By Kate Lillie
Originally published on Global Comment
I have to admit that today’s advent selection has always baffled me slightly. It’s a great song, but why is it quite as popular as it is? It often tops those rather inane surveys of the best Christmas songs and it’s also my mum’s favourite. I can’t help but think that the bad language and the fact it’s almost an anti-Christmas song must appeal to a lot of people, but whatever the reason, it’s definitely one of the all-time greats. There are no jingle bells, saccharine sweetness or festive frolicking here, no sir. Instead we tackle the (admittedly topical) festive subjects of drug abuse, alcohol addiction and relationship breakdown. What more could you possibly wish for in a Christmas single?
Fairytale of New York by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl is the quintessential punk-folk Christmas story, told by an old drunk who is spending Christmas Eve in jail. From the lyrics it’s not clear whether the whole song takes place as some kind of drunken dream in his head but it follows a call and refrain format between him and his lover, set to a catchy Irish folk-inspired tune as they hurl abuse at each other, commiserating ruined dreams and a descent into alcoholism and drug addiction. Cheerful stuff – luckily the tune is jaunty enough to carry it or the subject matter might be enough to push us all over the edge.
Carefully crafted over the course of two years, the song went through various iterations before Kirsty MacColl was enlisted as the female vocalist and the final tracks laid down. A lot of Christmas singles are bashed out fairly quickly – and none the worse for it – but Fairytale stands out for the relentless effort and perfectionism that went into its writing and for being one of the few Christmas songs with a genuinely interesting story behind it.