A heroin addict, an alcoholic, death and a couple who hate each other.
The perfect material for a Christmas song? It shouldn’t work, but Fairytale of New York has once again been voted the greatest Christmas song.
The Pogues 1987 classic has beaten off Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You and Wham’s Last Christmas to be voted the best Christmas track ever produced. One in four of 2,000 adults surveyed in the poll by Blinkbox chose it.
It is the most downloaded song every Christmas. But why?
I believe because it resonates with all of us. A bittersweet Christmas tale with a sliver of hope, mirrors reality more than all the slushy ballads.
As Shane MacGowan said: “The song itself is quite depressing in the end, it’s about these old Irish-American Broadway stars who are sitting round at Christmas talking about whether things are going okay.”
I think that Irish people can all too readily connect with the loving, hopeless drunk at Christmas.
The anti-hero in a drunk tank is quite unlike Bing Crosby sitting by the fire with his pipe dreaming of a White Christmas.
Fairytale of New York works because it hits Christmas memories. Who hasn’t rowed with a loved one at Christmas?
Many Irish people can identify with an alcoholic at Christmas, if not a heroin addict.
But the key thing it has is that despite being desperately sad, there is also a hint of reconciliation for the couple.
We all want that hope at Christmas no matter how downtrodden some of our dreams might be.
This Christmas classic, apart from its brilliant lyrics, has a very unusual musical form.
Fairytale is in reality two songs in one: the slow mournful piano-based one and the ceilidh ballad it merges into.
This reflects the story of a drunk dreaming of the past only to be interrupted by the bitter call and answer routine as his lover reminds him of his present sins.
The song takes off with accordion and full Ceilidh whack. That Irish ballad feel allows the communal singing which is intrinsic to its popularity.
Most of us have sung along with the line “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay”.
Shane MacGowan believes that musical mix is key to the songs success: “I sat down, opened the sherry, got the peanuts out and pretended it was Christmas. It’s quite sloppy, but there’s also a céilidh bit in the middle which you can definitely dance to. Like a country and Irish ballad, but one you can do a brisk waltz to, especially when you’ve got about three of these [drinks] inside you.”
FairyTale of New York is also a duet, unlike most Christmas songs. And the late Kirsty McColl is key to its success.
Shane MacGowan credits her: “Kirsty knew exactly the right measure of viciousness and femininity and romance to put into it and she had a very strong character and it came across in a big way. It’s what the woman does that really matters. The man lies, the woman tells the truth.”
Another key to its success is the setting – how many of us know people who have emigrated to the States?
The couple in Fairytale set off with dreams and become disillusioned.
The cold of New York is set against the warmth of their dreams.
Fairytale of New York works because it hits everything about us, our relationships and our families.
One of the Pogues, Jim Fearnley, said as much when talking about the song and the band: “We’ve all had hopes and we’ve had our conflicts, but there’s some other damn thing that’s binding us all together and hopefully always will.”
Eamon Keane plays Triskel-Christchurch in Cork tonight at 8pm