It’s time to talk Christmas songs. There is no escaping them now, but even the most bah-humbug among you will have at least one festive favourite, right?
It may sometimes seem like it is in danger of being overplayed (and my view is it should never be aired before December 15th) but A Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty McColl is perhaps the most fondly regarded ‘modern’ Christmas song.
It is dramatic and stirring, something many Christmas songs aren’t. It is an emotional story with an incredibly well produced song to back it up. Steve Lilywhite (married to Kirsty McColl at the time) brought a special touch to proceedings; in fact it was him that convinced McColl to have a go at providing the female vocal. The song is written by MacGowan and Jem Finer and, according to various accounts, took quite a while to write and perfect. The story of this song is well documented in this great piece on the Guardian.
Fairytale of New York is often voted as the greatest Christmas song of all time: it has depth, feeling, and superior musicality to so many other festive efforts.
But are we in danger of revering it just a bit too much? In an interesting piece on the BBC website last year, the very well-respected music author and Saint Etienne member Bob Stanley discusses Christmas songs (you can read the piece here.) "Glam and Christmas went hand in hand,” Stanley says, “Elvis is made for Christmas.
He had a great sense of humour and was very aware that he was in a ludicrous position but yet he was sincere, which is why he could do carols." He insists that the best Christmas songs come from pure pop acts, going back to the likes of The Beatles and Presley. He has interesting views of the recipe for a great Christmas song, and then delivers this bombshell: "It's got to be pro-Christmas. Fairytale of New York is a Grinch record; I don't understand the love for it at all.”
Hang on, did that man just have a go at Fairytale of New York? I think he did. Grab your burning torches and pitchforks people! He calls it ‘a Grinch record’. Steady on Bob, this is Fairytale man! He claims not to understand the love for it. What is there to not understand? It’s Fairytale of New York: it’s about lost time and lost love, it’s about hope and despair, and it is bittersweet and tragically beautiful.
Yet maybe Bob Stanley has a point. Are we a bit too reverential or even sentimental towards the 1987 Pogues classic? The lyrical content is undeniably quite grim, treating of themes such as drug and alcohol addiction. The protagonists are washed up and wasted.
If anything, the song highlights how every year the forced, compulsory Christmas jollity can be totally at odds with the sobering reality of the lives of many people. Shane MacGowan even had this to say in an interview with a music magazine some years ago: “the song itself is quite depressing in the end; it's about these old Irish-American Broadway stars who are sitting round at Christmas talking about whether things are going okay.”
Even the video is a bit sad and heart-rending. Is Bob Stanley correct in his views on Fairytale of New York? Do you secretly wish it would disappear from heavy festive rotation? Should the best Christmas songs be ‘pro-Christmas’ (as Stanley suggests) and unashamedly upbeat or cheery?