The song is in a way the story of Irish Immigrants in New York City, with theirs dreams of a new life and memories of home—it references Irish favourites “The Rare Old Mountain Dew” and “Galway Bay” and was written during a period when heavy unemployment led to many young Irish people once more emigrating Stateside, as well as immersion in the Sinatra age. Life after Ellis Island was not always a bed of roses.
J.P. Donleavy claimed that Shane had somehow captured the spirit of New York, even though the NYC described seemed “straight out of the movies”. MacGowan said that he deliberately left the ending out of the narrative, beyond that “it’s unlikely they’d be sitting round the Christmas tree swapping presents.” He considers the ending uplifting, and that “love never dies, you know”.
In 1985 the Pogues visited the USA for the first time, influencing Shane MacGowan a lot. In the ensuing years, the band’s profile kept growing, and Manager Frank Murray wanted the band to do a Christmas song, and Shane and Jem Finer set out to write one, with bass player Cait O’Riordan in mind to sing it and Elvis Costello to produce.
Shane had met Irish American author J. P . Donleavy in Dublin in 1973 and took the title of his book “A Fairytale of New York” for the new song. Early attempts came to nothing and it took a long time to get anywhere. The touring eventually got to O’Riordan and she quit the band, marrying Costello along the way.
Through 1986 Shane kept tinkering with it (“I was trying to finish the bloody song!”) and finally finished the lyrics in Scandinavia on tour. In the summer of ’87 they started to record—but with no female singer!
Their new producer Steve Lillywhite was happy that when he came on board he was “getting a band at their peak”. His wife Kirsty would often pop into the studio to see Steve and on one visit Shane suggested that Kirsty could have a go with it. He recorded a demo for her and back at their home studio Steve and Kirsty recorded the vocals which would become part of the song (they never sang it as a duet in the studio). The band loved it. Finally Fairytale had its female lead.
The piano intro was also recorded separately. Lillywhite then worked his magic with some multitracking and studio chops over the next month.
A major influence on the song’s construction was Ennio Morricone’s theme music for “Once Upon a Time in America”, which the band watched often on their tour bus.
The song has spent
in the UK Top 100 as of November 2020.
The official video at The Pogues channel on YouTube, directed by Peter Dougherty, who they had met backstage at their first American concert. Friend and Hollywood actor Shane Dillon had to be encouraged (by Shane) into manhandling the inebriated MacGowan up the stairs in the police station. As the only sober participant he was also able to soothe the anxieties of the real on duty police too!
The song rose up the charts, finally settling at No. 2, just beaten to the punch by Pet Shop Boys (or “two queens and a drum machine” according to Frank Murray with a smile) covering ‘Always On My Mind’. Great record though that may have been in its day, history is the wiser. Shane described the No. 1 song as “just a disgusting fucking record, cynical, jaded, pathetic … I quite liked the Pet Shop Boys before that!”
Must we go there?
BBC News | Radio 1 will not play original version
Oh look mother! It’s started all over again!
Irish Times | The BBC has censored FONY again – what’s going on?
It revisits its interview with Shane MacGowan in 2018 and tries to make sense of the never-ending ‘controversy’.
Indy100 asks why has Stormzy been dragged into the ‘debate’?
It suggests that radio stations have a long history of censoring songs, points out that the alternative lyric has been around since 1992 and suggests that when people are begging to be able to sing the song in its original form, slurs and all, it says more about them than anything else. It adds, “if MacColl was fine with change, there’s no reason for people to fight against it.”
Irish Times | Shane MacGowan explains faggot reference in Christmas song
A great read. “She is not supposed to be a nice person, or even a wholesome person. She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history, and she is down on her luck and desperate. Her dialogue is as accurate as I could make it, but she is not intended to offend.”
Irish Times | As Shane MacGowan almost said, would everyone please calm down
It lightly pours scorn on the ‘snowflake generation’.
On Top of the Pops in 1987
1991 Top of the Pops appearance (the morning after version)
Chart history for Fairytale
1987 9 weeks: 40 (5-12-1987), 19, 8, 2, 2, 4, 19, 39, 68 (30-1-1988)
1991 5 weeks: 64 (14-12-1991), 49, 38, 36, 69 (11-1-1992)
2005 5 weeks: 3 (31-12-2005), 5, 12, 41, 63 (28-1-2006)
2006 5 weeks: 46 (9-12-2006), 23, 10, 6, 13 (6-1-2007)
2007 6 weeks: 81 (1-12-2007), 33, 12, 8, 4, 9 (5-1-2008)
2008 7 weeks: 62 (30-11-2008), 44, 19, 13, 12, 19, 91 (10-1-2009)
2009 5 weeks: 58 (5-12-2009), 31, 18, 18, 12 (2-1-2010)
2010 6 weeks: 75 (27-11-2010), 51, 27, 26, 19, 17 (1-1-2011)
2011 5 weeks: 47 (3-12-2011), 23, 15, 13, 13 (25-12-2011)
2012 6 weeks: 59 (25-11-2012), 27, 15, 18, 12, 32 (30-12-2012)
2013 6 weeks: 81 (30-11-2013), 53, 16, 15, 14, 24 (29-12-2013)
2014 5 weeks: 80 (23-11-2014), 67, 18, 11, 11, 17 (28-12-2014)
2015 5 weeks: 58 (04-12-2015), 20, 15, 13, 46 (1-1-2016)
2016 4 weeks: 66 (02-12-2016), 16, 18, 15 (23-12-2016)
2017 4 weeks: 55 (01-12-2017), 10, 7, 7 (22-12-2017)
2018 4 weeks: 66 (30-11-2018), 18, 10, 11 (21-12-2018)
2019 5 weeks: 71 (30-11-2019); 14, 14, 4 (27-12-2019)
2020 2 weeks: 63 (20-11-2020); 26 (27-11-2020)
Best-selling seasonal song of the 00s
‘Fairytale of New York’ was the third best selling “Christmas song” between 2000 and the end of the decade, according to the Official UK Chart Company. Top was Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ and second was the forgettable but briefly famous Darkness. Considering Fairytale was first released in 1987 that is pretty amazing. The figures were compiled from the decade’s physical and digital sales.
The track is also the 77th best selling UK single of all time according to the Official Charts – this includes physical and download sales (but not streaming).
There are so many of these they have their own series of pages … there are many many more out there!
Follow those links to find straight covers, punk covers, all male vocals, all female vocals, accordions, fiddles, bagpipes, piano solos, guitars solos (we spared you the bass solo but it’s out there ;o), young folks, old folks, Swedish, German, bar- rooms, studios, bedrooms, stages, radio, TV, New York, London, Paris, Munich, talk about … Fairytale of New York — the modern standard.