The second half of my extract from Carol Clerk’s book Pogue Mahone: Kiss My Arse, in which ‘Fairytale Of New York’ comes gloriously to life thanks to the inimitable Kirsty MacColl.
They’d finally nailed it. ‘Fairytale Of New York’ had come together after months and months of trying and failing, working and reworking, tweaking and twiddling, and it was Lillywhite and his wife Kirsty MacColl who finally brought the song bursting into life. It was dazzling.
Steve says of the original Elvis Costello version: “It was a little slower, a little bit darker in a strange way, whereas we gave it some tempo and some joyfulness. It’s that wonderful thing of being a sad and a happy song. Maybe what I helped put into it was the happy part.”
Most of The Pogues think it was Lillywhite who suggested Kirsty sing the female part. Steve remembers rather that the suggestion came from MacGowan: “I don’t think he knew that Kirsty and I were married. He lived in Shaneworld.”
Whatever, the two vocals were not recorded together.
Lillywhite explains: “I took the tapes home, ’cos I had a recording studio at home. I think Kirsty loved ‘Fairytale’. We spent a whole day working on her vocals. I wanted to make sure they were really, really good, and her voice is perfect on the song. When Shane heard it, he went, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to re-do my voice.’ So he re-did his part after hearing that, except for the very intro. That was done as a piano-voice part live. All the other stuff was done later. James Fearnley had a great input in ‘Fairytale’. He came up with the cello line. And it was fantastic.” James is credited with being the co-arranger of the strings, with Fiachra Trench.
Although there are no cheesy festive devices on the track, ‘Fairytale Of New York’ instantly means Christmas to everyone who hears it, like ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ or ‘Mistletoe And Wine’. It just happens to be better. Everything is beautifully delivered: the strings, muted behind the piano during Shane’s bittersweet introduction, the zinging, stinging exchanges between the singers, the sound of their voices rising and falling together with Kirsty’s crystal purity somehow ideally matched by MacGowan’s crusty drawl, and the way that Shane snarls the word ‘Christmas’, with contempt.
Unlike Chevron’s Irish emigrants in New York, struggling to find an identity in a new city and half-heartedly going about the seasonal celebrations with Christmas trees but no fairy lights in ‘Thousands Are Sailing’, the elderly characters in ‘Fairytale’, a drunken gambler and his junkie wife, have no hopes or illusions about their life in the city, only the memory of what they’d dreamed it would be and a lifelong bond forged from habit, resignation, endurance and a love expressed only by the hopeless husband, who’d broken all his promises.
MacGowan: “My part in the duet is the man who’s got kicked out of the drunk tank on Christmas Eve night. His wife’s in hospital, she’s ill and he’s just out of his skull. Then they’re having a row and he keeps on bringing it on back to the good times and she keeps handing out all the shit... The guy is whining and saying, ‘Forgive me’, and she’s saying, ‘Fuck it, you’re a waste of space.’ She’s right and so’s he. They’re both right and they’re both wrong. But in the end they start getting sentimental and thinking about this and that, like old people do.”
While the song is specifically about these two characters, Chevron believes that it takes its place as one of the great “universal songs of disappointment and loss”.
“That song did have a long gestation, but Steve was really enthusiastic about it,” says Andrew. “He encouraged us to persist with it. And eventually, it somehow all came together. It’s done what it was supposed to do. There was a conscious decision to write a Christmas hit and it succeeded. It was always destined to be a big one, and I think that’s why we took so long trying to get it right. There was no point just bunging it out half-baked. If ever I hear it now, I just think, ‘Well, that’s another couple of bob.’”
The Pogues, with a fully recovered Philip Chevron and Kirsty MacColl, made time to perform ‘Fairytale Of New York’ on Top Of The Pops. It had all the makings of a great Christmas Number One and all the quality of a great Pogues song.
Nick Cave, a long-time fan of the band, marvelled at the originality of this most unusual festive offering, stating: “You don’t normally get Christmas songs so utterly hopeless.” He later commented: “I think Shane is a kind of master of the opening lines of songs, unbelievably good – ‘It was Christmas Eve, babe/In the drunk tank...’”
‘Fairytale’ – backed with Terry Woods’ ‘The Battle March Medley’ and with the MacGowan instrumental ‘Shanne Bradley’ additional on the 12-inch – was the band’s debut release on Pogue Mahone Records. Frustratingly, it only reached Number Two in the Christmas chart: few would have foreseen its ascendancy blocked by Pet Shop Boys’ cover of ‘Always On My Mind’.
“I was disappointed rather than pissed off,” admits Jem Finer. “But most people seemed to think of ‘Fairytale Of New York’ as being Number One. It was the people’s choice.” In Ireland, it was even more of a smash hit, racing to its rightful place at the very top of the chart.
Andrew: “I think we were all pretty confident it would get into the charts and do quite well, but you don’t know what the competition’s going to be, especially at Christmas.”
“We thought it would be very disappointing if it wasn’t a massive, big hit,” agrees Darryl. “We had a feeling it was something special.”Terry Woods had not anticipated the perennial popularity of the single. He comments: “We didn’t give it a second thought that it would become a Christmas classic. I’d get pissed off – every supermarket I’d go into coming up to Christmas, it would be on. It used to irritate me, I got that pissed off listening to it. Now I have a nostalgic liking for it.”