Maybe, in a hard-nosed world like the one we live in today, a real-life Christmas song just has greater resonance than some wide-eyed fable of fun in the snow, Christmas trees and mistletoe.
Fairyale Of New York
Gareth Jones is a music connoisseur and the author of the book “French Pop: from Music Hall to Yé-Yé”
There are some songs that hit you like a bullet the first time you hear them, sweeping you away into their world and eating into your emotional core, only to be washed away with time as over-exposure, over-praise and over-familiarity dull their brilliance to the point where you could happily never hear them again.
What IS it about the Pogues’ “Fairyale Of New York”? Thirty-five – yes, thirty-five years after its appearance on the band’s third LP, the song is now so firmly enmeshed in our culture that – to borrow a phrase – Christmas would not be Christmas without it. By all rights, its sheer ubiquity ought to have blinded us to its wonders by now but no! Somehow, this team up between the magnificent and much-missed Kirsty MacColl and a semi-anarchic bunch of folk-punks is now one of the UK’s most beloved festive tunes…
There are some songs that hit you like a bullet the first time you hear them, sweeping you away into their world and eating into your emotional core, only to be washed away with time as over-exposure, over-praise and over-familiarity dull their brilliance to the point where you could happily never hear them again. John Lennon’s “Imagine” feels that way for me. Then there are others which pass you by at first – you hear them, you think, “nice song” and then you move on. You don’t turn them off when they come on but neither do you seek them out until one day, you hear something you hadn’t picked up on before and wham! You surrender, your eyes fill with tears and you can never hear them the same way again. “The Carnival Is Over” by The Seekers does that for me – and so does this one.
I probably first heard “Fairytale…” in 1987 or 1988 but it wasn’t “Sick Bed Of Cuchulain” or even “Dirty Old Town” so I never really gave it much attention. I heard it a few times during the nineties – on best of sets by both MacColl and the Pogues, on some random Christmas CD or other, occasionally on the radio. I even heard the band sing it in concert – with MacColl in tow – at the Electric Ballroom in 1990 or 1991 but, yeah, nothing special. For sure, it gained in poignancy after Kirsty’s tragic and untimely death, but even so… Then somehow, somewhere over the last twenty years, I really heard it, as if for the first time and it got under my skin in a way that few songs ever really do.
The thing that first hits is its gritty realism. Like a French chanson or a folk song from the tradition, it’s a song about real people, in real places, doing real things. Like all great folk songs, it’s sung in character (although Shane MacGowan’s character doesn’t feel too much of a stretch) and while not all of us have spent the night in the drunk tank, it’s not hard to relate to the unfolding tale of beautiful romantic dreams that curdled on contact with the real world, the couple ground down by life’s hardships until they reach the vitriol spewed out in the song’s second verse. But for me it’s the third verse that really makes it work. MacGowan begins, in a line straight out of any number of novels, films and legends, “I could’ve been someone” (think of Marlon Brando in “On The Waterfront”) only to be met by MacColl’s devastating rejoinder, “So could anyone”. Then her anguished, accusatory howl of pain, “You took my dreams from me…” perfectly sets up the pathos of the finale as the broken shell of MacGowan confesses “I kept them with my own” before begging for forgiveness, admitting “I built my dreams around you”. It’s so heartbreaking that my cheeks are wet with tears even as I type these lines.
I don’t know if that’s what it does to anyone else, but that’s what it does to me. Every single time. Maybe, in a hard-nosed world like the one we live in today, a real-life Christmas song just has greater resonance than some wide-eyed fable of fun in the snow, Christmas trees and mistletoe. I don’t know. I daresay I will give it a spin or two this Christmas then put it away for another year – when I am sure it will hit my just as hard.
“And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day”.
Have a merry Christmas. See you in the new year.
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