Although the lyrics may not be the heartwarming standard of Christmas songs, the emotions and tune of Shane McGowan and Jem Finer’s song Fairytale of New York has become a seasonal classic.
Written as a traditional Irish folk song, McGowan initially started writing the song while in bed with double pneumonia in 1985, but it wasn’t quite the song that he and The Pogues wanted. After a tour to New York City and the US in 1986, McGowan returned to the song, adding in more details after spending time within the Irish community in NYC.
Produced by Steve Lillywhite, McGowan initially recorded both the male and female parts of the duet. But Lillywhite decided to ask his wife, singer Kristy MacColl to take on the female role and worked with the singers independently to create the duet for The Pogues’ album If I Should Fall From Grace with God.
The bittersweet call and response of the song between a couple reminiscing about the past and dealing with the present day, with the man in the drunk tank and the way they’ve dealt with their alcoholism and drug addictions made for a memorable song. The language of the song is bawdy and judgemental, reflecting the working class speech of McGowan.
Released in November 1987, the song hit the Irish charts and stayed at number one for five weeks. In the UK, the song climbed to number two, with MacColl and The Pogues appearing on the Top of the Pops.
The song’s music video helped propel the song to the top of the charts in the US and Canada, showing the two singers in New York City and with actor Matt Dillon in a cameo as a police officer.
Reissued in 2012, as the song celebrated its 25th anniversary and is still played every holiday season.