When punk went pop in the mid-’90s, there was nothing like the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry found in hip-hop. It would’ve been no contest. Between MTV staples like The Offspring and Green Day and the dozens of skate-thrash bands building national fanbases via cheapo Fat Wreck Chords compilation CDs, California had the genre on lock.
But there was plenty happening back East. In New York City, kids lovingly pummeled each other to the violent strains of hardcore, and in Boston, an old-school punk revival gave rise to Dropkick Murphys, who dropped their excellent debut album Do or Die 20 years ago today (Jan. 27, 1998).
Produced by Rancid guitarist Lars Frederiksen and released on his bandmate Tim Armstrong’s Hellcat Records label, Do or Die signaled the arrival of a band so quintessentially Boston that their CD should’ve come with a Herald subscription and pack of Dunkin’ coupons. The only way this band could’ve been more Boston would’ve been if there were a Wahlberg in the lineup. But that wasn’t the only thing that made them stand out like a Jeter jersey at Fenway Park. At a time when a lot of American punk was aimed at snotty suburban teens, the Dropkicks came with painfully earnest songs about traditional values and civic pride. These were things they were ready to fight for.
Do or Die is the only Dropkick album featuring original lead singer Mike McColgan, a card-carrying union man who served in Iraq during Operation Desert Shield and wound up quitting the band in the spring of 1998 to become a Boston firefighter. Clearly, this guy doesn’t mess around. After the bagpipe-driven opener “Cadence to Arms” — one of several flirtations with the traditional Irish sounds that have since become a bigger part of the Dropkick shtick — McColgan gets right down to business. “The once steel-tough fabric of the union man was sold and bartered away,” he sings on the title track, bellowing like a construction worker over jackhammer guitars.
McColgan doesn’t hate the idea of monotonous physical labor — he just wants fair pay. Compared to, say, Billie Joe Armstrong singing, “My mother says to get a job, but she don’t like the one she’s got,” on Green Day’s wastoid anthem “Longview,” McColgan sounds like a grown-up voice of reason. Which he is, though the characters on Do or Die aren’t exactly model citizens. “Road of the Righteous” and “Barroom Hero” are about incorrigible drunken knuckleheads doing the best they can — this band’s favorite kind of people.
Both of those tunes play like modern variations of “Finnegan’s Wake,” the 19th century Irish ballad that’s given the Dropkick treatment here. It’s all about a guy who gets drunk, falls to his death from a ladder, and reanimates when whiskey splashes on his corpse during the brawl that erupts at his funeral. On the subject of brawling, the always-invigorating “Fightstarter Karaoke” offers some useful advice: “It doesn’t take a big man to knock somebody down / just a little courage to lift him off the ground.” The more somber “Noble,” all about a buddy of McColgan’s who died on the streets, presents violence as something to be avoided whenever possible.
“Noble” ties in with the other big themes on Do or Die, loyalty and friendship. On “Memories Remain,” bassist and fellow real-deal union man Ken Casey (Laborers Local 1421, represent) starts things off by describing a nice little Saturday with his besties: “Well we started shooting hoops / Now we’re sipping Black and Tans.” The brews must have hit pretty hard, because when McColgan comes in for the bridge, it’s straight-up I-love-you-man territory: “The times have changed, but my heart and soul’s with you.”
The Dropkicks naturally express these types of emotions via shouted gang choruses worthy of ‘70s-era British football terraces. Before they evolved into a souped-up version of Celtic-punk pioneers The Pogues, the Dropkicks drew much of their early inspiration from British street-punk and Oi! bands like Cock Sparrer and The Business. Another key influence was the incendiary Belfast punk outfit Stiff Little Fingers, who McColgan name-checks in the song “Get Up.”
Do or Die also boasts a classic rock n’ roll vibe that may have come from guitarist Rick Barton, who got his start in the terrific ‘80s-era Boston punk band The Outlets. Barton left midway through the recording of Dropkick’s third album, 2001’s Sing Loud, Sing Proud, which saw the addition of Spicy McHaggis, the bagpipe player immortalized in the silly single “The Spicy McHaggis Jig.”
In 1998, the Dropkicks weren’t really gunning for laughs, though the album does end with “Skinhead on the MBTA,” a rewrite of “M.T.A.,” the classic 1949 political song about a guy cursed to ride the Boston subway forever because he lacks the nickel needed for the “exit fee” that had recently been enacted. The skinhead in the Dropkick version is non-racist — it’s a misunderstood subculture that wasn’t initially fascist — and so is the one mentioned in standout “Never Alone.” That song that touches on drinking, fighting, friendship, working-class pride, and, of course, Boston.
With McColgan’s replacement, the highly capable growler Al Barr, at the helm, the Dropkicks still revisit “Never Alone” in concert from time to time. It would be a strong contender for all-time Dropkick hometown anthem, but that honor definitely belongs to “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” the 2006 punk-rock sea shanty they wrote using lyrics from Woody Guthrie’s archive. Thanks to its placement in Martin Scorsese’s film The Departed, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” went platinum and made the group one of the bigger punk acts on the planet.
Even as they rock globally, playing slicker, more bombastic music for an audience no longer composed solely of Boston punks and skins, Dropkick Murphys still think locally. In 2009, Ken Casey founded the Claddagh Fund, a charity dedicated to “friendship, love, and loyalty,” and in 2013, with a little help from Bruce Springsteen, the band raised more than $300,000 for victims of that year’s Boston Marathon bombing. You can argue the Dropkicks never topped Do or Die, but you can’t say they’ve abandoned its code of ethics.