Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Best Christmas Song of All Time
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Fairytale of New York
The Pogues with Kirsty McColl

In the UK, it's a big deal what song is #1 on Christmas Day -- the BBC plays it up as a sort of contest each year, and it's often a way of measuring what the favorite Christmas music of any given year might be. Becaue the Christmas sales reflect the particularly quirky buying patterns of the holidays, the Christmas #1 allows novelty records and outsiders a once-a-year shot at fame. You may recall that this was one of the plot points of the film Love Actually -- Bill Nighy's desperate attempt to make a comeback via a turgid Christmas song, which led to an ironic bid by the "fake" song for the real BBC #1 that year. In recent years, however, non-Christmas songs have won out (such as the cover of "Mad World" used in the film Donnie Darko), which surely is some sort of reflection of the modern British character.

There's a song perfectly poised to take advantage of the new irreligiosity of Christmas, and don't think that the labels don't know it.

This year, Warner is re-releasing "Fairytale of New York" in a naked (and publicized) bid for the #1 title. On its release in 1987, the song hit #2, but no higher. It then settled into a relatively well-known position in England, as drunken Brits belted it out at office Christmas parties across the Isles. Recent polls there have even ranked it as "The #1 Christmas Song Of All Time." Surely, then, Warner's sees a good shot at easy money on back catalog property. Once again, Kirsty McColl won't be around to enjoy her success -- she died in an accident in 2000, just as her song "In These Shoes?" was enjoying stateside popularity.

The song is relatively unknown in America -- which is ironic, given that the song is set in New York City. That obscurity is changing, though. The song has been steadily gaining in popularity in recent years, for a number of reasons. It's a great song, with a catchy beat. It's fun to sing along to. And it is emphatically un-Christian, which is a big selling point in the modern world. And it is un-Christian to a degree that was previously unknown. "The Christmas Song" or "White Christmas" or any of those other sentimental favorites aren't religious, but "Fairytale of New York" knocks over the town creche while on a drunken bender.

It's a duet sung between Shane McGowan of the Pogues and Irish thunderball Kirsty McCall -- and though there have been a couple of abysmal covers in recent years, it will always be a duet between Shane McGowan and Kirsty McCall, so perfectly do they inhabit their roles. "Roles" is the right word. They're Irish lovers/spouses in the New York slums of the 1930s or 40s, who fight, who insult each other, who despair that the good times will ever come back. (Some think the song is set in the 1800s, like the Irish immigrant movie Far and Away, but there's a reference to "Sinatra.")

It starts off with McGowan slowly singing "It was Christmas Eve in the drunk tank..." in the manner of one who still hasn't slept it off, and it's all downhill from there. He tells her that he dreamed of her while in the jailhouse, and now he has gambling winnings they can use to celebrate Christmas. But she'll have none of his sweet talk -- he promised her that New York was a wonderland. They had good times, he reminds her. The good times are over, she says. He's a bum, she's a junkie. They have nothing. "Happy Christmas your arse," she says, "I pray God it's our last."

"I could have been someone," he protests.

"But so could anyone," she blasts back. "You took my dreams away when you first met me." And this line is so bracing that you can't help but wonder what he's going to say. What can anyone say to that?

Well, of course this no-good man, says just the right thing. No-good men like him know what to say to stay in the good graces of women. Her dreams aren't gone, he says:

I kept them with me babe

I put them with my own

Can't make it all alone

I've built my dreams around you

And that's it. That's the song. He tears his heart out of his chest and gives it to her, and that's the end of the song. Once more through the chorus, "And the boys of the NYPD choir were singing 'Galway Bay,' and the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day," and you're on to the next tune, which suddenly sounds lifeless and dull compared to all this raw emotion.

In short, it's a drunken fight between down-and-outers, who are disgusted with each other and the sentiment of the holiday. Maybe that is why "Fairytale of New York" more accurately conveys sentiment than most other Christmas music. Maybe there's no better way to show the strength of something than to try to kill it and fail.

The polls are right -- even though it is the least religious and least sentimental song in all of Christmas music, it's the best Christmas song of all time. It's worth writing about in November so that you will have all of December to listen to it. Go buy it now. It's on the good Christmas compilation "The Edge of Christmas" (which now costs only $4) along with the Pogues album "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" (where it was first released), the Pogues' various best-of compilations, and Kirsty McColl's own best-of album.

 2:51 PM

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?