How the ultimate Fairytale [of New York] came true thirty years ago
Thirty years after the release of what's for many the ultimate Christmas anthem 'Fairytale of New York', Damian Corless recalls scampi and chips with Kirsty MacColl
Once in blue moon, pop music conjures up a cosmic alignment of star quality, melody, lyric, arrangement and emotional heft, all chiming in perfect harmony. Thirty years ago, Christmas 1987 produced one of these magic moments in 'Fairytale of New York' by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.
On first hearing, I deemed the raggle-taggle playing too clunky, and the ragged singing too hokey. I even wagered a work colleague a tenner that it wouldn't make Number 1. 'Fairytale' duly stalled at Number 2, held off by The Pet Shop Boys' camp, swooshy version of 'Always on My Mind'.
Pocketing my winnings back at work in January, it somehow felt like taking dirty money. It was already dawning that 'Fairytale' - itself written for a bet - was different, special, something closely fitting the description of music of the spheres. As Pogue James Fearnley noted: "It's like Fairytale went off and inhabited its own planet."
Some months later I'm ringing the doorbell of a London studio to meet Kirsty MacColl. I'm ushered inside by Steve, a fresh-faced youth I take to be the studio gofer. He says Kirsty is on her way and makes me a coffee. Bustling through the door she plants a big smacker on Steve's lips. Doh! The gofer is hubby Steve Lillywhite, producer of U2, The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads and The Smiths.
We go to dinner, scampi and chips all round, and Kirsty tells how 'Fairytale' has given her a new lease of life. Steve, who produced the classic, is content to tuck in, a model of quiet modesty.
Once a Top of the Pops regular, Kirsty's career derailed in the mid-80s after her record label went bust. Most acts would put together a tour to plug the gap until a new deal came along, but she'd been afflicted with crippling stage fright caught on her very first tour - a confidence-shattering jaunt around Ireland's ballrooms during her first flush of fame.
Mallow stage fright
"I was dreadful. I was so completely scared by the whole experience that I swore I would never again put myself or an audience through that again," she recalled.
"I just wasn't ready. I was under-rehearsed, I'd never fronted a band before and the first place we got to was Mallow where I found myself staring out at 1,800 people and I just panicked! The audience just looked bemused throughout. It was torture for everybody."
Her electrifying performance as Shane MacGowan's foil had restored her self-confidence and a touring comeback was now in sight for a woman who wasn't the first choice for 'Fairytale', nor even the second. Success has many parents, and 'Fairytale' has several creation stories, but the most widely accepted is that Shane and co-writer Jem Finer accepted a bet from producer Elvis Costello that they couldn't write a non-slushy Christmas duet for Shane and Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan. Cait was Elvis's squeeze at the time.
The wager was made in 1985, along with a rough demo. There followed two frustrating years of chopping and changing, the jigsaw pieces refusing to fit. "I don't think the band was capable of playing it as it needed to be played at that point," Finer reflected. "Shane and I batted arrangements around for ages and we'd periodically try to record it."
MacGowan added: "Every night I used to have another bash at nailing the lyrics, but I knew they weren't right. It is by far the most complicated song I have ever been involved in writing and performing. The beauty of it is that it sounds really simple."
The following year, 1986, The Pogues arrived in New York for their debut US tour. After their first show, Hollywood's hottest new brat-packer Matt Dillon kissed Shane's hand backstage and gushed: "I dig your shit man, I love your shit!" A year later Dillon would play a New York cop in the video shoot for 'Fairytale'.
Back home, Cait announced she was quitting the band for a life of wedded bliss with Costello. Steve Lillywhite was drafted in to produce, and he elegantly solved the two-year-old problem of how to join the detached sections of Shane and Jem; record them separately and he'd knit them in the edit.
Shane had Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders in mind for his bawdy lover, but they'd need a guide vocal while they built the track.
Steve suggested Kirsty. She was well known, well liked, and she was in a good place right then, having come up with the running order for the gazillion-selling Joshua Tree when U2 couldn't make up their minds.
Lillywhite recorded Kirsty's guide vocal over a weekend in his home studio. "I spent a whole day on Kirsty's vocals," he recalled. "I made sure every single word had exactly the right nuance. I remember taking it in on Monday morning and playing it to the band and they were just dumbfounded."
Her vocal was so good that Shane felt shamed into rerecording his own. Chrissie Hynde was out. "I was madly in love with Kirsty from the first time I saw her on Top of the Pops," Shane said. "She was a genius in her own right and she was a better producer than Steve! She could make a song her own and she made 'Fairytale' her own."
The title came last. Elvis had suggested 'Christmas Day in the Drink Tank'. Shane nixed it on the grounds it didn't sound like a hit. Finer was reading JP Donleavy's 1973 novel A Fairy Tale of New York, so they lifted that as a warmer, festive choice.
The song tells of "the boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay". Lacking a choir, the NYPD were happy to lend their pipe band for the video. They didn't know Galway Bay so they played 'The Mickey Mouse Club March' instead. With a sprinkle of studio magic, the end product was a memorable video worthy of an enchanting song.
Years later, with political correctness going madder by the day, the BBC blanked the words "faggot" and "slut" from airplays, before a public backlash forced a speedy U-turn.
The beauty of 'Fairytale', the thing that sets it apart from all those smooth and cheery Christmas classics, is its poignant portrayal of flawed humanity in all its earthiness, its rawness and ultimately in all its loving tenderness.
The closing verse is magnificent poetry in motion.
Him: I could have been someone.
Her: Well so could anyone/You took my dreams from me/
When I first found you.
Him: I kept them with me babe/I put them with my own/
Can't make it all alone/I've built my dreams around you.
Timeless is what they were going for from the start. It took them two years, but timeless is what they got.
Christmas classics that never made No1
Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
John Lennon & Yoko Ono (1972)
The ex-Beatle borrowed the trad ballad ‘Skewball’ for this protest against the Vietnam war. It was denied the top spot first by Little Jimmy Osmond’s ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’, and, following his murder in 1980, by St Winifred’s School Choir with ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’.
I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday
Masterminded by Move and ELO founder Roy Wood, this sax-driven classic has charted 13 times since its original release, including the last 10 years unbroken. In its first bid for the Christmas No1 slot, it lost out to Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’.
I Believe In Father Christmas
Greg Lake (1975)
A departure from the comical bombast of his day job with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, this gentle ditty has become a standard. Lake called it a protest against the commercialisation of Christmas, then griped when it was far outsold by Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy
David Bowie & Bing Crosby (1982)
Bing’s ‘White Christmas’ is the biggest selling song of all time, while this standard is amongst Bowie’s bestsellers. Recorded in 1977, it was kept at No3 in 1982 by Renée and Renato and Ultravox. Bing died four weeks after recording it.
This was destined for the Christmas No1 slot from the moment George Michael pulled the naïve melody out of fresh air. It was kept down by Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’, on which he starred. He died on Christmas Day last year, and it’s the bookies’ favourite to take its rightful place this year.