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Ace What Hi-Fi?'s Christmas quiz by finishing the lyrics to this classic song by The Pogues

The Pogues' Fairytale of New York
(Image credit: The Pogues / Pogue Mahone)

Where to start with The Pogues' 1987 Christmas belter Fairytale of New York? As is often the case with masterpieces, a series of serendipitous accidents, spanning two years, eventually dragged the song to greatness – although you may be shocked to learn that Fairytale of New York has never been the UK Christmas number one (blame the Pet Shop Boys' cover of Always on My Mind. We know. We still remember watching it on TOTP). 

What brought it all together? Well, if you don't particularly care and just want to try the quiz, we understand. It's below. However, there are some handy hints in the text below it, should you feel you need them...

First off, Elvis Costello, The Pogues' producer at the time, bet the band in 1985 that they didn't have a Christmas hit single in them. Taking up the challenge, banjo player Jem Finer apparently wrote not one but two songs. Sadly and according to Finer, one had "a good tune and crap lyrics" (involving a sailor in New York looking out to sea and reminiscing about being back in Ireland. Hardly the drunken and drug-addled revelry we now know) the other "had the idea for Fairytale but the tune was poxy. I gave them both to Shane and he gave it a Broadway melody, and there it was".

The story then goes that Cait O'Riordan, who was slated to sing the duet with MacGowan, sort of became romantically involved with Costello and left the band in October 1986. The track was eventually recorded at Abbey Road Studios with no female vocalist at all and MacGowan singing both vocal parts, until Abbey Road producer Steve Lillywhite gently suggested his own wife, Kirsty MacColl, might have a crack at lending her vocal stylings to it, from their home studio. Turns out she was extremely good.

And why the title? According to an interview with Melody Maker, MacGowan said he decided to name the single after J. P. Donleavy's 1973 novel A Fairy Tale of New York since Finer had been reading it at the time and had left lying around the recording studio. Costello allegedly suggested naming the song Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank, but MacGowan said that a song with such a title was unlikely to get much airtime on the radio at Christmas. Quite. 

Anyway, it did all right in the end. In December 2020, the song was certified quadruple platinum in the UK, having achieved 2,400,000 combined sales. Fairytale of New York is also the most played Christmas song of the 21st century in the UK. 

So you've heard it. A lot. We all have – which means you know it inside out right? Prove it. Do the quiz, you scumbag, you maggot... and Happy Christmas your arse!

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Becky has been a full-time staff writer at What Hi-Fi? since March 2019. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, she freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 20-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance is of course tethered to a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo, This is Cabaret and The Stage. When not writing, she dances, spins in the air, drinks coffee, watches football or surfs in Cornwall with her other half – a football writer whose talent knows no bounds.