Cadence to Arms: the Dropkick Murphys

The Dropkick Murphys

Round 1904, hundreds of Southies cheered and pumped their fists for Irish-American James Michael Curley as he was led to prison for sixty days. His crime: he took the mail-carrier’s test for a friend named Fahey. See, the civil-service exams in Boston were pretty skewed against immigrants at the time. Irish immigrants especially. And in order to give a non-Yankee a shot at the job, you had to cheat. Curley, an “educated” man, did the job a bit too well, and he was caught. He became a hero, and was reelected alderman while behind bars. The rest of his story is legend: he was the “Rascal King”, the “Mayor of the Poor”. Ambitious, yeah, but the proud Southies loved him till the end.

Fact is, it would do you well to recollect the proud memory of James Michael Curley if you’re in Boston ’round Saint Patrick’s Day: St. Rascal loved the working man, and he deserves better than his ambiguous rep as a political hack. And I hope you also bought a ticket to the three Dropkick Murphys gigs (March 15 thru 17) in Boston, which will doubtless be the finest St. Paddy’s Day performances anywhere in the country. Wish I could be there. Says the band, “In addition to hopefully bringing people together for a good time, we hope to share some of our experiences and beliefs in working class solidarity, friendship, loyalty and self-improvement as a means to bettering society.” That’ll do, alright, and about time I say.

But they accomplish this while churning up a righteous fist-pumping mosh-pit singalong, louder and faster than any of those sluggish collegiate-punk loafers your dissertator roommate hangs with. And by Jesus, they evoke the desperate magic of Southie by adding uilleann pipes, tin whistle, and mandolin to their mix, turning a soused Pogues aesthetic into a thrashy punk hootenanny. Quite possibly the most brilliant and exciting live band around today, really. And if they don’t make you start thinking patriotically about Irish-American heroes like Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Michael J. Quill, and George Meany, then they haven’t done their job.

The band began as just a bunch of Boston mates who dug AC/DC, Gang Green, Ozzy, the Pogues, SSD, Dubliners, and DYS, and jammed together with their influences intact. Founders Ken Casey (vox/lyrics/bass) and Matt Kelly (vox/drums/bodhran) have been the core members through all the various lineup changes (though technically Matt joined a bit later). But hell, all the various lineup changes have changed their essential sound very little: thrashy populist singalong hardcore injected with tearjerking Irish musical styles. All three of their full length albums are great, and you’d be insane to miss any of the live gigs that pass your way. These guys just get better and better, and it’s only been . . . what? . . . six years?

The recording history is only half the story (these guys live for performing with an audience), but future generations will have their studio tunes for documents, so let’s take a look. After a few of seven-inches, split singles, and EP’s, their hell-bent debut full-length Do or Die came crashing out of Boston in 1997. The cover art features a circa-sixties portrait of thirteen proud workers (Building Wreckers Local 1421), which evokes the deep pride in working-class heritage that gives energy and dignity to all the Murphys output. Beginning with a beautiful version of “Cadence to Arms” (bagpipes quickly churning to thrash), the album explodes with call-and-response anthems (“Never Alone”), introspective down-and-out shouters (“Caught in a Jar”), righteous working-class battle cries (“Tenant Enemy #1”), and of course traditional Irish tunes (“Finnegan’s Wake”). Singer Mike McColgan bellows the tunes like a joyous drill sergeant, and the noble chants lead you eagerly into battle against landlords, bosses, and death. The occasional bagpipe and tin whistle (rarer here than on later releases) do pour the stout in their pint, no doubt. The music is excellent Boston thrash: loud and on-the-one. Like the wreckers on the cover, the band does their job well, and solidarity means their job is to rock the crowd.

The album’s weirdest moment is the opening line of “Memories Remain”: “Well we started shooting hoops now we’re sipping Black and Tans”. They’re young and all, but you can definitely tell they’re Irish-American (rather than Irish) if a Black and Tan is simply a beer in an existential lost-youth rant! On the other hand, “Boys on the Docks” is one of the most angry and heartfelt songs about the Irish immigrant experience I have ever heard.

Mike McColgan left amicably after Do or Die, and on their second album The Gang’s All Here his replacement Al Barr shifted the bands sound noticeably toward a more tumultuous, abrasive, hilarious mix that feels more like Jameson’s neat than a black-and-tan. Barr’s delivery is similar to that of his Bosstones compatriot Dicky Barrett — hoarse, hyperkinetic, and hilarious. The guitars are all over the place here — detonating, soloing, taking off on different riffs, as if guitarist Rick Barton suddenly discovered it’s okay to be Ted Nugent once in your life. Thank Christ, things are a lot speedier too. And louder. Crazed accelerated anthems like “Curse of a Fallen Soul”, “Blood and Whiskey”, and “Homeward Bound” will have you pumping your fist and giving your yuppie DVD player a good kicking. And yeah, there’s a real tearjerker thrash cover of “Amazing Grace”, too — pretty good here, but you gotta see it live.

Guitarist Rick Barton left after The Gang’s All Here, and the detonating master had to be replaced by two (count ’em: two) new guitarists. Of course it helps keep those BPM’s high if the new guitarists are practically teenagers, but still James Lynch and Marc Orrell (Marc also doubling on accordion) do create a workingman’s thrash paradise on the band’s true masterpiece, Sing Loud, Sing Proud. Not only that, but we get a permanent new boy (one Spicy McHaggis) on uilleann pipes, and another boy (Ryan Foltz) who can play mandolin, tin whistle, and dulcimer. Mother of mercy, can this crazed seven-man precision-attack lineup raise the roof! Between the Boston Bruins samples and ace covers of “Rocky Road to Dublin” and “The Wild Rover”, you get a Shane MacGowan cameo (“Good Rats”), and another bushel of brilliant originals (“The Gauntlet”, “The Legend of Finn MacCumahail”, “The New American Way”, “Caps and Bottles”, “The Spicy McHaggis Jig”). And, oh yeah, a definitive hardcore cover of “Which Side Are You On” that seeks out an energetic audience of young workers rather than old nostalgics. Sing Loud, Sing Proud was doubtless one of the best albums of 2001, and hey what a surprise, the critics ignored it. But then, the scribblers never had to work the docks, did they?

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade in NYC will be what you see on television. But the Saint Paddy’s gigs in Boston — where the Dropkick Murphys will generate the usual sweaty Dionysian solidarity — that will be something to make all Irish-Americans proud. I’ve been to two of their shows, and I’d never before attended gigs that gets me shouting righteous slogans for songs I’d never heard before. And I’d never before found myself pumping my fist, moshing, and shedding tears simultaneously. Really, the Dropkick Murphys — generating working-class solidarity without being snobby or intellectual or dumb about it — they’re kinda like geniuses. Here’s their own take on their live shows: “[our] main goal is to play music that creates an all for one, one for all environment where everyone is encouraged to participate, sing along, and hopefully have a good time… our stage and our microphone are yours”. Sharing the mic: that can go a long way to making the world a better place, I dare say.