If you’re a Brit, you’ll know the surest sign that Christmas is on its way is hearing “Fairytale Of New York” on the radio for the first time that year.
This unlikeliest of Christmas classics is a million miles away from the jangly bells and Christmas tree sparkles more often used to signify the joy and wonder of the festive season.
Christmas is a special time of year, and for centuries most families have traditions they return to year after year…a touchstone which reminds us of our own childhoods and which we, in turn, share with our own children so that, over time, we create the traditions that generations of our extended family associate with Christmas.
For some, of course, there’s the traditional carols (“Oh, Little Town Of Bethlehem” being my personal favourite)…the songs we sing in church, as we have done every year since we were old enough to read a hymnsheet.
Who can forget those childhood Christmases, singing Christmas carols, back when the magic of Santa Claus was something we still believed in…and hoped we’d been good enough every year to make sure Santa stopped off at our house as he made his way around the world…
Away from traditional Christmas carols, most the UK’s most popular Christmas pop songs were largely written in the early 1970s, for some reason, and still get revived every year…
Each December radio stations, nightclubs and shopping centres dust off their copies of Slade’s “Merry Xmas, Everybody”, Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas” and…my personal favourite…Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” and stick them on the turntable to tell shoppers, commuters and party-goers that Christmas is nearly here.
There are a few exceptions to that “ancient, or early 1970s” rule for Christmas song…
Maria Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is one of the best songs I think she’s ever recorded. It joined the “Great Christmas Songs” list in 1994…
1988 saw the release of Chris Rea’s “Driving Home For Christmas”…coincidentally the subject of the very first article I ever wrote about a song, albeit many years later….
And the year before that, in 1987, “Fairytale Of New York” by The Pogues Ft. Kirsty MacColl first saw the light of day.
Written by legendarily hard-living Shane MacGowan, front-man of the Pogues, together with Jem Finer, “Fairytale Of New York” takes a different view of the festive season than the more saccharine fare normally found in the pop charts at this time of year.
You know what follows will be anything but tinsel and mistletoe around a roaring log fire when Shane MacGowan slurs these opening lines to “Fairytale Of New York”…
It was Christmas Eve, babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me — won’t see another one
And then they sang a song
The rare old mountain dew
I turned my face away and dreamed about you
Without being unkind, Shane MacGowan carries these lines off better than just about anybody could as he’s got the voice, and appearance, of someone who sounds very much like he’s singing about his own personal experience of being in that situation.
While it’s not absolutely necessary for singers and songwriters to have experienced whatever they’re singing about, it’s often the case that, if they have, they bring a different, more knowing, quality to their performance.
Frank Sinatra didn’t need to actually get to the moon to carry off “Fly Me To The Moon” perfectly well, and I’m not sure Neil Armstrong could have done the vocal justice, in fairness.
So it’s not an absolute rule, but it gives the song a more intimate feel if the singer has based their performance on personal experience…or if, perhaps more accurately, if listeners believe they have.
For all I know, Shane MacGowan has never in his life spent Christmas Eve, specifically, in the drunk tank.
But are we prepared to believe that, at some point in his life, Shane MacGowan has had at least a passing encounter with a night sleeping off an overly-indulgent night in a backstreet bar somewhere under the temporary care of the forces of law and order?
Well that’s not something most of us would have much trouble imagining of him.
Either way, I certainly don’t believe another singer could have carried off the bittersweet opening lines of “Fairytale Of New York” with anything like the credibility Shane MacGowan brings to the song.
But every song needs different textures…light and shade…
And the late, great Kirsty MacColl’s light, bright, folkie voice is the perfect counterpoint to Shane MacGowan’s slurred, gravelly tones.
Things had started well…Kirsty MacColl takes us back to the start of their relationship…
They got cars big as bars
They got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It’s no place for the old
When you first took my hand on a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me Broadway was waiting for me
But as time’s gone on, let’s just say the early optimism in their relationship didn’t come to fruition in quite the way they’d both hoped it would.
There’s a section I won’t quote from, as we like to keep it a family show around here…even though the BBC are quite happy to play this song in its entirety on mainstream daytime radio at this time of year…
However it’s clear the two of them have become somewhat disillusioned in their relationship, and in one another, since those far-off days when the Christmas lights first sparkled in their eyes for one another.
After the two protagonists trade insults for a while, “Fairytale Of New York” settles into a more wistful mood…they think back to what they had, and what might have been…
Here’s where Kirsty MacColl really earns her money — she shifts from a verbal slugging match with Shane MacGowan into something just soft enough to make us realise she’s hurting too, and that her “tough nut” exterior is just how she keeps herself together as she goes through life…
(Shane) I could have been someone
(Kirsty) Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
(Shane)I kept them with me, babe
I’ve put them with my own
Can’t make it all alone
I’ve built my dreams around you
This is the most poignant section of “Fairytale Of New York” for me. These are two people with hopes and dreams just like the rest of us. They try their best, and perhaps catastrophically mess up along the way, but they’re doing the best they can do. Which is all any of us can ask for.
In recent years, the number of people, especially the elderly or disabled who spend each Christmas on their own have…rightly…become a source of concern for society as a whole.
But there’s another group of people who might not be physically on their own, but who in their minds are completely alone in the world at Christmas, and in fact for the rest of the year too.
I know they’re harder to spot, and accept that, with a few obvious exceptions, it’s almost certainly better to be around someone than no-one.
For them, Christmas is one of the saddest times of the year. For whatever reason, they can’t be with their family and friends…they’ve become estranged…drifted apart…fallen out…for one of many possible reasons.
But they can’t be with the people who would make Christmas special…it just becomes an exercise in getting through the festive season, doing their best to keep things together as parties and celebrations go on all around them…without ever feeling involved in the parties and celebrations because they can’t spend time with the people they care about the most.
That’s certainly true for me, and perhaps that’s why I feel such an affinity with “Fairytale Of New York”…the finest bittersweet tale imaginable, wrapped around the time of year when everyone expects to have a great time and enjoy life with friends and family. But not everybody does…
No wonder the creative ‘tour de force’ that is “Fairytale Of New York” has been the UK’s most played Christmas song of the 21st century. It regularly tops the listings of the UK’s favourite Christmas songs, and whilst it’s never made it to the Number One slot in the charts, it has outlived and outsold, over the years, most of the songs which have.
And “Fairytale Of New York” has a bittersweet parallel in real life too…
Kirsty MacColl tragically died on holiday in 2000 after putting herself in the way of a speeding boat to protect her son. While Shane MacGowan, whose lifestyle has been a cross between that of Hunter S. Thompson and Keith Richards is still going strong as he approaches pension age.
Maybe it’s the memory of a young woman whose life was cut short saving her own son that endears “Fairytale Of New York” to the British public…
Maybe it’s the wonderfully crafted lyrics, the vignette of a relationship that asks us to examine whether we’ve ever really lived out the dreams we had in our teens and 20s…
Maybe it’s the exquisite light and shade between the vocals of Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan…
Maybe it’s a little bit of all those things…
At any rate, what I do know is the surest sign that it’s nearly Christmas again is when I hear “Fairytale Of New York” on the radio again.
There’s not a dry eye in the house as Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan sing…
The boys of the NYPD choir’s still singing “Galway Bay”
And the bells are ringing out
For Christmas Day
Here’s The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl with the greatest Christmas song ever written…at least as far as the UK listening public is concerned…it’s “Fairytale Of New York”…
The video is below but, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/3VTNVsTTu05dmTsVFrmGpK
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.