Twenty years after its first release, The Pogues classic remains a Christmas favourite, albeit a controversial one.
Recorded for their fourth album 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God', the song was meant as a duet between lead singer Shane MacGowan and the band's bassist (and later wife of Elvis Costello) Caitlín O'Riordan but she quit the group before it was finished. Album producer Steve Lillywhite brought in his wife, the late Kirsty MaColl, to sing guide vocals on a demo version of the track which impressed the band enough to use Kirsty on the finished recording.
The duet is written from the perspective of a drunken Irishman (no jokes please) reflecting on a failed relationship from his past as he spends Christmas Eve in a New York City jail. The argument and accusations exchanged between the two former lovers appear to be taking place in the man's imagination. Some believe the song is set some time after the Second World War, due to the line "Sinatra was swinging", but it could equally be the early eighties when Frank's version of 'New York, New York' was released.
Despite its evergreen popularity, 'Fairytale of New York' has never made the Number One spot in Britain, originally kept from the top by the Pet Shop Boys 'Always On My Mind' (a situation described by MacGowan at the time as being "beaten by two queens and a drum machine.")
When the song was first performed on the BBC's Top of the Pops, in December 1987, the lyric "Merry Christmas your arse" was altered to the, apparently, less rude "ass". But in 2007, BBC Radio One suddenly found the song a whole lot more upsetting and decided they would censor the words "slut" and "faggot" from the record, saying: "We are playing an edited version because some members of the audience might find it offensive." However, the decision was described by MacColl's mother Jean as "too ridiculous" and after many complaints from listeners, the controller of the station lifted the ban, accepting the decision was "wrong".
Watch the video for 'Fairytale of New York' (dirty words intact)...