Ken Casey doesn’t just know everyone in Boston — he knows everyone, their mothers and their five cousins named Sully.
It’s an October Friday, and Casey, the founder of Dropkick Murphys — the indefatigable Boston Celtic-punk band — just left a 300-person press conference at the Boston Harbor Hotel, where he couldn’t take more than two steps without a handshake, a backslap or a hearty “Ken-nee!” When he’s not onstage, Casey is also an independent boxing promoter (the Dropkicks have more than a few songs about legendary pugilists), and he’s promoting an arena fight card that he helped assemble for tomorrow night at the TD Garden arena.
Next up, the 49-year-old is headed to the Back Bay’s Lenox Hotel for an afternoon VIP reception, where the guest of honor is Irish fighting superstar Conor McGregor. The first man to hold two UFC titles at once greets Casey warmly — a handshake and a backslap — and they chat with the ease and efficiency of old friends. Casey tries convincing “The Notorious” to come tomorrow night, which seems like a tall order. But as it turns out, McGregor used to walk out to Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.”
You have undoubtedly heard this song’s opening riff: DUH-NUNT!… DUH-NUNT! Neeeeeer. A two-minute sea shanty built around Woody Guthrie lyrics, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” kicks off like the Jaws theme rewritten for a leprechaun street fight. Released in 2005, Dropkick Murphys’ best-known song got a profile boost in 2006, when Martin Scorsese featured it prominently in his Academy Award-winning Boston-mob film, The Departed. From there, the anthem became a favorite of New England sports organizations, NHL teams and local news producers needing to conjure suspense in 10 seconds or less. In October, the Boston Symphony Orchestra even performed it for the World Series. The platinum single has sold 2 million digital downloads and has accrued 91 million on-demand U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music, but the increase has been so gradual, the song never made a dent on the Billboard charts.
Boston’s unofficial house band has followed a similar trajectory. Conceived in a barbershop basement, the Dropkicks started out covering The Clash in a notoriously dank club down the block from Fenway Park. Twenty-three years later, they’ve performed on the Fenway field during three Red Sox World Series runs, helping to exorcise an 86-year-old baseball curse; played roughly 5,000 live shows; and become as synonymous with their home city as Cheers or Good Will Hunting. But while Dropkick Murphys have released nine studio albums and sold 3.6 million equivalent album units in the United States, according to Nielsen Music, they’ve never notched a Billboard 200 top five album or Hot 100 hit. And in a time when rock music’s influence is rapidly waning, they’ve never been bigger.
So how does a niche local act with a near-parochial hometown loyalty become a global brand? How does a band built on authenticity function as a self-sustaining business without compromising its credibility? And how have Dropkick Murphys never taken a year off in 23 years? To hear them tell it: ethics, commitment, endurance, the desire for free hockey tickets — and a little bit of Irish luck.
Earlier that day, all six members of the Dropkicks congregated at McGreevy’s, a Back Bay “baseball museum” bar that Casey opened in 2008. There’s drummer Matt Kelly, 43, who has been in the band since 1997, and singer and father of three Al Barr, who at 50 is “the senior citizen of the group” (aside from Barr, Kelly and Casey, the other three Dropkicks are in their 30s). Guitarist-songwriter Tim Brennan lurks in a corner near guitarist James Lynch, the Dropkick who looks most like a rock star. Multi-instrumentalist Jeff DeRosa stands idly at the bar; Casey is around here somewhere. (Bagpiper Lee Forshner tours but isn’t a full-time bandmember.) Apparently, a complete Dropkicks lineup here is a thrill, even for the bar’s staff. Liam Harrington, an assistant general manager from Stoneham, Mass., loiters awhile, explaining, “It’s really cool to see them all in one place.”
McGreevy’s has become something of a mecca for Dropkick fans, especially during the band’s annual week of St. Patrick’s Day shows in Boston. “For the entire week, people will drink here, go to the concert, come back,” reports Hazey Ricci, one of the establishment’s managers, who says he sees the same faces every March. “There are people who are like, ‘This is so cool, I came once.’ And there’s others who’re like, ‘This is my tradition every year — I’ll skip Christmas to come to these four shows.’” In fact, two Saturdays from now, a couple of Dropkick fans will hold their wedding reception here; right now the band is signing their wedding invitation.
Growing up in Milton, Mass., Casey attended the same all-boys school as New Kids on the Block’s Joey McIntyre, Catholic Memorial. His maternal grandfather, John Kelly, was a longshoreman and labor organizer who inspired the Dropkicks’ pro-union anthem, “Boys on the Dock.” In 1996, Casey was 25, studying to be a special-education teacher at the University of Massachusetts and working union construction. In his offtime, he practiced bass in a friend’s barbershop basement, and a co-worker dared him to start a band. He recruited three friends who couldn’t really play their instruments. “There was almost a Bad News Bears effect,” recalls Casey. “People were like, ‘Man, these guys suck, but something makes me want to root for them.’”
They became Dropkick Murphys, their name paying tribute to a Massachusetts-based professional wrestler and sanitarium owner. They practiced hardcore, punk’s faster, more aggro descendant, and found a scene at The Rathskeller (aka The Rat), a notoriously sketchy club in the city’s Kenmore Square, where all-ages weekend matinees drew punk kids. The Dropkicks were older, so they stood out. “At The Rat, everyone else was playing anti-police songs; we had a song called ‘John Law’ about a good cop,” remembers Casey. “We hated a lot of cops too, but I grew up with cops and knew there was another side.”
Released on the West Coast independent label Hellcat, Dropkick Murphys’ 1998 debut LP, Do or Die, made their intentions clear: They had working-class ideals, Irish-immigrant pride and an unabashed affinity for their hometown. After original frontman Mike McColgan quit to become a firefighter, Barr, a gravel-voiced singer from New Hampshire, joined in May 1998. “What impressed me immediately was the commitment,” Barr recalls today. In 1999, the Dropkicks toured rigorously, first with Motörhead, then on the Vans Warped Tour. A nine-date Australian trek laid the foundation for an international fan base that would help sustain them for the next 20 years. They went to Europe — a lot. “We used to get German interviewers asking — literally, verbatim — ‘Why do you come here so much?’” recalls Barr with a laugh. “We find our fans in our live shows.” (Casey and longtime Dropkicks manager Jeff Castelaz will speak at Billboard’s Live Music Summit in Los Angeles on Nov. 14.)
Crime novelist Dennis Lehane, who grew up in nearby Dorchester, recalls inviting the band to a reading-and-music series in 2002, held in the relatively cozy environs of a Cambridge, Mass., café. “The Dropkicks couldn’t even fit on the stage because there were so many of them, plus an accordion and bagpipes,” he remembers. “It was madness. They blew it out. They played like they were playing [TD] Garden.” (“You’re not bad for a bunch of smaht people,” Casey reportedly teased the audience.)
In 2003, the Dropkicks headlined a local radio showcase of 17,000 — and they weren’t a radio band. To Casey, it was a breakthrough: “We realized then that you didn’t necessarily need mainstream success to be sustainable.” Tireless touring was one path to self-sustenance. Diving headfirst into Boston sports fandom was another. A lifelong Bruins diehard, Casey wrote a throaty ode to his beloved “black and gold” for the 2003 LP Blackout. Jocks and punks historically have bad blood, so Barr admits he was skeptical. “It wasn’t as if anybody outside of our band was like, ‘That’s a great idea!’” he says. “It was more that people were like, ‘What a stupid idea — a punk band with sports teams? That’s never going to work.’” “But I wasn’t even trying to make it ‘work,’” adds Casey. “I just wanted free tickets.”
It worked anyway. In November 2003, Dropkick Murphys performed at a Bruins game. Soon they were working with the Red Sox to revive “Tessie,” a club anthem that hadn’t been played since the team’s last World Series win in 1918. Somehow, the Dropkicks’ version seemed to work some magic: In 2004, the Sox finally won. “With the Red Sox, we didn’t see some spike in our ticket sales — it just made my grandmother stop saying, ‘Are you ever going to finish college?’” says Casey, laughing. “It legitimized us to a lot of people.” (It also got the Dropkicks authentic World Series rings in 2013 — and, after the Sox’s Series win on Oct. 28, a spot in their victory parade.)
Legions of Dropkicks fans now hail from far outside Boston. To Casey, his band’s appeal comes down to the obvious. “We connect to people on different levels,” he says. “Sometimes they like the Celtic stuff and banjos. Other times, they want more hardcore songs. And sometimes people just like the band — that element of pride in roots goes right over their heads.”
Despite the group’s success (and the Cadillac he drives), Casey still identifies as a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat with a deeply blue-collar ethos. “If we were selling tickets for $200 or rolling up in Porsches, that would be one thing,” he says. “But if someone claims they’re so working-class they wouldn’t take money they’ve earned, they’re full of shit. I grew up with no money — and if you really grew up with no money? You want some fucking money.” And in truth, Dropkick Murphys could be making a lot more. The band only sells merchandise made in the United States and donates all money that it collects at meet-and-greets to the members’ Claddagh Fund, which supports children, veterans and substance-abuse recovery.
“The Dropkicks are the Boston that I knew: blue collar, hardcore, proudly Democratic, proudly pro-union and working class,” says Lehane, who mined a similar demographic for his novels like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. “My father was an Irish immigrant and a lunch pail-carrying blue-collar worker, and I remember him saying no Republican ever gave a shit about the working man. The Dropkicks also embody that idea.” (In 2015, when union-busting Wisconsin governor Scott Walker used “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” at an appearance, the band tweeted: “Please stop using our music in any way… We literally hate you!!!”)
The band’s YouTube channel isn’t even monetized. “Can’t have your cake and eat it too,” reasons Casey. “‘Look at these fucking assholes, making me wait 10 seconds for a video about the working class.’”
DUH-NUNT!…DUH-NUNT! Neeeeeer. It’s Saturday night at TD Garden, where Casey’s fight-promotion company, Murphys Boxing, has co-assembled what The Boston Globe calls “the most ambitious boxing card in Boston in a generation.”
Over nine hours and 11 bouts, four of Casey’s boxers fight, including heavyweight Niall “Boom Boom” Kennedy, a full-time cop in Gorey, Ireland, and Mark “The Bazooka” DeLuca, a former Marine machine-gunner from Whitman, Mass., who emerges to “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.” It’s the first of four times that Dropkick Murphys anthems play tonight.
Close to 7,000 boxing fans — including Sugar Ray Leonard, ringside, and Micky Ward, the subject of 2010 biopic The Fighter and, of course, a buddy of Casey’s — listen as Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sings Ireland’s national anthem. Around 10:30 p.m., a commotion erupts as a security detail hustles a bearded man to ringside seats. Then, a scream: “Conor McGregor!” Soon, Casey appears, dressed in a slick jacket and gray Vans, to greet his celebrity guest.
Yesterday, it looked like a long-shot that “The Notorious” would show. But after 23 years and one broken curse, his presence seems like just the latest manifestation of that ol’ Dropkicks luck. Leaving the Garden that night, I pass the statue of famed Bruin Bobby Orr that guards the arena. Earlier, I’d raised the possibility that someday Casey could well get his own Boston monument. His response was what any Dropkicks fan would expect. “I don’t want a statue,” he scoffed, laughing. “The things my friends would do to it would be so rude.”