Well, we’ve come to Christmas, and to the end of our list—and our last present to unwrap is the Pogues’ infamous classic.
Fairytale of New York appeared on the band’s biggest, best record, If I Should Fall from Grace with God, an indie album published on the band’s own label. Written by Pogues cofounders Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan, the song was supposedly inspired by a bet. Elvis Costello, who was one of the few people with enough patience to produce a band renowned for horrendous alcoholism (and cancelled shows/tours as a result), bet Shane that he couldn’t write a Christmas song.
The band took a theatrical approach, creating a song that told a story of a couple having a conversation about the collapse of their relationship at Christmastime, complete with the kind of salty language you’d expect during a hostile breakup. It opens with the line, “It’s Christmas eve, in the drunk tank…” as the male narrator laments his condition, but he then goes on to call his old lady a “slut on junk.” Then, his girlfriend breaks in to call him a “cheap lousy faggot,” singing, “Merry Christmas, you arse, thank God it’s our last.” The rage is almost chilling. The language led to a censored version being played on BBC radio.
Cait O’Riordan had been the first choice to sing the song, but she quit the band (she was sleeping with Costello) in 1986 and producer Steve Lillywhite invited his wife to sing the female part. MacCool had already had a minor hit, “They Don’t Know,” in 1979 (covered by Tracy Ullman in the 1980s) and in the early 1980s came out with a really great record—including the underrated and forgotten hit, “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis.”
Naturally, she nailed the vocal. Like few other rock singles (songs by Meatloaf and Queen come to mind), the song really feels like a complete Broadway show—it tells a full story, and by the time you’re at the end, you’ve taken a side and you’re right there with the couple.
I love this song. It’s easily my personal favorite Christmas song of all time!
Further listening: There’s really no other Christmas song like this one, and none that comes close to it in my estimation. So go to the opposite direction and try South Park’s Christmas in Hell.
Hit the tag below labeled, “G.O.A.T.: Greatest of All Christmas Tunes” to see more of my top 20 original Christmas songs!