'Fairtytale Of New York is a great record but I’m not the only person responsible'
Says The Pogues star Shane MacGowan
Shooting stars ... Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan in 1987
By JACQUI SWIFT
Published: 13 hrs ago
IT’S 25 years since The Pogues released the classic Fairytale Of New York and it remains the greatest Christmas song ever.
Who hasn’t sung along to it at a Christmas party arm-in-arm with a friend after a few too many sherries?
And who can forget the performance on Top of The Pops with Shane MacGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl as the bickering couple, performing their tale of broken dreams around a piano?
It’s a unique song — originally a No2 hit in 1987 (the Pet Shop Boys’ Always on my Mind kept it off the top spot), as popular today as it ever has been.
Indeed, bookmakers Paddy Power are offering odds of 25/1 for it to hit the No1 spot this Christmas, following its re-issue on iTunes and on limited edition 7in vinyl.
So who are the arguing pair and what’s it all about when singer Shane MacGowan delivers the famous line, “I could have been someone”, with MacColl’s icy response, “Well, so could anyone”?
In an email chat with Shane MacGowan, the singer tells SFTW: “Obviously it is hard for me to say what makes Fairytale so popular.
'Genius' ... Shane says Kirsty sounded incredible on Fairytale Of New York
“It’s down to the people who listen to it and who like it. It is not down to me. I just did my best with it and I think it’s a great record, but I am definitely not the only person responsible for that.”
He continues: “The band played really well and Kirsty did an incredible vocal.
“I also think a lot of people identify with the main characters being down on their luck and remembering better days and dreams they once had.
“But there is also a lot of hope in the song. They clearly still love each other and hold each other’s dreams, which is what people do.”
Unlike most festive numbers it’s a song that still sounds as good as when you first heard it. And it appeals to new generations of fans as proved by the fact it’s been a Christmas Top 20 hit every year since 2005.
So what’s the story — and how does that story end?
A Christmas cracker ... Fairytale is the Christmas tune which gets most airplay
“The guy is a bum who is living on the street,” explains MacGowan. “He has just won on a horse at the unlikely odds of 18-1, so you are not even sure he is telling the truth. He could be lying.
“You really don’t know what is going to happen to them. The ending is completely open.”
The song was born out of a challenge by Elvis Costello, who had produced the band’s classic album, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash.
It was August 1985 and the band were recording the Rainy Night In Soho EP with Costello on production duties.
“When Elvis was still working for us, he made a bet with me and Jem that we couldn’t write a Christmas hit, a duet I could sing with Cait,” explains MacGowan.
Jem Finer, of course, is The Pogues banjo player, and Cait O’Riordan was the original bass player who left the band and married Elvis Costello.
Says MacGowan: “Me and Jem accepted the bet. We decided that it would be a song about a man and a woman, where possibly the man would be older than her and they would have emigrated to New York.
“The ‘Fairytale’ wasn’t in it yet, but the New York bit was. So it was basically going to be about a couple of doomed lovers, who had had their time in the 1930s and ’40s. That’s why there is all that stuff about Frank Sinatra swinging and the NYPD choir and all that.
“I had worked out that there would be a slow bit at the beginning of the song, for which I had written a melody.
Nightmare before Christmas ... Shane is arrested by cop (played by Matt Dillon) in scene from music video
“And then there would be a happy bit and then it would go into a quarrel. Jem had a riff and I worked out the melody on the piano. It gets played as a reel during the middle bit and then as a high-stepping waltz at the end.”
Incredibly, given how important the location is to the tune, The Pogues had never been to New York at that stage.
“Our idea of New York was based on movies like Once Upon A Time In America, which we were obsessed with,” explains MacGowan. “We borrowed a lot from the soundtrack of that film.
“We made the couple go to Broadway, because Broadway was where you made it in New York if you were a singer.
“But really, the story could apply to any couple who went anywhere and found themselves down on their luck. I think New York is still a nasty place to grow old. It is a novelty at first but, in the end, it’s a very tough place.”
It wasn’t an easy song to write — it took MacGowan two years to finish it.
He explains: “I wrote loads of different lyrics for it. It was getting more and more complicated.
“We knew there would be an orchestra, so I was thinking of putting in bits where the orchestra played that song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
“(Pogues guitarist) Phil Chevron told me that was a bad idea and he was right.
“I identified with the man because I was a hustler. And I identified with the woman, because I was a heavy drinker and a singer.
Heading for top spot ... The Pogues' Fairytale Of New York is back in the charts
“Frank, our manager, used to call me Judy Garland, thinking it was an insult to compare me to one of the greatest female singers ever, who was also a drunk, but I used to thank him. It was a real compliment.
“I have also been in hospitals, on morphine drips, and I have been in drunk tanks on Christmas Eve. But I think I was really finding my female side when I wrote that song.
“It was my slushy ballad period!”
Although Fairytale was written for Cait O’Riordan to sing, when she left the band in 1986, The Pogues had to find another female voice for the duet.
Says MacGowan: “Cait was brilliant at singing it, but she had gone by the time Steve Lillywhite started producing us.
Anniversary single ... The Pogues feat Kirsty MacColl
“And I knew Kirsty MacColl fairly well at that time. To tell the truth, I was madly in love with Kirsty from the first time I saw her on Top Of The Pops.
“I remember the day Kirsty was getting married to Steve Lillywhite. I was working in a record shop, and I had to mind the shop, so I couldn’t even go to the wedding.
“Most of the stories about the song say that it was because of Steve Lillywhite that Kirsty got to sing on Fairytale. But this is not true. It was because we loved her. She was a genius in her own right and she was a better producer than he was.
“And she really pulled it off. The band were astounded at how good she was.”
The magic between the two singers is central to the lasting legacy of the song.
Again look at their famous Top Of The Pops performance or the video for the song, which features American actor Matt Dillon as the NYPD patrolman who arrests MacGowan.
It led to MacColl touring with The Pogues on their British and European tour in 1988, as well as relaunching her solo career on the back of the success of Fairytale.
She was tragically killed in December 2000 at age 41, when she was struck by a speedboat while on holiday with her two sons and boyfriend James Knight in Cozumel, Mexico.
“Her death was a terrible shock for all of The Pogues, and no female singer has ever been able to perform the song in quite the same way as Kirsty did,” says MacGowan.
“It was painful for the band to even consider performing it with anyone else, but eventually we recruited Jem’s daughter, Ella, to perform the song on tour, a decision which had the full support of Kirsty’s family.”
When SFTW spoke to the band in 2005 they were trying to re-open Kirsty’s case that saw a deckhand fined just £61 in 2003 for causing her death.
In May 2006, Emilio Cortez Ramírez, a federal prosecutor in Cozumel, was found liable for breach of authority in conjunction with his handling of the MacColl case. This ruling brought an end to the Justice For Kirsty campaign in 2009.
This year The Pogues celebrate 30 years in music, marked by two sold-out shows at the famous Olympia venue in Paris.
“We never really thought about how long we would last as a band starting out,” says MacGowan.
“We were too busy enjoying ourselves to think about the future.
“I think the secret of The Pogues’ longevity is the audiences. They are really something. Everywhere we play, no matter what part of the world we go to, there is always a bunch of raving nutters totally up for a good time.
“And what’s really weird is that they are getting younger as we get older. When we look at the audience, they are still a bunch of kids going crazy and singing all the words.”
- Fairytale Of New York, 25th Anniversary single, is out now, as is The Pogues Live At The Olympia 2012 CD and DVD.
Thanks to Shane’s wife Victoria Mary Clarke for her help