Shane MacGowan, Kirsty MacColl Sing ‘Fairytale of New York’ in 1988

Song became a surprising Christmas staple thanks, in part, to the singers’ dramatic performance

Nobody in the history of music ever sounded quite as decadently downtrodden (or whiskey-drowned, -sodden) as Shane MacGowan on “Fairytale of New York,” the soppy Christmas carol the Pogues‘ first released as a single in 1987. But as the luck of the Irish would have it, Kirsty MacColl was fortuitously available to take the piss right out of him. When he sings, “I could have been someone,” she rejoins with the perfect uppercut: “Well, so could anyone.” The witty repartee and the song’s sing-along merriment made it an instant hit in Ireland, despite MacColl singing a cringy slur in the middle, and it has since become a yuletide staple.

MacColl sang the song with the Pogues live only a handful of times before her death in 2000. One of the best took place at London’s Town and Country Club on St. Patrick’s Day in 1988. She came out beaming as men in the audience wolf-whistled, and MacGowan slurred, “Thissongscall’df’rrytalenewyuhk.” He supported himself on the mic stand, holding onto a banjo, as fake snow fell from the rafters, and he growled the opening lyrics — “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank” — staring into the lights through his sunglasses. When it kicks in, MacColl steps up and sings her verse, and the two singers trade off their verses grandly. By the end of the song, MacGowan and MacColl are spinning circles in an Irish dosido.


They first “sang” the song together on Top of the Pops (Top o’ the Pops?) just before Christmas in 1987. MacGowan pantomimed his first verse at a piano, mouthing the lyrics as MacColl gazed seemingly lovingly at him. When the music kicked in, the two singers ambled over to their mics for a dramatic rendition of the tune, complete with MacGowan’s eye-rolls, which you can almost hear, before he walked over to MacColl and collapsed into her arms. In that one moment, everything is A-OK.

MacGowan, who was born on Christmas Day in 1957, died Thursday at the age of 65.


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