How does a song about a couple quarrelling over a series of misadventures and broken dreams, explicitly slagging each other off, come to be considered one of the best Christmas songs ever written?
Perhaps it’s ‘Fairytale of New York’s honesty that continues to strike a chord with people.
“The fact is that Christmas is a very unhappy time for lots of people… the general run of Christmas records tends to be making out that everything’s all peace and harmony and it’s just not true,” The Pogues’ Jem Finer told triple j in 1987.
“But we don’t want to spoil anybody’s Christmas for them!” tin whistle player Spider Stacy quickly added with a hearty snigger.
Featuring instruments such as accordion, mandolin, banjo and the tin whistle, The Pogues were quite naturally labelled Irish folk punk. But their influences encompassed much more.
They caused a stir within traditional folk music circles when they first emerged, Finer explained.
“We’re not actually trying to be an Irish folk group,” he said. “Those people that think we’re trying to be an Irish folk group get their noses put severely out of joint, because they think we’re murdering the music. But if they understood that we’re only using that as a starting off point, then they’d find it a little easier to deal with.
“I think we’ve done a lot to drag folk music into the ‘80s or whatever, given it a respectability amongst a young audience who always thought it was boring old shit their parents used to listen to.”
They’d achieved acclaim for previous record Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, which was produced by Elvis Costello, but the peak of their success arrived with the release of If I Should Fall from Grace with God.
It was a record informed by a richness, warts and all, of Anglo-Irish culture and history, but brought in new sonic influences. ‘Fiesta’ was inspired by the Tex-Mex sounds of Los Lobos and a crazy Mediterranean party.
“It came about because we were in Spain and there was a fiesta right around near the hotel in which we were staying that kept us awake all night,” Finer said. “Some of the tunes in that song are some of the tunes that went on relentlessly all night long. So we could either go mad, or put it in a song.”
The Pogues had a reputation for getting unhinged and delivering wildly ferocious live shows, something they were doing a lot of in the lead up to making this third album.
“I saw the madness and thought it could be tamed in a certain way to make a record that would sell more than just a specialist type of record,” producer Steve Lillywhite told NPR in 2008.
His contribution was vital, especially on the album’s key song. The band had been wrestling with ‘Fairytale of New York’ for two years, previously attempting unsuccessful versions with former bass player Cait O’Riordan.
It was Lillywhite who suggested his wife Kirsty MacColl sing with Shane MacGowan. With Kirsty’s voice, the song came to life and the rest fell into place.
They knew they had a hit song and a great record on their hands. Spider Stacy told triple j in 1987 that some fans of the band were dismayed.
“’My mum, my dad, my grandma and my grandad really like you, they’re playing you all the time, it’s embarrassing!’” he relayed of some fans’ response.
But controversy wasn’t far away. In ‘Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six’, Northern Ireland’s Troubles and the cases of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four meant they were banned from radio for fear the lyrics could ‘incite terrorism.’
It’s this fearless storytelling, the genuine chemistry of this eight-piece group and the songs which showed a love of rich roots and culture that give The Pogues an appeal that extends well beyond their own home shores.
“There’s something in it which is like a universal sort of thing,” Finer concluded. “The feeling in the songs is something intrinsic to all human beings. Which is why it doesn’t matter really if people can’t understand the lyrics, they still understand the feeling behind them.”
You can’t help but get the feeling singing along to lines like ‘So happy Christmas, I love you baby, I can see a better time, when all our dreams come true….’ that you’ve been handed a very thoughtfully wrapped parcel of bittersweet perfection.