10 reasons why 'Fairytale Of New York' is the greatest Christmas song in history
Let the great 'Fairytale Of New York' debate end here.
There are certain Christmas traditions that most Irish people will strictly adhere to over the coming days. Eating your selection box for breakfast, watching Home Alone and avoiding those Brussels sprouts are a must, but listening to the superb 'Fairytale Of New York' by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl is also one of them.
Here are some reasons why the 1987 track from their seminal album 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God' will always remain the greatest Christmas song of all time...
1) The opening piano chords
Like all great songs, 'Fairytale Of New York' is instantly recognisable by that marvellous opening seven seconds, which has the incredibly powerful ability to make people recall some of their favourite Christmas memories in an instant.
In your minds eye, those opening few notes somehow manage to recall decades of happy memories and thoughts from the festive season, an incredibly rare gift in any piece of music. Those few piano notes are just as much a part of Christmas for most Irish people as memories of Santa Claus or dinner with their families.
It really does take a special piece of music to instantly pull at your heartstrings, lift your soul and grab your attention all at once.
The piano is played by the superb James Fearnley throughout the song and he's the unsung hero of the track.
2) The first chorus
You get the impression that Shane MacGowan is completely bearing his soul to the world whilst also desperately pleading for absolution from his partner, who has become weary at his 'Jack the Lad' antics.
The Pogues frontman has always been one of Ireland's most gifted lyricists but this song feels deeply personal and poignant to him, which is just one of the reasons why Ronan Keating's woefully misguided cover version fell flat on its face.
The song was written while MacGowan was recovering after being struck down with double pneumonia during a Pogues tour of Scandinavia in late 1985.
Anyone who listens to the song can't help but get the impression that MacGowan is singing from personal experience, it's not a great thing in this sense, but it does add an extra weight and gravitas to his delivery.
The opening chorus is bleak, yet wonderfully optimistic also. It's very hard to feel upbeat about a character that's spending Christmas Eve locked away in prison, for being drunken and disorderly, but there will always be a sliver of hope.
Even in the most dour setting, the protagonist on the song can somehow escape his troubles, because all he has to do is "turn my face away and dream about you".
3) The wonderful redemptive lyrics
At times, 'Fairytale Of New York' is incredibly open, romantic and optimistic, but this shouldn't hide the fact that MacGowan's persona in the song is a real 'lad' throughout.
He drinks, he gambles and he has arguments with his girlfriend, but let me ask you this; can any man genuinely say that they're 100% different?
Both characters in the song are flawed human beings which makes the dynamic between them infinitely more believable because there's no such thing as a couple that don't argue.
Christmas is a time though when people come together and forgive one another, which is lucky for him because it's clear that the singer is definitely in the doghouse/drunk tank.
Despite both of their personal problems, there's one thing that's blindingly clear throughout the song, he'll always retain hope that they'll both see "a better time when all our dreams come true."
4) The part when the traditional Irish music kicks in
Regardless of your musical preference, be it it rap/dance/rock etc, there's no denying that traditional Irish music is in our blood.
Go to any town around the country and the chances are that there will be some form of trad music being played.
The incredible transition from a heartbreaking piano solo into a joyous mix of violin, bodhran and flute still has that indescribable ability to make people get off their bums, while also making you feel incredibly proud of Ireland's unique musical heritage.
Essentially, 'Fairytale Of New York' is a Christmas céilí that's set in The Big Apple.
5) It taps into the concept of the Irish diaspora abroad
Every single Irish person will have had some experience, be it a family member or a friend, who has moved abroad at some point.
'Fairytale Of New York' is exactly that, an idyllic song about two people living away in a foreign country who can only rely on each other to make it in the sometimes cruel but mesmeric metropolis that is New York.
We assume that both characters in the song are Irish - the genre of music and lyrical content implies it - while the reference to Galway Bay only enforces this point.
We've all been raised on the countless tales of Irish moving abroad and trying to make a living for themselves, but 'Fairytale Of New York' is unique because it has somehow managed to be embraced beyond our boarders.
5) It's incredibly romantic and upbeat
While it's very easy to be cynical about any lovey-dovey stuff, there is something wonderfully idyllic about a snow-swept New York that provides the setting for two people to kiss on the corner and then dance through the night.
Like many of you, I've spent quite a fair amount of time in 'The City that Never Sleeps' and there really is no place quite like it. There's adventure, life and the opportunity to discover new things at every corner.
Even when MacGowan is at his lowest ebb in the song, facing into a bleak night in the cells alone, he still finds room for optimism by remarking that “'I've got a feeling this year's for me and you.”
6) It perfectly sums up most relationships
As mentioned before, there really is no such thing as the perfect couple because the majority of relationships will face some strains over the holiday period. Blame the in-laws!
Apart from the fact that the girl in the song is an "old slut on junk", there's a certain universal truth to the dynamic between the two characters that's relevant to all people. They argue, they fight and they call each other names, which is something that most couples and families will do during the Christmas season.
In this sense, the song is actually a truer representation of what Christmas means for some people because not everything is always going to be happy and straightforward during the festive season.
Despite the couple's problems, the penultimate chorus proves what all people in relationships know; stupid fights will pass once the people involved finally see past this petty squabble and reflect on what really matters.
7) These lyrics which perfectly capture the song's spirit
I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you
8) The poignancy of the singers
As mentioned previously, it's sometimes hard to separate the trials and tribulations of the male character in the song from Shane MacGowan's battle with alcohol and drugs.
As for the much missed Kirsty MacColl, she already had a solid career before the song was released, providing backing vocals for the likes of Robert Plant, Talking Heads and The Smiths.
Her duet with The Pogues propelled MacColl towards a successful solo career and she went on to collaborate with Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour and The Smiths' Johnny Marr on her album 'Kite.'
Three more albums followed until her tragic death in 2000. The song therefore not only captures a specific moment in the calendar (the Christmas period), but it also rather touchingly captured an amazing moment when two incredibly talented musicians came together at the peak of their powers and made something very special.
9) It's intrinsically linked to Christmas and Ireland
Much like the best Christmas films, 'Fairytale Of New York' has no qualms about permanently placing itself within the festive season. It does so in the very first line by saying, "it was Christmas Eve babe" while the chorus also notes that " the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day."
The video, which features the acting debut of a very young Matt Dillon, also shows some beautiful imagery of snow falling in New York with Central Park looking like a vast white blanket along with some other iconic images of Christmas time in New York.
As for the Irish element, well, where do we begin? Traditional music, drink, melancholy, ballads, romance, emigration, horse racing and Galway Bay.
How Irish can you get?
10) It's not just a wonderful Christmas song
The song is regularly voted as the greatest Christmas song of all time, but I genuinely think that this accolade is somewhat disparaging because its brilliance isn't just confined to the 31 days in December.
It's an incredible piece of music that stands the test of time. Need more reasons? Have another listen...
Clip via Rhino UK