It’s the greatest Christmas song of all time. Full stop no comma thank you and goodnight.
You can put up all the decorations you want, you can buy a thousands presents and you can dress up as Santa and roar ‘ho, ho, ho’ in our faces but you know and I know that Christmas does not begin until we hear those first few piano chords. It doesn’t matter whether it’s on the radio or if we make the bold choice ourselves to press play while we’re on the bus or in the car… once the first piano note is hit, the Christmas lights have been turned on in our hearts.
1. The opening
One thing you have to admire about Fairytale Of New York is the way that it constantly holds on to the major and ‘happy’ notes throughout despite it being a very downtrodden song. Sure, there’s a few ‘sad’ minor chords thrown in once or twice but normal order resumes quickly again.
The opening piano chords sets the tone for the song. They are instantly recognisable throughout the world. The Pogues didn’t create it but many have followed the successful Christmas formula of a heavy piano influence (‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, ‘Step Into Christmas’, ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, ‘Stay Another Day’).
A piano is the closest you’ll get to a Christmas sound without jingling a bell.
The opener also makes you think, ‘jeez, Shane MacGowan is tasty enough playing the board’.
Band member James Fearnley actually plays the instrument on the track but as he walked up to the piano in the video, he explains that the director wanted MacGowan to be in that position.
For the close-up shots where you can see hands playing the chords, it’s actually Fearnley who had to put on MacGowan’s rings to make it look like it was still the frontman.
Could have fooled us…
2. Shane MacGowan’s singing
There is something truly special about the frontman’s singing. He seems to be hitting ranges that most of us know are nearly impossible to find. It seems like he’s shouting but melodically. The first verse has that glimmer of hope to it that all good tragic love songs need. He’s got on the lucky one, it’s came in at 18/1 (for years I thought it came in at 10/1. It doesn’t matter, what matters is it came in) and he foresees a better future for him and his sweetheart.
As explained in the below BBC documentary released in 2005, the song was in fact a bet. Pogues producer Elvis Costello told MacGowan and the band’s co-writer and banjo player Jim Finer, that they couldn’t write a Christmas love song that didn’t make you want to reach for a bucket.
And they did it. When MacGowan says ‘Happy Christmas, I love you baby’ you don’t wince but rather you root for him and for love.
3. The Trad music
Now we’re into a great song. The Pogues were going to make sure that the world knew that this was an Irish song, produced and written by Irish people. The change in tempo makes it a different song entirely and the introduction of Kirsty MacColl begins one of the greatest duets of all time.
The traditional music makes for a great bridge in between the verses. The song is a ‘fairytale’ and the beginning of the tin whistle and the accordion gives the song that fairytale feel about it.
4. The duet between Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan
The connection between the pair is just there, even if it’s all for show. When MacColl leans over the piano and looks lovingly into MacGowan’s eyes or when the two are battering seven shades of shite out of each minutes later, the audience is fooled every time.
If MacGowan solely sang this tune on his own, we would have just gotten his version of the story and ultimately have felt sorry for him. However, MacColl tells us immediately about his broken promises, he promised her Broadway but she was as well of if she stayed in Britain.
They have quick fire responses for each other, “you were handsome, you were pretty. I could have been someone, well so could anyone.” MacColl doesn’t fear standing up to MacGowan and shows that when their voices intertwine, she can go tow to tow with MacGowan’s vocal range which we aforementioned is an extremely hard thing to do.
Despite all this, MacColl wasn’t first choice for the duet, she wasn’t even second choice.
Originally, the duet was planned for MacGowan and Pogues’ bassist, Cait O’Riordan. When she left the band (to marry producer Costello who also left) before the song was recorded, MacGowan suggested that Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde should take on the role.
It might have worked.
Hynde has a beautiful festive song of her own in ‘2000 Miles’ but when new producer Steve Lillywhite asked his wife (MacColl) to record ‘test vocals’ to help the band hear how the duet could work, MacGowan and company knew that they had found the missing piece.
The first demo isn’t the masterpiece that we now know. The lyrics are all over the shop and the music doesn’t sound as Christmassy but it was a work in progress and that progress was something else.
5. The Title – ‘Fairytale Of New York’
The fact it doesn’t contain the word ‘Christmas’ would make you think that already it is behind any contenders for a festive number one spot. It’s a welcome change than just naming it another version of the same phrase for Merry Christmas.
The place name could have been anything. It could have been Boston, Manchester, Australia and it wouldn’t have mattered but the fairytale part needs to be the one constant.
This song was inspired by JP Donleavy’s 1961 novel of the same title. Copyright issues? Probably but in an interview with The Daily Mail in the lead up to Christmas 2009, the author had good reasons not to sue: “Technically I could have taken legal action for piracy but as I know Shane MacGowan – I believe his father is a fan of my work – I decided not to bother.”
FTONY is said to be about Irish people who emigrated to America in the 19th Century to escape the famine in the hope of ‘making it’ but the majority ended up homeless in the US.
The fairytale aspect remains throughout the song. When he wins the bet, when they reminisce about swinging to Sinatra, even after their major bust up, there’s always that glimmer of hope that they’ll get their fairytale ending.
6. Name dropping two famous Irish songs
There are hundreds of song references that MacGowan could have added into the tune but the two that he includes are as famous as FTONY itself. When MacGowan is down on his luck in the drunk tank, it’s not a love song that makes him think of his sweetheart. It’s nothing soppy about winning back the love of your life after you’ve made a mistake. Oh no, when the old man sings ‘The Rare Old Mountain Dew’ somehow that makes MacGowan think about MacColl.
‘The Rare Old Mountain Dew’, a song about getting absolutely pissed on the iconic Irish drink, poitín. This is what triggers his mindset to think about his lover. You might say, why wouldn’t it? The drunkard has been arrested for drinking too much. It’s something that he seems to be fond of and as a result may have lost MacColl because of it.
However, the lyrics of the poitín song reveals a little bit more.
“Let the grasses grow
and the waters flow in a free and easy way
But give me enough of the rare old stuff
that’s made near Galway Bay”
Bang, that’s the trigger. He hears the lyric ‘Galway Bay’ and automatically he’s brought back to listening to the bells ringing out for Christmas Day with her.
There’s a lie in the song that’s never questioned though. The NYPD doesn’t have a choir but they do have an Irish pipe band. For the video, the pipe band was invited along but they didn’t know ‘Galway Bay’. Instead, they played ‘Mickey Mouse Club March’ and the director had to slow down the footage to make it fit the beat.
In the BBC documentary included above, it goes on to say how the pipe band had been drinking on the coach that brought them to the video shoot. By the time they arrived, they were even more drunk than The Pogues themselves and demanded more alcohol or else they would refuse to appear.
We hope they didn’t get any of that ‘Rare Old Mountain Dew’…
7. The Lyrics
MacGowan admits that the song explains the fact that Christmas can be a really shitty time for some people. However, it should still remain special to him regardless considering he was born on 25 December. This year (2017) will mark the big man’s 60th birthday.
You can only imagine how hard it is to write a successful Christmas song. Nail it and you’ll never have to work another day in your life. MacGowan and Finer didn’t have any decorations or snow to help influence them. They weren’t even in The Big Apple at the time.
They wrote the classic in the blistering London heat in July.
I remember being in Geoghegan’s nightclub in Tuam last summer and instead of finishing the night with ‘Amhran Na Bhfiann’, the lights came on and those famous piano chords began.
I suppose, if it was written in the summer, it can be played in the summer too.
It’s a great hat-tip to the genius of MacGowan and his band. To think that they could just sit down in the middle of the summer and write a wonderful Christmas classic makes you proud that they’re Irish but leaves you jealous at the same time because you wish it could come that easy to you.
While we adore each word of FTONY, the two last verses are the ones that you are most likely to scream out when you’re belly is full of Guinness and someone has plonked a Christmas hat on your head.
“You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy f*****
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last”
BBC radio censored the words ‘faggot’ and ‘slut’ from the song in 2007 as it was deemed that they were “too offensive”. After much uproar from listeners, however, they had to revert back to playing the original.
It’s your classical couple argument, they blurt out the first insults that come into their head in order to get one up on each other. ‘Happy Christmas your arse’ is such an Irish term too. It falls in line with phrases like ‘I will in me hole’ and ‘go ask me bollix’
As for the last verse, two single lines can summarise the whole song within seconds. He thinks he held her back and vice versa when in truth, the two were probably never going anywhere to begin with…
Single best line in the pantheon of Christmas songs:
“I could have been someone /
Well, so could anyone.”
— Marginalia (@__marginalia__) December 7, 2017
8. It was Number one in Ireland and nowhere else.
As hard as that is to believe, FTONY has only ever reigned champion in one country and that was in Ireland when it was released for the first time in 1987.
While it takes the spot of greatest Christmas number one (if not best number one of all time) here in Ireland, it is most definitely the best Christmas song not to feature in the top spot in the UK.
The Pogues and MacColl lost out to The Pet Shop Boys. The band reacted by saying, “we were beaten by two queens and a drum machine.”
It was re-released in 1991 and in 2005 and despite always lingering around the top 20, it has never been close to hitting number once since here or in the UK. The closest it came was in 2005 when it reached number three in both.
It’s an Irish song and us Irish people decided to put it top of our trees in Christmas 1987 when it wasn’t deemed worthy enough for anywhere else.
Another reason to be utterly proud by it.
Sadly, times have changed and music has too and The Pogues are 100/1 (as of 14 December) to reach number one this Christmas. So, it looks like it will never get that top spot in the UK that it deserves.
9. Christy Moore’s amazing cover
Let’s state something from the outset. This song is out of bounds for everyone to cover (we’re looking at you Ed Sheeran and Ronan Keating), except Christy Moore.
Why is that? Well, Christy heard the song first hand in Tipperary back in the 80s and was on the receiving end of one of the first ever versions that MacGowan sang.
He jokes about how he looked into the frontman’s eyes and MacGowan stared back and they shared their ‘I love yous’ in the midst of several pints of Guinness.
The cover shows that the song is strong enough to be sang by one person but again, it’s the man’s own point of few. The fourth verse needs a woman for the back and forth despite Christy’s best efforts and don’t get us wrong, Christy’s efforts are second to none.
10. No Christmas song will EVER beat it
Past, present or future. Covers or new tunes. Nothing will ever beat those first few piano chords at Christmas time…