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30th Nov 2023

‘Fairytale of New York’: Inside the disputed origins of classic Pogues song

Simon Kelly

Fairytale of New York

It could have been a very different song.

In wake of the passing of legendary Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan, there is already a large push to make the iconic ‘Fairytale of New York’ a Christmas number 1 once again.

The song is, of course, the very distilled essence of MacGowan’s career – a heartfelt, heartbreaking, alternative twist on the traditional, and not without its flaws – a song that the nation holds dear to its heart.

The now 35-year-old tune has a long and colourful history, even before its release – it apparently took over two years to hit the airwaves, undergoing countless rewrites and changing of singers.

Its origins, as well as being troubled, are also disputed among many, including those who wrote it, with one of its inception stories involving the legendary Elvis Costello.

Elvis Costello’s involvement in the disputed origins of Fairytale of New York

In the mid-80s, The Pogues were on a high after the release of their masterpiece ‘Rum Sodomy & the Lash’, which also happened to be produced by legendary musician Elvis Costello.

The ‘She’ hitmaker was dating The Pogues bassist at the time, Cait O’Riordan, whom he eventually went on to marry.

While its origins are murky, MacGowan has stood by the story that ‘Fairytale of New York’ came about by Costello wagering the singer that they couldn’t make a good Christmas duet to be sung with O’Riordan.

However, The Pogues’ accordion player James Fearnley had different views on how it came to be, stating as much in his memoirs.

In Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues, Fearnley said that he remembers manager Frank Murray suggesting that they do a cover of the ‘Christmas Must be Tonight’, a 1997 tune by The Band.

“It was an awful song,” Fearnley said. “We probably said, fuck that, we can do our own.”

As mentioned before, the song took years to actually record due to a myriad of reasons. During the time between conception and recording, The Pogues’ record label went into administration, Costello left as producer alongside O’Riordan as bass player, leaving MacGowan with nobody to duet with.

The track was finally recorded in RAK Studios in 1987, with new producer Steve Lillywhite suggesting his wife Kirsty MacColl could record the female vocals.

Once the band heard MacColl’s take on the song, they knew she was the perfect choice. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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