Fairytale of New York is now loved across the world as harsh, bitter-sweet love song that turns the traditional view of Christmas upside down. But it wasn’t always like that. It began life in the early drafts as a bit soppy and sentimental. It might have stayed that way if not for Marcia Farquhar, wife of Jem Finer who co-wrote the song with Shane MacGowan.
It took more than two years and numerous revisions for MacGowan and Pogues banjo player Finer to write the song that would eventually emerge as Fairytale of New York.
Finer said: “The way we worked at that time was to go off and do a bit of writing ourselves and then we’d get together and see what we both had. I’d write lyrics but I’d never write them thinking they would be the final lyrics.
“So I went off and I wrote a song about a sailor and he was off somewhere in the Pacific and his girl was back in Europe.”
The song bore little relation to Fairytale. It was set in Ireland, but it was about Christmas Eve. The original opening lines were:
One Christmas Eve on the west coast of Clare
I looked past the ocean there was lots of thin air
‘Sentimental twaddle’ – wife suggests new storyline
Finer says he had mixed feelings about his new song: “Lyrically it was pretty bad but melodically it was ok. I would try out my new songs on my wife and she was pretty disparaging about it lyrically. Her main point was that it was sentimental twaddle.
“It didn’t engage in what a difficult time Christmas is for a lot of people. It puts a lot of pressure on them to have a good time and put food on the table, and presents round a tree in what can be very trying circumstances.
“I was a bit put out to be honest but I took her point and then kind of defensively said, well ok then come on, give me a new storyline and I’ll start again.”
“She said how about you think of a situation where you’ve got a family who don’t have too much money and the guy is sent out with what there is to get some presents and food and stuff, but he goes down the pub and he goes to the bookies and everything goes wrong and he ends up coming back with nothing.”
Christmas conflict with hope of redemption
“This obviously gives rise to some conflict, and then you have to find some kind of … maybe not redemption but some kind of hope by the end of it.
“So I wrote a second song with that sort of storyline. Then Shane and I sat down together and I gave him the tune from first one and the storyline from the second one. He took the storyline and transposed it to New York.
He had never been to America before we went with the band but he was very steeped in the history of Ireland. He had relations and had gone over and watched lots of films, read lots of books and so on.”
Once the song was finally written, there was still a long way to go before the band were happy to release it. They weren’t satisfied with their early demos. Finer said: “If you listen to the early demos we did of that song, at a certain point in each case, they kind of just stopped developing. They just fall into a hole where they can go no further.”
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