Shipping up to Boston, whooooaaaa
Plenty of great moments in Martin Scorsese’s new cop-robber-cat-mouse movie The Departed, but the one that sticks with me is a tense nighttime car ride where the movie’s cops and robbers have about five seconds to figure out where their real loyalties are before people start dying. The scene is set to a mighty bruiser crash-roar called “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” an ominous mandolin reel beefed up with bagpipes and crashing guitars and furious gang-roar vocals: “I’m a sailor peg! / And I’ve lost my leg! / Climbing up the topsails I lost my leg!” (Idolator has the mp3.) The lyrics are supposedly some old unpublished Woody Guthrie scribblings unearthed in a basement somewhere, but the song’s righteously riotous thump comes from the stalwart Boston beerpunk crew the Dropkick Murphys. The Murphys’ shoutalongs supposedly get heavy play at Boston sporting events; their “Tessie” was apparently the theme song of the Red Sox’ winning season or some such. Outside that town, though, they’re not exactly household names. So it’s weirdly thrilling to know that a legendary 63-year-old film director (or at least the music supervisor he hired) thought to include a song from these guys on the soundtrack of a movie that so perfectly reflects the corner of the world they represent. The Departed, after all, is a movie about Irish people doing violent shit in Boston, and the Dropkick Murphys are a band that sing about Irish people doing violent shit in Boston; it’s a match made in heaven. Scorsese is better at picking the perfect song for his scenes than any other director working (fuck a Tarantino), but I’m still amazed that he managed to nail this one so completely. “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” also shows up earlier in the movie, as Leonardo DiCaprio does pushups in jail. And the movie wouldn’t really suffer if the song played over every single scene, sort of like “Scarborough Fair” in The Graduate. Since seeing the movie last weekend, I’ve listened to “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” about a hundred times, and I’m not even close to being sick of it.
It can be easy to forget just how great the Dropkick Murphys are. After all, they’re not an ambitious band; they’ve been doing pretty much the exact same thing for ten years and five albums now. And it’s a narrow thing; they play rowdy singalong street-punk anthems and spike them with bits and pieces of traditional Irish folk music, and that’s it. A few songs might swipe a trick or two from rockabilly or metal or surf-guitar, but they couldn’t possibly be less experimental. The Murphys mostly sing drinking songs and brotherhood songs and pro-union songs and songs about a working class that mostly doesn’t exist anymore (see The Wire season 2). If you’ve heard “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” or virtually any of their other songs, you get the basic idea: bagpipes, galloping martial drums, gang-chant shouts, cheesed-out uplift about how we’re all brothers in the struggle. They’re the Pogues except with less finesse, if you can imagine that. They occupy an extremely narrow little piece of the musical landscape, but they do it with enough verve and authority to become my favorite band in the world when I’m in the right mood. On a day like today, when the Best Buy computer-repair people are telling me I need a new hard-drive, I have absolutely no desire to hear anything else. I’d have to listen to a whole lot more oi albums to say this definitively, but there’s a pretty good chance that their 2000 album Sing Loud, Sing Proud is the best oi album ever made.
There’s a real case to be made for bands like the Dropkick Murphys, bands that keep their focus narrow and do amazing work not in spite of their strict aesthetics but because of them. It’s not like just anyone can pull the Murphys’ whole schtick off; the LA band Flogging Molly does the exact same thing except nowhere near as well. The Murphys are great because they embrace their chosen path so joyously and wholeheartedly and because they know how to write songs with big hooks, the sort of things that actually make us want to want to scream along. Critics like me have a really easy time writing this stuff off, repping instead for people who try to tell us deep universal truths or who make a big point of leaping genre boundaries and changing their whole shit up on every album. But the Murphys’ blare can be as sweeping and universal as anything else if we approach it on its own terms. If it takes a movie like The Departed to remind us of something great that’s been under our noses all this time, that’s a shame, but I’m glad somebody’s doing it.