Now its Christmas Eve, its time for the recording that started it all. In honour of the occasion I sit here typing this wearing an officially licensed Fairytale of New York tee-shirt, with an image grabbed from the video of Shane and Kirsty dancing in fake snow, while my original seven inch, 45RPM single spins on the turntable.
Yes I bought the single then. I am sure I didn’t time the purchase well for the actual Christmas run because I was desperate for new music from the band and still awaiting their album If I Should Fall From Grace With God. But I remember watching its climb up the charts with glee.
That year Rick Astley had released When I Fall in Love and in early December many thought he was going to get the top spot. But then Nat ‘King’ Cole’s version of the song was released, and I recall watching an interview n which he said he would be happy to come second if that beat him to the top spot. But, in the end he came third or fourth with the Pogues taking second place after a late entry number one from the Petshop Boys and Always on my Mind. Should it have been number one? It wasn’t and that’s all there is to say on the matter. It has never taken the top spot on any reissue following, but it is according to some pollsters Britain’s favourite Christmas song.
Is it my favourite Pogues song? It might not even be in my top ten, and I slightly resent that its the world’s favourite Pogues song. If you check Apple Music now, it occupies six of the top ten Pogues downloads/streams. If its the only one you know, let me offer you some you should listen to. Songs which I think are possibly even better than Fairytale.
My personal number one is not to everyone’s taste, but its the lullaby I sung to my daughter when she was a baby. Its The Old Main Drag the life of a rent boy on the streets of London
From the EP, Poguetry in Motion, I have a couple of favourites, and A Rainy Night in Sohois equal to or better than Fairytale.
The Pogues did duets before Fairytale too. Haunted was one of my most played singles at the time, and I was gutted when I lost it after taking it to college to digitise for an art project. It’s hard to find because it was recorded for the soundtrack of Sid and Nancy: Love Kills and is “owned” by MCA. Shane re-recorded it with Sinead O’Connor, but I have a soft spot for Cait O’Riordan.
There were lyrics controversies before Fairytale too. The Boys from the County Hell was the song that encapsulated the spirit of the early Pogues and I treasured a tee-shirt with the lyric “Lend me ten pounds and I’ll buy you a drink.” Not that that was controversial. But the line in the recorded versions “My brother earned his medals at Mei Lei in Vietnam” replaced the live version “My brother earned his medals fucking gooks in Vietnam.”
Of course only one Pogues song has actually been banned, and that is Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six. This medley was banned under the strange law that banned recordings of IRA members, or suspected members like Gerry Adams. It was designed to stifle Adams’ voice on news programmes in particular.
I realise that a lot of my favourites are from their first album Red Roses for Me. I love Transmetropolitan, for example, which sounds like a tube train rattling though the tunnels.
Sea Shanty, from the same album, like Transmetropolitan, The Old Main Drag, and A Rainy Night in Soho gets to the heart of why I love The Pogues, here creating a new folk tradition of ordinary life, love and loss in London.
Steams of Whiskey, again from Red Roses for Me shows us Shane’s future, and has an ace original video, made on a budget of a fiver, it seems.
The Body of an American, is iconic partly because it featured semi-regularly in seminal US Police and Politics show, The Wire, every time they held a wake for a dead copper.
Sally MacLennan edges The Sickbed of Cuchulainn out of my personal top ten, but that just proves my point. There are at least eleven Pogues songs I like more than Fairytale, even though I think Fairytale is very very good indeed.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
PS. A quick mention for Chris Thile, who obviously heard about this blog and having worked out that I wasn’t going to include the version from his PBS show Live From Here, bashed out another version yesterday with properly Irish sounding (but actually American) Aoife O’Donovan. I enjoyed his work with Nickel Creek, indeed theirs was one of the last CDs I bought before iTunes and then Apple Music killed that habit, and his mandolin playing is a wonder, but he avoids the controversial lyrics question by simply cutting the whole verse, which I think is a worse sin than changing or fluffing the words.
Oh this is hard. This is the last day I get to choose a cover version of Fairytale of New York and I at the last moment, can’t decide which. (Obviously you know which version is coming tomorrow). So I am listening to candidates again to make a final choice. You may think its hard listening to one cover a day – you don’t know the heartache I have been though listening to multiple versions multiple times as I planned this little advent. I have listened to Jon Bon Jovi only once – that listen, and the review that came up on my feed, was all I needed to boot out the planned inclusion and swap in JBJ. But all the others needed more than one run through. But there are still many I could choose for this last spot, and only one will get the honour
Should I choose a bad one? Or one I quite like? I had planned to use more instrumental versions, but in the end decided there was little point as the magic of the song is in the music and words. But should I choose one now? A bland saccharine one? Or there’s the Italian version – I could choose that for regular Facebook commentator Chris who I know is pretty fluent in that language. But that one pisses me off because they use the original video and replace not just the vocals but the music too so you watch the Pogues playing instruments you can’t hear. Maybe I should choose that one, if only to make everyone pissed off the day before Christmas Eve? Or maybe the dirge like version by Canadian band Pilot Speed (nee Pilote), which is enough to make every one want to scream “speed up, just bloody sing faster!” I also considered Ukrainian folk-punks Kelush and the Bastards version from the 2016 Russian album A Tribute to the Pogues.
But in the end I decided upon this one, from Tilt! which I mentioned a couple of days ago. I said this might not the Tilt featuring Cinder Block, but I have today revised my opinion. I think Cinder does sing in this band, which gives her the honour of singing on both the second and third covers of the song. This one comes from 1995, on Tilt’s single called A Tribute to the Pogues (yup some title as the Russian album but definitely a different thing, and twenty years earlier). That single had a cover of the Pogues’ cover of Ewan McColl’s Dirty Old Town on the other side, which I actually prefer to this rendition of Fairytale. But this is series is not all called “Every Old Town” so its Fairytale you get:
Tomorrow, I’ll finally give you the original ’87 single that started the whole thing, and list some of the Pogues tracks which I prefer.
And next year? One commenter said “Next you will be telling me there are umpteen cover versions of my favourite Christmas songs ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day’ and ‘so here it is, Merry Christmas’.” Well, I think there are enough versions of Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody to do Merry Christmas Everyday, but I think I might do Wizzard’s classic first, so will you join me on December 1st 2021 for “Christmas Every Day, every day: Part 1” ? 😀
This interesting version comes from Jesse Malin and Bree Sharp. I like it because it does something different with the arrangement (after the first verse which sticks pretty much to the solo piano template). I also enjoy Jesse Malin’s vocals (and Bree’s too of course – there is a version out with Malin and Debbie Harry which is not as good, but in its defence its live without great production).
Malin’s career is interesting. He started out aged twelve in hardcore punk band Heart Attack, a band which auditioned successfully for famed New York club CBGBs, until that venue realised they (and their audience) were too young to sell drinks to. He first came to my attention as a mover and shaker in Strummerfest, the annual charitable celebration of the life and works of Joe Strummer, not just one of my favourite pre-Pogues performers but also a regular live collaborator and occasional stand in for members of the band.
I will use any excuse to promote one of my favourite movies. It is a dreadfully bad but also great movie called Straight to Hell, staring Joe Strummer among others, including a young Kathy Burke, Coutney Love, Dennis Hopper, Jim Jarmusch, Grace Jones and of course the Pogues as Mexican-Irish coffee-bandits The McMahone Gang. Veteran reviewer Roger Ebert called it “simply a record of aimless behavior, of a crowd of pals asked to dress up like cowboys and mill about on a movie set.” What could be better than that? I remember seeking out a video tape in the early days, and having to pay over the odds for a version made for video-rental shops. It did eventually reach the consumer market on a DVD Alex Cox reissue set, and I think you can rent it from Amazon. In a Christmas Classic in waiting.
I first heard the Pogues sitting on a bed in the small bedroom of a friend of a friend. I don’t know who’s cassette it was but I know how it made me feel. It made me feel like coming home.
I was a strange boy and one of the things that made me strange was my taste in music. I was a teenager in the eighties, but I hate most of what I heard. I liked punk, but was really too young to have caught that wave, I enjoyed the tail end of the Stranglers, but not much actually. My secret passion was for folk music, which I encountered first of all in Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits – an album my sister had bought my Dad but which I played. From there I (with the help of Robin of Sherwood) I found Clannad and a heap of Irish music.
But I had a problem with folk. Here were tunes with choruses and calls and return that begged participation. But here too where singers like Ewan McColl, who were so damn precious about being in tune. I’d been a choirboy when I had first started at secondary school, but when my voice broke it seemed I lost all ability to sing in tune. Folk which was full of fun (and sad) song felt so exclusionary. Reserved only per perfect voices, not for folk like me.
But here was Shane, a “face” of the London Punk scene, bringing a punk sensibility to folk music. Here was Spider Stacy, who could play an instrument banging a tin pub tray on his head. I don’t know who there were at the time, of course but the music spoke to me, off stretched magnetic tape and through crappy beatbox speakers. Here were people inviting me and my friends to join in.
Todays offering is, in honour of that Damascene bedroom, a punkish version of the song, and an early one it seems. No Use for a Name were a Californian punk band, here with Cinder Block of Tilt, providing the female part. Released in 1996, its one of the first covers – beaten only by Christy Moore and another (German, industrial) band called Tilt!* As such I am calling it now. These three – Moore, Tilt! and No Use for a Name – were bands that loved the Pogues and this song, before “normal people” claimed to love it.
*EDIT 23/12/20 Actually I think this is the same Tilt that Cinder Block is from.
I become fascinated by the changes in the music industry that this little advent calendar has highlighted for me. Once upon a time, a band might perform in local pubs. get gigs with bigger audiences and, if they were fortunate, get spotted by a promoter or have a demo tape pulled out the lucky dip and get a record contract. it would be the record company that would be the route to a wider audience. Now however, artists can reach a global audience with nothing much more than a decent mic set-up and an Internet connection. It seems to me that YouTube has been more of a disruptor than Napster or iTunes ever were. Yesterday’s act and todays are YouTube famous. Not that I realised that last year when I found this version on Apple Music. In this cover he is partnered by Kate MacGill, on vocals and keyboard. Kate is another YouTube star. Indeed possibly more of a star than Ortopilot, given she has a wikipedia page and he does not.
Since I started this series two new cover versions were released, neither of which had I planned to include of course. Jon Bon Jovi I included because its review. This one I include because… well, it was released less than an hour ago at the time of writing. I guess it came up on my feed, because I have been calling up a lot of versions of the song. So this is brand new (a day old maybe when you get to hear it). And its pretty good – the visuals clash somewhat with the sound, but the voices and arrangement are not bad. The f-word is fluffed.
I had never heard of Puddles Pity Party before, but I understand from wikipedia that he is a performer called Mike Geier.
What about the two versions that got kicked out for this and JBJ? YO won’t miss them.
Time for another Shane. This one with the Popes, the band he formed post-Pogues “my band, so they can’t tell me what to do” . And in Kirsty’s place his mother, Theresa.
Just to be clear, that’s his actual mother, not the the nun.
But I am going to take this opportunity to talk about a film fans of this song and Shane must see. The Friday before last for Sue’s birthday, I took her to see Crock of Gold:A few rounds with Shane MacGowan at the cinema. It’s really good fun, with a mix of interviews, achieve, Ken Burns style photos and animation. The “interviews” are snatches from the archive and three recorded conversations with Shane and his old mates Johnny Depp, Bobby Gillespie, and Gerry Adams. Does it reveal truths? Well I am sure I learned a few things, but its an exercise in myth making too, I would not rely upon any of the narrators.
Yesterday’s post (earlier today) was enjoyed by some listeners, so I am hoping to build on that with this one. There’s a distinct west country twang in evidence here as it some from cider-drinking combine harvester owners The Wurzels.
Released nine years ago on a Christmas album called … ahem The Wurzels Christmas Album. Its not bad. There’s a little originality in the arrangement. Controversial lyrics remain, so its not one you will hear on BBC Radio 1. There’s not much more that I can say about it.
Whoops I forgot to post yesterday’s cover. And it’s not dreadful either. I thought after recent travesties I could at least give you a cover by an Irish band. Here are the Whistlin Donkeys
This one seems half a beat slower than the original. I am not sure why? And I am not even sure that “half a beat slower is a thing” maybe I should not betray my dreadful knowledge of music and shut up. (Did you know I have a PhD in Music? Yeah, its crazy.)
They have made a video, which is better that Pogue’s video for Streams if Whisky but franking not all that much, in which two of the band members have a mild argument about timekeeping in a pub, which sort of undercuts the emotional power of the song.
Anyhow, that’s yesterdays section. Today’s will be along in a while. (My posts are like combine harvesters, you wait all day they two turn up at once.)
As I have previously mentioned there is a class of Fairytale covers that I call “Johnny No-Mates”, wherein the duet is sung solo, most often by a bloke. Christy Moore does a good job of it, and we we have endured, Jon Bon Jovi does a really really terrible job of it. Somewhere in the middle comes this version from the Norfolk actor Mateo Oxley.
When I say actor, you might think, “has he been in anything I have actually seen?” He has! We was in the comedy spoof The Windors, with me old drinking buddy* Hugh Skinner and Harry Enfield, among others. Indeed they named the whole episode ofter his role, Eduardo.
This bland, saccharine version adds nothing to the canon, and avoids the whole controversial lyrics issue by just not singing the entire verse! Still its better than Jon Bon Jovi.
*I was sitting next to him in the BFI bar but actually too starstruck (to too drunk) to say anything to him.