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The Real Story Behind Shane MacGowan’s ‘Boys of the N.Y.P.D. Choir’


Shane MacGowan’s timeless love letter to New York announces itself from a cockeyed vantage — “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank” — before name-checking the city’s many riches: Frank Sinatra, Broadway, cars big as bars and rivers of gold. “Fairytale of New York” also immortalizes a specific group of people doing a specific thing:

“The boys of the N.Y.P.D. Choir,” Mr. MacGowan belted, “were singing ‘Galway Bay.’”

Years later, the truth can be told: The boys of the N.Y.P.D. Choir did not know the words to “Galway Bay.”

Also, there was no N.Y.P.D. Choir.

Mr. MacGowan, the frontman of the Pogues who died Thursday at 65, left behind a body of work without precedent or peer, merging traditional Irish music and punk rock in songs that could be overheated and sublime, jaded and big-hearted, earthy and wistful. But none of his works can halt every conversation in any pub anywhere like “Fairytale of New York.” Its opening piano notes can send the whole house into an arms-around-a-stranger’s-shoulders singalong.

Mr. MacGowan’s writing of the song coincided in part with his first visit to the city in the mid-1980s, but he had come of age reading books and watching films set there. He spun a tale that felt grounded in a real place and conjured from iconic streetscapes, where the wind goes right through you and it’s no place for the old.

People who have never set foot in the city can imagine the drunk tank, and the man and woman kissing on the corner and dancing through the night.

But after the song was released in 1987, it needed a video for the hugely popular MTV network. So it needed scenes from the city, a working jail cell in a castle-like police building in Chelsea and, notably, the people whom Mr. MacGowan had invented: the boys of the N.Y.P.D. Choir.

Actual, musically inclined policemen were required to make the video succeed, and stepping into that role were the members of the Pipes & Drums of the Emerald Society of the New York Police Department.

“At least some N.Y.P.D. musical influence,” noted Brian McCabe, a retired police officer and member of the Emerald Society. “If not a choir.”

It was November 1987, babe.

“We were playing a dinner-dance function on the Upper West Side,” said Kevin McCarthy, 62, a former officer who is still in the band, which includes current and retired officers. “After that, we were to get on a bus and head downtown to Washington Square Park, where we were going to participate in a music video. Nobody on the bus had ever heard of this band called the Pogues, or the song.”

There, in the bracing cold, the police band met the rock band. “They obviously started their party much earlier,” Mr. McCarthy said.

The police drum major was a towering piece of granite named Finbar Devine. He stood, clutching a hand-carved staff called a mace that he used to conduct the group, and took stock of the young singer before him. Mr. MacGowan was known to have deeply researched every drinking song he ever wrote.

“Oh,” said Mr. MacGowan, peering at the mace. “Can I take a look at your stick that you carry?”

And so Mr. Devine handed over the mace.

“Shane MacGowan was so out there, he starts pretending like he’s leading the band,” Mr. McCarthy said. “And he takes it and rears back and fires it in the air.”

Shocked silence.

“The last thing you want to do is touch Finbar’s mace,” Mr. McCarthy said. “It was more like a religious statue. You can only imagine Finbar’s face, and the whole band’s faces, as this thing goes tumbling into the air into space.”

And then the mace fell back toward Earth, and Mr. MacGowan caught it and handed it back. A Christmas miracle.

When it came time for the cameras to roll, the 30 or so policemen were asked to mime the words to “Galway Bay,” but only a handful knew the song. “Danny Boy” — same thing. They were pipes and drums, not a singing act.

Someone asked, “There’s not one song you can sing together?” And Mr. McCarthy spoke up: “‘What about “Mickey Mouse”? We all know that.’ We just had to mouth the words. M-I-C, K-E-Y …”

And — action!

Months later, Mr. McCarthy, fresh off a 4-to-midnight shift, was in a Queens bar when the video appeared on the television. He shouted for everyone to shut up. “You can see some guys smiling away, because it’s so ridiculous,” he said.

Over time, its effect has deepened. “We were recognized, basically, in the Irish community,” he said. “It was a huge plus for the band.”

Mr. McCabe said the song, and the band’s punk roots, resonated with the young, Irish police recruits. A decade later, there was a hangout, the bar Rocky Sullivan’s in Manhattan, where officers drank with writers and other Irish New Yorkers. Sometimes Mr. MacGowan would drift inside. Sometimes the whole place would break into song.

“That, for all intent and purposes,” Mr. McCabe said, “was the N.Y.P.D. Choir.”

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.

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