The Story Behind the Most Famous Alternative “Christmas” Song
Many of you remember–and miss–our old pal Pogo, an alumnus of the old 99.1 HFS. Now he’s back to share the story behind one of the most famous and beloved HFSmas songs of all time. If you want to catch up with Pogo, you can hook up with him on Twitter, on Facebook, on Tumblr, or via email.
One song that has been for years been looked upon as arguably *the* all-time landmark “Christmas” song in alternative music history is “Fairytale Of New York” by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]The Pogues[/lastfm].
Of course, it’s essentially not a Christmas tune at all in the traditional sense, but the story told within at least takes place during Christmastime. And that’s been good enough to repeatedly make it a successful single once the calendar flips to December ever since its release over two decades ago.
“Fairytale Of New York” was recorded for and appears on The Pogues’ 1987 album ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, the London-based group’s 3rd full-length effort.
Besides the fact that the normally gruff, belligerent and incomprehensible vocals of [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Shane MacGowan[/lastfm] are remarkably clean (yet no less passionate) on this track, the true beauty behind the final product is the guest vocals of the late British singer [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Kirsty MacColl[/lastfm]. Her spot-on delivery while duetting with MacGowan in the call and response style of dialog are the very reason that the song has resonated for so many years, but her inclusion was practically an accident.
The part was originally meant for the group’s bassist Cait O’Riordan, who had just recently married [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Elvis Costello[/lastfm] and left the band prior to the song being completed. Enter the album’s producer, the notable Steve Lillywhite. This is the man who has produced everyone from [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]U2[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]The Smiths[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Crowded House[/lastfm] to more recently [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Dave Matthews Band[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]30 Seconds To Mars[/lastfm]. He brought in his then-wife, the UK-charting vocalist MacColl, to record nothing more than a guiding female vocal for the demo version of the track. To say that Kirsty nailed it is an understatement. The band fell in love with her voice (much like millions of listeners would themselves soon do), and she was officially brought on to do the song.
Besides the instant sing-along characteristics of the vocal hook “..and the bells were ringing out on Christmas Day..”, the dialog between MacGowan and MacColl is a venom-filled banter between two young Irish immigrants who come to New York to find prosperity, but instead are met with drug addiction, booze and hard times.
At the time of release, it was a #1 song in Ireland, #2 in the UK (it was beat out that year by the [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Pet Shop Boys[/lastfm] cover of “Always On My Mind”). It was then a Top 40 single again upon its re-release in 1991, it hit the Top 5 in the UK and Ireland again in 2005, became a UK Top 10 in 2006, a Top 5 again in 2006, a Top 15 in 2008 and 2009 and 2010, plus a Top 15 single again this year. So you see, it never really goes away, and it finds new life every year during this season, with new generations of fans getting turned onto it every Christmastime.
And one of the charms of the song has always been its video. Though the line “..the boys of the NYPD Choir were singing ‘Galway Bay’..” is twice sung, the New York Police Department indeed has no choir. They do, though, boast their famous Pipe & Drum Corps, which was enlisted to appear in the video. They didn’t actually know how to play the Irish traditional tune “Galway Bay”, so they simply performed something else and the footage was then slowed down to make it appear as if they were playing in time. Also notice the cameo by Matt Dillon as the police officer wrangling MacGowan into the “drunk tank”.
I’m also including a few early demo versions of the song which appear on the The Pogues’ 2008 box set entitled ‘Look Them Straight In The Eye and Say…POGUE MAHONE!!’. Besides hearing Cait’s early version of the female part in the first two demos, it’s quite interesting to see the progression of the song through its working stages to the classic that is the final version, which to this day plays a major role in the musical facet of the holiday season.