The Pogues are a band who stretch back into the mystic depths of music’s past. When the eighties swung around in a swathe of synth-pop sedation, The Pogues were one of the few bands around who seemed to scurry off into history and the old folk origins that first led the way. In short, traditions rule the roost in the band’s unfurling mythology, so perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that they crafted Christmas’ finest classic.
However, the song itself is somewhat of an oddity. On the one hand, it is certainly one of the songs that don’t seem to have been written in the traditional sense; like some berserk 1990s Nic Cage movie, some songs seem like they had to be created to save the world from slipping into a doomed alternate reality. The festive anthem is simply too deeply entwined with society to imagine the human race without it. From the first guttural wail of “It was Christmas Eve, babe” you know pure timelessness will soon unspool, and the title is so ubiquitous that scientists ought to check that the lyrics aren’t programmed somewhere in our DNA when they finally get a spare five minutes. In other words, can you really imagine Christmas without it?
In fact, it adds credence to Hoagy Carmichael’s notion of fishing songs from the floating ether when he described songwriting as follows: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.” As the band’s accordion player, James Fearnley, remarks: “It’s like ‘Fairytale of New York’ went off and inhabited its own planet.”
On the other hand, the song seems to forgo the usual cheesy tropes of camp Christmas crackers and gets down to the nitty-gritty drunk tank, albeit it does still occasionally gaze at the stars from its decided perch in the spirit sodden gutter. The duet is as scathing as they come, as Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan vent their festive spleen in a tale of loss, yearning and the lament of squandered youth. And that handbags tale was woven into the song from the very start.
The initial impetus for the track originated in a row of its own. As Fearnley recalls, the band’s manager wanted the band to break into the Christmas market with a cover of the little-known track ‘Christmas Must Be Tonight’ by The Band. Needless to say, Fearnley and his fellows didn’t think it was one of their best. “It was an awful song,” Fearnley remarked, “We probably said, f*** that, we can do our own.”
Thus, the notion of writing an original song out of spite was firmly in the air. Jem Finer, The Pogues multi-instrumentalist, initially got the ball rolling by trying to write a Christmas song about a love-sick sailor who misses his wife while out at sea, but his own dearly beloved wife quickly wrecked his floated idea. “So I said, okay,” Finer recalls, “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.” And her storyline was based on “mutual friends living in New York”.
With the help of MacGowan, who seems to slip into the song like a glass slipper, the anthem began to take shape. When Finer pitched New York as the setting based on the warring couple that he and his partner knew, MacGowan was happy to go along with it after he developed a fascination with the cinematic notion of the town thanks to obsessive re-watches of the film Once Upon a Time in America on tour. That epic film is four hours long, that’s quite a lot of time to sit through, and ‘Fairytale of New York’ would follow suit as MacGowan sweated over the anthem for two years.
If that sounds like a literary allegory for the coaxing timelessness from painstaking devotion, the literature would later enter the welter in a much more direct sense. The drifting snow in the shimmering Big Apple was a motif that MacGowan lifted from JP Donleavy’s 1961 novel of the same name and saw The Pogues gain another hefty dose of fandom.
The song is very keenly attached to the novel, using many of the same characters in the song as in the book, which focuses on two Irish immigrants trying to make it in New York. It could have seen MacGowan and the band in hot water, if not for Shane’s father. The author told the Daily Mail in 2009: “Technically I could have taken legal action for piracy but as I know Shane MacGowan – I believe his father is a fan of my work – I decided not to bother.”
Thus, the song finally began to take form and it was whisked into a studio with none other than Elvis Costello on production duties. Therein, MacGowan gave the performance of his life, in an almost literal sense. Throughout the songwriting process, he exposed the true duality of his character. “I identified with the man because I was a hustler,” he said, “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.”
This is also reflected on by Finer who said: “A stable perception was never reachable as to whether Shane was a genius or a f***ing idiot.” It is human to be both and that is luminously illustrated in the song, as well as its final message of a sense of redemption. However, even this seems fragile. “You really don’t know what is going to happen to them,” MacGowan suggest. “The ending is completely open.”
And it is this open-ended final note too, that lends the anthem a certain beauty. There is so much of the song that happens outside of the lyrics, verses and vignettes contained therein. Year on year, our own personal corroboration are conjured as reimaginings of the drunk tank scenes keeping the amorphous beast forever changing, forever fresh and forever woven into the fabric of Christmas as you get older, younger or wiser to the ways of the world.
Whether that be MacGowan coming clean about his lucky 18/1 lie or you believe him and picture him down at the track clutching his winning ticket like a crucifix, or else you see him wandering around New York in search of the sound of MacColls staggering boot-heels before intoxication seized his momentum and days of their dancing youth as they bumbled into bars like good-time bandits – it’s not there in the song, but it’s certainly stirred up by what is. All culminating in one of the most beautiful lines in music: “I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own” – as an entire relationship unfurls in 5 minutes of song from the wherefores of the sanguine past, the drunk tank present, the Christmas morning ahead and beyond.
As Nick Cave wrote of the song: “Truly great songs that are as emotionally powerful as ‘Fairytale of New York’ are very rare indeed. Fairytale is a lyrical high wire act of dizzying scope and potency, and it rightly takes its place as the greatest Christmas song ever written. It stands shoulder to shoulder with any great song, from any time, not just for its sheer audacity, or its deep empathy, but for its astonishing technical brilliance.”