About the only Christmas song I can stand to hear more than once when it isn’t the last two weeks of December is, of course, A Fairy Tale of New York (see this earlier post about that song, 25 years on). And so as December starts I dug out a particularly good interview in the Quietus with the genius that is Shane MacGowan from last year. Here’s how it starts:
So now he’s laid up in his sick bed like Cúchulainn, the mythical Irish warrior who, when his enemies finally came for him, was said to have tied himself to a standing stone so as to be able to die on his feet. When Shane wrote his song ‘The Sick Bed Of Cúchulainn’, he transposed one of the stories of the indefatigable hero onto a tale about a fighter with Frank Ryan’s anti-fascist Irish nationalists. The opening track of The Pogues’ flawless 1985 album Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, it’s archetypal MacGowan songwriting: an exuberant celebration of boozing delivered with a punk snarl yet somehow timeless, as if the song had been passed down through the ages.
But it hadn’t. Shane had to write it. In his memoir of his life in The Pogues, Here Comes Everybody, accordion player James Fearnley says of another track from that album, ‘Sally MacLennane’: “the melodies were so seamlessly Irish I was surprised to find out that the song wasn’t traditional.”
Shane shrugs when I tell him this. “Well, there are similar Irish and Scottish folk songs. There’s only eight notes, or sixteen if you want to count it the proper way. I like story songs. Most really good songs, I’m not necessarily saying mine, but if you think of rock & roll, or blues, go as far back as you want, they all have a story. They’re all about a revolution, or a battle, or a love affair, or whatever. I came from a really musical family. Everybody played music and told stories and made up songs. All the neighbours did as well.”