Canadian Thanksgiving, Halloween, American Thanksgiving, Black Friday—whatever date on the calendar you use to mark the start of holiday season preparations, know that that point has arrived. As has the requisite blizzard of season-appropriate music. For those seeking a respite from the Christmas/Hanukkah/etc. traditionals, popular music has proven more than willing to pick up the slack. Need an entire album of yuletide cheer from your favorite superstars? Everyone from Mariah Carey to Justin Bieber has you covered. Want to hear a legend tackle a holiday classic? Hold out for the inevitable yuletide network TV parades available throughout the month, or go online and cue up a vintage chestnut like Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s take on “The Little Drummer Boy”.
There’s no shortage of musicians up for partaking in the holiday cheer, but how many of their once-a-year recording excursions have genuinely become modern classics, liable to live on for festive occasions generations hence? One notable song to earn seemingly permanent residence on Christmas-themed playlists (particularly in the British Isles) in recent times is the Pogues’ 25-year-old ditty “Fairytale of New York”. Based around a duet between Pogues mouthpiece Shane MacGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl, the song is these days so beloved that digital sales send it back onto the British charts every time the calendar is about to run out, not to mention that it has become a new perennial favorite in seasonal fan polls.
What accounts for “Fairytale of New York”’s enduring popularity? With Christmas on the horizon and the group’s 30th anniversary boxset (The Best of the Pogues) due out on December 16, Sound Affects has worked out five reason why this bleary-eyed Celtic ballad has become a new holiday standard.
When it comes to festive soundtracks, “Fairytale of New York” is definitely closer to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” than “O Holy Night”. There’s no postcard-perfect portraits of a newborn babe sleeping in a manger or friends and family wrapping arms around one another in the spirit of brotherhood being described here. Instead, “Fairytale of New York” begins with Shane MacGowan spending Christmas Eve in an NYCPD drunk tank, pining for his girl. In the song’s most memorable segment, he gets into a heated slagging match with Kirsty MacColl playing his long-suffering other half, capped by the kicker of a line, “Happy Christmas you arse / I pray God it’s our last.” A rambunctious lot to begin with, it’s no surprise that the Pogues have no truck with the standard seasonal philosophy of peace on Earth and goodwill to all men, and “Fairytale” is all the more refreshing for it.
Tying into the first point, “Fairytale of New York’s” spirit of irreverence allows it to be a warts-and-all reflection of what the holiday season is actually like, instead of the aspirational ideal of what it should be. The popular conception is that the holidays should be a time to put aside resentments and emphasize togetherness. “Fairytale” captures the reality of what the season actually entails for the more miserable side of humanity: a time of estranged relationships, lonely nights, and the numbing escape of a good drink or five. “Fairytale of New York” is about two lovers who can’t stand each other any longer, but continue to trudge on using the warm memories they share as fuel. Though the romance of the past is cherished, the song readily points out hard truths, best exemplified when MacGowan sulks, “I could have been someone” and MacColl immediately deflates his self-pitying with a well-placed “Well, so could anyone”.
Despite its rough edges and bitter barbs, “Fairytale of New York” is at its heart an incredibly touching and moving song. Its true character is evident in its in first verse, when MacGowan’s soused schlub hears an elderly companion singing “The Rare Old Mountain Dew” in the drunk tank, which instantly inspires thoughts of his beloved. Even from MacGowan’s first inebriated slurs and the mournful tinkling of the piano keys, the wistfulness of the song is never in doubt. No matter how rueful the lyrics become, the song manages to keep everything on the right side of hopeful (not the least aided by the band’s spirited performance). When MacColl complains, “You took my dreams from me / When I first found you”, MacGowan answers, “I kept them with me, babe / I put them with my own / Can’t make it all alone / I’ve built my dreams around you”, a reply as pitiful as it is endearing. On an awful night when you are spending Christmas Eve in jail instead of in the arms of a loved one, dreams are all you have to go on, and that means everything in that circumstance.
Putting aside the plain fact that the Pogues wrote it in the first place, this song was made for Shane MacGowan. Though an early convert to punk rock in the 1970s, the seemingly perpetually-inebriated singer found his true calling in life when he started the Pogues in the early ‘80s and traded away loud guitars for Celtic folk traditions. MacGowan’s slurred, queasy delivery is not what one would typically associate with holiday hymns, but it does fit the rowdy and frank songs of the common folk to a tee, a sensibility to which “Fairytale of New York” at its heart, it must be said, is truly loyal to. MacGowan’s protagonist is the sort of fellow who could have been warming a police station floor on any day, be it Christmas or St. Patrick’s or Arbor Day (and probably was). MacGowan’s gift is being able to come across as the rascal that’s hard to put up with yet easy to love, and the song’s seasonal trappings give his performance extra resonance.
It’s hard to imagine “Fairytale of New York” without MacGowan’s vocal foil. In actuality, MacColl’s role was originally intended for departed Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan, and she only became involved with the song when her husband, producer Steve Lillywhite, asked her to record a guide vocal for a demo version of the track. Thankfully fate dictated her a place beyond the pre-production phase. MacColl is perfectly cast as a spitfire missus hard-bitten enough to put up with MacGowan’s bullshit. More than that, it’s a joy to hear her sweet, keening voice flutter about in the song, beautifully handling disappointment and nostalgia in alternating doses. As a bonus, there’s undeniable chemistry between her and MacGowan: whenever the pair crosses paths, be they reminiscing or sparring, their easy repartee is wonderfully evident.
Despite its duet structure, “Fairytale in New York” sounds best when as many people as possible join in. No matter if you are too sloshed to shout out the words properly; MacGowan can barely get them out himself. Once the tempo kicks up and the full band joins in, the mood becomes livelier and its joyousness becomes infectious. The song’s chorus of “The boys of the NYPD choir / Still singing ‘Galway Bay’ / And the bells were stilling ringing out / For Christmas Day” is as rousing a sing-along you are liable to find during the holidays, and if you find yourself without companionship in some dingy bar this season, having this song come onto the stereo is a golden opportunity to join voices with some strangers. Singing “Joy to the World” in such a circumstance is likely to make you feel miserable and alientated. But if “Fairytale of New York” starts playing, it reminds you that someone else out there is feeling as lonely as you.