Here's why 'Fairytale of New York' is the true sound of Christmas
It's entirely appropriate that Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan was born on Christmas Day because his celebrated song Fairytale Of New York seems to be just about everybody's favourite festive piece of music.
Polls about the song have been as plentiful as mince pies: it is the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century; the best to cook to; the best to drive to; the best to dance with your mother-in-law to (OK, I made up that one). The polls are harmless and meaningless. Heinz Frozen UK announced in 2011 that the Pogues' classic was the nations' "favourite Christmas song to cook to". Poor old Bing Crosby's White Christmas song was past its sell-by-date, apparently.
More significantly, the 1987 song by the Pogues – once censored by the BBC for its raw language – was announced as the most-played Christmas song of the century by music licensing body PPL, leapfrogging Wham's Last Christmas. Fairytale of New York certainly still sells in big numbers. It has been in the Christmas Top 20 over seven different years and went back into the UK charts in 2014, thanks in part to support from streaming services.
My advice is to forget polls or charts and just enjoy again a really cracking, funny song, the title of which was taken from a 1973 novel called A Fairytale of New York by James Patrick Donleavy, about the Irish experience in America in the early 1950s. JP Donleavy's book was something of a cult one.
The author later said he had always been perplexed by the fact that when the book came out "not one review appeared in any Irish newspaper". Elvis Costello, who produced the Pogues' brilliant 1985 album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, had suggested calling the song Christmas Day in the Drunk Tank but MacGowan did not think this was right. The singer asked the novelist if he could use the title of his book. Donleavy later said he loved the song but "realised straight away that it didn't really have anything to do with my book".
The magical lyrics of MacGowan and banjo player Jem Finer – allied to the verve of the band and the fine vocals by the sadly missed Kirsty MacColl – make it something special and enduring. "It was the perfect time, and the perfect female singer,” MacGowan says about the success of that song. “But it was kept off the top of the charts in England by the worst record the Pet Shop Boys ever made”.
Back then, MacGowan was praised from all quarters; his fans included Hollywood star Matt Dillon (who appeared as a cop in the video accompanying the song), and celebrated songwriters such as Tom Waits, who once simply gushed, “Shane has the gift. I believe him.”
Fairytale of New York retains its appeal. Comedian Bill Murray sang it in his 2015 television special A Very Murray Christmas, including the killer lines, when MacGowan protests, "I could have been someone", and MacColl answers: "Well, so could anyone."
So an undeniably memorable song, but is it one for cooking to? No. Isn't Fairytale of New York best enjoyed drink in hand, as you sway and sing with friends at a boisterous party? Altogether now:
You're a bum,
you're a punk,
you're an old slut on junk,
lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed.
you cheap lousy faggot,
happy Christmas your arse,
I pray God it's our last
The boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay,
and the bells were ringing out, for Christmas day.