Christopher Warner goes behind the scenes of a Christmas classic which he describes as a “masterclass in storytelling”
It began as a simple gentleman’s bet. Singer/producer Elvis Costello wagered that the Celtic punk band, The Pogues, couldn’t write a hit Christmas song — a challenge frontman Shane MacGowan and banjoist Jem Finer readily accepted. Now, 35 years after its release, Fairytale of New York stands as one of the most beloved holiday ballads of all time. Let’s just say the odds on this long shot were greater than 18 to 1.
Fittingly, MacGowan was born Christmas Day, 1957, to Irish parents in Pembury, Kent. He spent his formative years with his mother’s family in rural Carney Commons in Tipperary, absorbing the natural beauty and culture while developing a passion for music and literature. At an age when most children prefer comic books, MacGowan tackled the likes of Joyce, Dostoyovesky, and Sartre.
These early influences provided solid footing, setting him on a path to explore his creative horizons.
After diving headlong into London’s punk scene in the mid-1970s, MacGowan later teamed up with a group of musicians that became The Pogues. The raw but ambitious band managed to craft a unique sound, blending elements of folk, punk, and traditional Irish music – a turbo-charged vehicle they would ride to international stardom.
By the summer of 1987, they were working on their third LP album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, at London’s RAK studios. The record eventually featured 15 tracks, including Fairytale of New York, a non-commercial Yuletime ditty about a bickering down-and-out couple with broken dreams. The less-than-cheery narrative, however, aligned perfectly with The Pogues’ unfiltered credo, embracing life’s joy and pain regardless of the season.
The songwriting process often takes a series of unpredictable twists and turns before completing its journey. ‘Fairytale’ would be no different. In a 2018 cover story for Ireland’s Own, MacGowan shed light on the song’s genesis and its serpentine route. “It had to still be a Pogues’ record,” MacGowan recalls. “I had a tune, and Jem had a tune. I wrote the lyrics, it actually took me quite a while. Cáit (O’Riordan), who was our bass player, sang on the demo and then we got Kirsty MacColl in which really made it, she was amazing, brilliant at it.”
MacColl’s involvement came about thanks to a stroke of well-timed luck that ultimately led to a fairytale of her own. As the daughter of renowned folk singer/songwriter Ewan MacColl, she followed him into a music career, determined to make a name for herself. But after a stalled solo career, hampered by crippling bouts of stage fright, she had become relegated to working as a backing vocalist. Although more setbacks followed, her saint-like patience would soon be rewarded.
Continue reading in this year’s Christmas Annual