The first few bars play and, just like that, I am gone. It’s 1998. I’m at a snowy coach station in Birmingham, two weeks before Christmas. I’m newly single, having just broken up with my first real love. A year later, I will be rueing that decision, thinking about the song I heard playing through the station speakers one long, miserable year ago.
“You took my dreams from me/When I first found you,” sang the woman; a year ago I’d thought my old boyfriend had taken mine. Far too late, I’d realised he’d only “kept them with me babe… put them with my own”. Nearly two decades have passed, but when the piano begins, even now, I’m 21, a young adult in the middle of winter.
The song, of course, is The Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York. I know I’m not the only person to have invested huge emotions in its slow verses, the gin-drizzled ones that follow and that heartbreaking middle-eight – those lyrics still sink into my bones. It is 30 years old this year and it continues to grow in stature – it keeps winning "best Christmas song" polls and remains one of Britain’s favourite festive songs that never made number one (the other is Wham!’s Last Christmas; the Pet Shop Boys’ Always On My Mind beat The Pogues to the punch).
I’ve often wondered why Fairytale keeps us hooked, but I’ve realised the reasons are legion. Dorian Lynskey nailed one of them in his brilliant long feature about the song’s origins for The Guardian five years ago: it is “a song in which Christmas is as much the problem as it is the solution”, he wrote. Christmas is precisely this for so many people in this relentlessly commercial, jingle-bells world. People remain unhappy. People still feel alone. Who hasn’t experienced these feelings in the run-up to December, then heard someone singing “it was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank”, and felt a rush of comforting connection?
Fairytale starts here. An Irishman in New York has been detained – as people can be in the US – for his boozing. An old man sings an Irish folksong to him, which makes him turn away (does it remind him of Galway Bay?) and sets him off on a reverie. He is young in New York (“it’s no place for the old”) and everywhere promise is glistening (the kissing, the dancing, the “rivers of gold”). Then come the fights, the curses, the drugs… the two verses are slammed together like glitter and anthracite. These are the extremes winter brings, the rush of heat and the coldness, in all senses. We know this stuff by heart.
Christmas was romance, regret, alcohol, snogging under streetlights, hope, dreams and remorse, all wrapped up together in shiny paper
Then there’re the voices in the song. In Shane MacGowan’s, we have the antidote to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole’s syrupy warmth. Here is someone croaking, rasping, straining for notes, trying to sing like the greats and accidentally becoming one. We know him, too – his hope and pain are raw, bruising and real. "I identified with the man because I was a hustler and I identified with the woman because I was a heavy drinker and a singer,” MacGowan told Dorian Lynskey in 2012. “I have been in hospitals on morphine drips and I have been in drunk tanks on Christmas Eve."
Then, as the song changes pace, Kirsty MacColl comes along. She wasn’t meant to be Fairytale’s woman – The Pogues’ bass player, Cait O’Riordan, was set for that role (she left the band in 1986). But the Pogues’ producer was Steve Lillywhite, and Kirsty MacColl was his wife, a brilliant singer and songwriter whose career had been quiet for a few years (she had two young sons and her old record label, Stiff Records, had collapsed). Her comeback on Fairytale is extraordinary – her delivery rambunctious, no-nonsense, bold, but also beautiful, especially in that desperate middle-eight, and in the accusation she levels. She makes it sounds tender and mournful, rather than mean, a mood that feels right for these darker, colder months when we’re all wishing for warmth.
Other narratives that Fairytale carries are meaningful, too, of course. There are the hopes that immigration can bring, and how often they shatter. There’s Kirsty MacColl’s death just before Christmas in 2000, when she was on the cusp of new highs in her life. The bells were ringing out for her. There’s also the fact that the song rebooted her career and gave The Pogues a top-three album – the fact that everyone got Fairytale and they loved it. Christmas was romance, regret, alcohol, snogging under streetlights, hope, dreams and remorse, all wrapped up together in shiny paper. It was Christmas unfiltered, with just enough snow shimmering to know even the coldness could be bright.
I haven’t seen that old boyfriend for more than a decade. I had others after him, found one I wanted to marry, had a child, got older, got happier. But Fairytale reminds me of what was, what is and what there could be, as the choirs sing, and as we hope that all our dreams will come true.