Recording with producer Steve Lillywhite

Greatest Christmas song ever? ~ How it was written ~ Painful birth of classic ~ Shane as Sinatra
Producer Steve Lillywhite ~ Kirsty MacColl vocals ~ Kirsty MacColl stage fright
Unofficial NYPD choir ~ Lure of Big Apple ~ Not just for the Irish ~ Alternative Christmas
Most played Christmas song ~ Lyrics censored ~ The video ~ Lyrics and chords

By the mid 1980s, Steve Lillywhite had already established himself as one of the best producers in the world through his work with top line bands like U2.

Steve Lillywhite produced Fairytale of New York photo PhilipsCommunications_CC2

Steve Lillywhite

However, he may not have been the most likely person to produce The Pogues, as guitarist Phil Chevron explained to the BBC: “He wasn’t someone we had put on a short list. He didn’t seem like the kind of producer we thought might produce The Pogues.

“We always found in The Pogues that these people kind of came our way without us looking too hard and that was the case with Steve Lillywhite. He was, of course, married at the time to Kirsty McColl who was an old friend of ours. Our manager had managed her for a while and it became apparent through some process of osmosis that he wanted to produce us.

“Steve had produced some of the most successful artists in the world including U2 and The Rolling Stones. He felt he had earned the right to pick and choose the artists he wanted to produce as opposed to just the artists who could guarantee enormous record sales.”

Not your sort of music but would you be interested

Lillywhite takes up the story: “I had been in Dublin helping U2 finish off the Joshua Tree, and Frank Murray who was managing The Pogues at the time said: “We’ve got this band The Pogues, not really your sort of music but would you be interested in working with them.

“I listened to some songs and I said yes ok. That sounds great.

“We recorded the song in two sections. The first section was ‘it was Christmas eve babe … in the drunk tank,“ which was done live with James Fearnley on piano and Shane singing. We did maybe half a dozen takes of that. I think that piano line was written by James Fearnley. I have to give a big shout out for him. The guy is a fantastic musician.”

Piano mistake kept in because it “worked”

James Fearnley member of The Pogues_photo Redadeg_CC3

James Fearnley

Fearnley added: “I worked so hard at that so that whatever Shane threw me I’d still be with him. It was one of the most intense things I’ve ever done by way of practising, and when it came to recording it right at the end, I hit a B instead of an A. Even though I tried to beseech Steve Lilywhite to let me do it again he said no. So that’s become the right note by mistake.”

Guitarist Phil Chevron agrees with Lillywhite that the “mistake” is better than a correct version would have been. “It’s one of the great charms of Fairytale that right from the beginning it had an uncertainty because the introductory phrase doesn’t do what you expect it to do, but we kept it in because it worked even though it arose out of an error. I think that one of the things that separate good bands from great bands is that great bands know when they’ve made a mistake worth keeping.”

Final-version

Once the first section of the song, mistake included, was completed, the band then recorded the main section. The resulting sound caused Lillywhite a great deal of self-doubt.

“For a while I thought the main body of the song was too fast. I got very paranoid, especially late at night. If I’m tired and I hear something back that I’ve done it always sounds too fast. I remember one night panicking thinking, I’ve got this great song and I’ve produced it too fast. It doesn’t work … but now it’s fresh and lovely and it doesn’t seem too fast.”

Greatest Christmas song ever? ~ How it was written ~ Painful birth of classic ~ Shane as Sinatra
Producer Steve Lillywhite ~ Kirsty MacColl vocals ~ Kirsty MacColl stage fright
Unofficial NYPD choir ~ Lure of Big Apple ~ Not just for the Irish ~ Alternative Christmas
Most played Christmas song ~ Lyrics censored ~ The video ~ Lyrics and chords

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