It’s funny how a song about a drunken, down-on-their-luck couple is considered by many to be the greatest Christmas song of all time. It’s certainly my favourite.
For me, the official start of the pre-Christmas season occurs when I hear or see the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York for the first time. (This year: November 5th.)
In a season filled with saccharine sweetness, Fairytale is the perfect antidote: bittersweet yet uplifting. Essentially an Irish folk duet, it pairs Shane MacGowan’s distinctively indistinct slur with Kirsty MacColl who, as a solo artist, was the purveyor of minor 80s classics such as Days, A New England and There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis (a song as wonderfully wacky as its title suggests). The artists were linked by Steve Lillywhite, who produced the song and was at the time married to MacColl.
On its original 1987 release it peaked at number two in the UK. It was held off the top spot at Christmas only by the Pet Shop Boys’ equally offbeat Always On My Mind. At the time of writing, the song has reached the top 20 on no fewer than 12 occasions, including a second visit to the top three in 2005. It is also officially the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century in the UK.
For both the Pogues and MacColl, Fairytale was their second and final top ten hit. The Pogues’ previous single, The Irish Rover, was their only other track to crack the top ten, while MacColl’s A New England had reached number seven in 1984. Her cover of the Kinks’ Days would come close in 1989 but peaked at number 12.
Kirsty MacColl died in December 2000 aged just 41 after being hit by a powerboat while swimming in Mexico.
And if you want to hear my parody version of the greatest Christmas song ever (complete with singalong lyrics), you can read and listen here.