GATHER around by the tree, children, and we’ll sing the words of Britain and Ireland’s favourite Christmas song: "You scumbag, you maggot. You cheap lousy faggot, Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last."
When it was released 25 years ago, the lyrics of the Pogues song Fairytale of New York did not make it an obvious candidate to become a classic, sung at Christmas parties and played ad nauseam at supermarket tills.
BBC Radio 1 dubbed out the words “faggot” and “slut” from the song’s broadcasts on its release, because they were deemed offensive. The opening line hardly seemed destined to inspire festive cheer: “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank…”
Now 25 years later, the Performing Rights Society has just revealed that it is now the most played Christmas song on radio stations, in pubs and in shops.
The song came together in a haphazard fashion over a two-year period with different writers, lyrics, producers and singers, and it was fortunate that the eventual classic recording saw the light of day. Originally, the song was due to begin: “It was a wild Christmas Eve on the West coast of Clare.”
We like to think of it as an Irish song, but the English could just as well lay claim to it. It was co-written by Shane MacGowan, a Kent-born public schoolboy with strong Irish roots, and Jem Finer from Stoke-on-Trent, with the female vocal by Kirsty McColl from Croydon. The Pogues were quintessentially London-Irish in style.
It is the earthy and redemptive quality of the song that gives it its lingering appeal. Like that other hardy annual, Stop the Cavalry by Jonah Lewie, it tells a story. Jem Finer, the co-writer, said in an interview with The Guardian recently that his wife came up with the tale of a couple who fell on hard times in New York. It was based on a true story.
As well as the verbal sparring between the “old slut on junk” and the “cheap lousy faggot”, there are touches of New York glamour with “Sinatra.. swinging” and the promise of “Broadway waiting for me”.
The title was taken from a JP Donleavy novel of the same name, but the song bears little relation to the book.
In its refrain, the song tells of the “boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay”. When the Pogues arrived in New York to shoot the video they discovered that the NYPD do not actually have a choir. Instead, they enlisted the NYPD Irish pipe band. They did not know Galway Bay, so they played the Mickey Mouse Club March instead.
The distinctive vocal style of Kirsty McColl, whose father Ewan wrote another classic Pogues recording Dirty Old Town (about Salford), is a vital part of the song’s success. But it could so easily have been someone else on female vocal.
Cait O’Riordan was originally meant to sing it, but left the band. Chrissie Hynde and Suzi Quatro were both touted as replacements before McColl took the microphone. She happened to be married to the producer, Steve Lillywhite.
Fairytale of New York is likely to be still around in 25 years’ time as an accompaniment to the December shopping rush. As a Christmas anthem it has stood the test of time, but the competition leaves something to be desired. Most of the other woeful yuletide ditties make us “Pray God’’ it’s their last.