- 18 Dec 18
Having worked with The Pogues throughout 1987 and introduced them to his wife, the late Kirsty MacColl, Steve Lillywhite had a pivotal role in the making of one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time, ‘Fairytale of New York’.
"I was producing If I Should Fall From Grace With God, and The Pogues said to me that they had this Christmas single to record. I remember it felt weird, because we were talking about this in July of 1987, during one of the hottest summers in years!
"Sometime the year before, they’d done a version with Cáit O’Riordian doing the female voice. It was okay, but it didn’t really capture the song fully. To me, it sounded more like a demo. So the band decided to hold their fire: they didn’t release it. They knew they had an emotional song, and if it was done right it’d be a hit.
"They had loftier ideas for the female singer initially. They had someone like Chrissy Hynde in mind. Kirsty’s career had always stayed at the same level and people thought of her as a ‘mid-level’ artist. But The Pogues’ manager Frank Murray had managed Kirsty, so there was a connection. Frank said, ‘Look why don’t we get Kirsty to do the vocal? And even if it’s not right, I’m sure she won’t mind if we don’t use it’. So I said, ‘I’ve got my studio at home, so we don’t have to use the expensive studio that you guys are paying for. I’ll do it over the weekend and come in on Monday and you’ll hear her’.
"I remember coming home with the tape on Saturday, and I spent the weekend working with her. It took that long because, to be honest, it’s a deceptively simple song to sing well. And the way Kirsty sang it, with her inflections, is very unique. Whenever I hear someone else sing the song now – they never get it the same way as Kirsty. We spent a long time getting every single note perfect. And we both knew, ‘We’ve got something here’.
"The Pogues were knocked out. Shane had thought he’d done his vocal right the first time, but it was obvious when he heard his against Kirsty’s that it just wasn’t up to scratch. So he re-did his vocal. The thing was – hearing her completely raised his game and changed the song. He’d only heard Cáit’s version before. And the original was sort of a punk-rock version of the song.
"If I Should Fall From Grace With God was an incredibly focused body of work. This was the classic line-up of The Pogues. They were great live. Shane was at the top of his game and I was at the top of my game as well. There was lots of partying, lots of crazy stuff, but we worked very hard. I remember listening back to that album afterwards thinking, ‘How did we make all that?!’ Shane couldn’t believe it.
"What are my thoughts on the song all these years later? My first thought is for Kirsty and for our children, because they lost their mother when they were 14 and 15, and they lost her on the 18th of December, which is Christmas time. That’s not necessarily a sad thought anymore. It’s still somewhat sad, of course, or bittersweet, because she won’t be with us and because she was, unquestionably, one of the greatest female artists of our time. But it is a great thing to look at the legacy she’s left us all with that song."