It was Christmas day, babe – 1957 – and a child in Pembury, Kent, was born to bring drunken, miserable cheers to the world.
The baby was Shane MacGowan and, 30 years after his birth, his Celtic punk band The Pogues would release Fairytale Of New York, an anti-Christmas song about lost dreams and disillusionment.
Fast forward another 30 years, and this holiday downer filled with bums, drunks and punks remains a Christmas essential in any half-decent medley. But why?
What makes this tale of a down-on-luck couple cursing in the streets of New York stand side-by-side with Bing Crosby’s White Christmas?
Over two years in the making, the song is the band’s most famous and, in a way, the most representative of its lead singer.
Written by MacGowan and The Pogues’ banjo man Jem Finer, Fairytale was nearly titled Christmas Day In The Drunk Tank, and its action set in Ireland instead of New York.
But MacGowan’s fascination for a cinematic version of 1940s America, the film score to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time, his admiration for Frank Sinatra and the fact that he was reading JP Donleavy’s A Fairy Tale Of New York at the time changed the song forever.
The story thus focused on an Irish immigrant who, on Christmas Eve, is arrested for drunken behaviour and dreams of his long lost love.
The story of how MacGowan and Finer ended up writing a Christmas song is as murky and confusing as the lyrics, with Finer saying it all started with a song about a sailor and MacGowan promising it was all a bet with Elvis Costello.
“He bet us we couldn’t come up with a Christmas hit without selling out our street cred,” MacGowan said.
“Although we did some other great numbers, and had some other hits, that’s the one that people remember, probably because it was a Christmas hit that wasn’t all about jingle bells and happy Christmas and all of that s***!”
Costello initially backed the single, which was originally meant to be performed by MacGowan and Costello’s then wife Cait O’Riordan, the band’s bassist.
But in 1986 O’Riordan left the band and MacGowan, and an unexpected rendition by singer Kirsty MacColl, who was at the time married to the band’s new producer, ended up as the final take.
“I was madly in love with Kirsty from the first time I saw her on Top Of The Pops,” MacGowan said.
“She was a genius in her own right. She could make a song her own and she made Fairytale her own.”
The song’s long and convoluted production history tells more about MacGowan than about anyone else in the band, and more than anything else he has ever done.
Behind the worst set of teeth in music history and an addictive personality which would brand him as either “a genius or a f****** idiot”, MacGowan hid an extremely perfectionist and creative personality.
“He meant business, much more than before,” James Fearnley recalled in his biography.
“It was awe-inspiring to see him in the rehearsal room with his suit on and an attitude.”
MacGowan would later confess to see himself reflected in both Fairytale characters – the man and the woman – one of which was a bum and the other a drunkard.
In the end, the song revolved around MacGowan’s persona, his music and film interests and his lifelong fascination with post-war New York.
Fairytale starts with a flashback and goes on to destroy our misconceptions of Christmas time under the mistletoe. It’s the ghost of Christmas past and present in their worst possible form, but ends up on a surprising and largely overlooked positive note.
As the man turns to the woman and screams “I could have been someone!”, and the woman iconically replies “Well, so could anyone”, she then accuses him of stealing her youthful dreams.
“I kept them with me, babe,” he then replies, as the song reaches the end.
“I put them with my own. Can’t make it all alone – I’ve built my dreams around you.”