Carol Clerk’s Pogues biography, Pogue Mahone: Kiss My Arse, was published in 2006, and among those she interviewed were Shane MacGowan, Spider Stacy, Jem Finer, Andrew Ranken, James Fearnley and Cait O'Riordan, as well as manager Frank Murray and Stiff Records staff. MacGowan held out for a long time, eventually agreeing to meet Carol in his favourite bar, The Boogaloo in North London, very late one night. Settling down with a plate of fish and a glass of wine, MacGowan was less than gracious, appearing at first to have forgotten why Carol was there in the first place. “What fucking book?” were his opening words, even though several earlier meetings with Carol had been scheduled and aborted and the other Pogues had told him many times about the book. Indeed, “What fucking book?” are the opening words to Carol’s masterful biography.
The Pogues’ greatest song, of course, is ‘Fairytale Of New York’, now widely acclaimed as the greatest Christmas song ever. In the first of two extracts from Pogue Mahone: Kiss My Arse, we look at the genesis of the song and, in tomorrow’s second extract, how it was recorded.
The Pogues had decided to record a Christmas single. In the second half of 1985, in between bouts of touring, they’d been rehearsing and recording a number of new songs with Elvis Costello, some of which would materialise on the ‘Poguetry In Motion’ EP.
Frank Murray had given each group member a tape of a song by The Band, ‘Christmas Must Be Tonight’, suggesting that it might be an ideal cover. Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer had other thoughts, setting their minds to an original composition. MacGowan was dreaming of something sumptuous, with strings, while Finer chewed over ideas for lyrics and melodies. It may have been a deliberate attempt to write a seasonal hit record, but whatever they came up with, it had to have quality too.
Finer had only just mastered the art of writing full-length instrumentals. Now he intended to venture into whole, structured songs.
“I thought the idea of a cover was a bloody stupid one,” he says. “We thought, ‘If we’re going to do a Christmas song, let’s write one. Come on – we’re songwriters! Why do someone else’s song that isn’t even very good?’
“The idea had been knocking around for a while of Shane and Cait doing a duet. I wrote one song, a duet. It’s embarrassing to think about, ’cos it wasn’t very good. At that time, I’d started to write songs without words – a melody and chords and instrumental bits – or songs with words which I’d always expect Shane to rewrite because his lyrics were going to be better than mine. So I’d written this duet with crap words. Often, I’d try out my new material at home on Marcia. On this occasion, I played her this song. It was very banal, a miserable song about a sailor being away from home. He was singing his bit and his wife or lover back home was singing her bit. I think at the end he committed suicide or something. Rubbish. Marcia said the sailor romance thing was naff, that it didn’t ring true and how Christmas was always a battle with the true events or circumstances of anyone’s life – the way the call to have fun, go shopping, kiss under the mistletoe and all that crap appears like some evil spotlight and only shows up how miserable, poor or furious you might be in your circumstances.
“I said, ‘Okay, well you tell me a better story.’ I remember her saying that I should think of something that was more like the sort of song I’d want to hear. She suggested a couple having a row at the time of peace and goodwill, trying to crank up some Christmas spirit but failing and fighting, lost in recriminations about money and other disillusions. The guy takes what they have got, and he’s meant to be out buying stuff for Christmas. He goes out to the bookies and the pub and he drinks and gambles it away, which causes an altercation. But she warned that the song shouldn’t end on a bleak note and there should definitely be some kind of redemption for the end of the story, that it should end in a weird romantic truce that just couldn’t be helped, a little glimmer of uncanny hope amidst the torture of packaged party time. I thought, ‘Okay, I take the point.’
“I wrote a second song which had that plot to it. It was based on the people who lived across the street from us. We went into the studio and we rehearsed ‘Body Of An American’ and, I think, ‘London Girl’. I took these two songs of mine along. Shane took them away and he wrote ‘Fairytale Of New York’ using the melody of the first song I’d written and the storyline of the second one, which he then transposed to New York, and he made it into what it is now.
“So then we had this embryonic ‘Fairytale’ which we tried to record, with Cait singing, and it just didn’t really work. The arrangement was all wrong. It was far too complex. It was a very ambitious song for us. It really was aspiring to new levels of sophistication. We just couldn’t play it well enough and the lyrics needed more juggling around.”
Philip Chevron adds: “I think Shane and Jem always knew it was going to be a big song if they could get it right. The Elvis [Costello] recording is very obviously an early draft of the lyric. Some quite significant bits aren’t yet in the song. It just talked to me. It started out with this grand scheme to include quotes from other songs, although the only ones left are ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘Once Upon A Time In America’, the theme from the film.
“Shane had this vision of a huge, Sinatra-esque ballad. Elvis was the wrong person to get it. His work on ‘Fairytale’ isn’t great. He doesn’t attempt to put any shape in it. We needed to recruit somebody who was not a musician but a producer to come at it from a different angle.”
The Pogues abandoned the song for the time being, and it would not see a release that Christmas. But they kept returning to it in rehearsals and in recording sessions, experimenting with the arrangement while MacGowan worked away at the lyrics, refining and redefining them. It would take a long time to get the song the way they wanted it, and another age to get it into the studio for recording with a different producer – Steve Lillywhite.