The Infinite Jukebox: The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s ‘A Fairytale of New York’


Each year I cheer this single on in its annual revival, counting to ensure it reaches the top twenty again, extending its run as a modern Xmas classic that people buy each December just because they want to hear it. And each year I feel tears of loss and frustration prick my eyes, for the beloved Kirsty MacColl, killed saving her two sons from being mown down by a high speed motorboat, being piloted where it should never have been, by a self-important, self-entitled millionaire, who has never paid the penalty that the law enacts for unlawful killing, let alone the penalty that is due someone who took from us a woman with a voice like that, who was just embarking on a new phase of creativity.
These memories can’t help but inform ‘A Fairytale of New York’. It may be a Pogues song, the inspired bringing together of two different songs written by Shane McGowan and Jem Finer, and Kirsty MacColl the featured singer, brought in to conduct that immortal, argumentative, weepy and utterly real dialogue with the drunken McGowan, but by God she makes this in a way that no other singer could have done.
It begins with McGowan, a meandering, almost maundering piano melody, over which he slurs lyrics about Xmas Eve in the drunk tank. It’s a McGowan fantasia about Xmas among the down and out, the lost, the alcholic and abused, and for the opening minute or more he’s on his own, spinning his tale. Sure, he’s come up on the gee-gees, at bloody good odds, but all it’s got him is a police cell, among the sodden and dying. No wonder he turns his face away from where and what he is, and dreams about…
Which is where Finer’s song takes over, all reels and swirling sounds, as drunken a fantasia as McGowan, but maybe he’s dreaming now, because the music is buoyant, the bend full of energy, and here’s Kirsty swinging in to set things alight.
And this is Xmas, and Xmas in New York, the biggest fairytale city on Earth, with cars big as bars and rivers of gold. She remembers a long ago Xmas Eve, when he first took her hand, when the music played and the drunks sang and they kissed on a corner and danced all night. What else can it be but a fairy story, how else can it be but brilliant? Yet even among this hazy glory, MacColl still reminds us that this was then and now may well be very different: the wind cuts right through you, and it’s no place for the old that this pair will become.
But McGowan cuts in, reinforcing the theme that this pair were once young, and well-favoured and in love at Xmas, whilst the boys of the NYPD Choir sang ‘Galway Bay’ and the bells rang.
But the reality of their life is so different. He’s a bum, a punk, she’s a heroin addict on a drip in a hospital bed, their conversation is full of anger and insult as they hurl abuse at each other, even on Xmas Eve. Yet when MacColl looks back, with inner eyes that are wide-open for us to see along with her, when she remembers innocence and belief and all the dreams she now thinks McGowan has robbed her of, he’s there beside her, still full of stupid faith and love. She gave him her dreams, but he never lost them, or even spilled them. He kept them with him all his life, alongside his own. He can’t make it alone without her, for he has built his dreams around her.
And the music swells again, louder and bigger and more expansive and inclusive than before, until all of us are lost on that dream we have at Xmas of everything being better, of it being right at last, coming good. And they and we are lost in our simple need for people as the mythical choir sings an old Irish song about yearning and return, as we yearn to return, believing for the compass of this song that it is possible.
But it can never be like that again. The Pogues still play this live from time to time, with guest singers. I’ve never heard any of them but I can’t believe any of them can match Kirsty. There have also been cover versions but, with the exception of a ragged but passionate live performance from Christy Moore, these have all been happy clappy, soft-edged, family-friendly versions that have been universally shit. Have these people no ears? Can they not understand what makes ‘A Fairytale of New York’ into the magnificent thing it is. The Infinite Jukebox will have none of them, out I say. Back to the piano, Shane. I feel the tears beginning already.

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