Fairytale of New York: 10 fascinating facts about the making of the Christmas classic
fairytale of new york
We all listen to "Fairytale of New York" countless times every year – but how much do you actually know about the classic Christmas tune?
This Christmas marks 35 years since the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl first recorded their iconic festive song “Fairytale of New York”. The song, which was co-written by MacGowan and banjo player Jem Finer, is about a couple who have fallen on hard times – but in the end, they come to a reconciliation. Here are 10 things you may not have known about the world-famous Christmas song.
It started with a bet
Elvis Costello, a former music producer for the Pogues, bet MacGowan and Finer that they couldn’t come up with a decent Christmas song (a bet he obviously lost).
“Fairytale of New York”, which was released in 1987, was inspired by Shane MacGowan’s first trip to the United States two years previously. Until that point, he had only seen romanticised images of New York in films and books, and he developed an obsession with the city. “New York pretty much turned out to be exactly how I imagined it would be,” the singer told the BBC in a 2017 documentary.
The Pogues’ first performance in the Big Apple (in a now-closed club called World), just-so-happened to be attended by Peter Dougherty; who, at the time, was heavily involved in productions on MTV and who later went on to direct the “Fairytale of New York” music video.
Having watched the band perform on stage, Dougherty knew instantly that he wanted to meet with them. Despite reluctance from his girlfriend that night, he made his way backstage and the rest, as they say, is history.
The bond between Irish Americans and Ireland has always been strong, and any art form that draws on this is sure to be a success. As The Pogues had such a distinctive, authentically Irish sound, their music gave Irish Americans (including director Peter Dougherty and actor Matt Dillon) an incredible sense of nostalgia.
By the same token, Shane MacGowan was inspired by stories of Irish ancestors who, years before him, had ventured to the USA in search of a better life. “In Ireland, you’re either dead or in America, and if you’re in America you’re not coming back,” he told the BBC.
A love story (with a career twist)
While the Pogues were on their American adventure, becoming more famous by the day, Kirsty MacColl was busy falling in love. After years of being unhappy in male-dominated bands, she was embarking upon a solo career when she met music producer Steve Lillywhite. The pair married within months, and he would later go on to introduce her to The Pogues and produce “Fairytale of New York”.
A borrowed name
Co-writer Jem Finer had been reading a JP Donleavy novel called Fairytale of New York – a tale about a bereaved Irish-American’s journey from Ireland to Manhattan – and felt the title would work for the song. Shane MacGowan, who agreed, later asked the author for permission to use it. Needless to say, the blessing was granted.
The Pogues meet Kirsty MacColl
Now that the name of the song was sorted, the band needed both a producer and a female voice for the duet. The Pogues’ manager Frank Murray sought out Steve Lillywhite (who, we remember, recently married solo singer Kirsty MacColl), and it was Lillywhite who suggested using MacColl’s voice.
The band wasn’t sure if she was the right fit – there were stories she’d lacked confidence and suffered stage fright. They had originally hoped singer Cait O’Riordan (former member of The Pogues) would sing the part, but then she left the band.
Lillywhite was sure MacColl’s voice was perfect. With a recording studio in their home, he gave her the lyrics and asked her to sing the female vocals. Speaking to the Guardian, he said, “I spent a whole day on Kirsty’s vocals. I made sure every single word had exactly the right nuance. I remember taking it in on Monday morning and playing it to the band and they were just dumbfounded.”
It seems MacGowan was so impressed by MacColl’s rendition of the song that he decided to re-record his own vocals to match.
There’s no such thing as the NYPD choir
One of the most well-known lines from “Fairytale of New York” is, “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing ‘Galway Bay’, and the bells were ringing out for Christmas day.” But when it came to filming the music video in Manhattan – it was discovered there actually is no NYPD choir.
Instead, video director Peter Dougherty gathered the NYPD pipe band to sing the only song they all knew the words to – the anthem for the “Mickey Mouse Club”. As the Christmas song is edited in overhead, viewers were none-the-wiser.
Rumour has it that the line itself comes from a nickname given to Irish men in NYPD Police Stations after too many drinks — they used to break into song together, so much so, that they were nicknamed the NYPD Choir. It’s likely that this was what MacGowan was referring to when he wrote the line.
Not quite Number 1
Despite the song’s incredible success, it failed to reach the Christmas No 1 spot in the UK music charts. “Fairytale of New York” was beaten by the Pet Shop Boys’ song “Always on my Mind”.
It pays the bills
Research carried out by the UK’s Channel 5 in 2016 found that “Fairytale of New York” earns The Pogues approximately €470,000 a year in royalties – enough to buy Christmas presents, and then some.
This article was originally published in December 2021.