The Story Behind “The Fairytale of New York”

One of the greatest Christmas songs of all time is “The Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues and Kirsty McColl. We have already discussed why it is one of the most depressing Christmas songs of all time. But what is the story behind the song?

This BBC special investigates the making of the Christmas classic. Check it out.

Why do you love “The Fairytale of New York”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    From France to Grunge: Terry Jacks’s “Seasons in the Sun”

    Regular readers of Chimesfreedom might be surprised to learn that I did not grow up listening only to the hippest rock music on the planet. As a kid in the 1970s, I listened to a lot of AM radio, which gave me a steady diet of pop songs. For example, in 1974, Bob Dylan went on the road for the first time since 1966 and the Ramones were forming.  And, one of the biggest hits of the year was “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks.

    Then again, that year also featured endless radio plays of “Kung Fu Fighting,” “Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” and Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You.” Whether I like it or not, these songs and other similar songs from 1974 are all etched in my brain.

    “Seasons in the Sun”

    In the morbid song “Seasons in the Sun,” the singer is dying for an unknown reason. He addresses his father, his friend, and Michelle, who is either his lover, his daughter, or younger sister. He expresses his happiness that they had “seasons in the sun.” But he also laments that “the wine and the song like the seasons have all gone.”

    Why was the song such a big hit? As I have written elsewhere, songs about dying may subconsciously make us happy in that they remind us to enjoy life. Or, as James Sullivan wrote in an excellent article about the song on Slate, “During those mid-Watergate weeks and months, the whole country seemed eager to wallow in tuneful misery.” Or maybe it was the catchy opening riff.

    Origins of “Seasons in the Sun” From “Le Moribond”

    “Seasons in the Sun” was a reworking of a French song, “Le Moribond” (“The Dying Man”) by Jacques Brel. In Brel’s version, the singer addresses his wife in the final verse.

    Check out Brel’s version and see how the original style of the song is much different than the poppy march-like American version.

    Rod McKeuen, the pop poet of the time, wrote the English translation for “Seasons in the Sun.” And Terry Jacks — who was born on March 29, 1944 in Winnipeg, Manitoba — made some modifications.

    Jacks then brought the song to The Beach Boys when he was producing one of their sessions.  But the band decided not to release their happy-sounding version.  So, ultimately, Jacks recorded his version, which became a hit.

    Legacy of “Seasons in the Sun”

    Here is the point in the article where I admit that I owned the 45 record of “Seasons in the Sun.” But I do not think it ruined my taste in music.

    Better men have survived an embrace of the charms of the song. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain loved the song, and it was the first 45 record he ever bought. It did not seem to hurt his taste in music.

    As for Terry Jacks, he never had another big hit like “Seasons in the Sun.” He recorded a few songs that had some success in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. He went on to be a record producer and work as an environmentalist, and he is still alive.

    But apparently it has been a long time since Jacks recorded new music.  So “Seasons in the Sun” was largely his season in the sun as far as music success goes. But at least he had one big season.

    So as we enter December and will soon welcome a new season later this month, we wish you a good winter. (Speaking of seasons, if you are seeking more depressing songs like “Seasons in the Sun,” check out this post on depressing holiday season songs. And remember, the holiday season is over in less than a month.)

    What do you think of “Seasons in the Sun”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Top 10 Depressing Holiday Songs

    The previous post on Three Depressing Holiday Songs got us started thinking about the best depressing holiday songs.  So, this post features Chimesfreedom’s Top Ten Depressing Holiday Songs.  We selected these top 10 based upon three categories. Points were given for (1) deep depression and sadness; (2) quality of song; and (3) familiarity of the song.

    (1) Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues: Scored high in all three categories.  Discussed in previous post in more detail, but all you really need is the opening line of the song: “It was Christmas Eve, babe,/ In the drunk tank.” Score:  97 points.

    (2) “Blue Christmas” – Elvis Presley, etc.: Gets high on the list because very familiar and a good song, but the music is not that sad. For more, we discussed the story behind Elvis Presley’s most famous performance of the song. Score:  93 points.

    (3) “The River– Joni Mitchell (and covers): Received most of its points from the deep depression category with both depressing lyrics and music.  Discussed in previous post in more detail.  Score:  91 points.

    (4) Pretty Paper” – Roy Orbison:  The lyrics to “Pretty Paper” are a little vague, but a guy is alone on the sidewalk hoping “that you won’t pass him by.” “You’re in a hurry” so you leave him there crying as people laugh in the distance. You suck. Anyway, it has Roy Orbison’s voice, which automatically puts it high on the sounding-sad scale.  If he sang “Jingle Bells” it would make this list. Score:  89 points.

    (5) Do They Know It Is Christmas?” – Band Aid: Very famous and depressing: “Where nothing ever grows/ No rain or rivers flow.” And then there is Bono wailing, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of yooooooooooooo!”  “Do They Know It’s Christmas” would be higher on the list, but by the end we are happily singing “Feed the world” and letting people know it is Christmas Time whether they want to know it or not.   But while it did raise money for a good cause, the song has an extra tinge of sadness because it also reminds us that we did not find a solution to hunger in the 26 years since the song was released.  We mock, but we love the song. Just avoid the two remakes from 1989 and 2004. Score:  88 points. Trivia Question: Who sings the Bono part in the 2004 Band Aid 20 remake?

    (5) “Christmas in Prison” – John Prine. We like John Prine and the quality of “Christmas in Prison,” so we are putting it above some other songs even though you may never have heard it. Plus, you got prison: “The search light in the big yard / Swings round with the gun / And spotlights the snowflakes / Like the dust in the sun.” Check it out below.  Score:  84 points.

    (7) “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” – Tom Waits: Scored high on the depression scale, but not a song for many repeated listenings and not as famous as some of the above songs.  Discussed in previous post in more detail.  Score:  79 points.

    (8) I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “White Christmas” (tie) – Bing Crosby and others: Familiarity got these two into the top ten. The music sounds depressing, but the person is missing one Christmas and seems to still have family they will see again. For “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” the guy who wrote the lyrics was thinking of a homesick kid in college.  C’mon kid, there are people starving in Africa.  At least “White Christmas” gets bonus sad points from its popularity being connected to WWII soldiers missing home.  These songs are sad, but not hooker-in-prison sad.   Score:  78 points.

    (9) “Billy’s Christmas Wish” – Red Sovine: “Billy’s Christmas Wish” may not be as well known as the other songs here, but the song is unbeatable on the depression scale so it makes the list on that alone. Consider: (1) the little boy’s father is in prison for shooting the mother’s boyfriend; (2) the mother works in a bar and lives with an abusive “Mr. Brown;” and (3) then the little boy dies on Santa’s lap at the end. Seriously, that is the song. And then Santa has the nerve to tell us not to be sad because the boy wanted to live with God so “now everything’s alright.” That makes us think that Santa killed Billy.  Score:  72 points.

    (10) “The Rebel Jesus” – Jackson Browne. The Top Ten List must have room for a song that gets to the heart of Christmas and how the spirit of it gets corrupted, calling us out for our hypocrisy. Everyone may not know this song, but it is a beautiful song of the season. Score: 68 points.

    Well we guard our world with locks and guns,
    And we guard our fine possessions.
    And once a year when Christmas comes,
    We give to our relations.
    And perhaps we give a little to the poor,
    If the generosity should seize us.
    But if any one of us should interfere
    In the business of why there are poor,
    They get the same as the rebel Jesus

    I went shopping today and bought a present for my mom, and then I sang along to “Do They Know It’s Christmas” without doing anything about the poor.  I am a worthless human being.  Thanks Jackson Browne for making me feel like crap.   If you need to feel a little better, you may use the charity of your choice or use these links for CARE, Oxfam, or UNICEF.

    Honorable Mention: “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas” – John Denver: You do not hear this one a lot, and I just discovered Alan Jackson covered the song. The song is sad with the kid worrying whether daddy will be drunk again this Christmas, but it is played as a clap-along song so not as depressing as it could be. Plus, the kid has it good compared to Billy in the Red Sovine song.  Score:  54 points.

    Bonus Recent Excellent Sad Holiday Song: Mike Ireland and Holler‘s “Christmas Past.” I found this song last year and really like it, and when you hear it, the melody sounds like a song you have heard many times before. The song features various memories floating by and ends with: “The only company I keep exists in memories / Leaving me alone on Christmas Day.” Sad, but a pretty song.

    Bonus Links: In preparing this post, I did some googling and saw that others had compiled similar lists that you may see and compare here, here, here, and here.

    What’s your favorite depressing holiday song? Post a comment.

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    3 Depressing Holiday Songs

    There are numerous places to go for happy holiday songs about snowmen, toys, and good cheer. But the holidays are often a depressing time of year for many, in part, because the songs and movies create such high expectations of perfection in our lives. So, to counter those expectations, here at Chimesfreedom we revisit three of the best depressing holiday songs, brought to you by Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, and the Pogues. Because these songs lower one’s expectations, maybe they provide a source of joy for this time of year better than some of the syrupy happy songs.

    The title of Tom Waits’s song, “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” sums it up. The song starts off with “Silent Night” to give the Christmas setting of the song, and then the “hooker” describes her life to Charley. She spins a tale about a husband and her memories, but at the end she confesses:

    I don’t have a husband
    He don’t play the trombone
    And I need to borrow money
    To pay this lawyer
    And Charley, hey
    I’ll be eligible for parole
    Come Valentines day.

    Then the singer goes back into “Silent Night,” evoking the hidden sadness that underlies that melancholy song, which is about the birth of a savior born into a fate of suffering. If you are not a Tom Waits fan, I realize his voice takes a little getting used to, but his gravely voice highlights the sadness of this tale.

    From the first notes of the piano introduction to “The River,” on both Joni Mitchell’s original and Sarah McLachlan’s cover, you know you are in for a depressing song even if the initial notes are from the happiest of holiday songs, “Jingle Bells.” Like the two other songs here, “The River” begins by setting the scene for Christmas: “It’s coming on Christmas/ They’re cutting down trees / They’re putting up reindeer / And singing songs of joy and peace.”

    But then, the song centers on memories of a failed relationship. “Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby / That I ever had /Oh I wish I had a river /I could skate away on.”

    I prefer the Joni Mitchell version, but I could not find an actual video performance of the song (and what I did find was too full of depressing comments). So here is the McLachlan version of “The River,” which is also a good recording. But you are warned. It is depressing.

    The Pogue’s “Fairytale of New York” (1987), featuring British singer Kirsty MacColl, is probably my favorite depressing holiday song. Despite the depressing lyrics, the joyous Irish tune lifts my spirits, in much the same way we find joy in other sad holiday stories like “Blue Christmas.” You know it is not a typical Christmas song from the first line: “It was Christmas Eve babe/In the drunk tank.” The singer then turns to memories of his “Queen of New York City” as he “can see a better time/When all our dreams come true.”

    Then the band kicks in and the song features an exchange between a couple who are down on their luck.  They reflect on their hope in coming to America (“They got cars big as bars / They got rivers of gold”), tinged with dashed dreams (“But the wind goes right through you/It´s no place for the old”).

    The couple fight and curse each other.   They exchange several barbs, referring to “an old slut on junk” with the holiday wish, “Happy Christmas your arse/ I pray God it’s our last.”  I have read a few different interpretations of what is going on in the song — whether it is a current relationship or a past relationship.  Despite the broken dreams of the song (“You took my dreams from me”), I like to think the song ends with a tiny sparkle of hope, “Can’t make it all alone/ I’ve built my dreams around you.”

    Finally, we’re pulled back to the police station and the drunk tank,

    The boys of the NYPD choir
    Were singing “Galway Bay”
    And the bells were ringing out
    For Christmas day


    Bonus Video Information: Recognize the police officer at the beginning of this video? He’s Matt Dillon.

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