The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #347: Fairy Tale of New York by The Pogues (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #347: FairyTale of New York by The Pogues.

One of the stories that has become woven into the fabric of America is that of immigrants sailing to the US in search of a better life. Over the course of several centuries, this has certainly been true of people from Ireland. While those escaping the great “Potato Famine” may be among the most well-known Irish immigrants who came to America; in reality, the Irish have been sailing away from their homeland for generations. When Irish immigrants leave Ireland for America, their arrival point was often Ellis Island, near The Statue of Liberty, in New York City. One can well imagine what a relief it must have been to see the end of their storm-tossed journey across The Atlantic Ocean in the form of a glorious statue beckoning them forth into a new land, where anything is possible and all of their dreams could come true. It is not surprising that such a sight has come to inspire poets, artists, singers and writers to put their emotions into words. Among the many songs that have been written about the Irish coming to America, one of the most famous and beloved is “FairyTale of New York” by The Pogues.

“The Pogues” are a Irish band that some call a Punk band. But, from my point of view, while they may have a reputation for being drunk and disorderly, they have managed to create some of the best written and most heartfelt songs in Modern Music History. Their musical catalogue includes such classics as, “Fiesta”. “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”, “Dirty Old Town”, “Turkish Voyage of the Damned” and their biggest hit, “Fairy Tale of New York”. One of the characteristics of most songs by “The Pogues” is their ability to tell stories based in human terms. For example, in “Dirty Old Town”, the crux of that song is the boyhood thrill of being able to sneak a kiss from a pretty girl. “Turkish Voyage of the Damned” is actually about the journey, via boat, across the ocean to America. And, “Fairy Tale of New York” is about two people who meet once they have arrived and are starting their new life in NYC.

“FairyTale of New York” is sung by lead singer, Shane McGowan and a woman named Kirsty MacColl. Kirsty MacColl is an interesting figure in the story of this song. She was a singer/songwriter from the UK who had some minor hits of her own, most notably, a song called, “They Don’t Know” which was covered by singer Tracy Ullman and which became a big hit for Ullman in the 1980s. MacColl married a well-known record producer named Steve Lilywhite and, via that association, came to sing on a number of records by bands that he was producing, including, “The Smiths”, “Alison Moyet”, “Talking Heads” and “Abba”. For most of those sessions, MacColl worked as a background singer but, when “The Pogues” came to record “FairyTale of New York”, McGowan needed a female foil for the character he played in the song. MacColl, because she was available, became the woman in the song and has gone on to forever be associated with this hit. However, in reality, when “The Pogues” perform this song live, a revolving cast of female singers (some well known and others, brand new) have filled MacColl’s role. So, when you see a video or live performance, don’t assume it is Kirsty MacColl up there. It really could be almost any female singer.

As for the song, itself, there are many who claim that it is one of the most romantic songs of all-time. The basis for their claim lay in the depth of feeling expressed throughout the lyrics by McGowan’s character for his female companion. The story is that McGowan’s character finds himself in the NYPD drunk tank on Christmas Eve and is taking stock of his life based upon the men he sees around him at the time.

“It’s Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank.

An old man said to me, “Won’t see another one.”

And then, he sang a song. A rare old mountain dew.

I turned my face away And dreamed about you.”

MacColl’s character is having none of McGowan’s waxy nostalgia and holds him to account all throughout the song. The back-and-forth dynamic unfolds like a Broadway play, culminating in the closing verse, where each character exchanges the following lines:

McGowan: “I could have been someone.”

MacColl: “Well, so could anyone. You took my dreams from me, when I first found you.”

McGowan: “I kept them with me, babe. I put them with my own. Can’t make it all alone. I’ve built my dreams around you.”

There aren’t many songs in which the storylines between two characters are so richly drawn and so deeply told, as is the case with “Fairy Tale of New York”. “The Pogues” may not be a band filled with pretty boys but, for my money, they have made some of the most memorable music I’ve heard in my adult life. They are one of my Top Ten favourite bands of all-time and, “Fairy Tale of New York” is, definitely, my favourite Christmas song. So, without further delay, here are “The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl” with “FairyTale of New York”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Fairy Tale of New York” by The Pogues, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Pogues, can be found here.

The link to the website for radio station KEXP, can be found here.