It seems Christmas time is drawing near and though I can't say I'm often touched by that mysterious creature called "Christmas Spirit", I do like certain things about this time of year, food included. However, since I'm mostly writing about music here (and anywhere else) I'll stick to it once more. December brings a bunch of Christmas songs, most of which are quite boring, but quite often one can find some nice stuff floating around the internet or a proper record shop. Mostly the first. Every year I am asked to write about the "Best of 20xx" or something related to Christmas songs, but every year I'm thinking of this song and the little article I had written when I was young(er). So, I read it again, as I do every year, blew the dust off it and I hand it over to you in English. I'm not perfectly sure, but I think it's my favourite Christmas song, in the uncomfortable situation of having to pick just one.
As Santa Claus’ arrival is coming close there are plenty of songs about him, his reindeers and the snow in radios, shops and almost anywhere you can think of. Most of them are overplayed to an extraordinary level, you know the likes of some mentioning “hearts” of the previous year etc, but there are plenty new being released as well. As expected, some are being played much more often than others and usually in the latter category there are more of those little “diamonds” that are worthy of played in repeat. One of those, at least in my mind, is the song presented below.
Back in 1987 The Pogues had already started becoming popular having released two albums (Red Roses For Me, 1984 & Rum Sodomy And The Lasth, 1985) and were getting ready for their third that came to be one of their most successful, possibly because of this song, titled ‘Fairytale Of New York‘. ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ was released in early 1988, but it would be a marketing mistake not to release the said track before Christmas and that’s why it was released in December 1987 and went to the top of the peak of the Irish charts and did quite good in several other countries as well.
Christmas market is and will be very important for labels, bands and even for everybody else who is waiting for Santa to throw the latest favorite album down the chimney. But the success of this song is not only because of it’s timely release. It couldn’t be at that time, though nowadays things seem a bit different. It’s one of the many masterpieces created by the pioneers of the Irish folk rock scene and it contains almost all their influences in it’s four minutes and a half.
‘Fairytale Of New York‘ was written from the two basic members of the group, singer Shane MacGowan and co-founder Jem Finer who plays the banjo more often than the saxophone. They were working on it for a few years (there are some early demo or live recordings from 1985) and it was destined for a male-female duet since the beginning, with the then bass player Cait O’ Riordan accompanying Shane. Cait left the band in late 1986 and in her place the wife of the producer Steve Lillywhite at that time, Kirsty MacColl, was called for a trial recording and the result was so good that it’s her we hear in the official release.
It’s structured as a classic Irish-like ballad and the contrast between the calm piano and the slightly faster fiddle fitting well with the difference in the vocals of the two singers. MacGowan had problems with alcohol at the time, serious enough to abandon the group for a while, his place taken by great Joe Strummer of the Clash for a few years. His voice is quite melodic, himself almost personified in the character of the song, while Kirsty’s harsher in her manner as well as in her words. She could be an illusion in his drunk mind, if one takes the lyric “I turned my face away and dreamed about you” a bit further. Keep noticing the lyrics and you can find yourself thinking of the era the song is describing, since it mentions Frank Sinatra whose career was drawing to end when the song was released.
This is more or less the small story of this great song, often chosen as the “favourite Christmas song”. Recently one of the most important singers of our time, Florence Welch, chose to cover it at the side of Billy Bragg. In this amazing version their voices differ from the original approach, but this must be the fact that gives the song another, equally brilliant taste. What does it matter what’s the best? It’s a(nother) great Christmas song!
Edit/Note: For those interested in more details. The original version of this article (in Greek) dates back in 2011, however Guardian had published an article about this song in 2012 to accompany the song's re-release as a single.