An Irishman's Diary
WE WERE discussing here recently Ireland’s theft of the song Dirty Old Town , a crime on which the many fingerprints include those of the Pogues. Its writer, Ewan MacColl, probably wouldn’t have minded much anyway. He had a love-hate relationship with the real DOT, his native Salford. And he believed in reinvention, having been born as Jimmy Miller before adopting a name more in sympathy with his Scottish ancestry.
But the Pogues have in any case handsomely made it up to him for their part in the aforementioned larceny, by means of one of their own compositions. I refer of course to Fairytale of New York . Because when Shane McGowan wrote what for many people is the greatest Christmas song of all in 1987, he incidentally immortalised the woman with whom he performed it: MacColl’s daughter, Kirsty.
Not that she needed immortalising at the time. She was still in her prime then and, all things considered, appeared to have a much better life expectancy that her duet partner. But her role in Fairytale acquired an unintended poignancy nine years ago today, a week before Christmas 2000, when she was killed by a rich man’s speedboat in Mexico.
Nobody ever went to jail for the incident and, only last week, the MacColl family finally declared the “Justice for Kirsty” legal fund closed. It had achieved all it could, they said; any remaining money would go to charity.
But even as a line was at last drawn under the tragedy, MacColl and McGowan’s famous duet was yet again being dusted off by DJs: its popularity undimmed by the passage of 22 years.
Musical and lyrical beauty aside, part of the song’s appeal is the original video which, unusually for something shot in the 1980s, still manages to look classy today. True, the acting is of the ham variety, apart from Matt Dillon’s gum-chewing cop and the drunk-tank’s unidentified black-man-with-swollen-eye, who both look the part.
McGowan somehow manages to be unconvincing in the performance of a man with drink on him, and MacColl is too fresh-faced for the part where the relationship descends into bitterness and recrimination.
There are also such details – technical but inconvenient – that the NYPD choir, as featured in the song and video, was not really singing Galway Bay. This is partly because there is no NYPD choir. But even the pipe band didn’t know the tune, apparently. So they had to slow down one of their faster numbers and pretend.
On the plus side, the Pogues’ hairstyles have held up surprisingly well. Also, the black-and-white footage, with its rising cigarette smoke and falling snow, still looks great. Thanks to this and the way the central melodrama is counterpointed by the pipe band’s relentless bonhomie, the video has attained a classic status to match the music.
As a work of art, the song itself will probably outlive the book that inspired it: JP Donleavy’s 1961 play, Fairytales of New York, reworked as a 1973 novel with the singularised title. Concerning an Irish-American whose wife dies on arrival in the Big Apple, and who is then forced to work for the undertaker while paying off the funeral, it was described at the time as a “funny, lusty and sad novel of comic genius”.
But readers who chance upon the book now probably do so because of the song, not the other way around. Which said, the song is also funny, lusty and sad. And it’s partly the fact that it runs this gamut of emotions, from joy to despair, that differentiates it from the multiple saccharine atrocities to which
Christmas provokes other musicians.
Unlike many of those, the Pogues’ Fairytale is still not quite overplayed. The notorious fact is that on its debut, it was held off the No 1 spot by some forgettable ditty from The Pet Shop Boys, two of the many unacceptable faces of the 1980s. Yet despite several re-releases in subsequent years, and despite topping many favourite-song polls, Fairytale has retained something of a cult status.
The fact that it defies all attempts to dance to it, even while drunk, has undoubtedly helped prevent overexposure. So has its challenging language. Two years ago, BBC Radio One infamously started blanking out the words “slut” and “faggot”, until shame forced them to abandon the policy.
The song has also inspired many dubious cover versions, including one by a Norwegian band and another by – God help us – Ronan Keating. But it’s putting it mildly to say that no cover version I know of is an improvement on the original. Unlike Dirty Old Town , Fairytale of New York does not appear to lend itself to borrowing, never mind theft. It remains indelibly the property of the Pogues and MacColl, and to a lesser extent of the members of the NYPD choir, on whom it has also conferred immortality, even if they never existed in the first place.
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