The True Story Behind the Greatest Christmas Song Ever Written

Behind the scenes of the recording of The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.”

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On the eve of Christmas, The Pogues’ defining 1987 holiday duet, “Fairytale of New York,” is once again in the upper region of the British singles charts. In fact, thanks to a re-structuring of criteria for chart order (which now includes streaming) “Fairytale of New York,” may, as you read this, be the number one single in the UK; a feat it just nearly missed back in ’87.

It’s also, shockingly, the time of year when Shane MacGowan—inarguably the most alcohol-and-drug blasted pop singer still living today—has another birthday (on Christmas Day he’ll turn 58, if you can believe that). So how did this song come to be?

Let’s start with the year, which ended on a calamitous note: there was the “Black Monday” market crash, the ongoing Iran-Contra investigation, the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858. Then there’s the song: a tale of dashed dreams once shared, and it carries with it a bleakness that suited the times but also a current of optimism (“I got a feeling, this year’s for me and you…”) that felt like a sorely needed balm.

No one needed soothing more than MacGowan, who was staring down his 30th birthday with a serious booze habit. “Many people call Shane MacGowan another beautiful loser but he’s never been a beauty and neither, all desperate appearances to the contrary is he a loser,” wrote Nick Kent in his anthology The Dark Stuff, “Rather, he’s a loser who chose to lose and came up winning more than he ever dared dream.”

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(Photo: Lisa Haun / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

MacGowan formed the Pogues (from Pogue Mahone, or “Kiss My Arse” in Gaelic), and cleaved together the furious energy of punk with the traditional music played by popular Irish combos like The Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers. Live, the line up (Spider Stacy on whistle, Jem Finer on banjo, Cait O’Riordan on bass, James Fearnley on accordion, and Andrew Ranken on drums) was frenzied, unpredictable and collecting an evangelical following. The Smiths and the Clash were on the wane, and the Pogues seemed like the next band to really matter. In addition to gassing up traditional songs, the Pogues wrote great originals like “Streams of Whiskey” off their 1984 debut Red Roses For Me, and “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” from their 1986 sophomore album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash and were not conflict-averse.

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash was produced by Elvis Costello, who’d already made hit albums with both The Specials and Squeeze. The band’s manager Frank Murray had enormous hopes for the Pogues’ third album. After all, Springsteen’s third album was Born to Run. The Clash’s third was London Calling. The Smiths? The Queen is Dead. In the summer of 1987, crap teeth and all, it was time for Shane MacGowan and his group to break big. 

Enter producer Steve Lillywhite, who was just coming off The Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work and was also mixing tracks for what would become U2’s The Joshua Tree (in addition to classic albums by Simple Minds, Peter Gabriel, and XTC, Lilywhite produced the first three U2 albums). “Murray was very visionary,” Lillywhite says via telephone. “He helped expand the band and got me involved. I’d never worked with a band like the Pogues. I never recorded a whistle before.”

The studio, RAK in West Hampstead, London, was tops and Lillywhite took care to keep the band from the havoc they’d already cultivated a reputation for. “They’d been pretty ramshackle on their recordings. They were firing fantastically well and they needed a sane pair of hands,” he says. “Simple things like you don’t get them to do things too late at night because sometimes things get a bit crazy late at night.”

The song had been around since the days of the Costello sessions, if not earlier. Co-written with Finer, on a dare to write a Christmas song, either from Murray or Costello, depending on which legend you believe, it lingered in tinker-land for a while as the band focused on other album tracks for what would become If I Should Fall From Grace with God (the title track and “Fiesta,” would become Pogues standards as well). “I wrote one Christmas duet (that was) sentimental rubbish,” Finer told the BBC. Eventually the duo “decided to make it about two Irish immigrants on the way out,” MacGowan said. The unnamed couple traveled from one island to the other, like so many before them, with dreams of “Broadway,” wealth, fame, “cars as big as bars,” love and freedom. A demo version of the new Christmas tune was recorded with the soon to depart O’Riordan (who would marry Costello in the spring of ’86) singing the female lead.

“I have to say it didn’t have the timeless quality that our version had,” Lillywhite says. “That’s probably my nice way of saying it was shit.”

In 1986, the Pogues actually saw the real New York City for the first time. It was a stop on their tour in support of album two. Slowly, the song began to come together. On the tour bus, they watched Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon A Time in America on repeat and the score, by Ennio Morricone began to bleed into their collective subconscious, informing the opening piano notes. MacGowan, who admitted he just wanted to “finish the bloody song,” completed the lyrics while feverish and bed ridden in a Scandinavian hotel room during another tour stop.

Back in London, the first third of the song, just piano and MacGowan’s vocals (containing, perhaps the most famous opening line of any song, holiday-themed or not: “It was Christmas eve, babe, in the drunk tank”) were completed. With the arrival of Lillywhite, they were tasked to find a duet partner. “When [Shane] gave it to me he just sung the whole song with the melody – and he just said, ‘This is where the girl goes.’ And it was quite obvious.”

Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders was mentioned at one point but it wasn’t fated. “I said. ‘Look, let me take it to Kirsty,’” Lillywhite recalls, suggesting his then-wife.

Kirsty MacColl and MacGowan shared a manager in Murray and status as also-rans on the old London punk scene. Professionally she was a sought-after backing vocalist and had a cult following and a genuine hit in her cover of the Billy Bragg ballad, “A New England,” but was not a household name. When she visited RAK, she already knew the song and once Lillywhite wiped MacGowan’s bits and had her sing them, “I realized that we had something…”

Now here is the part of the story where you find out the thing you probably don’t want to know. Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl never shared a moment together in the studio duet-ing on the track. Listening to them singing both in harmony (“Sinatra was swinging, all the drunks they were singing…”) and trading verses at turns vicious and affectionate (“…you were handsome,” “…you were pretty..” or “you’re a bum, you’re a punk..” “you’re an old slut on junk”) a lover of the song (like myself) develops, over time, a vision of them live, bundled, perhaps in fingerless woolen gloves, warmed by hot tea and whiskey, staring into each other’s eyes and making magic. “I don’t even think MacGowan knew I was married to her,” Lillywhite says. “It’s the smoke and mirrors of what I do.”

While taking care of their kids, and the housework, they would occasionally repair to the home studio to do another version, sometimes just another line or word. In the pre Pro Tools age, Lillywhite estimates they did “hundreds,” of takes to craft a perfect femme fatale counterpoint to MacGowan’s semi-penitent anti-hero. It’s kind of like being told that Elizabeth Taylor played all her scenes in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? not to Richard Burton but to a crew member just to the left of the camera. When MacGowan and the band heard the finished version, the singer, who was convinced he’d nailed his bit, knew he had to up his game with one more version. “Her vocal was so special, he went in and redid his,” Lillywhite says. The melody was treated to a lush wall of sound with accordions, harps, multi-tracked mandolins, and that “Spider” Stacy’s famous whistle.

Now, anyone who’s seen Love Actually (or who is actually British) knows that they take this Christmas Number One thing really, quite seriously. Both Lennon and McCartney competed against each other to craft a superior one, for example. “It’s been dissipated slightly by the advent of X Factor,” Lillywhite says, “but from my youth up to about ten years ago, if you were a pop star of any worth you had a go.” Many of them, even Lennon’s, were hopelessly cheery, most full of fruitcake and eggnog and good tidings. “Fairytale of New York,” contains the following line: “Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last,” as well as enough slang that it was virtually guaranteed to be bleeped at best, and banned at worst.

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(Photo: Frans Schellekens / Redferns)

And yet there was an undeniable quality to it. It was like a great novel (the title comes from a book by author J.P. Donleavy, loaned with permission after MacGowan informed the author that his father was a fan), a Pinter (or Albee) play, a classic film. It was the truth. “I could have been someone,” Lillywhite sings over the phone, invoking MacGowan, “Well so could anyone,” he sings next, taking MacColl’s rejoinder, “It’s so simple but it says everything about a relationship.” And we’ve already established that relationships can be… tricky.

The music video, directed by Peter Dougherty (who was in attendance at their New York debut a year earlier at the now defunct club The World) was shot, like It’s A Wonderful Life, in black and white. It features interiors of the band with MacGowan at the piano (lager bottle on the lid, MacColl leaning against the box) and exteriors of mayhem including actor and early Pogues fan Matt Dillon as a cop. A slew of real cops meant to embody the “boys of the NYPD choir,” who sing “Galway Bay,” (an Ireland-yearning post War pop hit for Bing Crosby) also appear.

Since New York’s Finest technically have no formal choir, their uniformed Pipes and Drums band appear in the video (and since they did not know the tune, they played the theme to the Mickey Mouse Club). During the shoot, the Pogues endeared themselves to the cops, and vice-versa (much beer was consumed, according to the BBC). The song failed to reach number one, losing out to the Pet Shop Boys cover of “Always On My Mind,” and began its journey as a permanent part of New York City—every bar’s jukebox, every office Spotify—and MacGowan, once a first time visitor, can (and according to a Lower East Side bartender friend of mine, has at least once) today walk into a dive at 3:55 a.m. and get a drink without a single grumble from the tired keeper.

“I lived in New York for about fifteen years,” Lillywhite says. “I used to love going to Irish bars. I got a lot more ‘wow factor’ that I worked with the Pogues than the fact that I worked with U2. I’ve known Bono since he was 18 but it was, ‘Wow, you worked with the Pogues, you’re cool. Bono is the world’s biggest over achiever. Shane is one the world’s biggest under achievers.”

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(Photo: Patrick Ford / Redferns)

The Pogues carried on, with and without their iconic singer, but “Fairytale…” and the third album mark the band’s creative apex, and it will outlive them all. Sadly, MacColl was killed shortly before Christmas in the year 2000. She is now a kind of indie Judy Garland, immortal at least once a year…every year

There have been covers by legendary Irish folk singer Christy Moore, California pop punk band No Use For A Name, and the cast of British soap opera Coronation Street. The Pogues themselves on various reunion tours have also kept the song alive, but nothing quite matches the wobbly glory of that studio version, in its way, the people’s Christmas classic, which the people may now, nearly three decades later, carry down the river of gold to the number one spot.