The Reel Thing

Boston's Dropkick Murphys give rise to traditional Irish punk

Traditional Irish folk music has been combined with plenty of different musical styles, so you'd think mixing it with punk and hard-core would be some kind of joke, right? Wrong. The Dropkick Murphys, Boston's premier Irish punk working-class band, uses bagpipes, grinding guitars and bone-shaking rhythms. Three-chord punk blasts surround Celtic jigs and reels, and they work together just fine.

Boston is probably the only community that could have spawned the Dropkick Murphys. The Hub City is America's hottest hotbed of punk and likely the most Irish of all major metropolitan areas. The old ethnic neighborhoods in other towns that have either been gentrified, taken over by newer immigrant groups or bulldozed to make room for a new interstate highway have remained pretty much intact here. The most famous Irish American enclave is South Boston, a few square miles of three-ups (three-family houses with ground-, middle- and top-floor dwellings) and shamrock-bedecked saloons bounded on three sides by Boston Harbor and on one side by I-93. It's the ultimate Caucasian blue-collar world, and the Dropkick Murphys' music can easily be called the heart and soul of this environment.

"But we're not from there," says bassist Ken Casey, a resident of Quincy, a city just south of Boston. "We're all from the same general area. I know a lot of people from South Boston, so it's fair to say we're a band from there."

South Boston is a tightly knit area that developed a reputation, fair or unfair, of being hostile to outsiders. The neighborhood garnered some bad publicity in the mid-'70s when court-ordered busing sent "Southies" to schools outside the 'hood and brought in students from other parts of the city, most notably all-black Roxbury, just to the west of South Boston. Buses carrying black students were pelted with bananas. The late Judge Arthur Garrity, who ordered desegregation, was Public Enemy No. 1 in South Boston for years.

"Remember," Casey says, "that was 25 years ago. A lot has changed since then. I think [the old stereotype] is overrated."

But what hasn't changed, other than the ethnic makeup, is the closeness of people from South Boston, Dorchester and the other Irish strongholds. It's these ordinary folks who are the inspiration for much of the Dropkick Murphys' material. The songs come straight from the pubs, playgrounds, coffee shops, mom-and-pop stores and union halls.

"That's pretty much what we know best," Casey says. "We write about our friends, our neighbors, our families."

Like John Kelly, to whom the rousing blue-collar anthem "Boys on the Docks" is dedicated.

"He's my grandfather," Casey says. "My dad died when I was very young, so he pretty much raised me. I saw him dedicate his life to helping people, working with the longshoremen. It was more than a job for him. My father-in-law is the same way. These guys, the working people, need someone to stand up for them."

Like the lives of their neighbors themselves, many Dropkick Murphys songs have unhappy endings. Untimely death is a theme of much of the band's work, and songs like "Noble" and "Curse of the Fallen Soul" are cautionary tales as well as tributes to the deceased.

"Yeah, these are people I knew," Casey says. "I would go to the wakes of guys who died of drug overdoses, and I would see friends there who were drunk or high themselves, and I couldn't believe it. I just want to tell them they're going down the same road that killed a friend."

Casey himself was just one of those working stiffs until he decided to get together with friends Rick Barton and Mike McColgan in the basement of another friend's barber shop to play music just for fun. They decided to take all the music they listened to growing up -- rock 'n' roll, punk rock and Irish folk -- and create something they could call their own.

"I didn't know how to play an instrument until three weeks before I joined the band," Casey says. "The other guys had been in bands before, but this is my first. We loved the Pogues, who are a traditional Irish band with punk influences. We are a punk band with traditional influences."

And things happened fast. In less than three years, they had a full-length CD, Do or Die, and last year released their second CD, The Gang's All Here. This year has witnessed the release of a compilation album of early singles, and another album, Sing Loud, Sing Proud, is scheduled for a September release. They have four seven-inch CDs available and many splits with bands like the Ducky Boys, the Anti-Heroes, Agnostic Front, the Bruisers and Oxymoron.

Their audience, like that of most punk bands, has a large contingent of skinheads. The band, however, has made it clear through its Web site that Nazism and other forms of white supremacy, believed by many to be a trademark of all skinheads, isn't tolerated at Dropkick Murphys shows. The band is after the nonracist, working-class skins, as well as anyone else who can dig its Irish-punk sound.

"In Boston you can't help but get noticed if you play the old Irish songs," Casey says, mentioning the Dropkick Murphys' versions of classics such as "Finnigan's Wake" and "The Fighting 69th." "It helps, being from Boston, to do anything Irish. We've had a lot of father-son combinations at our shows."

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