How Shane MacGowan, the Pogues turned ‘Fairytale of New York’ into holiday classic

How Shane MacGowan, the Pogues turned ‘Fairytale of New York’ into holiday classic

According to Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan — the Irish icon who died at 65 early Thursday — the story behind his band’s Christmas-in-the-drunk-tank classic “Fairytale of New York” began with Elvis Costello.

The “Alison” singer was the Pogues’ producer at the time, and he bet the band that they couldn’t write a hit holiday single.

But MacGowan and Pogues banjo player Jem Finer would prove Costello wrong after writing “Fairytale of New York” — the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century in the UK — in 1985.

Finer came up with the melody and original concept for the song, which was initially about a homesick sailor on Ireland’s West Coast. But Finer’s wife suggested changing up the lyrics to be a conversation between a couple at Christmas.

Then the notoriously hard-drinking MacGowan took it from there and transformed it into the Broadway-style tinsel tune we know today.

“I sat down, opened the sherry, got the peanuts out and pretended it was Christmas,” he told Melody Maker in 1985.

Kirsty MacColl duetted with Shane MacGowan on the Pogues’ holiday classic “Fairytale of New York.” Getty Images

“It’s quite sloppy …. like a country and Irish ballad, but one you can do a brisk waltz to, especially when you’ve got about three of these [drinks] inside you.”

The song — taking its title from J.P. Donleavy’s 1973 novel “A Fairy Tale of New York,” which Finer was reading at the time — was first recorded in January 1986, with the Pogues’ then-bassist Cait O’Riordan singing the female part opposite MacGowan.

After the Pogues first played New York in March 1986, MacGowan revised the lyrics to reflect the city’s Irish-American community — in a not-so-jolly way.

The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” went on to become the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century in the UK.

“The song itself is quite depressing in the end,” he told Melody Maker. “It’s about these old Irish-American Broadway stars who are sitting ’round at Christmas talking about whether things are going okay.”

After O’Riordan left the Pogues later in 1986, the group began making a new album in early 1987 with U2 producer Steve Lillywhite, who suggested that they re-record “Fairytale of New York” with his then-wife, Kirsty MacColl, singing the female part.

“Kirsty knew exactly the right measure of viciousness and femininity and romance to put into it,” MacGowan told Mojo in 2004. “She had a very strong character, and it came across in a big way.”

The Pogues’ hard-drinking frontman Shane MacGowan died at 65 early Thursday from undisclosed causes. Getty Images

And so would “Fairytale of New York” hit in a big way after it was released in November 1987, before also being featured on the band’s January 1988 album “If I Should Fall From Grace With God.”

Reflecting on the song — which recently got a “Fairytale of Philadelphia” spin from NFL brothers Jason and Travis Kelce — MacGowan said in a 2020 interview, “It was a happy time for the group. It’s our ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’”

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