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In a season of forced cheer and twinkling lights, there’s something uplifting about Shane MacGowan’s carol of a bum in a New York drunk tank having an imaginary fight with his loudmouth junkie girlfriend. (Geoffrey Robinson / Rex Features)
In a season of forced cheer and twinkling lights, there’s something uplifting about Shane MacGowan’s carol of a bum in a New York drunk tank having an imaginary fight with his loudmouth junkie girlfriend. (Geoffrey Robinson / Rex Features)

music

Why the best Christmas music is sometimes the saddest Add to ...

Is there any place more Christmasy than an international airport in late December? I don’t mean this aesthetically – there are plenty of public spaces just as bedecked with twinkly tat as your local flight hub. I mean it in an emotional sense. Airports this time of year are full of harassed and exhausted travellers heaving carts filled with gifts and hollering babies toward a collective destination they approach with equal parts nostalgia and dread.

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Or maybe that’s just me.

There I was in the Harrods outlet at Heathrow Terminal 5 earlier this week, poring over the sale bins of cashmere socks, thinking “Would Dad actually wear cashmere socks? Does a nuclear-power-plant dress code even allow that?” when I heard the only Christmas song that actually has the power to put me in the holiday spirit (assuming the “holidays” are a crisis and the “spirit” is the Scotch one drinks to get through them), and that is Fairytale of New York by the Pogues.

What a song! And what a balm to the soul of anyone who, like me, finds the forced cheer and kitschy sentimentality of yuletide almost unbearably grim.

Of course, the whole point of Fairytale of New York is that Christmas can be terribly depressing, especially if you happen to be a guy in a New York drunk tank having an imaginary fight with your loudmouth junkie ex-girlfriend. But that is also what makes the song so uplifting in the end.

This year, Fairytale has been rereleased for its 25th anniversary. Since its last reissue in 2005, it has entered the Top 20 on the British and Irish end-of-year Billboard charts every year – not bad for a tune that’s a quarter of a century old and as brilliantly off-kilter as its near-toothless co-writer and co-performer Shane MacGowan.

If Fairytale of New York is the great anti-Christmas anthem for a generation (not my generation, but the irony-submerged one before it, Gen X), its legacy is proof that emotional veracity occasionally does sell, even over the holiday season.

The roundabout story of how this tale of shattered dreams came to be an era-defining hit is almost as enduring as the song itself. Initially conceived on a dare from Elvis Costello, who was dating the Pogues’ then-bassist (and Costello’s future wife, now his ex-wife) Cait O’Riordan, the song was the result of two years of failed attempts by co-writers MacGowan and Jem Finer to come up with a male-female Christmas duet.

While pop Christmas singles can be notoriously cheesy, for the Pogues the concept was almost fitting. A Celtic-styled outfit originating from seedy 1980s east London, the group had, by the late eighties, developed a style that was both current and whimsically retro – delivering an out-of-time-and-culture feeling that made their material feel as vintage as it was new.

MacGowan also had a reputation to keep up as an inebriated madman – one that he cemented with a well-known heroin problem and a charming penchant for going on stage and TV so drunk he could barely speak. At one legendary concert performance, he actually leaned over the stage and vomited onto the front row. If you watch live concert footage of the band performing Fairytale of New York, MacGowan looks so off his face you can hardly believe the song is coming together. And yet come together it eventually did.

By the time MacGowan and Finer were ready to record the final version, O’Riordan had left the band. Kirsty MacColl, a talented but stage-fright-stricken singer who happened to be married to the band’s new producer (Steve Lillywhite, previously associated with U2) filled in to do a temporary demo recording. MacGowan and the band were blown away by the result, and the magical chemistry of a great duet was struck.

The Pogues would eventually fire MacGowan for his wild-man antics (“What took you so long?” was his famous comeback) and MacColl died tragically in 2000, the victim of a mysterious speed-boating accident off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico. But the song lives on, and has been repeatedly voted the No. 1 Christmas song in polls from VH1 to the BBC.

Still, if you ask me, such contests miss the point. Fairytale of New York, with its patchwork melody, argumentative structure and comically obscene lyrics, is less a great Christmas song than a great antidote to every other Christmas song. It takes all the feelings you should be feeling over the holidays and reduces them to a tearful, quivering, drunken mess on a concrete floor. Fairytale doesn’t just remind us of how much worse things could be. It shows us that even at Christmastime, in the rock-bottom of addiction and despair, there is a desolate humour – and hope.

So if you find yourself struggling to live up to the twinkly ideal this Christmas, just think of that poor, toothless sod in the drunk tank listening to the NYPD choir singing Galway Bay as the bells were ringing out for Christmas day.

Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

 

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