At this time of year, one cannot avoid hearing the song ‘Fairytale of New York’. It is one of the most popular Christmas songs ever written. And while I am delighted and proud for Shane, the song is a constant reminder of how much we have in common with the bag lady and the tramp in the song. It also reminds me of how very lucky we are to still have each other, to have managed to stay together through very good times and very bad ones.
Over the years, I must have heard Shane sing that song thousands of times. And yet, I realised that it isn’t something we ever talk about. And so, when I was asked if I knew the story behind the song, or how long it took to write or how Shane really feels about it, I realised that I did not know any of these things. And when I did investigate, I was surprised by what I discovered.
‘Will I tell it to you now?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said. Quite prepared to be told where to go.
‘All right,’ Shane said. And so he did.
‘The song was actually the result of a bet,’ he said. ‘When Elvis Costello was still working for us, he made a bet with me and Jem that we couldn’t write a Christmas hit, a duet that I could sing with Cait.
Jem Finer is the banjo player in The Pogues and Cait O Riordan was the original bass player who left the band and married Elvis Costello.
The conversation took place in August 1985, while the band were recording their ‘Rainy Night In Soho’ EP, with Elvis Costello producing.
‘The ‘Fairytale’ wasn’t in it yet, but the New York bit was. So it was basically going to be about a couple of doomed lovers who had had their time in the thirties and forties-that’s why there is all that stuff about Frank Sinatra swinging and the NYP choir and all that.’
Shane had worked out that there would be a slow bit at the beginning of the song, for which he had written a melody.
‘ And then there would be a happy bit and then it would go into a quarrel. Jem had a riff and I worked out the melody on the piano. It gets played as a reel during the middle bit and then as a high stepping waltz at the end.’
Why New York? I wondered. Seeing as Shane and Jem lived in London.
‘We had never been to New York, and our idea of New York was based on movies like ‘Once Upon A Time In America’ which we were obsessed with. We borrowed a lot from the soundtrack of that film!’
By the time the final version of the song was released, two years later, in 1987 The Pogues has toured America and played in New York.
‘It was a hundred times more exciting in real life than we ever dreamed it could be! It was even more like New York than the movies!’ Shane says.
‘We made the couple go to Broadway, because Broadway was where you made it in New York, if you were a singer. But really, the story could apply to any couple who went anywhere and found themselves down on their luck.
The guy is a bum who is living on the street. And he has just won on a horse at the unlikely odds of eighteen to one, so you are not even sure he is telling the truth. He could be lying. You really don’t know what is going to happen to them, the ending is completely open.’
Shane says he feels that the story is one that has not really changed for the new generation of Irish people emigrating to New York.
What do you think about Irish emigrants now?
‘I think New York is still a nasty place to grow old. It is a novelty at first but in the end …it’s a very tough place.’
The band tried recording the song a few different ways before they came up with the final version.
‘We did record a couple of really good versions with Cait singing slightly different lyrics. But we didn’t release them. I wrote loads of different lyrics for it. It was getting more and more complicated. We knew there would be an orchestra so I was thinking of putting in bits where the orchestra played that song ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. Phil Chevron told me that was a bad idea.’
Was it a bad idea? I asked.
‘ He was right. It was a bad idea. I know that now.’
The title came from the JP Donleavy novel ‘A Fairytale Of New York’.
‘We got the title the day we brought in the first tape with the unfinished lyrics. Jem was reading ‘A Fairytale Of New York’ at the time. Elvis Costello liked the lyrics, particularly the bit about Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank. So he said ‘Why don’t you call it ‘Christmas Day in the Drunk Tank’?’
That idea was quickly dismissed.
‘ I said ‘What a ridiculous idea! If you are trying to have a hit single at Christmas, getting the BBC to play a record called Christmas Day in the Drunk Tank!’ Everybody just burst out laughing. And then I just glanced at the book, and it had come into my head a couple of times before to call it after the book. So I said ‘lets call it ‘Fairy tale of New York.’’
Even though they had a title, Shane still was not happy with the lyrics. ‘Every night I used to have another bash at nailing the lyrics, but I just knew they were not right’.
The Pogues began a period of highly intensive touring, and while they were in Malmo, during the winter of 1987 Shane came down with double pneumonia.
‘I didn’t know it was double pneumonia at the time, I just knew my chest hurt like hell and I couldn’t eat and I was vomiting bile in my hotel room and really thinking I was about to die.’ Shane says.
‘So I wasn’t thinking about Fairytale, I was just wishing I could stop feeling ill! For some reason that is when I managed to nail the lyrics and the arrangement.
I re-wrote the whole thing from the start and got the middle bit together and finished it off.’
Initially, it was Cait O Riordan who sang the female part.
‘Cait was brilliant at singing it, but Cait had gone by the time Steve Lillywhite started producing us. And I knew Kirsty Mac Coll fairly well at that time. To tell the truth, I was madly in love with Kirsty from the first time I saw her on Top Of The Pops.’
Shane even remembers the day Kirsty was getting married to Steve Lillywhite.
‘I was working in a record shop, and I had to mind the shop, so I couldn’t even go to the wedding.’
Most of the stories about the song say that it was because of Steve Lillywhite that Kirsty got to sing on Fairy Tale. But Shane is adamant that this is not the case.
‘It was because we loved her. She was a genius in her own right and she was a better producer than he was! And she really pulled it off. The band were astounded at how good she was. She could make a song her own and she made Fairy Tale her own’.
‘I identified with the man because I was a hustler! And I identified with the woman because I was a heavy drinker and a singer. Frank, our manager used to call me Judy Garland, thinking it was an insult to compare me to one of the greatest female singers ever, who was also a drunk, but I used to thank him. It was a real compliment!’
Shane has also spent a lot of time in hospitals.
‘I have been in hospitals, on morphine drips and I have been in drunk tanks on Christmas eve. But I think I was really finding my female side when I wrote that song. It was my slushy ballad period!’
I ask him if after all this time he still likes singing the song?
‘I like singing it with the band. It isn’t a song you can sing by yourself. It is not an unaccompanied song, it is a performance. It has to be a duet and it has to have all the instruments. It is by far the most complicated song that I have ever been involved in writing and performing. But the beauty of it is that it sounds really simple.’
The Pogues went to New York and made a video to accompany the song, starring Matt Dillon. Shane and I found ourselves hanging out with Matt and his brothers in New York. But he wasn’t the only Hollywood star to become a fan of the band. It seemed like anyone who was cool was coming to the shows.
‘There were load of actors and rock stars at our first gigs in America, Robert De Niro came and Faye Dunaway, all kinds of amazing actors, but Matt was the first one to come up to us and kiss our hands and thank us for being alive. He said ‘I dig your shit man I love your shit!’
It was completely overwhelming, he really loved us.’
Shane tells a story about how Matt was chatting up Cait one night at the Limelight in New York when she got the wrong idea about what he was saying and kicked him.
‘He fell down a flight of stairs, but he brushed himself off and got up and tried to apologise! He’s a great guy, we got on very well and we are still great friends.’
Even though Matt Dillon is a great actor, he had trouble doing the scene in the video where he had to beat up Shane.
‘It took ten goes for him to forget that I was me in the video, and to do what the director wanted which was to beat me up and shove me in the cell. Peter Doherty the director kept saying ‘What’s the problem? You are an actor! But Matt Dillon kept saying ‘I can’t do it, he’s my friend!’
It was freezing outside the precinct and all I could feel was the cold. I said ‘just kick the shit out of me and throw me in the cell and then we can be warm!”
In the end Matt did pull it off, and he gave quite a convincing performance.
The Christmas that the song was released was a tense and exciting period, because even though it zoomed up the charts in the UK and in Ireland, it was just beaten to the number one spot by the Pet Shop Boys with their single ‘Always On My Mind’. Shane was quite miffed to be beaten by what he called ‘Two queens and a drum machine.’
‘But going to number one in Ireland was what mattered to me,’ he says. I wouldn’t have expected the English to have great taste!’
It was always a sore point for me that even though I love singing, I was far too shy to have a go at doing it in public. One night, I did get given the opportunity to sing the female part of Fairytale, in front of a few thousand people at the Forum in Kentish Town. I was so nervous I got very drunk, thinking perhaps that if Shane can get drunk and sing, so can I. I was wrong.
‘Was I really terrible?’ I ask Shane now.
‘Yes, you were’ he confirms.
‘But you got incredibly drunk and out of it. So the audience loved it because as far as they were concerned you were doing it deliberately to get at me!’
I tell him I would really like to have another go.
The list of people who have dueted with Shane includes Sinead O Connor, Moya Brennan and Katie Melua, so I have some stiff competition. There have also been versions of ‘Fairytale’ by such diverse performers as Florence Welch, Shane Ritchie, Razorlight, Dustin the Turkey, and Coldplay. Shane is happy that so many people have recorded it.
‘Loads of people have recorded it. I am flattered that they did. I am flattered to have written a song that people keep wanting to sing,’ he says.
The song has re-entered the Top 40 every December since 2005. It has now made the Top 10 on four separate occasions, including three times in successive years.
It was re-released in 2005, and it went to number three in the UK charts with all proceeds going to the ‘Justice For Kirsty’ campaign.
Kirsty Mac Coll was tragically killed in 2000, while on holidays in Mexico with her sons. She died when a speedboat illegally entered the waters where she and her sons were diving. She saved her son’s life by pushing him out of the way of the speedboat, which killed her instantly. Her death was a terrible shock for all of The Pogues, and no female singer has ever been able to perform the song in quite the same way as Kirsty did. It was painful for the band to even consider performing it with anyone else, but eventually they recruited Jem’s daughter Ella to perform the song on tour, a decision which had the full support of Kirsty’s family.
The popularity of ‘Fairytale’ seems to keep on growing, far beyond anything Shane had expected when he took on Elvis Costello’s bet.
The song has featured in several films, including Cecilia Ahern’s ‘PS I Love You’. It is also being used in an ad for Tesco. At the moment there is an American film in production which is loosely based on the story, starring Kiefer Sutherland, and there is talk of several other films next year. One might have expected Shane to be protective of his greatest loved creation, but he is philosophical about it.
‘I am just really glad we made the record and I am really glad so many people like it and that the money has allowed me to help a lot of people who are down on their luck.’
As of this Christmas, Fairytale has sold over 2 million copies. Long may it continue!