Recorded in the summer of 1987 and released later that year, The Pogues‘ “Fairytale of New York” famously never made it to number one in the U.K. first time around, held off the top spot by Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always On My Mind.”
The song, which took over two years to write and features the late, great Kirsty MacColl, has come close several times in the decades since then, reaching No. 3 in 2005 and No. 4 in the British charts only last year. But the top spot has always remained just out of reach for what has become the country’s most celebrated holiday tune.
“Fairytale of New York’s” enduring popularity as a British Christmas classic was once again illustrated this month when it was voted the U.K.’s most popular festive song, ahead of Wham’s “Last Christmas” (1984), Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” (1973) and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (1994), in a public survey by collecting society PRS for Music.
PRS also reported that “Fairytale” was the most played Christmas track on British radio last year, even though there continues be controversy about its lyrics, in particular the Kirsty MacColl-sung line “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot.”
On Dec. 20 the song made its 98th appearance in the U.K. official top 100 singles chart, climbing to number 14 in the Christmas week sales tally – its fifteenth consecutive year in the U.K. top 20 since 2005. As of September 2017, “Fairytale” had sold just under 1.5 million copies in the U.K., across physical and streaming, according to the Official Charts Company.
Its total sales number will be considerably higher today (Dec. 24). Despite the song’s New York setting and memorable black and white video (featuring a cameo from Pogues fan and Hollywood star Matt Dillon), “Fairytale of New York” has proved considerably less popular in the U.S. where it has never reached the Hot 100, only charting on Billboard’s Holiday Digital Song Sales chart, peaking at No. 22 in 2011.
So what is it about the melancholy tale of bickering lovers and broken dreams that so appeals to British music fans at this seasonal time of year? “It isn’t like all the other big Christmas songs,” says Stuart Wheeley, senior marketing manager at Warner catalog imprint Rhino UK, which represents The Pogues’ catalog, including “Fairytale of New York.”
“It’s completely original, always sounds as if it could have been written yesterday, and yet it’s over 30 years old,” he says. “It’s a song that that the community can get behind. It’s at home with an orchestra on the grandest of stages, and in the arms of your friends down the pub.”
Still controversy around its lyrics rumbles on with numerous calls by radio stations and DJs to have the words “faggot” and “slut” removed. In one of the most famous instances, BBC Radio 1 announced in 2007 it would be bleeping out “faggot” before immediately reversing its decision following complaints by listeners and the mother of songwriter and Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan.
Addressing the issue in 2018, MacGowan — who was born on Christmas day 1957– said that the words were not intended to offend, but reflected the language that the song’s female character — “a woman of a certain generation at certain time in history… down on her luck and desperate” — would use.
“Sometimes characters in songs and stories have to be evil or nasty in order to tell the story effectively,” said MacGowan, alluding to the one of the song’s most striking and memorable qualities – its raw, unfiltered honesty and evocative depiction of an Irish immigrant couple living in New York who have fallen on hard times.
Compared to sickly sweet, overly sentimental festive fare like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” — which finally topped the Billboard Hot 100 this month, 25 years after it was first released — “Fairytale of New York” is defiantly anti-Christmas in sentiment and all the better for it, with its opening lines setting the dark, melancholy tone as the song’s narrator is thrown in the drunk tank on Christmas eve.
There, he hears an old man sing the Irish ballad “The Rare Old Mountain Dew,” which immediately evokes memories of song’s female character, brought vividly to life by MacColl.
Underpinning it all is a richly-layered mix of piano, mandolin, accordion, banjo, tin whistle, French horns and a romantic string arrangement by Fiachra Trench that, when coupled with MacGowan’s characteristically slurred vocals, adds up to the most wonderfully moving drunken Irish folk singalong. It’s a tune that is by turns wistful, bitter, nostalgic, rousing, hopeful and sad – emotions that we can all relate to at Christmas time.
“We’ve always taken pride in the song as a jewel of the catalog,” says Rhino’s Wheeley, pointing to a wide of variety of marketing campaigns the label has used over the years to reach new audiences, ranging from “flash mob” performances in pubs to 7” single reissues.
Today, it is streaming that continues to introduce “Fairytale of New York” to new generations of music fans with Warner Music reporting 12 million global streams on Spotify alone in 2018. “Against the odds,” says Wheeley, “it continues to endure as the nation’s favourite Christmas song.”
Watch the “Fairytale” video below.