Musical genre mashup Celtic punk making its way to Pittsburgh in March
Music is always changing, absorbing influences, finding new connections where none seemed to be. Rock 'n' roll itself was formed from the unlikely combination of the blues, gospel, jump blues/early R&B, country and Western swing.
These sort of combinations, collaborations and collisions are happening all the time. Pick any two styles or genres of music, and someone has probably tried to combine them. Sometimes, it's sublime. Often, it's a mess.
Traditional Irish music and punk rock, on the surface, seem to have little in common. One uses cheap, distorted electric guitars. The other prefers acoustic banjos, fiddles, tin whistles and (sometimes) bagpipes. One prizes virtuosic skill. The other puts energy and attitude above all. One is about preserving tradition. The other is about smashing it. And so on.
“I don't see it that way,” says Dropkick Murphys' leather-lunged singer Al Barr. “Sure, there's the veracity of punk versus the gentleness of folk, as far as the egos go. But both being by the people, for the people — punk music was never made as a way to make money, and neither was folk music.”
A bunch of Irish punks in London called The Pogues first put it all together in 1982. They had the right combination of vision, attitude, the mesmerizing charisma of singer Shane MacGowan, and the formidable songwriting skill of Jem Finer. The Pogues became one of the finest bands of the '80s of any genre, and proved surprisingly durable and prolific, considering the volatility of the personalities involved.
For awhile, they stood alone. It took years for their sound to be absorbed into the bloodstream of popular music. But it was, particularly in America. Oddly enough, three of the biggest bands in this genre are coming to Pittsburgh this month: Flogging Molly (March 1, Stage AE), Dropkick Murphys (March 8, Stage AE) and The Tossers (March 12, Altar Bar).
“Through our teens, most of us went through our heavy-metal and punk phases,” says guitarist Mike Pawula of The Tossers, from Chicago. “Not that there's anything wrong with that, but we started looking for a broader scope of music to work with. We fell back into the Irish music we heard from our parents as kids.”
The Dropkick Murphys came out of the Boston hardcore punk scene — a brash, loud, proudly working-class crew of rowdy youths who added bagpipes and other Irish songs and elements as they gradually became better musicians.
“I probably heard (folk music) growing up,” Barr says. “My father's a Scotsman. I'm Scots-American. My father was a teacher my whole life. There were always teachers in my house playing music, American folk stuff. Always friends of my father playing something.”
As teenagers, punk rock is what grabbed Barr's attention. He first gained notoriety in a “street rock 'n' roll band” called The Bruisers, before being asked to join the Dropkick Murphys.
One element that animates both punk rock and Irish folk — and the iconic Woody Guthrie-to-Bob Dylan era of American folk music — is a desire to stick up for the poor, the beaten-down, the oppressed. The Dropkick Murphys have always made this connection explicit. Perhaps their best-known song, “I'm Shipping Up to Boston” (made famous in Martin Scorsese's gangster saga “The Departed), used lyrics from a poem found in Guthrie's archives.
“When we started this band, like, 18 years ago — I've been here 16 years — there was no genre,” Barr says. “Now, there's a genre. I think that's really cool. Flogging Molly wasn't around. I can say that the Dropkick Murphys started this genre. If there wasn't the Pogues there'd be no Dropkick Murphys. But if there wasn't a Ramones, there wouldn't be a Dropkick Murphys, either. As far as bringing it to the masses, this band has done that.”
It's possible that the new genre will lose momentum, or be dragged down by sub-par bandwagon-jumpers.
For now, though, “there's plenty of room at the table,” Barr says. “At the end of the day, the fans decide what's good and what's not. There's no right or wrong in music. Even though I'll be the first one to say ‘That sucks, turn that off!' ”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.