirium he suffered at the time. The song took two years to write, and letting it stew for that length of time allowed it to develop in Shane’s mind until it reached something approaching perfection.

The band are known for their mixture of Irish folk, punk, history and tradition, but their scope has always been more ambitious, and in this track they were aiming for something timeless.

“A lot of people think they can write songs, but to be that poetic is very hard to achieve in a certain simplicity and hitting the nail on the head.” Jools Holland

kirsty maccoll

So once the song was finished, the only problem was that the Pogues bassist Cáit had quit the band and left to marry their producer Costello after the touring became too much for her. So now the song was missing the female vocal for the duet. Luckily their latest producer, Steve Lillywhite, brought along his new wife Kirsty MacColl to the sessions, and Shane asked her to try out the vocal. Steve recorded her vocal demo back at his home studio and played it to the band, who instantly loved it.

The song was recorded separately in two parts, then edited together around the 1 minute 24 seconds mark, the piano/vocal/strings intro at the beginning with the band joining in on the splice. Terry Woods’ mandolin and other instruments were layered up with the “Wall of Sound”  technique to give the track a more epic feel. It also features a lovely string arrangement by Fiachra Trench, which ties it all together. In the documentary, The Story of Fairytale of New York, you can hear the Pogue members discussing the “soaring orchestral climax” at the end. There are also more details of the recording and the background to the song:

“It’s a like a little symphony… every little bit is bang on. The way the whole thing is constructed is just a beautiful work in itself, you can admire it just for that.” Jools Holland

The song was beaten to number one spot in the UK by The Pet Shop Boys with their cover version of Always on My Mind, but it’s probably apt that it didn’t top the charts, as it’s not your average commercial offering.

“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!”

Lillywhite said: “I love the fact that it’s never been No 1. It’s for the underdog.”

“Got on a lucky one, came in 18 to 1.”

Shane in his own eloquent way 🙂 described the Pet Shop Boys song as “a disgusting fucking record, it was a cynical jaded pathetic like sort of em… I quite liked the Pet Shop Boys before then”.

If I Should Fall From Grace With God The Pogues

Fairytale of New York was the fourth track on the groups fourth album If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988), the album like the song was a jump in sophistication for the group. It saw them veering away from the Irish folk/punk rock template and incorporating jazz, Spanish and Middle Eastern folk into the mix.

The song has continued to grow in popularity since then. It was re-released in 1991, reaching number 36 in the UK charts and 10 over here, and then again in 2005 for the Justice for Kirsty appeal to investigate her tragic death in a boating accident a few years previous, and reached number 3 on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Kirsty wasn’t a natural performer and suffered from stage-fright, but the warmth she received joining The Pogues onstage helped her overcome her phobia.

“Kirsty was in her element with the band, and the fans just loved her, they really did. When her name was mentioned there was such an outpouring of love.” Jean MacColl, Kirsty´s mother

She sadly died in the year 2000, and the song she made her own serves as a fitting accolade for her.

“Fairytale of New York is not a Pogues song, it´s the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.” Spider Stacy

The video was directed by Pogues fan Peter Dougherty, who recorded a video of their second* New York gig at a club called The World. Backstage at the same concert was Matt Dillon, a big fan of the  band. He made a cameo in the video as a policeman, arresting the drunk Shane and throwing him in the “drunk tank”. They used a real New York police-station for the video, where the band hung out drinking in the jail cells.

The NYPD choir mentioned in the song didn´t exist, so the band got hold of the NYPD Irish Pipe Band, who didn’t know the song Galway Bay, so they sang The Mickey Mouse theme song instead. They apparently wouldn´t do anything until they got their beer, and the hard drinking Pogues claimed the Pipers were more drunk than they were.

One of the few versions worth listening to in my opinion is Christy Moore’s. It took him years to learn the song properly. Here he is performing on the Late Late Show, Ireland’s long running television show.

The song has been in the top 20 for the last 7 years and was re-released this year for the 25th anniversary, and at the time of writing is number 12 in the UK charts. It continues to be an anthem for the underdog, for real people by real musicians. It´s an authentic original, not another plastic over-hyped cover-version from the talent shows that seems to grow more cynical by the year.

Co-writer Jem Finer talks about “secret history” to the story: “a true story of some mutual friends living in New York”, a couple who argue and come to some redemption, but who knows how they end up. The ending is left open, as we´re lifted up by the orchestral climax. But for such an “utterly hopeless” couple, it sounds so hopeful. In spite of the bitterness between the two there´s still a lasting fondness there.

“I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own
Can´t make it out alone, I´ve built my dreams around you”

Here´s Shane´s take on it:

“It´s unlikely they get round the Christmas tree and swap presents. In the end I don´t know what happens to them, but it has an uplifting ending, because love never dies.” Shane MacGowan

As has been a running theme on this blog, this song is a place, a world which may or may not correspond to the real New York, but which as Jem claims, is based on a true story. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story. After all it´s a fairytale. And many a person sailed the ocean to the Big Apple hoping to make the American Dream a reality.

“It’s like Fairytale of New York went off and inhabited its own planet.” James Fearnley

It´s bigger than the sum of its parts, and like all the best songs, it will outlive its writers. Although Shane´s done pretty well to have survived thus far.

He turned up after a piano gig I played once apon a time in Dublin dressed in a tophat and tails with a pint glass of what I gathered was Tia Maria. I reckon he might have a couple more songs left in him. Here´s hoping.

Happy Christmas one and all…


It was christmas eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me: won’t see another one
And then they sang a song
The rare old mountain dew
I turned my face away and dreamed about you
Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I´ve got a feeling
This year´s for me and you
So happy christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
Where all our dreams come true.

They got cars big as bars
They got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It´s no place for the old
When you first took my hand on a cold christmas eve
You promised me broadway was waiting for me
You were handsome you were pretty
Queen of new york city when the band finished playing they yelled out for more
Sinatra was swinging all the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night.

And the boys from the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay
And the bells were ringing out for christmas day.

You´re a bum you´re a punk
You´re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy christmas your arse I pray god it´s our last.

And the boys of the NYPD choir’s still singing Galway Bay
And the bells were ringing out
For christmas day.

I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can´t make it out alone
I´ve built my dreams around you

And the boys of the NYPD choir’s still singing Galway Bay
And the bells are ringing out
For christmas day.

*It´s been since pointed out to me by poster TCM that their debut concert was a lunchtime gig at a college in Long Island.

24 thoughts on “Song of the Week 32: Fairytale of New York – The Pogues & Kristy MacColl

  1. This is hands down one of my favorite songs of all time, and the only “honest” christmas song I have ever encountered. I love the reality it has dosed in their, and also how you mentioned that is swings from “cruelty” to “romance”. Awesome post, thanks for sharing and providing all this awesome background information 🙂

      1. No problem! Have you ever listened to “The Persuaded” by Faded Paper Figures? While it does not directly relate to Christmas like Fairytale of NY does, I realize that it as well would make a fitting Christmas song, in the sense that it is a commentary on our tragically material culture. You should listen to if when you get the chance I think you would enjoy it!

  2. Well done…can never get enough of this song, which is strange since most songs I’ve heard as much as this one I’ve usually had enough of. But this stands out, and always has.

    One small thing, the first Pogues show in America was at a college on Long Island, the day before they played at the World. Noontime, if you can imagine. I was there and the next night as well, and I’ll never forget it.

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