Released in time for Christmas of 1987, The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” peaked at #2 on the UK charts and subsequently reached the UK Top 10 four times over three consecutive years. As a result it remains one of the most popular contemporary Christmas records of the last 25 years.
What is brilliant about “Fairytale of New York” is how The Pogues turned their fast and furious mix of traditional Irish music with punky attitude and turned it inwards, delivering an Irish folk ballad with terse back and forth exchanges between singer Shane MacGowan and guest vocalist Kirsty MacColl who prey on the listeners emotions for almost four minutes.
It punches all of the smarmy Christmas songs in the face with brilliant lyrics like “Happy Christmas your arse I pray God it’s our last,” which remain unparalleled in pop history. “Fairytale of New York” has become timeless because it was made by the right band in the right place at the right time. The Pogues capitalized on the fact that the Christmas season can be lonely and rough and plays on that theme against the grain of traditional pop balderdash fed to us by the record industry.
On the surface the song places MacGowan and MacColl as a displaced Irish couple with a somewhat ambiguous history bickering over the holidays. But beneath that veneer lies a powerfully twisted yet tender holiday love song. MacGowan, stuck in the drunk tank in the Big Apple on Christmas Eve, growls and rasps his way through his lyrics with a sense of forlorn and melancholy not seen as blatantly in any of his previous work. Is he really sorry or is the booze catching up with him? MacColl holds up her end as the victim using her melodious voice to convey bitterness tainted with a sense of awkward sarcastic charm. As they kick and scream and call each other names, the band plays behind them underpinned by a swirling string arrangement that punctuates the duoâ€™s dramatic antics.
The video is masterpiece in its own right own. It’s filmed in smoky black and white and features a cameo by Matt Dillon as McGowan’s jailer. To this day rumors abound about the video shoot and how smashed the band was, relying on Dillon to smooth things over with the cops. It also is one of those videos that actually fit the song. It captures the essence of the relationship between the vocalists visually while also bringing in elements of Irish experience in New York.
The Pogues were also at the center of controversy last year when Radio One censored the song lyrics. However much ado was made and the Beeb finally relented agreeing to play the song in its original context.
The measure of any good record is staying power. That is why “Fairytale of New York” still resonates today. In true Pogues fashion they stick a big middle finger out to the holiday and tell it to kiss their ass. There’s no cause to aid, no yuletide mirth, no trumpets of joy or fancy presents. There is just booze, drugs, spite, loneliness and misery, all wrapped in a snuggly blanket of lost opportunities, broken dreams and broken hearts. And really…isn’t that what the holidays are all about?