The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl
Written by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan
Produced by Steve Lillywhite
Pogue Mahone Records
Released December 1987
[Editor's Note: This entry was written by Celtic Ray, TNOP 's correspondent from County Clare, Republic of Ireland.]
By their third record, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, Celtic folk punk band The Pogues were already approaching their saturation point. The disc, helmed by producer wunderkind Steve Lillywhite, was recorded with a changed lineup of musicians. But their front man remained the same: the volatile but gifted singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan. And the album became their biggest seller to date.
The centerpiece of If I Should Fall From Grace With God would prove to be one of the most popular Christmas records ever in the the UK and Ireland. Originally reaching #2 and #1 on the charts, respectively, in December 1987, "Fairytale of New York" would be re-released another five times over the ensuing twenty years, each time landing in the top ten.
The song is a duet between MacGowan and English singer Kirsty MacColl, at the time married to producer Lillywhite. [Pogues' original bassist Cait O'Riordan was to have filled the role, but she left the band in 1986.] The melody of "Fairytale of New York" fuses barroom ballad with Irish rebel song, and perfectly serves the story written by MacGowan.
A drunken man is sleeping off a bender in a New York drunk tank. He hears an old man (in the cell?) singing the old Irish folk song "The Rare Old Mountain Dew" (not surprisingly, the 1916 tune waxes rhapsodic about homemade Irish whiskey: Let grasses grow and waters flow/In a free and easy way/But give me enough of the rare old stuff/That's made near Galway Bay). Then he drifts (further?) into reverie, recalling hitting an 18-1 shot a the horse track, a sign of dreams coming true for he and his lover.
MacColl joins MacGowan at this point in a call and response between two Irish immigrants on Christmas Eve. They reminisce about what their dreams were on arrival as young people to America, but then just as quickly turn to the dark side of their relationship, dashed no doubt with the aid of substance abuse. So this ain't White Christmas, folks. The contrasts are striking throughout, wonderfully marked by MacGowan's hoarse voice against MacColl's fine singing: love and hate; hope and despair; promise and betrayal.
The time frame is not specifically identified, and purposefully so. The reference to Sinatra places the action anywhere from the 1940s to the 1980s. Otherwise, the atmosphere is quintessentially Irish: immigrants landing on the shores to uncertain beginnings in America's (then) largest Irish diaspora. And the last verse is masterful: each blaming the other for failure, but lamenting that one is nothing without the other.
The chorus is the constant glue to the story: And the boys of the NYPD choir's still singing Galway Bay/And the bells were ringing out/For Christmas day. "Galway Bay" was a huge hit with Irish immigrants around the world in the late 1940s, popularized by both Bing Crosby and Dolores Keane. Reading some of the lyrics, and remembering the reference to the same locale in "The Rare Old Mountain Dew," proves useful in understanding "Fairytale of New York":
My chosen bride is by my side, her brown hair silver-grey,
Her daughter Rose as like her grows as April dawn today.
Our only boy, his mother's joy, his father's pride and stay;
With gifts like these I'd live at ease, were I near Galway Bay.
Had I youth's blood and hopeful mood and heart of fire once more,
For all the gold the world might hold I'd never quit your shore,
I'd live content whate'er God sent with neighbours old and gray,
And lay my bones, 'neath churchyard stones, beside you, Galway Bay.
"Fairytale of New York" is quintessentially Irish. I guess you either like it or you don't. The song is a rolling and tumbling affair that allows the listener to experience what James Joyce may have meant when writing in Ulysses about the precariousness of the human condition ("I fear those big words which make us so unhappy") as well as the absurdity of life ("Come forth Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job"). All the while holding a pint of Guinness and singing along merrily.
Nollaig Shona Dhuit!
FURTHER LISTENING, WATCHING AND READING:
The obituary of Kirsty MacColl (1959-2000) from The Times of London.
Billy Bragg and Florence and the Machine cover "Fairytale of New York on BBC Radio 1.