Kirsty MacColl's vocals ensured Shane MacGowan raised his game for The Fairytale of New York song

Continuing our Christmas countdown... we look at the singer Kirsty MacColl and her legacy each year

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It's almost 22 years since the singer and songwriter Kirsty MacColl was tragically killed. She died protecting her son from a boat, managing to push him away from the danger and taking the full force herself.

Her legacy, aside from her sons, Jamie and Louis, is in her pure and soulful vocals. In particular, she lives on in popular culture with the Christmas classic, Fairytale of New York, written and co-performed by the Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan.

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The Pogues' Fairytale Of New York, released in 1987 and featuring Kirsty's singing, is regularly voted the greatest ever Christmas song and for many it has become the soundtrack of the season. A song about love, loss and shattered dreams is made all the more poignant by Kirsty's death.

The magic of the song is heightened by the contrasting vocals of Kirsty and Shane.

MacColl was married at the time to Steve Lillywhite, who was producing The Pogues’ third album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Fairytale was one of the tracks on the album.

Kirsty MacColl sings Fairytale of New York with Shane MacGowan/BBCKirsty MacColl sings Fairytale of New York with Shane MacGowan/BBC
Kirsty MacColl sings Fairytale of New York with Shane MacGowan/BBC

Pogues guitarist Phil Chevron says MacColl was already well known to the band long before they recorded together. “Kirsty had become part of our circle as a friend, a confidante and now as the wife of the producer, but for some reason she had never figured on our short list of people we were going to approach to sing Fairytale of New York.

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“It’s inexplicable really but sometimes you need to hear something to know that it’s the right thing.

“Steve knew better than we did what Kirsty could do with it. He said, let me try something, I’ll take the tapes home, Kirsty will have a go at doing a vocal on it, and I‘ll take it in tomorrow and we’ll see what we think of it."

Fairytale co-writer Jem Finer says the band all reconvened on the Monday afterwards to listen to the results. “It was just like wow; it was amazing. There was no question about who was going to be the female vocalist. It was just there complete with harmonies. It was fantastic."

The quality of MacColl’s vocals did create an unexpected problem, as Lillywhite explains: “When we finished it, it was plainly obvious that Shane’s vocal was not as good now that Kirsty had really raised the bar. He sounded sort of slurry. Shane said, I’ve got to sing it again. That just kicked his level of performance higher. He’s a proud man. He redid his vocal and that was it.”

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Chevron summed up the feelings of everyone involved in the record when he said: “I remember thinking that this was no ordinary piece of music that we were recording. I think it’s fair to say that we were aware that we were doing something that was going to stand the test of time.”

Kirsty's vocals are a large part of why this song has become a favourite. And it's bringing comfort to her own children each year.

Louis, the younger of Kirsty's children, spoke to the Daily Mail in 2019. He still listens to Kirsty's music and loves hearing Fairytale Of New York. "It's so nice, I feel lucky to be able to hear her voice on the radio every year. I love hearing it, it's comforting. You hear atrocities on TV every day about people who lose their families in an instant and that's the last time they hear their voice and they can't see them on a video."

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