You’ve likely heard the song a hundred times. Maybe a thousand.
Those two bass piano keys. The whine of a fiddle. Then the strings of a banjo plunked just so until the accordion steps into match the melody. Finally, the punk band’s guitar and drums begin to pound, turning the song into a full-fledged anthem.
That’s “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” the enduring hit song from Celtic-tinged punkers Dropkick Murphys.
You can probably hear it in your head right now.
Today, tonight, this weekend, next month, next year and perhaps as far as human history stretches out, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” will be a sports anthem. A working-class anthem. A Boston anthem.
And most of all, a bar anthem. Step into any bar with a jukebox, and you’ll probably hear it once a night. Four to five times every Friday and Saturday.
But it almost wasn’t released at all.
Last week, I found myself talking to Tim Brennan, lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist for the Dropkicks.
They were supposed to be in town this weekend to play Westfair, but the show was unfortunately canceled due to rain. But even if they’re not coming to town, it’s still a good story, and I’m going to tell it.
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I wasn’t even that interested in talking to Brennan about “Boston,” a song I’m sure they’re sick of talking about. We spoke about their tour right now with Clutch, some new music they’re working on and a bunch of other stuff. Eventually, we got to talking about how sometimes the band reaches back into its archives to pull out an old song that wasn’t working or maybe a certain melody or feeling and reworks it into something new.
And that’s how he dropped the story of how their biggest hit almost never came to be.
I don’t know if it’s a “secret history,” per se, but I had never heard the story. And I can’t find any version of this story told in the past, not even in a story from the Boston Globe celebrating a decade of the song’s omnipresence.
Anyway, before Brennan joined the band, Dropkick Murphys frontman Ken Casey was invited to check out Woody Guthrie’s archives. He found the lyrics, “I’m a sailor peg, and I lost my leg.”
“I went home, and we were rehearsing the song that we had musically, but we had no lyrics to,” Casey told the Globe. “I visually remembered looking at those lyrics and just said, ‘Oh, I think I have something good that would go with this song.’ And that’s how it came about.”
But then the song languished. A demo of it was eventually released on “Give ‘Em the Boot IV,” one in a series of compilations the band released of covers and demos that never made it to official releases.
Nobody cared about “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” at the time.
When it came time to make “The Warrior’s Code” a few years later, the band had a new member: Brennan.
“ ‘Shipping Up to Boston,’ that was not going to be anywhere near that ‘Warrior’s Code’ album,” he told me.
The rest of the Dropkick Murphys had recorded the song, worked on different iterations and finally made a demo. But “they were probably sick of it,” Brennan said.
“I refuse to think that just because we didn’t follow through with a song once before that it means it’s a bad song,” Brennan said. “A lot of times, these things need space to grow, and we need to be able to step away for a minute.”
When writing new material for “Warrior’s Code,” Brennan happened to hear the demo for “Boston,” and his ears perked up.
“I wasn’t close to it at all. I heard it as an outsider,” he said. “ ‘Guys, I think there’s something in here.’ We ended up revisiting that song. And look what happened.”
It ended up on the album. It ended up in “The Departed,” Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning crime film starring Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio. It ended up a Boston sports anthem, played at every Patriots, Celtics and Red Sox game. It’s ever-present in beer commercials, TV shows and, of course, your favorite local watering hole’s jukebox.
I observed that the band probably can’t get away from that song even if they tried. He replied that they wouldn’t want to.
“The enjoyment that people seem to get from it, it could not get old,” he said.