Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Fairytale of New York

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This is, quite simply, the best Christmas song ever recorded. I’ll explain why further down, but for now, just enjoy it.

So, what’s so good about this song? It stands some deconstruction, so let’s pull it apart a bit. Unusually for a (near) chart topper, it’s a narrative song – a form which is common in folk music, which is where Shane MacGowan’s songwriting is rooted, but less so in pop. Like all good poetry, there are multiple layers of meaning and several different ways of interpreting the song, but at it’s most basic it’s a simple tale of a relationship gone sour. In fact, it’s not really a Christmas song at all – it could just as easily have been set at any other festival (given the Irish American context, St Patrick’s Day would have worked) – but locating it at Christmas adds to the piquancy of the interaction between the two characters. It’s a romance in five acts that takes us through all the stages of a relationship: Despair, hope, celebration, conflict, disillusion and, at the end, just a hint of possible reconciliation.

The story takes place over a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the titular New York, and begins with MacGowan in “the drunk tank”. In the video, the policeman manhandling him there is a young Matt Dillon. The video, incidentally, is all part of the act, so to speak – although it follows a common pop video form of intercutting between an acted interpretation of the song and the band playing it on stage or in the studio, the band segment is just as fictional as the parts filmed on the streets of New York. In their smoky, featureless room, MacGowan is playing the piano as his opposite number, and love interest in the film, Kirsty MacColl, leans over it to address him in song. But, in reality, MacGowan doesn’t play the piano – the close-ups of “his” hands on the keys were actually those of the band’s real pianist, who wore MacGowan’s jacket and rings for that shot. So the band are part of the story, not merely telling it, and the couple singing to each other over the piano are the same couple embracing and fighting in the filmed section which acts as a kind of flashback narrative.

Back in the drunk tank, MacGowan is feeling sorry for himself:

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, “won’t see another one”
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

(The Rare Old Mountain Dew is a real song, and one that the Pogues have recorded themselves)

In verse two, though, things take a turn for the better – his luck changes, literally:

Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I’ve got a feeling
This year’s for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

The lyrics here are almost mawkishly cliched, with MacGowan declaring his love for MacColl and talking of dreams coming true. The segment leads into a change of tempo in the song; the rest of the band kicks in and, for the first time, MacColl has something to say. The video shifts focus to the streets of New York and the next two stanzas celebrate a couple in love.

They’ve got cars big as bars
They’ve got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It’s no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

And then on into the first rendition of the chorus followed by one of the song’s signature penny whistle riffs:

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing “Galway Bay”
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

The song would still have been a great song even if it had continued in this joyful, up-tempo vein until the end. But it doesn’t. Without any warning at all, the happy couple of the previous verse are at each other’s throats:

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

All through this verse, the music stays in its up-tempo, happy mode that’s now completely at odds with the lyrics. As listeners, we’re still reeling from the cognitive dissonance when the song crashes back into the chorus and then changes mood yet again. The music takes on a more melancholic feel, and we listen to the couple, now tired of fighting, voicing their regret. MacGowan starts off by taking a turn into self-pity

I could have been someone

but MacColl is having none of it. The “Happy Christmas your arse” line is her most famous from this song, but in the next couple she first skewers MacGowan’s pomposity and then blames him for her own plight:

Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you

You feel that, had she said this a verse ago, MacGowan would probably have slapped her for it. But the anger has drained from him now, and all he’s got left is regret. Whatever might have gone before, he knows – and has to admit that he knows – that he’s too reliant on MacColl to let her go:

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

The sheer pathos of the last verse is – deliberately – almost heartbreaking. The comparison with the saccharine sweetness of the second verse, and the joyful third and fourth, reflect a relationship that is simultaneously beyond repair and beyond any further damage – a co-dependent, can’t live with you, can’t live without you existence that has lost the capacity to hate just as much as the capacity to love.

After a final chorus, the extended playout is accompanied on the video by alternating scenes of the band and a Christmas-themed New York, and ends with MacGowan and MacColl dancing alone in the room. Is that supposed to suggest that they get back together at the end? Maybe.

But the last word on this has to go to MacGowan himself – the real, songwriting MacGowan of the real-life Pogues, not the fictional, piano-playing MacGowan of the band on the video. Interviewed for yet another of the interminable “best Christmas songs ever” programmes that fill gaps in the TV schedules around this time of year, he was asked that very question – Can we assume from the song that the couple get back together?

“Well, they definitely won’t be sharing the turkey that year”, he said. “But after that? Who knows. The song doesn’t say. It deliberately doesn’t say.”

A lesser songwriter would have wanted to say. A lesser song would have said. To take us on the rollercoaster ride through the emotions of A Fairytale of New York and then leave them unresolved at the end is a hallmark of sheer genius. And that’s why this is the best Christmas song ever recorded.