Fairytale of New York

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about the song. For the novel by J. P. Donleavy, see A Fairy Tale of New York.
"Fairytale of New York"
Single by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl
from the album If I Should Fall from Grace with God
Released 23 November 1987
Format 7" and 12" vinyl, cassette, CD single
Recorded August 1987 at Rak Studios, London, England
Genre Celtic punk, Christmas music
Length 4:33
Label Pogue Mahone
Writer(s) Jem Finer, Shane MacGowan
Producer(s) Steve Lillywhite
Certification Platinum (BPI)
The Pogues singles chronology
"Irish Rover"
(1987)
"Fairytale of New York"
(1987)
"If I Should Fall from Grace with God"
(1988)

"Fairytale of New York" is a Christmas song written by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan and first released as a single on 23 November 1987[1] by their band The Pogues, featuring singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl on vocals. The song was written as a duet, with the Pogues' singer MacGowan taking the role of the male character and MacColl the female character. It is an Irish folk style ballad, and featured on The Pogues' 1988 album If I Should Fall from Grace with God.

"Fairytale of New York" has been cited as the best Christmas song of all time in various television, radio and magazine related polls in the UK and Ireland.[2] Although the single peaked at number two in the UK Singles Chart when it was first released (kept from the number one position by the Pet Shop Boys' cover version of "Always on My Mind"), its popularity as a Christmas song has endured: to date the song has reached the UK top twenty on eleven separate occasions since its original release in 1987, including every year since 2005, and was certified platinum for achieving one million sales in 2013.[3] In the UK it is the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century.[4]

Background and song development[edit]

Although there is agreement among the band that "Fairytale of New York" was first written in 1985, the origins of the song are disputed: MacGowan insisted that it arose as a result of a wager made by the Pogues' producer at the time, Elvis Costello, that the band would not be able to write a Christmas hit single; the Pogues' manager Frank Murray has stated that it was originally his idea that the band should try and write a Christmas song as he thought it would be "interesting",[5][6] a claim backed up by the group's accordion player James Fearnley. It was banjo player Finer who came up with the melody and the original concept for the song, which involved a sailor looking out over the ocean.[6] Finer's wife did not like the original story, and suggested new lyrics regarding a conversation between a couple at Christmas. Finer told NME, "I had written two songs complete with tunes, one had a good tune and crap lyrics, the other had the idea for 'Fairytale' but the tune was poxy, I gave them both to Shane and he gave it a Broadway melody, and there it was".[7]

Intended from the start to be sung as a duet, the group recorded several versions of the song in August 1985 during the sessions with Costello that would eventually produce the Poguetry in Motion EP, with bass player Cait O'Riordan singing the female part. Costello suggested naming the song "Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank", after the song's opening lines: the band were scornful of the suggestion, with MacGowan pointing out to Costello that a song with such a title was unlikely to be favourably received and played by radio stations.[5] MacGowan had already settled on a title for the song, deciding to name it after J. P. Donleavy's 1973 novel A Fairy Tale of New York which Finer was reading at the time and had left lying around the recording studio.[6] The majority of the lyrics were written while MacGowan was recovering in a bed in Malmö after being struck down with double pneumonia during a Pogues tour of Scandinavia in late 1985 – as he later wryly noted, "you get a lot of delerium and stuff, so I got quite a few good images out of that".[5] However, despite several attempts, the group were unhappy with the results and could not complete the song in time for Christmas that year as intended. Guitarist Philip Chevron later said, "It was not quite there. It needed to have a full-on, confident performance from the band, which it lacked." The producer of the final version, Steve Lillywhite, diplomatically described the version recorded with O'Riordan's vocals as not "fully realised".[6] Extracts from these earlier versions can be heard on the 2008 box set Just Look Them Straight in the Eye and Say... POGUEMAHONE!!.

Despite this setback, it is clear that the basic components of "Fairytale of New York" – the title, the musical structure and its lyrical theme of a couple's conversation – were in place by the end of 1985, as evidenced by MacGowan's description of the song in an interview with Melody Maker in December 1985:

"I sat down, opened the sherry, got the peanuts out and pretended it was Christmas. It's even called 'A Fairy Tale of New York', it's quite sloppy, more like 'A Pair of Brown Eyes' than 'Sally MacLennane', but there's also a céilidh bit in the middle which you can definitely dance to. Like a country and Irish ballad, but one you can do a brisk waltz to, especially when you've got about three of these [drinks] inside you... But the song itself is quite depressing in the end, it's about these old Irish-American Broadway stars who are sitting round at Christmas talking about whether things are going okay."[8]

In March 1986 The Pogues toured the USA for the first time. The opening date of the tour was in New York City, a place which had long fascinated MacGowan and which inspired him to write new lyrics for the song.[6] Among the members of the city's Irish-American community who saw the show and visited the band backstage after the concert were film-maker Peter Dougherty and actor Matt Dillon: both would later become friends with the Pogues and play important roles in the video for "Fairytale of New York".[5] Another major inspiration was Sergio Leone's film Once Upon a Time in America, which MacGowan and whistle player Spider Stacy would watch over and over again in the tour bus as they travelled across the country. Apart from shaping the ideas for the lyrics, MacGowan wrote a slow, piano-based introduction to "Fairytale of New York" influenced by the film's score by Ennio Morricone: the intro would later be edited together with the more upbeat original melody to create the final song.[5]

As 1986 went on, however, the Pogues encountered various problems that brought a halt to their recordings. Their record label Stiff ran into financial difficulties and went into administration, although as they still owned the rights to the Pogues' recordings this meant that a distribution deal had to be negotiated in order to release further Pogues material. The group's deteriorating relationship with Costello saw them part ways with their producer, and after increasingly erratic behaviour Cait O'Riordan, who had become romantically involved with Costello, left the band in October 1986. The departure of O'Riordan meant the song had now lost its intended female singer.

Recording[edit]

With the problems at Stiff resolved, the Pogues were finally able to enter a recording studio again in early 1987 to start work on their third album, now with Steve Lillywhite producing. A new demo of "Fairytale of New York" was recorded at London's Abbey Road Studios in March 1987, with MacGowan singing both the male and female roles. However, it was not until the third set of recording sessions in August 1987 in nearby Rak Studios that it was suggested that Lillywhite take the track back to his home studio and let his wife Kirsty MacColl lay down a new guide vocal for the song. Having worked on her vocals meticulously, Lillywhite brought the recording back to the studio where the Pogues were impressed with MacColl's singing and realised she would be the ideal voice for the female character in the song.[5][9] MacGowan later said, "Kirsty knew exactly the right measure of viciousness and femininity and romance to put into it and she had a very strong character and it came across in a big way... In operas, if you have a double aria, it's what the woman does that really matters. The man lies, the woman tells the truth."[10] MacGowan re-recorded his vocals alongside the tape of MacColl's contribution (the duo never recorded the song together in the studio) and the song was duly completed with the addition of a harp played by Siobhan Sheahan and a horns and string section. The French horns and strings were recorded at Townhouse Studios on the last day of recording If I Should Fall from Grace with God, arranged by Fiachra Trench after Fearnley had mocked up an arrangement on a keyboard.[11]

Composition[edit]

The song follows an Irish immigrant's Christmas Eve reverie about holidays past while sleeping off a binge in a New York City drunk tank. When an inebriated old man also in the cell sings a passage from the Irish ballad "The Rare Old Mountain Dew", the narrator (MacGowan) begins to dream about the song's female character. The remainder of the song (which may be an internal monologue) takes the form of a call and response between the couple, their youthful hopes crushed by alcoholism and drug addiction, as they reminisce and bicker on Christmas Eve.[12]

MacColl's melodious singing contrasts with the harshness of MacGowan's voice, and the lyrics are sometimes bittersweet—sometimes purely bitter: "Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it's our last". The lyrics "Sinatra was swinging" and "cars as big as bars" seem to place the song in the late 1940s,[12] although the music video clearly depicts what was then present-day 1980s New York. The title, taken from author J. P. Donleavy's novel A Fairy Tale of New York, was chosen after the song had been written and recorded.[12]

Music video[edit]

The video for the song was directed by Peter Dougherty and filmed in New York during a bitterly cold Thanksgiving week in November 1987.[6] The video opens with MacGowan sitting at a piano as if playing the song's opening refrain: however, as MacGowan could not play the instrument, the close-up shot of "his" hands actually features the hands of the band's pianist James Fearnley wearing MacGowan's rings on his fingers. Fearnley found the experience "humiliating" but conceded that it did look better in the video to show MacGowan at the piano.[12]

Part of the video was filmed inside a real police station on the Lower East Side. Matt Dillon plays a police officer who "arrests" MacGowan and takes him to the cells.[12] Dillon recalled that he had been afraid to handle his friend roughly, and had to be ordered by Dougherty and MacGowan to use force. MacGowan and the rest of the band were drinking throughout the shoot, and the police became concerned about their increasingly rowdy behaviour in the cells. Dillon, who was sober, had to intervene and reassure the police that there would be no problems.[5]

The chorus of the song includes the line "The boys of the NYPD choir still singing 'Galway Bay'". In reality the NYPD (New York City Police Department) does not have a choir, the closest thing being the Pipes and Drums of the NYPD's Emerald Society that is featured in the video for the song. The NYPD Pipes and Drums did not know "Galway Bay" and so sang a song that all of them knew the words to – the "Mickey Mouse March", the theme tune for The Mickey Mouse Club television series.[5][13] The footage was then slowed down and shown in brief sections to disguise the fact the Pipes and Drums were singing a different song.[12] Murray recalled that the Pipes and Drums had been drinking on the coach that brought them to the video shoot, and by the time they arrived they were more drunk than the band, refusing to work unless they were supplied with more alcohol.[5]

Controversy[edit]

The song attracted attention from the start due to some of the language used in its second verse, where MacGowan's character refers to MacColl's character as a "slut on junk" (heroin), and MacColl responds with a tirade that includes the words "faggot" and "arse". On 18 December 2007, BBC Radio 1 banned the words "faggot" and "slut" from "Fairytale of New York" to "avoid offence". MacColl's mother, Jean, called the ban "too ridiculous", while the Pogues said they found it "amusing". The BBC said, "We are playing an edited version because some members of the audience might find it offensive".[14] Later that evening Radio 1 backed down and said that after a day of criticism from listeners, the band, and MacColl's mother, they reversed the decision.[15] The unedited version was then played later on that day. Other BBC radio stations, including the traditionally more conservative Radio 2, had continued to play the original version throughout this period, the ban having applied to Radio 1 only. The MTV channels in the UK also removed and scrambled the words "slut", "faggot" and "arse" from the song.

In his Christmas podcast, musical comedian Mitch Benn commented that "faggot" was Irish and Liverpudlian slang for a lazy person, and was unrelated to the derogatory term for homosexuals.[16]

Releases and promotion[edit]

The song was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland in November 1987 and swiftly became a hit, spending five weeks at Number 1 in the Irish charts. On 17 December 1987, the Pogues and MacColl performed the song on the BBC's popular television show Top of the Pops, and it was propelled to number two on the official UK Top 75. For the Top of the Pops appearance, the BBC insisted that MacColl's singing of "arse" be replaced with the less offensive "ass", although as she mimed the word MacColl slapped the relevant part of her body to make it clear what was meant.

Although the song finished 1987 as the 48th best seller of the year despite only a single month's sales, it was denied the Christmas Number 1 spot by the Pet Shop Boys' cover of "Always on My Mind". MacGowan is said to have commented on this in his typically forthright manner, "We were beaten by two queens and a drum machine".[17] MacColl later said that she did not feel they were really in competition with the Pet Shop Boys as they were doing a completely different kind of music.

The song was re-released by The Pogues in the UK in 1991 (reaching #36), and again in the UK and Ireland for Christmas 2005,[18] reaching number three in the UK. All proceeds from the latter release were donated towards a mixture of homeless charities and Justice for Kirsty, a campaign to find out the truth behind MacColl's death in 2000. Due to the eligibility of downloads to chart even without a physical release, the song has re-entered the Top 75 every December since 2005. It has now made the Top 20 on eleven separate occasions including ten times in successive years, and the Top 10 on four separate occasions including three times in successive years, feats that no other single can match. Its twelve visits to the chart now total 66 weeks on the official UK Top 75 (as at w/e 20 December 2014), making it the joint 10th most charted song of all time. In late 2012 it was declared a UK million-seller.[19]

On 22 December 2005, The Pogues performed the song on a Jonathan Ross Christmas special on BBC One in the UK, with the female vocals taken by singer Katie Melua.[6] This was The Pogues' first television performance of the song since 1988.

In December 2012, the song was reissued to mark its 25th anniversary.[12]

Legacy[edit]

"When I first read 'Fairytale of New York' and heard it played I really wished I'd written it. I still do. It's a classic."

—Kirsty MacColl on the song's lasting legacy, May 1988[20]

Fairytale of New York was announced as Britain's "favourite Christmas song" in a 90-minute special on ITV on 22 December 2012, following a nationwide survey of ITV viewers. In the UK it is the most-played Christmas song of the 21st Century.[4] The song has featured in many UK-based surveys and polls:-

  • Number 1 in the VH1 greatest Christmas song chart three years running, in 2004,[21] 2005,[22] and 2006
  • Number 11 in Channel 4's 100 Greatest Christmas Moments
  • Number 27 on VH1's Greatest Songs Never to Make Number One
  • Number 23 on VH1's greatest lyrics
  • Number 29 on 4Music's Noddy Holder's Big Christmas 50
  • Number 83 in Q Magazine's 100 Greatest Ever Songs*
  • Number 84 on BBC Radio 2's top 100 greatest songs of all time poll
  • Number 204 in NMEs 500 Greatest Songs of All Time
  • The Hits music channel rated "Fairytale of New York" number one in 'The Nation's Favourite Christmas Song' countdown
  • In December 2008 The Music Factory UK did a poll which found that the song was the favourite Christmas song.[23]
  • Number 1 song of the 80s by voters of The Radcliffe & Maconie show on BBC Radio 2 & BBC Four's Pop On Trial season in January 2008
  • The UK's second-favourite single to have missed the number 1 slot[24]

Cover versions[edit]

Track listings[edit]

1987 original release[edit]

  • 7" single
  1. "Fairytale of New York" (Jem Finer, Shane MacGowan) – 4:33
  2. "The Battle March Medley" (Terry Woods) – 4:07
  • 12", cassette and CD single
  1. "Fairytale of New York" (Finer, MacGowan) – 4:33
  2. "The Battle March Medley" (Terry Woods) – 4:07
  3. "Shanne Bradley" (MacGowan) – 3:38

Note: Shanne Bradley was one of MacGowan's bandmates in his previous group The Nips.

1991 reissue[edit]

  • 7" and cassette single
  1. "Fairytale of New York" (Finer, MacGowan) – 4:33
  2. "Fiesta" (Finer, MacGowan) – 4:33
  • 12" and CD single
  1. "Fairytale of New York" (Finer, MacGowan) – 4:33
  2. "A Pair of Brown Eyes" (Live) (MacGowan) – 3:40
  3. "The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn" (Live) (MacGowan) – 3:16
  4. "Maggie May" (Live) (Rod Stewart, Martin Quittenton) – 4:23

Live tracks recorded at Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow, 1987

2005 reissue[edit]

  • 7" single
  1. "Fairytale of New York" (Finer, MacGowan) – 4:33
  2. "The Battle March Medley" (Woods) – 4:07
  • CD single
  1. "Fairytale of New York" (Finer, MacGowan) – 4:33
  2. "Fairytale of New York" (instrumental) (Finer, MacGowan) – 4:33

2012 reissue[edit]

  • 7" single
  1. "Fairytale of New York" (Finer, MacGowan) – 4:33
  2. "Fairytale of New York" (instrumental) (Finer, MacGowan) – 4:33

Charts[edit]