Sadly, the vast majority of people get one exposure to Celtic punk a year – when the Pogues anti-festive classic ‘Fairytale of New York’ makes its annual circulation, and even then, its ballady nature makes it a poor example of the subgenre – though still of course the greatest Christmas song of all time. Those enlightened few who have probed deeper into the whiskey drenched rabbit hole know all too well that, since MacGowan and co. all but called it a day, there have emerged two acts, from opposite coasts of the US, who encapsulate the modern era of Celtic punk: LA’s Flogging Molly and Boston’s Dropkick Murphys. Who reigns supreme remains a hotly debated topic across the punk stratosphere, but both must be commended for keeping what could have been a short-lived fad original and entertaining for nigh on two decades.
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Massachusesetts sextet Dropkick Murphy’s had already been tearing up taverns in New England and beyond for a decade before their single, ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’ was featured prominently in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Oscar sweeping blood-drama, ‘The Departed’, but it was indisputably this track, with its now iconic mandolin intro, that catapulted the Dropkicks to household name status. Since then, Ken Casey and his band of merry Massholes have collaborated with Springsteen, cracked the charts with a beautifully cynical Christmas single, and carved out a reputation as one of the single most fun live acts in the industry.
Ninth effort, ’11 Short Stories of Pain and Glory’, brings a Dropkick Murphy’s first – recorded in El Paso, Texas, it’s the boys first time recording outside their home county. Outside of this, though, it’s – in the most positive sense – more of the same. As the opening pipes of ‘The Lonesome Boatman’ build to war-like drums and shouts, the familiarity is palpable. Listening to a new Dropkick Murphys album is like a shot of Jameson’s and a bear hug from a long lost friend. The albums third track, ‘Blood’, a juggernaut of defiance with a touch of the Boss to it, provides the chant, ‘If you want blood, we’ll give you some/Straight from the heart till the job is done’. It could just as easily be the bands slogan. Anyone concerned that the gents have strayed from their city roots can rest assured, the nostalgic ‘Sandlot’ describes a childhood spent on Boston streets, and one of the many bullets of derision fired upon the scummy protagonist of, ‘First Class Loser’ is that he is ‘Wicked unemployed.’ He also parks in handicapped spaces, the bastard.
‘I Had a Hat’ is the albums apogee, a bouncy, gleefully violent ditty that instantly joins, ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ and ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ as one of the best folk covers by a band who specialise in them. Liverpool FC anthem, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, also gets the Dropkicks treatment, served up with seething potency without ever losing its poignancy. Last but not least, 4-15-13, a mellow (by their standards anyway) and touching tribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing will likely be the albums most talked about track – and hopefully not for the fact that the intro sounds a little like the Titanic theme. Even the Dropkicks haughtiest critics couldn’t even attempt to deny the impact of the bands humanitarian efforts in the wake of the 2013 tragedy.
It might not earn the band a host of new fans – oftentimes, when people don’t like Celtic punk, they really don’t like Celtic punk, but the Dropkicks ninth effort succeeds in being moving, relevant, biting, witty and most importantly of all, a half hour of damn fun drinking music. Twenty years in, any new bands and new fans to this subgenre alike should still look first to the Dropkick Murphys.