By Joel Francis
There aren’t many Christmas songs set in jail, but dang if songwriter Shane McGowan and the Pogues don’t turn lockdown sunny side up during the four and a half minutes of “Fairytale of New York.”
“Fairytales” opens famously on Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. As an old man sings and mourns his last Christmas, the narrator’s mind drifts to a Christmas Eve with the love of his life.
McGowan paints a vivid picture of that day in the New World with “cars big as bars,” “rivers of gold,” and a wind that “goes right through you.” After exploring the Big Apple together, the pair stumbled into a place where
“Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing.
We kissed on a corner,
Then danced through the night.”
Irish composer Fiachra Trench’s string arrangement captures perfectly the hope of the moment and excitement of a new life in a new world. During the subsequent verses, love fades and is replaced by drunkenness and addiction. But even as the couple exchanges insults, they keep returning to that Christmas Eve when the choir sang and the bells rang out.
Guest singer Kirsty MacColl appears as the woman in the story. Her melodic voice is a nice counterpoint to McGowan’s gruff brogue. MacColl’s part was originally written for Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan. That plan fell through in 1986, when O’Riordan absconded with Elvis Costello, who was producing the band’s second album.
When the group hired Steve Lillywhite to produce their third album, he suggested MacColl, his wife at the time, to sing guide vocals on a demo until the band could find a replacement. McGowan liked her part so much she was asked to sing on the record.
Released in December, 1987, “Fairytale of New York” has become a holiday staple. In 2005 the song was re-released as a single, to benefit “Justice for Kirsty,” a crusade to uncover the truth behind MacColl’s 2000 death in a controversial boating accident.
“Fairytale of New York” has been covered numerous times, but never improved.