Listen to this track by Anglo-Irish folk-punk posse, featuring guest vocalist, and songwriter in her own right Kirsty MacColl. It’s the 1987 Christmas classic single, “Fairytale of New York”, a story of dreams, drama, dissolution, and drunk tanks all taking place during, or in the context of, the Christmas season. The song appears on the band’s high watermark album If I Should Fall From Grace With God, produced by Steve Lillywhite (Psychedelic Furs, U2, Simple Minds) released in January 1988.
Lillywhite was married to Kirsty MacColl, and when the song needed a guide vocal, Steve asked Kirsty to provide one. Originally, the song had been written with former bassist and vocalist Cait O’Riordon in mind. But, O’Riordan had left the band by the time singer Shane MacGowan and banjoist Jem Finer had finished it. When the band heard Kirsty’s vocal, they knew they were onto something.
The song would be an enduring one, forever associated with Christmas, and narrowly missing the coveted Christmas #1 that year (25 years ago!). But, what is it about this song that resonates so well with audiences? Read more
Here’s a clip of Anglo-Celtic folk-punks the Pogues with their lyrically not-safe-for-work reel “Bottle of Smoke” taken from their 1988 album If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Beware of multiple F-bombs, some of which you might actually hear.
Despite the band’s traditional sound, they’re often cited as an example of Irish folk-punk, even if most of the band members had English upbringings, including lead singer Shane MacGowan. The connections to punk of course are more easily justified as MacGowan had come out of the scene in the late 70s, fronting a punk band called the Nipple Erectors,later to be shortened to ‘the Nips’. Besides this literal connection in this particular case, there are a few important connections between punk and traditional folk music in general, which makes MacGowan’s stylistic shift as a songwriter a natural one. The spirit of defiance and the plight of the working classes are certainly common themes, as is the almost non-existent divide between audience and performer. In traditional music, much like punk, everyone was invited to play it, to participate, to sing along, and to keep the tradition alive by doing so. There are other more basic crossovers too, of course. For instance, the original name for this band when it was formed in 1982 was the more confrontational “Pogue Mahone” which in the Irish language roughly translates to “Kiss My Arse”.
The Pogues were unique for the time, making what is essentially traditional music during a time when high-gloss pop tunes were the order of the day. MacGowan’s slurred vocals give the songs real character not to mention the benefits of his talents as a lyricist which made these songs into compact epics. The very fact that this band hit a unique stylistic vein made them sound pretty radical at the time too, which in turn made what they were singing about – depressed communities, hopelessness of the underclasses, love in the face of poverty and drunkeness, etc – into ideas to be taken seriously. Having said this, they didn’t forget to have a good time with it. This band made some truly joyous music, and “Bottle of Smoke” is one of my favourite examples.
The “Bottle of Smoke” here is a racehorse, and the narrator is the down-and-out gambler who finally gets a break. That’s another thing about this band – they knew something about creating characters in their songs, little stories that make you laugh in this case, or cry in other cases. In many of their songs, they achieve both reactions. The sheer attack in the playing is another strength, and although this music shares the energy of punk as well as a similar DIY spirit, it takes some skill to play traditional music, as well as no small level of commitment to putting it across. The Pogues deliver this in spades.
MacGowan’s famous barfly persona eventually overtook him to the point where the band had to oust him by the early 90s. The divide between the songs and the writer became more and more narrow, and his excesses and resultant behaviour made it impossible for them to succeed. The group limped on without him until their break-up in the mid 90s. Yet, MacGowan would rejoin the group more recently for a short tour in 2001.