A song that has for years been looked upon as the all-time landmark “Christmas” song in alternative music history is “Fairytale Of New York” by The Pogues.
Of course, it’s not really a Christmas tune in the traditional sense, but it at least takes place during Christmastime, and that’s been good enough to make it a favorite and arguably the most successful holiday-inspired song in the modern era of music.
“Fairytale Of New York” was recorded for and appears on The Pogues’ 1987 release ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, the Irish-bred and London-based group’s 3rd album.
Besides the fact that the normally gruff, belligerent and incomprehensible vocals of Shane MacGowan are remarkably clean yet no less passionate on this track, the true beauty behind the effort is the guest vocals of the late British singer Kirsty MacColl. Her spot-on delivery dueting with MacGowan in the call and response style of dialog are the very reason that the song has resonated for so many years, but her inclusion was practically an accident.
The part was originally meant for bassist Cait O’Riordan, who had just prior married Elvis Costello and left the band before the song was completed. Enter the album’s producer, the notable Steve Lillywhite. Steve has produced everyone from U2, The Smiths and Crowded House to more recently Dave Matthews Band and 30 Seconds To Mars. He brought in his then-wife (the UK-charting vocalist MacColl) to record nothing more than a guiding female vocal for the demo version of the track. To say that Kirsty nailed it is an understatement. The band fell in love with her voice (much like millions of listeners would soon do), and she was officially brought on to do the song.
Besides the instant sing-along characteristics of the vocal hook “..and the bells were ringing out on Christmas Day..”, the dialog between MacGowan and MacColl is a venom-filled banter between two young Irish immigrants who come to New York to find prosperity, but instead are met with drug addiction, booze and hard times.
At the time of release, it was a #1 song in Ireland, #2 in the UK (it was beat out that year by the Pet Shop Boys cover of “Always On My Mind”). It was then a Top 40 single again upon its re-release in 1991, it hit the Top 5 in the UK and Ireland again in 2005, became a UK Top 10 in 2006, a Top 5 again in 2006, a Top 15 in 2008 and 2009, and a Top 20 single this year. So you see, it never really goes away and finds new life every year during the season, with new generations of fans getting turned onto it every Christmastime.
And one of the charms of the song has always been its video. Though the line “..the boys of the NYPD Choir were singing ‘Galway Bay’..” is twice sung, the New York Police Department indeed has no choir. They do, though, boast their Pipe & Drum core which was enlisted to appear in the video. They didn’t actually know how to play the Irish traditional tune “Galway Bay”, so they simply performed something else and the footage was slowed down to make it appear as if they were playing in time. Also notice the cameo by Matt Dillon as the police officer wrangling MacGowan into the drunk tank.
I’m also including a few early demo versions of the song which appear on the The Pogues’ 2008 box set entitled ‘Look Them Straight In The Eye and Say…POGUE MAHONE!!’. It’s quite interesting to see the progression of the song through its working stages to the classic that is the final version, which to this day still plays a major role in the musical facet of the holiday season.
Plus, don’t forget…we in Chicago are once again blessed with a Pogues appearance, which is coming March 3rd to the Congress Theatre. You can get tickets now here. Seeing this band play live is monumental at worst, and it cannot be overstated that attending this time is crucial as it appears this could indeed be the end of the line for them, at least in this country. After all, the tour is dubbed “A Parting Glass With The Pogues, USA March 2011”. Do not miss it. Enjoy, and Happy Holidays.
The Pogues – “Fairytale Of New York” (Demo 1, 1986)
The Pogues – “Fairytale Of New York” (Demo 2, 1986)
The Pogues – “Fairytale Of New York” (Demo 3, 1987)