[This was my weekly Sunday column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]
Just like Die Hard is barely a Christmas movie (it is, isn’t it?), The Pogues’ best-known song has a tenuous yuletide connection at best — and it’s hardly the happiest song ever written. Yet it remains wildly popular (and tremendously profitable) decades after it first appeared.
The song was born sometime in 1985 when Jem Finer, the Pogues’ banjo player, started messing about with an idea. Lore has it that Elvis Costello, the band’s producer at the time, dared the band to write a Christmas song. Finer showed it to singer Shane McGowan who liked it but he really wasn’t sure what he could do with it.
For the next two years, Jem and Shane struggled with the song through multiple iterations. Coming up with the lyrics was especially difficult. The original idea was to tell the story of a sailor heading to distant seas, but that didn’t seem to work. The song was abandoned.
A few months later, in March 1986, the song was resurrected after Shane read a book from 1973 entitled A Fairytale of New York by JP Donleavy that Finer had left around the studio. It told the story of an Irishman returning to New York after going to school in Ireland. This — and copious amounts of sherry — somehow helped morph the song from being about a lonely sailor to one about a drunken couple slugging it out on Christmas Eve. (The book’s hero, Cornelius Christian, ends up getting into a brawl with a hooker.)
This next version — which for a time was called Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank —was good, but not quite good enough. Besides, a new problem arose: who could they get to find the female half of the duet?