Celtic Punks: The Pogues vs. Dropkick Murphys
“When I die Dublin will be written in my heart.” – James Joyce
It’s 2008 now, and by all reasonable estimates, Shane MacGowan should be dead.
But Shane MacGowan is not dead, nor is he irrelevant. In fact, the Pogues are enjoying one last hurrah, despite the fact that they haven’t recorded any new material with MacGowan in over 18 years, that there are no immediate plans to return to the studio, that every rock mag this side of the Ukraine has kept a working obit on file for MacGowan for well over a decade.
Despite all of that, the Pogues are still pogue-ing away.
And all the tales of hard living that helped make them who and what they are have inspired others to rise up in their wake, spinning their own tales of blue-collar woe.
All of which comes as no real surprise because, quite frankly, the Pogues and their Celtic blend of Strummer-certified punk are nothing short of genius. The Pogues cast a shadow so dark and far-reaching it’s difficult, if not impossible, for any other band to eclipse it. And their success is as much modern tragedy as it is grand theater. Every stanza’s drenched in nicotine, every chorus bathed in Bushmills, every song more tortured and sincere than the one that came before—MacGowan rasping his way down dark lyrical alleys with bagpipes and banjos and tin-whistles-a-whistling.
How on Earth do you follow that?
Well, if you’re the Dropkick Murphys you replace all the tales of cold Irish living with working-class tales of American ire. You take what was pretty and make it sound gritty. You turn the BPMs up to a hardcore stomp of 156. And you do it all with blatant reverence for the ones that came before.
But should the Dropkick Murphys be mentioned in the same breath as the Pogues?
Well, both bands have songs that make you want to drink and drink and drink and drink and drink and drink and fight. But whereas the Pogues seem to make the most sense around quarter of two on a cold winter’s eve, the Dropkicks’ mission is to shake you and wake you, to carry you through the night.
The Dropkicks dig Woody Guthrie, while the Pogues dig old Pete Seeger.
The Dropkicks represent the pubs of Southie, the solidarity of unions, and the world champion Sox. The Pogues are King’s Cross, the cheap smell of gutters, and “The Fairytale of New York.”
Both bands write with a strong social conscience—MacGowan as the patron saint of the less-than-average-Joe, while the Dropkicks lay claim to the dockworkers and tradesmen, the meager-living factions of Northeastern sprawl.
The Pogues are MacGowan, for better or worse. He’s the ash in their beer and the spit in their shine. The Dropkicks are an ensemble where the whole achieves more than the sum of its parts. Al Barr leans on Ken Casey, and Casey leans on Barr. And just as the Dropkicks thrived when Barr came aboard, the Pogues lost their luster when MacGowan hit the skids.
The Pogues always seem like they’re teetering on the brink, while the Dropkicks remain intensely focused, as if driven by a force that’ll take them straight through their 50s.
Despite having worked with the Dropkicks in the past, MacGowan has publicly slighted them on more than one occasion, which makes one wonder if (from a native Irish perspective) the Murphys are the genuine article or just an Americanized version of the real deal—like St. Patty’s Day, or McSorley’s, or even Trooper Thorn.
But it doesn’t really matter whether the Dropkicks are from County Derry or the ‘burbs of southern Mass, whether they’re shipping up to Boston or wandering the dark streets of London. They’re helping to preserve and expand a tradition that MacGowan and James Fearnley began almost three decades prior. There’s something admirable about that.
Perhaps one sunny morn when MacGowan’s outlived us all, he’ll show up on some British talk show to ponder once again the state of Celtic punk and the long overdue demise of his liver. And between boasts of a band called Lancaster County Prison, he’ll recall a time in the late ‘90s when he recorded “Good Rats” and “Wild Rover” with some streetwise punks that called themselves the Dropkick Murphys.
Of them he’ll say this: “Those lads… now those lads were as right as rain, yeah.”
It’ll be a hell of a moment. But unfortunately, none of us will be able to hear it, because the whole thing’ll run together, like one long, garbled mess.
And besides, we’ll all be dead already, so what’s the difference anyway, yeah?
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