|"Fairytale of New York"|
|Single by the Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl|
|from the album If I Should Fall from Grace with God|
|Released||23 November 1987|
|Studio||RAK Studios, London|
|Songwriter(s)||Jem Finer, Shane MacGowan|
|The Pogues singles chronology|
|Kirsty MacColl singles chronology|
"Fairytale of New York" is a song written by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan and recorded by their London-based band the Pogues, featuring singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl on vocals. The song is an Irish folk-style ballad and was written as a duet, with the Pogues' singer MacGowan taking the role of the male character and MacColl the female character. It was originally released as a single on 23 November 1987 and later featured on the Pogues' 1988 album If I Should Fall from Grace with God.
Originally begun in 1985, the song had a troubled two-year development history, undergoing rewrites and aborted attempts at recording, and losing its original female vocalist along the way, before finally being completed in August 1987. Although the single has never been the UK Christmas number one, being kept at number two on its original release in 1987 by the Pet Shop Boys' cover of "Always on My Mind", it has proved enduringly popular with both music critics and the public: to date the song has reached the UK Top 20 on 18 separate occasions since its original release in 1987, including every year at Christmas since 2005. As of September 2017, it had sold 1.2 million copies in the UK, with an additional 249,626 streaming equivalent sales, for a total of 1.5 million combined sales. In December 2020, the song was certified quadruple platinum in the UK for 2.4 million combined sales.
In the UK, "Fairytale of New York" is the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century. It is frequently cited as the best Christmas song of all time in various television, radio and magazine related polls in the UK and Ireland, including the UK television special on ITV in December 2012 where it was voted The Nation's Favourite Christmas Song.
Although there is agreement among the band that "Fairytale of New York" was first written in 1985, the origins of the song are disputed. MacGowan insisted that it arose as a result of a wager made by the Pogues' producer at the time, Elvis Costello, that the band would not be able to write a Christmas hit single, while the Pogues' manager Frank Murray has stated that it was originally his idea that the band should try and write a Christmas song as he thought it would be "interesting". Banjo player Finer came up with the melody and the original concept for the song, which was set in County Clare on Ireland's west coast, involving a sailor in New York looking out over the ocean and reminiscing about being back home in Ireland. Finer's wife Marcia did not like the original seafaring story, and suggested new lyrics regarding a conversation between a couple at Christmas. Finer told NME, "I had written two songs complete with tunes, one had a good tune and crap lyrics, the other had the idea for 'Fairytale' but the tune was poxy, I gave them both to Shane and he gave it a Broadway melody, and there it was".
The song's title, the musical structure and its lyrical theme of a conversation between a couple were in place by the end of 1985, and were described by MacGowan in an interview with Melody Maker in its 1985 Christmas issue:
"I sat down, opened the sherry, got the peanuts out and pretended it was Christmas. It's even called 'A Fairy Tale of New York', it's quite sloppy, more like 'A Pair of Brown Eyes' than 'Sally MacLennane', but there's also a céilidh bit in the middle which you can definitely dance to. Like a country and Irish ballad, but one you can do a brisk waltz to, especially when you've got about three of these [drinks] inside you... But the song itself is quite depressing in the end, it's about these old Irish-American Broadway stars who are sitting round at Christmas talking about whether things are going okay."
MacGowan had decided to name the song after J. P. Donleavy's 1973 novel A Fairy Tale of New York, which Finer was reading at the time and had left lying around the recording studio. In the same Melody Maker interview MacGowan expressed regret that the song had not been completed in time to be released for Christmas that year, and hinted that the track would appear on an EP that the Pogues were due to record shortly. In January 1986 the group recorded the song during the sessions with Costello that would produce the Poguetry in Motion EP, with bass player Cait O'Riordan singing the female part. Costello suggested naming the song "Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank", after the song's opening lines, but the band were scornful of Costello's suggestion, with MacGowan pointing out to Costello that a song with such a title was unlikely to be favourably received and played by radio stations. The majority of the lyrics had been written while MacGowan was recovering in a bed in Malmö after being struck down with double pneumonia during a Pogues tour of Scandinavia in late 1985 – he later said, "you get a lot of delirium and stuff, so I got quite a few good images out of that". However, despite several attempts at recording it, the group were unhappy with the results and the song was temporarily put aside, to be returned to at a later date. Guitarist Philip Chevron later said, "It was not quite there. It needed to have a full-on, confident performance from the band, which it lacked." The producer of the final version, Steve Lillywhite, diplomatically described the version recorded with O'Riordan's vocals as not "fully realised". Extracts from these earlier versions of the song are included on the 2008 box set Just Look Them Straight in the Eye and Say... POGUEMAHONE!!.
In March 1986 the Pogues toured the US for the first time. The opening date of the tour was in New York City, a place which had long fascinated MacGowan and which inspired him to write new lyrics for the song. Among the members of the city's Irish-American community who saw the show and visited the band backstage after the concert were film-maker Peter Dougherty and actor Matt Dillon: both would later become friends with the Pogues and play important roles in the video for "Fairytale of New York". Another inspiration was Sergio Leone's film Once Upon a Time in America, which MacGowan and whistle player Spider Stacy would watch over and over again in the tour bus. Apart from shaping the ideas for the lyrics, MacGowan wrote a slow, piano-based introduction to "Fairytale of New York" influenced by the film's score by Ennio Morricone: the intro would later be edited together with the more upbeat original melody to create the final song.
As 1986 went on, however, the Pogues encountered various problems that brought a halt to their recording activity. Their record label Stiff ran into financial difficulties and went into administration, although as the label still owned the rights to the Pogues' recordings this meant that a distribution deal had to be negotiated with a new label to release any new Pogues material. The group's deteriorating relationship with Costello saw them part ways with their producer, and after increasingly erratic behaviour Cait O'Riordan, who had become romantically involved with Costello, left the band in October 1986. The departure of O'Riordan meant the song had now lost its intended female singer.
The problems at Stiff were eventually resolved, and the Pogues were finally able to enter a recording studio again in early 1987 to start work on their third album, now with Steve Lillywhite producing. A new demo of "Fairytale of New York" was recorded at London's Abbey Road Studios in March 1987, with MacGowan singing both the male and female roles. However, it was not until the third set of recording sessions in August 1987 in nearby RAK Studios that it was suggested that Lillywhite take the track back to his home studio and let his wife Kirsty MacColl lay down a new guide vocal for the song. Having worked on her vocals meticulously, Lillywhite brought the recording back to the studio where the Pogues were impressed with MacColl's singing and realised she would be the ideal voice for the female character in the song.
MacGowan later said, "Kirsty knew exactly the right measure of viciousness and femininity and romance to put into it and she had a very strong character and it came across in a big way... In operas, if you have a double aria, it's what the woman does that really matters. The man lies, the woman tells the truth." MacGowan re-recorded his vocals alongside the tape of MacColl's contribution (the duo never recorded the song together in the studio) and the song was duly completed with the addition of a harp played by Siobhan Sheahan and horns and a string section. The French horns and strings were recorded at Townhouse Studios on the last day of recording If I Should Fall from Grace with God, arranged by Fiachra Trench after band member James Fearnley had mocked up an arrangement on a keyboard.
The song follows an Irish immigrant's Christmas Eve reverie about holidays past while sleeping off a binge in a New York City drunk tank. When an inebriated old man also in the cell sings a passage from the Irish ballad "The Rare Old Mountain Dew", the narrator (MacGowan) begins to dream of a former lover. The remainder of the song (which may be an internal monologue) takes the form of a call and response between the couple, their youthful hopes crushed by alcoholism and drug addiction, as they reminisce and bicker on Christmas Eve. The lyrics "Sinatra was swinging" and "cars big as bars" seem to place the song in the late 1940s, although the music video clearly depicts a contemporary 1980s New York. On the impact of the lyrics, Helen Brown of The Daily Telegraph writes,
In careening wildly through a gamut of moods from maudlin to euphoric, sentimental to profane, mud-slinging to sincerely devoted in the space of four glorious minutes – it's seemed perfectly suited to Christmas – a time which highlights the disparity between the haves and have nots around the world. Those of us lucky enough to spend the day with friends and families by a cosy fire with a full stomach think of the lonely, the homeless and the hungry. As MacColl and MacGowan's dialogue descends from the ecstasy of their first kiss into an increasingly vitriolic argument their words puts the average family's seasonal bickering into perspective. "You're a bum you're a punk/ You're an old slut on junk..." The song's row ends with an expression of love and hope (against all the odds) as MacGowan's character promises MacColl's that, far from wrecking her dreams he has kept them with his own "Can't make it all alone," he pleads, "I've built my dreams around you."
The video for the song was directed by Peter Dougherty and filmed in New York during a bitterly cold week in November 1987. The video opens with MacGowan sitting at a piano as if playing the song's opening refrain: however, as MacGowan could not actually play the instrument, the close-up shot featured the hands of the band's pianist Fearnley wearing MacGowan's rings on his fingers. Fearnley later said that he found the experience "humiliating" but accepted the idea that it looked better in the video to show MacGowan seated at the piano.
Part of the video was filmed inside a real police station on the Lower East Side. Actor Matt Dillon plays a police officer who arrests MacGowan and takes him to the cells. Dillon recalled that he had been afraid to handle MacGowan roughly, and had to be encouraged by Dougherty and MacGowan to use force. MacGowan and the rest of the band were drinking throughout the shoot, and the police became concerned about their increasingly rowdy behaviour in the cells. Dillon, who was sober, had to intervene and reassure the police that there would be no problems.
The chorus of the song includes the line "The boys of the NYPD choir still singing 'Galway Bay'". In reality, the NYPD (New York City Police Department) does not have a choir, the closest thing being the NYPD Pipes and Drums who are featured in the video for the song. The NYPD Pipes and Drums did not know "Galway Bay" and so sang a song that all of them knew the words to – the "Mickey Mouse March", the theme tune for The Mickey Mouse Club television series. The footage was then slowed down and shown in brief sections to disguise the fact the Pipes and Drums were singing a different song. Murray recalled that the Pipes and Drums had been drinking on the coach that brought them to the video shoot, and by the time they arrived they were more drunk than the band, refusing to work unless they were supplied with more alcohol.
"It's entirely appropriate that Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan was born on Christmas Day because his celebrated song Fairytale Of New York seems to be just about everybody's favourite festive piece of music. The 1987 song by the Pogues – once censored by the BBC for its raw language – was announced as the most-played Christmas song of the century by music licensing body PPL."
The song's lyrical content attracted attention from the start due to language contained in its second verse, where MacGowan's character refers to MacColl's character as "an old slut on junk", to which MacColl responds with a tirade that includes the words "faggot" and "arse". When the song was performed on Top of the Pops on its initial release, the BBC requested that MacColl's singing of "arse" be replaced with the perceived less offensive "ass". During a live performance on Top of the Pops in January 1992, MacColl changed the lyrics further, singing "You're cheap and you're haggard". When Katie Melua performed the song with the Pogues on CD:UK in December 2005, ITV censored the word "arse", but left "faggot" uncensored.
On 18 December 2007, BBC Radio 1 edited the words "faggot" and "slut" from the track to "avoid offence". MacColl's mother described the ban as "too ridiculous", while the Pogues said they found it "amusing". The BBC stated, "We are playing an edited version because some members of the audience might find it offensive". The BBC later announced they had reversed their decision and continued to play the song uncensored. Other BBC radio stations, including the traditionally more conservative Radio 2, had continued to play the original version throughout this period, the ban having applied to Radio 1 only. The MTV channels in the UK also removed and scrambled the words "slut", "faggot" and "arse" from the song.
In December 2018, two broadcasters on Ireland's RTÉ2 pop music station caused controversy by asking for the word "faggot" to be bleeped from broadcasts of the song. RTÉ announced that they would not censor the lyrics. Some days later, MacGowan defended the lyrics in a statement released to Virgin Media Television's The Tonight Show:
The word was used by the character because it fitted with the way she would speak and with her character. She is not supposed to be a nice person, or even a wholesome person. She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history and she is down on her luck and desperate. Her dialogue is as accurate as I could make it but she is not intended to offend! She is just supposed to be an authentic character and not all characters in songs and stories are angels or even decent and respectable, sometimes characters in songs and stories have to be evil or nasty to tell the story effectively. If people don't understand that I was trying to accurately portray the character as authentically as possible, then I am absolutely fine with them bleeping the word, but I don't want to get into an argument.
In December 2019, BBC Radio Solent radio presenter Alex Dyke announced on his Twitter account that he would not be playing "Fairytale of New York" on his show, calling it a "nasty, nasty song" and "an offensive pile of downmarket chav bilge", although these remarks themselves drew criticism for classism. Other journalists have also criticised the song's lyrics.
In November 2020, the BBC again announced that Radio 1 would play a censored version with the words "faggot" and "slut" removed, while Radio 2 would play the original, and 6 Music presenters would each decide for themselves which version to play. In response musician Nick Cave accused the BBC of "mutilating" the song, stating it would be "stripped of its value". Meanwhile, The Pogues' official Twitter account responded to Laurence Fox's call to get the original to the top of the charts and "#DefundTheBBC" with, "Fuck off you little herrenvolk shite"
On 19 November 2020, PinkNews journalist Josh Milton described the seemingly annual argument over whether or not the use of the word "faggot" was offensive as "Britain's worst festive tradition".
In December 2020, an alternative version with MacColl singing "you're cheap and you're haggard", replacing the contentious line, was included in the compilation album TikTok Christmas.
Originally released in 1987, Fairytale Of New York is widely regarded as the greatest Christmas single never to have reached Christmas Number 1; so much so that this heartfelt tale of festive excess has re-entered the Official Christmas Singles Chart Top 20 every year for the past eight years.
The song was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland in November 1987 and swiftly became a hit, spending five weeks at Number 1 in the Irish charts. On 17 December 1987, the Pogues and MacColl performed the song on the BBC's television show Top of the Pops, and it was propelled to number two on the official UK Top 75. Although the song finished 1987 as the 48th best seller of the year despite only a month's sales, it was denied the UK Christmas number one by the Pet Shop Boys' synth-pop version of "Always on My Mind". MacGowan was reported to have said "We were beaten by two queens and a drum machine". MacColl later said that she did not feel they were really in competition with the Pet Shop Boys as they were doing a completely different type of music.
The song was re-released by the Pogues in the UK in 1991 (reaching #36), and again in the UK and Ireland for Christmas 2005, reaching number three in the UK. All proceeds from the latter release were donated towards a mixture of homeless charities and Justice for Kirsty, a campaign to find out the truth behind MacColl's death in 2000. Due to the eligibility of downloads to chart even without a physical release, coupled with a more recent further boost from streaming data, the song has re-entered the Top 75 every December since 2005. It has now made the Top 20 on eighteen separate occasions including seventeen times in successive years, and the Top 10 on nine separate occasions including individual runs of three and five successive years, feats that no other single can match. Its nineteen visits to the chart to date now total 106 weeks on the official UK Top 75 (as of w/e 6 January 2022), making it the fifth most charted song of all time. In late 2012 it was declared a UK million-seller. The song is considerably less well known in the US.
On 22 December 2005, the Pogues performed the song on a Friday Night with Jonathan Ross Christmas special on BBC One in the UK, with the female vocals taken by singer Katie Melua.
"Once upon a time a band set out to make a Christmas song. Not about snow or sleigh rides or mistletoe or miracles, but lost youth and ruined dreams. A song in which Christmas is as much the problem as it is the solution. A kind of anti-Christmas song that ended up being, for a generation, the Christmas song. It is loved because it feels more emotionally "real" than the homesick sentimentality of White Christmas or the bullish bonhomie of Merry Xmas Everybody, but it contains elements of both and the story it tells is an unreal fantasy of 1940s New York dreamed up in 1980s London."
"Fairytale of New York" was announced as The Nation's Favourite Christmas Song in a 90-minute special on ITV on 22 December 2012, following a UK-wide survey of ITV viewers, despite not being a Christmas song, merely set at Christmas. In the UK it is the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century. The song has featured in many UK-based surveys and polls:
In topping another UK poll in December 2014, The Independent states, "The poll is the latest in a number of surveys that has named "Fairytale of New York" the nation's favourite Christmas song." Comedian Bill Murray sang it in his 2015 television special A Very Murray Christmas. The song was the subject of BBC Radio 4's Soul Music series on 22 December 2015. In December 2017, singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran and Anne-Marie performed the song on BBC Radio 1's Live Lounge. In December 2018, Irish actress Saoirse Ronan and host Jimmy Fallon performed it on his talk show, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. In the BBC's Gavin & Stacey – Christmas Special, broadcast on Christmas Day 2019, Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon sang the uncensored version of the song as their characters Nessa Jenkins and Uncle Bryn.
The song was covered by American singer Jon Bon Jovi in 2020 as part of a three-track EP, A Jon Bon Jovi Christmas, and features re-written lyrics as well as Bon Jovi singing both vocal parts. The version was widely panned by both critics and fans, and labelled one of the worst songs of 2020 by several publications. The Pogues' Twitter account retweeted a post by Irish musician Rob Smith saying: "I have heard Bon Jovi’s cover of Fairytale Of New York. It’s the worst thing to ever happen music, and I am including both the murder of John Lennon and Brian McFadden’s solo career in there. This is worse!", adding "What Rob said". Steve Lillywhite, producer of the original track, additionally wrote, "The worst ever version of this song. Sorry Jon... embarrassing and pointless". However, MacGowan reportedly enjoyed the "interesting and soulful" cover, according to a tweet from his wife Victoria Mary Clarke.
Note: Shanne Bradley was one of MacGowan's bandmates in his previous group the Nips.
Live tracks recorded at Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow, 1987
Year end charts
|New Zealand (RMNZ)||Gold||10,000*|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||4× Platinum||2,400,000|
* Sales figures based on certification alone.
The poll is the latest in a number of surveys that has named "Fairytale of New York" the nation's favourite Christmas song.