Scumbags and maggots - the story of 'Fairytale of New York'
As The Pogues' bittersweet Christmas anthem turns 25, Dorian Lynskey tells the story of how 'Fairy tale of New York' became an unlikely festive favourite
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 ultimate Christmas song.
Fairytale of New York by the Pogues has just been reissued to mark its 25th anniversary; it has re-entered Britain's top 20 chart every December since 2005, and shows no sign of losing its appeal. 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.
The story of the song is a yarn in itself: how it took more than two years to get right and became, over time, far bigger than the people who made it. As Pogues accordion player James Fearnley says: "It's like Fairytale of New York went off and inhabited its own planet."
Appropriately for a song that pivots on an argument, there is disagreement as to where the idea originated. Fearnley, who recently published a memoir, Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues, remembers manager Frank Murray suggesting that they cover the Band's Christmas Must be Tonight. "It was an awful song. We probably said, f*** that, we can do our own."
Singer Shane MacGowan maintains that Elvis Costello, who produced the Pogues' 1985 masterpiece Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, wagered the singer that he couldn't write a Christmas duet to sing with bass player (and Costello's future wife) Cait O'Riordan. Either way, a Christmas song was a good idea. "For a band like the Pogues, very strongly rooted in all kinds of traditions rather than the present, it was a no-brainer," says banjo player and co-writer Jem Finer. Plus, MacGowan was born on Christmas Day in 1957.
The Pogues had formed amid the grimy pubs and bedsits of central London's King's Cross in 1982. Although their name ( Pogue mahone means "kiss my a***" in Gaelic) and many of their influences were Irish, most of the band weren't, and their interest in folk songs and historical narratives roamed far and wide. They aspired to timelessness.
Finer first tried writing a song about a sailor missing his wife at Christmas, but that was dashed on the rocks by his own wife, Marcia Farquhar, who called it "corny", says Finer. "So I said OK, you suggest a storyline and I'll write another one. The basic plotline came from her: this idea of a couple falling on hard times and coming eventually to some redemption." He says there's a "secret history" to the story, "a true story of some mutual friends living in New York".
MacGowan, whose contribution to this piece comes from a dialogue written by long-term partner and biographer Victoria Mary Clarke, declines to elaborate: "Really, the story could apply to any couple who went anywhere and found themselves down on their luck."
While Finer retained the up-tempo reel from his abandoned maritime tale, MacGowan worked on the slower verses and chorus. The singer had never seen New York but it was on his mind. As the Pogues toured Europe in autumn 1985, they almost wore out a video of Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone's epic tale of Jewish mobsters in interwar New York. (Ennio Morricone's elegiac title theme seeped into Fairytale's opening melody: don't all good fairytales start with "Once upon a time"?)
A short time later, in February 1986, the Pogues finally made it to New York, to start their first US tour, and they weren't disappointed. "It was a hundred times more exciting in real life than we ever dreamed it could be!" says MacGowan. "It was even more like New York than the movies!" It was a year later that Murray approached U2 producer Steve Lillywhite to helm the next Pogues album. The sessions at London's RAK studios in the unusually hot summer of 1987 went so well the band decided to have a crack at Fairytale. Told that they were struggling to blend Finer's and MacGowan's sections, Lillywhite's solution was absurdly simple: record them separately and edit them together later. "It was a beautiful time," says Lillywhite. "I got the Pogues when they were really firing and before too much craziness got involved. As long as I got them early in the day it was great."
Only one hurdle remained. O'Riordan had left the band in October 1986, leaving nobody to complete the duet. "I think at some point almost any female with a voice was a contender," Finer says, mentioning fellow RAK clients Chrissie Hynde (feasible) and Suzi Quatro (less so). "One person I certainly hadn't thought of was Kirsty [MacColl] and I don't think anyone else had."
"They weren't 100 per cent convinced that Kirsty was the right person," says Lillywhite, who was married to MacColl. She was well-liked but her solo career was becalmed due to stage fright and contractual problems. Lillywhite suggested recording MacColl's part at his home studio over the weekend and seeing what the band thought. "I spent a whole day on Kirsty's vocals. I made sure every single word had exactly the right nuance. I remember taking it in on Monday morning and playing it to the band and they were just dumbfounded."
But MacGowan, who was so impressed that he re-did his own vocals, insists: "I was madly in love with Kirsty from the first time I saw her on Top of the Pops. She was a genius in her own right and she was a better producer than he was. She could make a song her own and she made Fairytale her own." (Since MacColl's death in 2000, her part has been taken by singers including Sinead O'Connor, Cerys Matthews, Katie Melua, Victoria Clarke and Finer's daughter Ella.)
In the finished version the story finally acquires the ring of truth, but it's still teasingly elliptical. Does the argument take place after the man leaves the drunk tank or does the whole song unfold in his sozzled head? And can we trust the narrator anyway? "The guy is a bum who is living on the street," MacGowan says. "And he's just won on a horse at the unlikely odds of 18-to-one, so you're not even sure he is telling the truth." He says both characters are versions of himself. "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. I have been in hospitals on morphine drips, and I have been in drunk tanks on Christmas Eve."
The song's brilliance is sealed by its final verse when MacGowan protests: "I could have been someone", and MacColl shoots back: "Well, so could anyone." Then MacColl accuses: "You took my dreams from me," and MacGowan responds, with all the warmth he's been withholding: "I kept them with me babe/I put them with my own." So in its final iteration the chorus is no longer a tauntingly ironic reminder of better times but the tentative promise of reconciliation.
"You really don't know what is going to happen to them," says MacGowan. "The ending is completely open."
This Christmas, as the song enters the British charts for the 10th time, the Pogues will play a show to celebrate their 30th anniversary. Although they fired MacGowan in 1991 ("What took you so long?" he replied), they reunited a decade later. So Fairytale of New York has ended up being a parable of the band's life together: the youthful optimism, the bitter recriminations, the uncertain detente.
"We told a similar story ourselves," Fearnley says. "We've all had hopes and we've had our conflicts, but there's some other damn thing that's binding us all together and hopefully always will."
The ending is completely open.
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