The video that was shot to accompany the release of Fairytale of New York in 1987 played a major part in its success.
And true to form with The Pogues, just as the song is an anti-dote to the usual jolly Christmas offerings, the video also defies convention with its harsh realism and stark black and white images.
Fairytale of New York filmed in black and white
The opening seconds showing the snow falling together with the haunting melody of the piano suggests this could be another standard Christmas video – but the shots of a drunken Shane MacGowan being manhandled through a New York police station immediately tells us we’re in for a totally different experience.
Peter Dougherty – director of video
The video continues in a similar vein with pictures of men alongside MacGowan in the drunk tank; lonely and desolate – some hardly aware of their surroundings.
The video was shot by Irish American director Peter Dougherty over the thanksgiving holiday in New York in 1987.
It was budget production yet has gone on to become one of the most successful and memorable pop videos of all time.
The opening shots were filmed in an actual New York police station and to keep costs down, the desk sergeant was played by Pogues’ manager Frank Murray. Doherty got some of his friends to populate the cells.
MacGowan arrested by a young Matt Dillon
A young Matt Dillon played the cop who arrests MacGowan for drunkenness and throws him in the drunk tank. At first he was too nervous to push MacGowan around, much to the singer’s annoyance as he was getting cold in the New York winter. Eventually MacGowan snapped: “Just kick the shit out of me and throw me in the cell and than we can be warm.”
Matt Dillon and Shane MacGowan
The Pogues were drinking heavily while the video was being shot and had taken drinks into the cells below, which were being used as dressing rooms. Their drinking made the police uneasy.
Thankfully for the band, Matt Dillon was completely sober and was able to smooth things over for them.
Dougherty said: “Shane was pretty much loose for the two days. We did one day in the city for exteriors and we did a few shots inside the Time Square hotel.
The next day they were at the studio in Queen’s for shots of the band performing.“
One of the most striking features of the video is that it’s shot in black and white. It gives it a sense of bleakness which is in keeping with the mood of the song. It also helps to conjure up the sense that the song is looking back to an earlier time when some of the action mentioned took place.
Dougherty said: “It was Jem in the Pogues who was talking to me about the old short black and white films. I guess you’d call them the first music videos that were made in the 20s and 30s. They were very stark black and white, high contrast, with the atmosphere of a 30s jazz club.”
MacGowan on piano? Fearnley not pleased
James Fearnley playing
The video shows MacGowan playing the piano as he sings the opening lines of song. The piano part was actually played by band member James Fearnley, who was persuaded to stand aside for the sake of the drama. He wasn’t pleased but recognised it was for the greater good. Fearnley’s hands were seen playing in the close up shots, but he wore MacGowan’s ring so it looked as if MacGowan was still playing.
Fearnley said afterwards: “I’m the fucking piano player and I wanted people to know that. It was absolutely humiliating, but it looks better. You have to find your proper place for the benefit of the project.”
One of the most famous lines in Fairytale of New York refers to “the boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay”. This is a convenient invention by the writers Finer and MacGowan because the New York Police Department doesn’t have a choir.
It does, however, have a pipes and drums band. Dougherty tentatively approached them to see whether they would be prepared to appear in the video. They jumped at the chance. Pipe band member, Patrolman Frank Calderon, said: “Everybody wanted to go. No matter how cold it was. We filled the bus with beer and went down to meet them.”
Fellow band member Detective Kevin McCarthy said: “The Pogues got wind that we had beer on the bus so they jumped on and drank most of it.”
However, Pogues manager Frank Murray maintains it was the police who were the real big drinkers. “They wouldn’t get off the bus unless they got more beer.”
Ironically, the band didn’t know the words to Galway Bay. Instead, they came up with an unexpected alternative so the crew could get shots of them singing, as Detective McCarthy explains. “We were singing the Mickey Mouse theme song. That was quite fun.”
The sound was removed and Dougherty put the band in slow motion so their movements would fit in better with the tempo of Fairytale.
Hope remains for a chance of redemption
It’s one of the features of Fairytale of New York that despite its bleakness, there is still a sense of hope that the warring couple may struggle on and repair their relationship. This is reflected in the video. The images may be stark, MacGowan and MacColl may be seen fighting and trading insults but at the end, they are seen dancing together.
Hope remains and they still have a chance of redemption.