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A rock nyc Christmas Playlist # 2 Fairytale of New York (feat. Kirsty MacColl) – The Pogues Reviewed

(rock nyc published # 2 out of order because we had the good fortune of having Paula Iwamoto-Schaap write it for us and we wanted to velebrate a fresh take -The song was already at # 2… I was worried Paula wouldn’t give Kirsty her due… needless to say, of course Ms. Iwamoto-Shaap, a mother herself, did -IL)

A Beloved Dysfunctional Christmas Song for a Dysfunctional Year

You know that any Christmas song that starts off “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank…” is not going to be a traditional tune. This catchy carol by the Pogues, featuring Kirsty MacColl, is an extremely odd holiday song, but one that is loved by many, including those (like myself) who consider it their favorite Christmas song of all time. There are no hymns to Baby Jesus, no snowmen come to life, not even a mention of Santa. It’s a love letter, a series of love letters, between two people over the course of many years, with their exhilarating highs and dour lows.

It starts off as a remembrance, with the male narrator spending Christmas Eve among other lost, weary souls in jail.  He turns his face to the wall and remembers earlier, happier days with the love of his life. The tempo becomes lively, invoking happier days, as the female narrator joins in the song, recalling “When you first held my hand on that cold Christmas Eve, you promised me Broadway was waiting for me!” Life was fresh and held so much promise, their love was new, and they were besotted with each other. They kissed and danced through the night to Christmas morning. 

The tune takes a dark turn, as the next stanza shows a low period in the couple’s relationship. They hurl vicious insults at each other, including the oft-censored “faggot,” blame each other for their own inability to achieve their dreams, and the male narrator accuses his counterpart of drug addiction to the point to near-death. The female narrator is so sickened by what their lives have become that she ends with, “Happy Christmas you arse/I pray God it’s our last.”

By the last stanza, the couple has come to better terms with their lot in life. The male narrator still mourns the loss of his youth and promise (“I could have been someone”) andt the female narrator still feels robbed of her potential (“You took my dreams from me, when I first found you.”) But they are tied together by history and love (“Can’t make it all alone/I built my dreams around you.”)

There’s a definite Irish lilt to the tune, with violins and tin whistle. The song references “The Rare Old Mountain Tune,” an old Irish ballad and the chorus goes “And the boys of the New York City choir were singing Galway Bay,” an Irish song popularized by Bing Crosby and popular with Irish emigrants.  The Pogues themselves are of course an Anglo-Irish punk band. Frontman Shane MacGowan and banjo player Jem Finer wrote “Fairytale” in 1985 as part of a challenge by then-producer Elvis Costello to write a Christmas song that would make the charts. After numerous incarnations, the song developed into the version we know today. Initially MacGowan sang both parts, but when they began recording in 1987, producer Steve Lillywhite suggested that they find a female vocalist. His wife Kirsty MacColl laid down some tracks in their home studio and the Pogues liked her voice so much that they chose to include her on the final recording.

The video is a fan favorite as well, with Matt Dillon providing a cameo as the cop who hauls MacGowan into the drunk tank, filmed in a real police station on the Lower East Side. Since the NY Police Department does not actually have a choir, they were substituted with the Pipes and Drums of the NYPD Emerald Society. None of the members had any idea how to play “Galway Bay,” so during the filming they played the theme song from the “Mickey Mouse Club.”

There is something in “Fairytale” that strikes a chord with people. It’s been featured in many holiday shows, notably “A Very Murray Christmas,” in which a heavily inebriated Bill Murray bellows out the song, then passes out. It’s sung by church choirs (interesting, given the lyrics), Christmas carolers, and even this flashmob at an English country Christmas Market, exactly ten years ago. Some argue that it’s not really a Christmas song, but merely a song set during Christmas time. That did not stop it from being voted “The Nation’s Favourite Christmas Song” in the UK in 2012 and the number one song on the “VH1 Greatest Christmas Songs” chart three years in a row. The unconventional lyrics of the song, highlighting a dysfunctional love for the ages, makes it the perfect Christmas song for 2020.

An aside about Kirsty MacColl, which lends further poignancy to the song. She had several pop hits in the ‘80s and ‘90s; Tracey Ullman famously covered her song “They Don’t Know.” The melancholy of her inclusion on “Fairytale” comes from the details of her tragic death in 2000 at age 41. While on vacation in Mexico, she was struck and killed by a reckless powerboat driver while diving with her sons. She saved her son Jamie’s life, pushing him out of the way of the powerboat and putting herself into its path instead. A cover-up to shield the wealthy driver of the boat, who was never charged with her death,  led to a “Justice for Kirsty” campaign. Her story reminds us that, like the magic of a beloved Christmas song, a mother’s love is forever.

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