It’s that time of year when records I recognise are in the Top 100 and I start slavishly following the path of ‘A Fairytale of New York’ back to domination of our airwaves. The song’s leapt 48 places to no 18 in the first December chart whilst Mariah Carey’s already at no 6. Only two more weeks for the Xmas Chart so will it be top 10 again, like last year. We’ll soon see.
It’s December again, and once more I am recording/celebrating the annual return of the greatest Christmas song in history, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s “A Fairytale of New York”.
It’s hit the Singles chart again, for the fifteenth time and for the thirteenth successive year, and this time, by jumping from 55 to 10, today, it’s reached the top 10 for the fifth time, and the first since 2007.
And for some reason, this is a nostalgia heavy Christmas pop period, because Mariah Carey is at no 5, Wham at no 6 and Band Aid at 16. Even Shakin’ Stevens and Wizzard have crashed the top 30. All this with two more charts to go. And whilst I hold no brief for either Mariah or George Michael, it would fill me with delight if either one of those, or both, could knock Simon Cowell’s latest into a cocked hat.
I’d love it even more if it were “Fairytale of New York”, which peaked at no 2 first time round, exactly thirty years ago this year, but I’m content with what it’s already achieved. According to Wikipedia, it’s the most played Xmas song of the 21st century in the UK, so you’ll already be familiar with it, but here it comes again, together with the tears that cannot help but well every time I play this, and I think of poor, wonderful Kirsty, killed 17 years ago, but who will never ever die because this record will be around as long as people have ears.
This year, they’re at no 15 in the drunk tank.
But still the permanent no. 1 in my Xmas heart.
Everybody’s making a fuss about how Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Xmas is You’ has now returned for Xmas for a tenth successive year, especially as it’s leaped to no 6 in the chart, its highest position since the first Xmas of this run, when it got to no 4. It didn’t do that much better when it first appeared in 1994, peaking at no 2.
But you know we don’t care about that here. For this blog, there is but one Xmas song and that’s ‘A Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. This week, the record advanced fifty places to reach no 16, and that’s the record’s twelfth successive season, not to mention two previous visits, the first of these in 1987 when, like Mariah Carey, it peaked at no 2.
With two more Chart Fridays, there’s a possibility for the song’s first top 10 placing since 2007, especially as there seems to be a stronger (and earlier) than usual resurgence by the old Xmas favourites. Wham! have also hit the top 20 with ‘Last Xmas’, which is their tenth successive season (if you allow a highest place of no 57 in 2010) but only the third time they’ve reached the top 20 in that spell.
Shakin’ Stevens has hit the top 30, Wizzard and Michael Buble the top 40, and Band Aid (the original) no 41. And there’s another twelve Xmas classics in the mix, making up almost one-fifth of the top 100.
So, with tears always ready to be shed at the pure voice of the forever-missed Kirsty MacColl, lost to us sixteen years gone, on 18 December this year, and hope that a big splash will be made this year, I give you…
Once again, there’s a piece in the Guardian that I wish to highlight. This one isn’t the same kind of overt idiocy I’ve railed against before, rather it’s an opinion piece that, whilst disagreeing fundamentally with the opinion, I would normally just ignore.
But Trevor Mitchell is not merely pushing the jaundiced idea that Cliff Richard’s ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ is the only Xmas record that counts, he’s using his piece to mount a cynical and wrong-headed attack on ‘A Fairytale of New York’, which around here is fightin’ talk!
My own personal choice as the only Xmas record that counts is already back on its way towards the top twenty, having re-entered the chart at 66 last Friday. It’s starting a long way back from Mariah Carey, who hit the top 100 the week before and is already standing at no 29. Much is being made of the fact that this is now the tenth consecutive year the song’s been a hit: I expect that rather less will be made of the fact that this year will mark the Pogues and Kirsty’s eleventh successive season.
It’s not as if Mr Mitchell is actually promoting the idea of the Cliff Richard song having any intrinsic merit. If that were so, it would again be a mere difference of opinion, and I don’t rail at those any more. No, his piece is, throughout, a snide snipe at Xmas records that sarcastically cloaks itself in a supposedly contrarian promotion of something most sensible people wouldn’t touch with a double-length bargepole held by someone else.
It’s an inherently nasty little piece, written out of self-assumed intellectual superiority, of the kind that has always stemmed from someone thinking he’s better than the unwashed masses.
But it’s in its attacks on ‘A Fairytale of New York’ that the piece veers into territory on which it must be beaten to the ground, bloody and broken. Once again, this is not just about opinion. We are now at the point where the working day is backdropped to an endless run of MTV Xmas shows, thankfully silent, and I work with enough people who don’t like the record. We just disagree, that’s all.
But Mr Mitchell has other things in mind. He minces no words (nor pies):
“The song that consistently tops the annual polls of the UK’s 50 favourite Christmas songs is, of course, Fairytale of New York, the festive cheese it’s been deemed OK to like. The problem is that the acceptable face of Christmas novelty songs is as cynical as any other: manipulative, over-produced and as cloyingly sentimental as Bing Crosby. It also has the bonus of glamorising poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence. It’s selling a fantasy while trying to convince us it’s authentic, inviting the listener to experience the vicarious thrill of NYC drunk tanks, and giving us a “can’t live with him/can’t live without her” cliched shtick.”
Oh my! Someone slept in the nasty tree last night, didn’t they? There’s a repeat whack near the end with a line about ‘cynical attempt at authenticity’ but this is the core of Mr Mitchell’s bitchiness. ‘A Fairytale of New York’ fails against ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ for not invoking the essential dreariness of Xmas day with the family, which is something it never set out to do, but to admit that would destroy Mr Mitchell’s case, which is built on serious strawmanitis.
The biggest charge against ‘Fairytale of New York’ is that it’s cynical. That it’s calculated, manipulative, inauthentic and as phoney as any X-Factor Xmas single. I suspect Mr Mitchell is not of an age to have experienced the song when it first appeared, nor be familiar with the music of its time, and I suspect he doesn’t know much about the Pogues either. That long, slow, deliberately maudlin opening, Shane McGowan’s half song, bleeding into Jem Finer’s rollicking tune far later than any commercial producer would ever have allowed. The aggressive charge of the second verse, where Shane and Kirsty turn on one another with anger at themselves as much as each other. The chorus that presents us with cliches that nevertheless reach into the innocence we keep hidden deep within. Manipulative? Bollocks. Sentimental? Of course, and bang it on until we drown in it. It’s a story of one night, that’s all.
At the end of the day, it’s the song that refutes such charges. All Mitchell is doing is saying that I don’t like what loads of people like and that, because there are more of you than there are of me, I’m right and you’re being fooled.
Which makes for Crap Journalism in my book.
Except for December each year, when A Fairytale of New York makes its annual pilgrimage, I pay virtually no attention to the British Pop Charts. It is many long years, indeed decades, since the music was of any genuine interest to me (which is as it should be), and except for December, it’s exceedingly rare if there be one track on the top 100 with which I’m even passing familiar.
I like it that way.
But old habits die hard, especially ones that you’ve been nurturing since 1970, and I still check the chart every week, eve though it is a list of titles and artists that are practically meaningless to me. Admittedly, since they brought the date forward to Friday evening, as opposed to Sunday, I’m late in ‘catching up’ more often than not. I’ve only just checked this week’s chart, and it makes for some interesting reading.
Number 1 for a third week is Mike Pozner and ‘I took a pill in Ibiza’. I realise that I could, at any moment, go on YouTube and access this, and any other song I chose, but I have no intention of doing so. The mere title suggests all manner of things horrible to my ear, and I’m not concerned to learn what diference there may be to my prejudices.
What causes me to write is something other. Pozner’s been at no. 1 for thtree weeks, and before that one Lukas Graham was top for five weeks. In fact, we’re now in April, and there have only been five no. 1s all year thus far. There were only twenty-three in the whole of 2015, as opposed to thirty-seven in 2014, thirty-five in 2012 and thirty-five again in 2010.
Alright, that proves nothing of itself, given that the alternating years each produced less than thirty, but there’s more evidence to consider. For a second successive weeks, there are no new entries directly into the top 40. In fact, the highest new track is at 61, and the next at 84. There are five further entries between 91 and 100, but three of these are re-entries.
And taking the top 40 in isolation, there are only two ‘new entries’, and the lower of these, at 38, is a re-entry. Only Meghan Trainor, at no 30, is actually new to the top 40.
It gets worse: there are joint highest climbers, at 26 and 11, both of which have only risen seven places, and the fastest faller is at 36, down 9. Practically the whole top 40 has changed places since last week by three places or less.
Now, I may not be interested in the contents of the chart, but I remain fascinated by its mechanics. In 1970, when I first grew interested, the charts – then a top 30, that expanded to a 50 – were in a static phase: no new entries directly into the top 20, long-running no 1s (four consecutive no 1s took up twenty weeks in the summer/autumn, and one of those only lasted one week).
But even those staid days were volatile compared to what I’m seeing here. And the comments under the Chart on its official website make it plain that the natives are growing restless.
There is seemingly a simple answer: the inclusion of streaming in creating the charts. One commentator alleges that record companies are exploiting a new form of manipulation, paying people in call centres to stream certain songs 24 hours, and that this will soon be exposed publicly. Most people are blaming the increasingly unchanging charts on the inclusion of streaming, and calling for a return to sales only.
According to one source, The Pet Shop Boys’ latest single, ‘The Pop Kids’, a self-referential song I’ve actually heard, when I can’t be arsed to switch off Radio 2 after Sounds of the Sixties and run on into Graham Norton’s Show, is at no 2 in the Physical Chart and in the mid-90s on the Sales Chart (which I assume is the one that adds in the downloads) but is yet to appear in the top 100.
If this is correct, it’s hardly surprising. The moment chart music was unhitched from purely physical formats, the Music Industry lost control. People were no longer restricted to only what was printed. Deleted singles ceased to have any meaning. To buy a physical copy of my beloved ‘Something in the Air’ in a record shop. I have to go hunting in second hand shops and stalls. But I can download it any time I want, as often as I want.
Enough of us, responding to, say, its use in a popular TV drama, can send it back into the Charts without any record company being able to stop us.
But the smothering of new music, even if it isn’t what I want to hear, in this fashion isn’t good for music. Nor was the breaking down of the single, when an enthusiastic fan base can download an entire album’s track-listing into the Chart, at once, by concerted purchase of individual tracks.
I shall watch developments with interest. Pop doesn’t do standing still very well. It’s something about the genes, as opposed to the jeans.
They say it’s only the fourth time there’s ever been a Chart published on Xmas Day itself and I can believe it: all those long years of no chart in Xmas week, the Number One getting an automatic two week stint – so that’s how ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Mull of Kintyre’ did it: cheats.
It’s also going to be only the second time since Simon Cowell took out a private purchase of the Xmas No. 1 that it isn’t going to be the X-Factor winner at the top, and that can only be good. Part of the fun, when it was still fun, was the uncertainty. Is it going to be Justin Beiber still, or are we going to see the NHS Choir at no. 1. Less than a minute until we know, as I type…
And ‘A Fairytale of New York’ peaks this year at no. 13.
(And the Choir did it: good on Justin Beiber – and those are words I never thought I’d ever type – for urging his fans to buy it instead of him).
Marry Kirstymas, everybody!
Well, in our annual KirstyWatch, ‘A Fairytale of New York’ climbs a further five places to 15 tonight, narrowing the gap to Mariah Carey, but it’s a pleasant shock to discover that this year’s X-Factor winner has not only missed out on Number 1 but hasn’t even managed to crack the Top Eight!
Is this the Xmas Chart? Well, it’s certainly the one we’ll wake up to next Friday but it appears there will be a new Chart on December 25 – pity the poor buggers who have to number crunch that – so there may be one final twist to report.
Tune in next week, same Kirsty-time, same Kirsty-channel…
There’s a week to go and tradition has reasserted itself. ‘A Fairytale of New York’ has re-entered the Top Twenty for the eleventh successive year, a record that no other single can boast. The song has jumped from 58 to 20, and next Friday is the Official Xmas Chart, so we’ll see where it peaks. With Mariah Carey up to no 13, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl aren’t going to be this year’s Xmas winner, but it’s still the deepest and most moving of them all.
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.