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Fairytale Of New York

A short biography of you may, or may not know about this iconic Christmas song

By Niall James BradleyPublished 3 months ago 3 min read
Top Story - December 2023
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Fairytale Of New York
Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

This is a short biography about the most popular Christmas song of the 21st Century so far [¹], Fairytale Of New York, written and performed by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl. If you do not already know it, Google the name of the song. You will probably only get as far as ‘Fai…’ before you hit the link to the official YouTube video, which has been viewed 92 million times in the last 11 years.

The song was formally released in November 1987, though the group had begun writing it at the beginning of 1985. There are a number of origin stories about the song but the famous one is that Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer were challenged to a wager by their then producer, Elvis Costello, to try and write a Christmas song that wasn’t saccharin sweet with jingly bells.

With this in mind, The Pogues singer, Shane MacGowan and banjo player, Jem Finer, began their work to win the bet. As Finer said in an interview to the New Musical Express: "I had written two songs complete with tunes, one had a good tune and cr*p lyrics, the other had the idea for 'Fairytale' but the tune was poxy, I gave them both to Shane and he gave it a Broadway melody, and there it was". [²]

The song was named after the book, A Fairytale Of New York by JP Dornleary which Jem was reading at the time, though it was MacGowan who named the song.

Originally, the female part of the song was sung by the band’s bassist, Cait O’Riordan. However, the band didn’t like the overall sound so the song was shelved.

Move forward two years and things had changed. Elvis Costello was no longer the band’s producer, replaced by Steve Lillywhite and Cait O’Riordan had left the band. Lillywhite heard Shane MacGowan singing the song a couple of times in studio sessions, with Shane singing both the male and female parts. Lillywhite suggested he should take home a recording of the song and get his wife to sing the female parts. Lillywhite’s wife was Kirsty MacColl.

Two years before, The Pogues had recorded a version of ‘Dirty Old Town’ which had been written by Kirsty’s father, Ewan McColl. The band knew her work and readily agreed to the proposal. As Shane Gowan would later say, "Kirsty knew exactly the right measure of viciousness and femininity and romance to put into it and she had a very strong character and it came across in a big way...” [³]

Once Kirsty had provided tapes of the female parts, the band finished the recording around them. Kirsty was not present when the song was completed.

With the recording at the publishers, the band went to New York to shoot the video. The week they chose to film it was one of the coldest November weeks in New York history. In the chorus of the song is the line, “The boys of the NYPD choir, still singing Galway Bay.” However, the New York Police Department (NYPD) did not have a choir, so the group had to use the NYPD Pipes and Drums band in the video instead. Even worst, the members of the Pipes and Drum band didn’t know the words to ‘Galway Bay’. Needing everyone to be singing the same song, any song, for the images of the video, the members of the band decided to sing the only song they all knew the words to: the theme tune of The Mickey Mouse Club!

In 2012, live on ITV in the UK, Fairytale Of New York was announced as ‘The Nation’s Favourite Christmas Song’ [⁴] and is currently the most played Christmas song of the 21st century.

[¹] "Fairytale Of New York is true sound of Christmas", The Telegraph, 21st December 2015

[²] Martin, Gavin (2 January 1988). "Once Upon a Time in the West". NME. pp. 22–23 & 31.

[³] Scanlon, Ann (September 2004). "Culture Soul Rebels". Mojo. No. 130. pp. 76–82.

[⁴] Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairytale_of_New_York

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About the Creator

Niall James Bradley

I am a teacher who lives in the north west of England. I write about many subjects, but mainly I write non-fiction about things that interest me, fiction about what comes into my head and poetry about how I feel.

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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Comments (6)

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  • Jack Faulkner3 months ago

    Brilliant, Niall. Though this is the greatest Christmas song ever made and I will fight (well, gently disagree with) anyone who says different, I never knew the whole story behind it. Thanks for giving it a new kind of life.

  • Phil Flannery3 months ago

    It's amazing that it is such a well known song, while sadly, I didn't know about it until this past week. I have now read so much about the song and the man associated with it, Shane MacGowan. Each thing I've read has built up quite a history, and yours, telling the background behind the creation of this song, is a brilliant account. Thanks for sharing it. I would certainly prefer this to Mariah Carey's yearly aural assault.

  • Marie Wilson3 months ago

    Always loved this song & footage of MacGowan & MacColl waltzing to it. She met an heroic & tragic end, gone too soon, & that always gave me an extra pang listening to her sing. Thanks for the article & congrats on TS!

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  • Dana Crandell3 months ago

    Thank you for the story behind the song. It's been on my Christmas tunes playlist for years. It's unfortunate that a very big part of the reason for its recent popularity is the passing of Shane MacGowan, which our fellow Vocal creator Mikey Dred wrote about in this piece: https://vocal.media/beat/goodby-shane-mac-gowan Congratulations on the Top Story!

  • PK Colleran3 months ago

    Loved this story. Just sent it to the family as we were in New York last month. Great telling of an interesting history. BTW, I found the song on YouTube, and you were right. Typing in Google "Fairy.... " and the link appeared. Wonderful title, Fairytale of New York. Special and different Christmas song. https://youtu.be/j9jbdgZidu8?si=2PkupPYRotj7kpMH Thanks for writing this!

  • I listened to the song on YouTube and it was the first time I heard it, lol. This was a fascinating read!

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