Without this song, the Pogues would surely not be anything like as celebrated as they are. The first two LPs – Red roses for me and Rum sodomy & the lash – had about them a rich air of mystery as well as an unfettered wildness; while each included a handful of songs that were a match for this, their biggest hit, none of them were of the type to race up the charts. At the time what set ‘Fairytale of New York’ apart was its unexpectedness – a Christmas song by the Pogues! – but also how they managed to blend the qualities of those first two LPs with a kind of populist sentimentality that made it hard to resist the urge to sing along with Shane and Kirsty MacColl.
The song’s got the lot. It manages to be both melancholy and rousing – all the blues but also all the cheer of the season. Hope trades blows with cynicism. MacGowan’s immigrant character has been lured by the mythological bright lights of the city, of Broadway, but then he and the girl whose hand he takes face hard-bitten reality – struggling to make ends meet, money being gambled, drunk or shot up before it could otherwise be spent, and ultimately dreams and happiness dashed. Shane conveys a gruff drunkard’s maudlinism with his vocal, but somehow there is a deeper shade of blue in the scornful sharpness of Kirsty’s, the bite of her ire softened by the beauty of her voice. It’s as if even as she airs her stinging put-downs, really she can’t help still loving him, while despite all evidence to the contrary, he carries on insisting that all his dreams are built around her. Both play their parts to perfection, but perhaps it is Kirsty’s presence which turns a great song into a magical, canonical one.
A friend of mine once told me that as he was growing up, his family developed a tradition of singing the song on Christmas morning as the fire was lit, and that they do so still. Nowadays it serves to clear away the mental cobwebs left over from the previous night’s drinking, gets the airing of any lingering sense of grievance dramatically out of the way, and sets up a celebratory tone for the rest of the day. It’s a tradition to match the best that Christmas has to offer; and when the language is as choice as ‘you scumbag you maggot / you cheap lousy faggot / happy christmas your arse / I pray god it’s our last’, which growing child, which teenager – which adult with even coulda-been-a-contender dreams behind them – wouldn’t want to join in and sing those lines at least once every year?