In 2007 BBC Radio 1 took umbrage at some of the lyrics and played a censored version which bleeped out the words ‘faggot’ and ‘slut’…
Fairytale Of New York – The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl
Recorded at RAK & The Townhouse, London
Released November 1987
Writers Jem Finer & Shane MacGowan
Producer Steve Lillywhite
UK #2 12/87
One of the most popular songs of the festive season in Ireland and the UK, ‘Fairytale Of New York’ arrived in the middle of an unexpected period of commercial success for The Pogues, an unruly bunch of ‘Irishmen’, and sometimes women – though most were actually born in England – who mixed punk and traditional Celtic folk to great effect. Formed in the Kings Cross area of London in the early 1980s the group were originally known as Pogue Mahone (which translates as ‘kiss my arse’) and it comes as some surprise to discover that band leader Shane MacGowan, renowned for his drinking habits and some decidedly dodgy teeth, was actually born in rural Tunbridge Wells in 1957, though as a local resident myself at the time, I don’t recall seeing him in any of the local boozers in the mid-1970s. First gracing the UK charts in 1985, the group hit the Top 10 in 1987 with their version of the pub-favourite ‘The Irish Rover’ (in the company of The Dubliners) while their 1985 album Rum, Sodomy & The Lash (produced by Elvis Costello) had been a Top 20 success.
‘Fairytale Of New York’ had been conceived some time before it came to fruition, an early demo featuring the voice of Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan. However, she left the band in 1986 (having married Mr Costello) and in the meantime lyricist Jem Finer decided on a total re-write at the suggestion of his wife before the song was worked up for the band’s next album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, during August 1987 at Mickie Most’s RAK Studios in London. ‘Fairytale’ was always going to be a male/female duet, but the participation of Kirsty MacColl came about purely by chance. Miss MacColl, daughter of folk legend Ewan MacColl, had already had some chart success with ‘There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ and ‘A New England’, by Billy Bragg. She also wrote Tracie Ullman’s hit ‘They Don’t Know’ and had recently married producer Steve Lillywhite. Mr Lillywhite was engaged to produce The Pogues’ next album, and Kirsty took to visiting him at the studio. One evening, at her husband’s suggestion, she took home a tape of ‘Fairytale’ and sang a rough vocal. The group were mightily impressed with her performance and invited her to sing on the final recording.
Beginning as a wistful, piano-led ballad, ‘Fairytale Of New York’ swiftly launches into a celebratory jig, which peaks when MacGowan and MacColl begin exchanging playful insults, most memorably perhaps the lines ‘Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it’s our last’. Unlike most other seasonal offerings, which tend towards phony, cloying sentimentality, the feelings behind this song are genuine and easy to relate to. But it was still a surprise to most – perhaps even The Pogues themselves – when it climbed to Number 2 on the UK chart. It was held off by the Pet Shop Boys cover of ‘Always On My Mind’ and in typically irreverent fashion MacGowan commented, “We were beaten by two queens and a drum machine.” Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the appearance of brat-pack actor Matt Dillon (himself of Irish descent) in the accompanying video, playing an NYC policeman who pushes MacGowan around the city in a shopping cart!
MacGowan was sacked from the band in 1991 for “unprofessional behavior” following a series of ‘no-shows’ at concerts (The Clash’s Joe Strummer was a temporary replacement) but they reunited in 2001 and have performed regular tours since. Kirsty MacColl was killed in a tragic accident while on holiday in Mexico in 2000. In the meantime, ‘Fairytale Of New York’ has become something of a Christmas classic and hit the UK Top 10 again during 3 consecutive years in 2005, 6 and 7. In 2007, having happily played the record for years, BBC Radio 1 took umbrage at some of the lyrics and played a censored version which bleeped out the words ‘faggot’ and ‘slut’ to the mystification of listeners – what was perhaps even stranger was that the BBC’s more conservative middle of the road station Radio 2 kept on playing the original. This unwarranted censorship of what had by now become many people’s all-time favourite Christmas song caused a massive public outcry and even a complaint from Kirsty MacColl’s mother. In the face of this barrage of criticism, the powers that be quickly changed their minds, apologized, and resumed playing the recording in its’ full unadulterated glory. God bless ‘em. Now pass that bottle over here, you scumbag, you maggot…
Copyright © 2011/2014 SongStories/Tony Burton
Originally published by Tony Burton, Stavanger bibliotek og kulturhus.