Immigrant Songs


The Dropkick Murphys are wild colonial boys bred and buttered in Boston, a seven-man band who’ve fleshed out their trad-punk stomp with bagpipes and tin whistle and mandolin and a bogload of Oi!-rish shtick. They’re protégés of Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen, who produced their first two albums, Do or Die and The Gang’s All Here, but their new Sing Loud, Sing Proud! is the top-notch ramalama boot-scooting bootboy boogie that Rancid’s last album should have been. It’s a simple trick, matching the boisterous sing-along of Irish pub folk to the raving punk football cheers of the Clash or Stiff Little Fingers, but the Murphys make it click for a whole album, and I like to think they couldn’t have done it without the spiritual guidance, such as it could imaginably be, of their one-song guest vocalist Shane MacGowan, the once and no-future Pogue and the great Irish American rock star.

Of course, Shane isn’t really American, but then he isn’t really Irish either, and that’s always been his point. Back in the days of the Pogues, some of which he can probably even remember, Shane used to get offended when people would describe his band as a bunch of drunken Irish louts because “we’re not really Irish,” and at his November 1995 gig at Irving Plaza, as he clowned it up onstage, the brogues behind me kept snorting, “Fookin’ London Irish.” The Pogues were always into the twisted dance between immigrants and natives, putting President Kennedy on the cover of their debut album, the title of which, Red Roses for Me, quoted the last words Jackie Kennedy was thinking to herself right before the shots rang out in Dallas. Home, leaving home, staying home, making a new home, a parade, a wedding, a funeral: It’s all a fookin’ dead end, so let’s not have a sniffle, let’s have a bloody good cry. The Dropkick Murphys mix the Pogues’ Red Roses for Me with Rancid’s . . . And Out Come the Wolves, a combination so easy and obvious you’d think someone else would have pulled it off before.

After all, one of the weird things about growing up Irish American is that the Italian kids had all the rock stars. They had Madonna Ciccone and John Bongiovi and Aerosmith’s Steven Tallarico, even Roseanne Liberto Cash on the country side of the dial. They cleaned up their names, they dressed up funny, they unlocked their bel canto sweet-emotion voices, and it was all gravy to the proverbial goose. What did Irish kids have? Well, there was Joe Walsh. And the Mahoney boy, Eddie Money, and let’s see who else . . . uh, that Joe Walsh sure could play, couldn’t he? The Italian kids had Pat Benatar. We were stuck with Laura Branigan. (But wasn’t “Rocky Mountain Way” a heckuva song?) Then we got the New Kids, who begat the Funky Bunch, who begat the film career of Bobby Orr lookalike Mark Wahlberg, who begat the film career of Donnie Wahlberg, whose straight-to-video classic Southie isn’t as good as Monument Ave. but sure beats Good Will Hunting, and also has Amanda Peet, Anne Meara, Lawrence Tierney, and—in the plum role of Donnie’s boozer sister—Rose McGowan, presumably no relation to Shane.

They rocked in the old country, with Thin Lizzy and all, but even the Lizzy had to pretend to be Italian to crack America, by locating their epochal 1976 rumble “The Boys Are Back in Town” at Dino’s Bar and Grill, where the drink will flow and the blood will spill and if the boyos wanna fight you better let ’em. But the Dropkick Murphys tap into the side of Thin Lizzy that covered the Irish pub-folk song “Whiskey in the Jar,” which has never rocked harder than in the Dubliners’ 1968 version, but has also been covered by Pulp, the Pogues, and, of all people, Metallica. The Murphys cover “The Wild Rover” instead, a clapping song that has been sung at every Irish wedding since 1916. They have the deep repertoire and catholic taste of a pub busker: Whether they’re doing punk rock originals, real Irish folk, fake Irish folk, Appalachian mine-strike anthems, or the Boston College fight song, it’s all just sing-along music. They evoke classic Boston Irish hardcore bands like the Freeze, Jerry’s Kids, and the mighty Dogmatics. They also sample a Bruins game from Channel 38, and end the album with a loving tribute to Celtics announcer Johnny Most and organist John Kiley, the guy who played organ at both Boston Garden and Fenway Park, thus going down in trivia history as the only man ever to play for the Bruins, Celtics, and Red Sox in the same season. (Sometime in the ’70s, someone gave Kiley a Beatles songbook, and there were a few weird seasons there in the Lynn/Rice/Tiant years where you’d hear him playing “Rocky Raccoon” between innings.)

Since their previous records, the Murphys have expanded their lineup, which now includes 21-year-old guitarist James Lynch, 17-year-old guitarist Mark Orrell, 23-year-old mandolinist Ryan Foltz, and an 18-year-old bagpipes player named Spicy McHaggis, whom you might call the band’s secret weapon, except that you could easily hide the other six Murphys behind him. (He even gets his own theme, “The Spicy McHaggis Jig.”) The bagpipe power chords give drive and color to the band’s class-conscious tales of working and drinking and working and drinking and working and dying. The Murphys score quite a hat trick early in the album, revving up “Which Side Are You On,” the folkie standard “The Rocky Road to Dublin,” and a militant little anthem all their own called “Heroes From Our Past” concerning “the modern workers’ struggle,” each song bellowed with true isn’t-it-grand-boys-to-be-bloody-well-dead gusto. But the climax has to be “Good Rats,” where Shane appears in what’s left of the flesh to sing an ode to the healing powers of Guinness. Shane still has the yerrragggh in his voice—he just doesn’t have much voice left in his yerrragggh. On the early Pogues records, his voice sounded burned to a crisp by all the horror he’d witnessed in his sat-on-and-shat-on excuse for a life; here, it just sounds like he doesn’t feel up to tackling the more physically strenuous niceties of vocal work, like pronouncing consonants. Still, it’s undeniably inspiring to hear the old man filter that voice through his kidneys one more time, and it’s a typically friendly gesture from the Dropkick Murphys just to invite him back. Fair play to them.

Dropkick Murphys play Wetlands March 16;
Shane MacGowan plays Webster Hall March 17.