Seven Songs for Christmas: The Pogues and Kirsty McColl, Fairytale of New York

A squabbling couple of washed-out, drug-addicted Broadway wannabes, Elvis Costello, gangster movies and crippling pneumonia hardly seem the stuff of Christmas, but they all played vital roles in the genesis of one of the great Christmas songs of all time.

That song is the Pogues? Fairytale of New York, a by turns brutal, sentimental, and soaringly beautiful song about a couple whose youthful dreams of Broadway have been dashed by a lifetime of alcohol, drugs and failure, fighting on a bitter New York Christmas Eve. Despite some of the most un-Christmasey language imaginable ? bum, punk, slut ? its tale of dreams, love, disillusion and hope springing eternal embodies the Christmas spirit just as much as Dickens, and has made it arguably the favourite Christmas song of a generation.

The origins of Fairytale are somewhat hazy: the Pogues? manager Frank Murray claims that a Christmas song was his idea, while Shane MacGowan asserts that it arose from a bet with then-producer Elvis Costello that they couldn?t write a Christmas hit. In the end, it took two years and several failed beginnings, but they more than delivered.

Guitarist Jem Finer first came up with a melody and lyrics, about an Irish sailor in New York pining for his wife at home. Fortunately for posterity, Finer?s wife Marcia panned the lyrics as corny. Challenged to come up with something better, she suggested a conversation between a couple fallen on hard times but finding redemption. ?I had written two songs,? Finer says. ?One had a good tune and crap lyrics, the other had the idea for Fairytale, but the tune was poxy?.

Finer handed both to MacGowan, who wrote most of the new lyrics while bedridden with double pneumonia. But, despite several efforts, the band were unhappy, and shelved the song. In the meantime, the Pogues toured America for the first time and ingested new ideas and experiences, including repeated viewings of Sergio Leone?s Once upon a time in America, whose Ennio Morricone soundtrack inspired the song?s melancholy piano intro.

Label and lineup troubles prevented further work on the song until mid-1987, when the band went into the studio again with new producer Steve Lillywhite. Lillywhite suggested his wife, Kirsty McColl, for the female half of the duet. McColl?s astonishing voice was the perfect contrast to MacGowan?s growl, and the vocal interplay weaves a magical bitter-sweetness that raises goosebumps even after 30 years.

From the pathos of the intro, as MacGowan laments ?Christmas Eve in the drunk tank?, the song swings into a c?ilidh waltz, with McColl?s angelic Irish lilt recalling the lost joy of the couple?s past hopes and dreams, when ?Sinatra was swinging?, even as the observation that, ?it?s no place for the old? foreshadows what is to come.

The song reaches its emotional nadir as the broken-down couple hurl insults at one another ? old slut on junk, scumbag, maggot, cheap lousy faggot ? before the woman snarls, ?Happy Christmas yer arse? and prays to God that its their last.

But after hitting rock bottom, like the winter sun igniting a snowy street, the chorus soars joyfully again: And the bells are ringing out for Christmas day! Finally, the bitter old couple find redemption with the realisation that they ?can?t make it all alone?, and the song fades into a long, lush orchestral coda that, like a Frank Capra film, would almost be twee if it wasn?t so damn beautiful.

In the end, the song never did quite make it to the Christmas Number One for 1987, finishing at Number Two. Yet, in the long run, there was indeed a better time in store: the song that did make number one, the Pet Shop Boys? Always on my mind, is now widely acknowledged as one of their worst, while Fairytale has gone on to be the fifth most charted song of all time.