Fairytale of New York quiz: celebrate the late, great Shane MacGowan's lyrical genius

Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl in the music video of Fairytale of New York, 1987
(Image credit: Pogues Mahone, Shane MacGowan)

You've almost certainly heard the sad news that Shane MacGowan has now gone to the great big gig in the sky – and thus, the world has lost one of Celtic punk's greatest ever artists. 

On December 8, Hollywood and rock elite (including Johnny Depp, Nick Cave, Bono and Bob Geldoff) attended MacGowan's funeral at the Saint Mary of the Rosary Church in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, then celebrated his life until the early hours of Saturday morning at the Thatched Cottage Pub in Ballycommon. 

And this song was of course belted out, by Glen Hansard and Lisa O’Neill – although they were not backed by the boys of the NYPD Choir (because no such thing exists, although the NYPD does have an Irish pipe band, who are featured in the 1987 music video). 

A series of happy accidents spanning two years eventually brought this belter of a track to fruition – although it may surprize you 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 for that) although we wager that may change this year… 

What's the story behind it all? Well, if you'd rather just get on with the quiz, we dig – just click on the link below and get to finishing the lyrics. That said, you'll find a couple of hints in the text below the quiz, if you want a refresher...

Our story begins in 1985, when Elvis Costello, The Pogues' producer at the time, bet the band they didn't have a Christmas hit single in them. Banjo player Jem Finer promptly wrote not one but two songs in response. According to Finer, one had "a good tune and crap lyrics" (involving a New York sailor gazing out to sea and longing for Ireland; hardly the drunken romp we now know) while the other "had the idea for Fairytale but the tune was poxy". Finer apparently gave them both to MacGowan. He gave it a Broadway melody and his incomparable way with words, and there it was.

Things got awkward when Cait O'Riordan, who was slated to sing the duet with MacGowan, became on-off romantically involved with Costello and left The Pogues in October 1986. The track was recorded at Abbey Road Studios with no female part whatsoever and MacGowan singing both vocal lines, until Abbey Road producer Steve Lillywhite calmly nudged everyone towards his wife, Kirsty MacColl. Might she have a crack at it from their home studio? Oh, and didn't she do well there… 

According to an interview with Melody Maker, MacGowan decided to name the single after J. P. Donleavy's 1973 novel A Fairy Tale of New York, because Finer had been reading it at the time and often left it cluttering up the recording studio. Costello allegedly suggested calling it Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank, but MacGowan quite rightly nixed that plan. Come on, a song with that title was never get much airtime on the radio, was it? 

Anyway, everything worked out in the end. The song was certified quadruple platinum in the UK in December 2020, having achieved 2,400,000 combined sales, although it will have surpassed that now. Fairytale of New York is also the most played Christmas song of the 21st century in the UK – and one you'll find it on all the best music streaming services

You are now fully briefed. You know this song inside out, right? Good. Now do the quiz, you scumbag, you maggot... and raise a glass for Shane. Travel on well. 

You might also like

Becky Scarrott
Senior Audio Staff Writer

Becky is a senior staff writer at TechRadar (which she has been assured refers to expertise rather than age) focusing on all things audio. Before joining the team, she spent three years at What Hi-Fi? testing and reviewing everything from wallet-friendly wireless earbuds to huge high-end sound systems. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, Becky freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 22-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance starts with a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo and The Stage. When not writing, she can still be found throwing shapes in a dance studio, these days with varying degrees of success.