Alas, the euphoria doesn’t last. By the next verse, the lovers are bitter drug addicts, hurling abuse at each other. Finally, they seem to be resigned to being together. A happy ending? Well, maybe not, but the glorious chorus is enough to make you believe it is for a moment.
Co-written by MacGowan and The Pogues’ banjo player, Jem Finer, this hilarious, heartbreaking narrative speaks to you whether you’re merry or miserable, in company or on your own. It crams all of the emotions of a long, boozy Christmas party into four rousing minutes, so it’s a nice coincidence that MacGowan was born on Christmas Day. In 1987, the single was kept off the top of the British chart by the Pet Shop Boys’ You Were Always On My Mind, but you would be foolish to bet against it reaching number one this Christmas. In the meantime, Fairytale of New York has been covered by everyone from Jon Bon Jovi to Travis and Jason Kelce, the American football-playing brothers, to the characters in James Corden’s BBC sitcom, Gavin and Stacey. And the (far superior) original regularly tops polls as Britain’s favourite Christmas song.
Just as regularly, though, it is criticised for its contentious language. When the lovers are berating each other, she spits: “Happy Christmas, your arse, I hope it’s our last.” They go on to use swear words and derogatory phrases that were problematic from the moment the record was first played. Some radio stations bleeped them out, and The Pogues themselves had no qualms about toning them down when required. On the BBC’s Top of the Pops in 1992, MacColl replaced the homophobic slur with a different, less offensive word that almost rhymed: “You’re cheap and you’re haggard.”