Ten facts about The Pogues' classic Christmas song, Fairytale of New York

Ten facts about The Pogues' classic Christmas song, Fairytale of New York

THE SONG Fairytale of New York by The Pogues is a Christmas classic — at least on this side of the Atlantic.

The song has been a mainstay of British and Irish charts every December, which isn't bad going for a story about an alcoholic and a drug addict rowing during the festive season.

Yet despite its dark and bleak outlook after the couple's initial joy-filled Christmases, the song ends on a note of cautious optimism.

Will they ever see another Christmas? Who knows.

However as the argument simmers down, the line "Can't make it alone" suggests they may yet give it one more shot.

Here are 10 facts about the song, which is 34 years old this Christmas.

1. Matt Dillon makes a cameo

Matt Dillon (Image: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

The police officer escorting Shane MacGowan's character to the drunk tank is none other than actor Matt Dillon, himself of Irish descent.

While still relatively young at the time, Dillon had already starred in Rumblefish and The Outsiders, both directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

He would go on to star in To Die For, There's Something About Mary and You, Me and Dupree.

Dillon and the video's director, Peter Dougherty, met the band backstage in New York in March 1986 on the opening date of their inaugural US tour.

2. Accolades

Fairytale of New York was named VH1's greatest Christmas song ever for three consecutive years — 2004, 2005 and 2006.

An ITV special called The Nation's Favourite Christmas Song ranked it top in Britain in 2012 following a nationwide survey.

It also topped a 2014 poll by The Independent to find Britain's favourite Christmas tune.

In 2020, music licensing company PPL revealed it was the most played Christmas song in Britain in the 21st century.

3. Non-existent choir

Members of the NYPD Emerald Society Pipes and Drums band (Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The chorus of the song refers to the "boys of the NYPD choir", however there is no such choir in real life.

The NYPD doesn't have a choir, however the force's Emerald Society does have a Pipes and Drums band, whose members passed for said choir in the music video.

They also didn't know the words to Galway Bay, so mouthed the lyrics to the only song they all knew, the Mickey Mouse March, theme tune to the old Mickey Mouse Club TV show.

4. MacColl's call-up

The late Kirsty MacColl, who duets with MacGowan on the song, wasn't intended to feature on vocals.

Bassist Cait O'Riordan was originally intended to sing the female part but left the band in 1986 after marrying producer Elvis Costello.

Costello's replacement, Steve Lillywhite, asked his wife MacColl to record test vocals at home for the song.

So impressed were the band by MacColl's efforts, MacGowan re-recorded his own vocals — built them around hers, you could say.

Since MacColl's death in 2000, other vocalists to sing the part alongside The Pogues include Katie Melua, Sinead O'Connor and banjo player Jem Finer's daughter Ella.

5. Fairy tale of Co. Clare?

Jem Finer (Image: Christie Goodwin/Getty Images)

The original lyrics saw the action begin in Co. Clare and involved a seaman in New York pining to be back in Ireland.

It was Finer's wife who suggested making the song about a couple talking to each other at Christmas time.

Finer later said he had written two songs, one with a good tune and poor lyrics and the other with a poor tune but with the basis of the lyrics that would become Fairytale of New York.

He gave MacGowan the best elements of both songs and he got to work fashioning it into the song we know today.

6. Title inspiration

Author JP Donleavy (Image: Phillip Massey/Getty Images)

The song borrows its title from the novel A Fairy Tale of New York by Irish-American writer JP Donleavy.

Born in Brooklyn, Donleavy lived in Westmeath from 1972 until his death in 2017.

While the novel and the song tell different stories, they share similar themes, including someone travelling from Ireland to New York, falling on hard times and having a tumultuous love life.

Costello, The Pogues' producer when the song was written, suggested calling it Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank, but the suggestion was dismissed as not being radio-friendly.

7. Censorship

The song has been subject to censorship on various platforms, however the most controversial was BBC Radio 1's stance in 2007.

The station edited out the words "faggot" and "slut" from the-then 21-year-old song to avoid causing offence.

MacColl's mother Jean called the decision "ridiculous" while the band themselves found it "amusing".

The station later reversed its decision, but re-introduced the censored version for Christmas 2020.

Other BBC stations have continued to play the song unedited.

In 2018, RTÉ rejected calls from two presenters to censor the song.

MacGowan released a statement saying that the dialogue was an attempt to accurately portray a character who can be "evil or nasty" and that if people couldn't understand that, he was happy for them to censor the song.

8. Italian influence

Composer Ennio Morricone (Image: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

According to The Guardian, the song's piano intro was inspired by Italian composer Ennio Morricone, in particular his score for Once Upon a Time in America.

The band were fans of Sergio Leone's epic film and watched it repeatedly while on tour.

9. Hat tips

The song references several other Irish songs, the most obvious being Galway Bay, a song popularised by Bing Crosby which is mentioned in the chorus.

In the opening verse, the old man in the drunk tank is singing The Rare Old Mountain Dew, a folk song covered by The Pogues themselves as well as The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers.

The fourth verse begins "You were handsome / You were pretty", which sounds like a reference to the song I'll Tell Me Ma, also known as The Belle of Belfast City.

The chorus to that song begins with the lyrics, "She is handsome / She is pretty".

It was recorded by, among others, The Clancy Brothers and The Chieftains with Van Morrison.

Other non-Irish cultural references include nods to Frank Sinatra and the movie On the Waterfront, with the final verse's opening line "I could have been someone" recalling Marlon Brando's "I coulda been a contender" speech from that movie.

10. Chart run

The single peaked at No. 2 in Britain

Even after more than three decades, the song remains a firm festive favourite, reaching No. 7 in the 2021 Christmas British singles charts and No. 5 in Ireland.

Originally released in November 1987, it has re-entered the British Top-75 every December since 2005 and has now spent a total of 112 weeks on the British singles chart.

However, despite spending five weeks at the top spot in Ireland following its initial release, it peaked at No. 2 in Britain.

Thanks a lot, Pet Shop Boys.