One of the more interesting features of iTunes is the counter of how many times you have listened to a song. The single song that I have listened to the most over the last 11+ years is also a seasonal classic. From the very first moment I heard it in 1987 it has been a staple of my Holiday playlist. I am far from alone in this affection it has been named the Number One Christmas song of all time in many polls; most recently in 2012 in a British ranking. The song is not a happy song. The song is not performed by the most famous of singers. The song took almost two years to go from conception to release. The song is Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.
One of the early reasons for the song being written was an urban myth. The Pogues producer in 1985 was Elvis Costello and he supposedly bet the band they could not write a hit Christmas single. That has turned out to not be true and it came out of the more mundane reason of, “Hey why don’t we release a Christmas single.” The lead singer of The Pogues is Shane MacGowan and soon after they wanted to do this he came down with pneumonia and was hospitalized. During his hospitalization he wrote most of the lyrics saying in an interview, “you get a lot of delirium and stuff, so I got quite a few good images out of that.”
The lyrics tell a tale of Irish immigrants reminiscing on their life in New York covering their hopeful early days through days of addiction and finally to resigned acceptance. It is a tragedy in three verses of call and response between the couple. While the band was working out the tune they needed to find a female lead singer to play the part. All of this ended up taking two years and by 1987 all of the elements were in place. The lyrics by Mr. MacGowan, the band had crafted a melody, and singer Kirsty MacColl would provide the female vocals.
Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan from the video of the song
Ms. MacColl was meant to be a placeholder as she was the wife of new producer Steve Lillywhite. She laid down a track of the female part for her husband to use while guiding the band through laying down the other tracks. Except it was perfect and the band got so used to her they couldn’t consider releasing the song without her contribution. It is interesting that she never did the song with the band at all. It almost makes the song seem like separate reveries to me whenever I hear it because of this. Ms. MacColl does a tremendous job of supplying the right emotion to each section. It is her voice which cues the listener to each phase. When she finishes her first verse with “You promised me Broadway was waiting for me” it is imbued with hope. By the second verse it ends with a bitterly delivered, “Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.” As it has all fallen apart. The final line delivered by Ms. MacColl she says, “You took my dreams from me when I first found you.” With Mr. MacGowan’s equally emotionally delivered lyrics it is a magical pairing, without ever meeting.
I like the optimistic happy Christmas songs which have happy endings but Fairytale of New York captures something else which also appeals during this season. The final verse shows me two survivors who are still standing and have found some place from which to look back with acceptance. It is probably that which makes the song so enduring for at year’s end it is natural to look back and when we are still standing it is something worth singing about.