In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, let us raise a dirty glass to the spirit of Irish music, wherever in the world it shows up. And like the Irish people themselves, Irish music shows up everywhere, usually a few moments after the bottles get opened. There’s always been plenty of great music on the island, but the really staggering part (apart from all the staggering) is how far that music travels, following the immigrant experience. You can hear the Celtic heartbeat all over Europe and America, from Bing Crosby to Jack White, from the Smiths to My Bloody Valentine, from House of Pain to Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. So here’s a pub crawl of a playlist, chasing that spirit down a few of its rowdier rock & roll twists and turns. Because Irish music – again, like the Irish people – never knows when to shut up and never will. Slainté!
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, “Brennan On The Moor” (1961)
These rogues from the old country changed Bob Dylan’s life, as Dylan explains in Chronicles. When he arrived in New York in the early Sixties, he’d hang around the White Horse Tavern and listen: “All through the night they would sing drinking songs, country ballads and rousing rebel songs that would lift the roof. The rebellion songs were a really serious thing. The singer always had a merry light in his eye, had to have it.”
Bob Dylan, “Restless Farewell” (1964)
Always an honorary Celt, the man seems to love posing as Irish the way James Joyce loved posing as Jewish, from his early folkie days to the ragged ballads of Modern Times. On the Basement Tapes sessions, you can hear him sing the living shit out of “The Auld Triangle.” (As Bono told a Dublin stadium crowd a couple years ago, “Bob Dylan knew more verses of this song than any Irishman I ever met.”) He swipes this melody from the folk ballad “The Parting Glass,” rising after a long night in the pub to bid his comrades farewell.
Them, “Friday’s Child” (1967)
Van Morrison’s garage band of Belfast blues punks had a few hits in the Sixties (most famously “Gloria” and “Mystic Eyes”) but this was the song that really summed them up. An acoustic guitar strums the same seven-note lick over and over, while Van mourns a girl who walked away from him too fast.
The Beatles, “Two of Us” (1970)
John Lennon and Paul McCartney were both Liverpool Irish boys who got a little carried away with it during their solo careers. (John sang “Luck of the Irish,” Paul did “Give Ireland Back To The Irish”–neither one’s finest moment, that’s for sure, though their hearts were in the right place.) Yet it was always clearly audible in their voices, especially their harmonies, and never more beautifully than in this acoustic duet from Let It Be. Also, they sing about “spending someone’s hard-earned pay,” a quintessentially Irish sentiment in itself.
Thin Lizzy, “Southbound” (1974)
Dublin’s finest biker-metal band, featuring the late great Phil Lynott, the only dude in history who could bust out the old “Any girls here with any Irish in them?” joke on his live album and still seem cool. (Their first hit was the folk standard “Whiskey In The Jar,” made famous by the Dubliners; Thin Lizzy’s version inspired covers by everyone from Pulp to Metallica.) This song has none of the bravado Lynott brought to hits like “The Boys Are Back In Town” – instead, he dusts himself off after some hard luck and hits the open road for his next adventure. Rest in peace, sir.
Van Morrison, “Fair Play” (1974)
The king of the Gaelic blues singers delivers one of his most gorgeous ballads, a highlight from his poetic – not to mention utterly incomprehensible – masterpiece Veedon Fleece. He muses upon the blue lakes of County Kerry and gets literary (“Tell me, oh Poe / Oscar Wilde and Thoreau”) over piano and acoustic guitar.
Stiff Little Fingers, “Suspect Device” (1978)
Punk rock from Belfast, with Jake Burns yowling about political rage and all the inflammable material boiling over in his brain. One of the most powerful Clash tribute records ever made.
U2, “Gloria” (1981)
Long before The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby or even War, this was the song that blew the brainpans of early U2 fans. That guitar! That bass solo! Bono wailing in Latin about God! How could any band get better than this? And in all honesty I couldn’t swear they’ve ever topped it. MTV played it a few times a day, which wasn’t nearly enough. Bonus points for the video, filmed on a barge in Dublin’s Grand Canal Basin, with a bunch of extremely local-looking fans on hand to show where this band came from.
The Pogues, “The Auld Triangle” (1984)
An old Brendan Behan prison ballad, about lost men dying behind bars, crying over girls who forgot them years ago, choking on voices that have gone unheard so long they’re barely human. Nobody’s ever made the song sound as lonesome as the Pogues, with accordion, tin whistle and Shane MacGowan’s spewed-up-in-church voice.
The Dogmatics, “Thayer Street” (1986)
A much-beloved hardcore band from Boston, specializing in Replacements-style odes to beer, girls and Catholic school, with Jerry Lahane on vocals and the O’Halloran twins (Peter and Paul) on bass and guitar. It ended tragically when Paul O’Halloran was killed in a motorcycle crash; he was buried with his bass. But they left a few great songs behind, including this ode to city squalor.
Gang Green, “Alcohol” (1986)
For connoisseurs of moronic skate-punk thrash only. “We’re gonna die when the sun comes up” rhymes with “We’re gonna drink until we throw up,” which is as clever as this two-minute beer bong of a song gets.
The Pogues, “The Body of an American” (1986)
I saw them in 1987 at Toad’s Place in New Haven, where (what luck) an Irish football team was in town that night, shouting “Give us a song, Shane!” and demonstrating their ardor by mauling everyone in sight, definitely including me. The Pogues began with this one, and by the first chorus I was already drenched in Guinness and sweat and God knows how much of Shane’s demon slobber. Great fucking night.
Elvis Costello, “Crimes Of Paris” (1986)
Born Declan McManus, given to wearing his Claddagh ring on album covers, Elvis really went mega-Irish after he produced the Pogues’ 1985 classic Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. For one thing, he married the bassist, Cait O’Riordan, and then he made a couple Pogues records of his own, including this acoustic stomp.
Oasis, “Fade Away” (1994)
Even if the Gallagher brothers didn’t have the trace of the old sod in their pub-punk sing-along anthems, they’d belong on this list just for the way they couldn’t get through a set without punching each other senseless in a cider-scented haze. Best of luck with those solo careers, boys.
Shane MacGowan and Sinead O’Connor, “Haunted” (1995)
When Shane played New York solo in late 1995, his roadie introduced him as “a guy who’s not gonna be around much longer…because he’s playing Philadelphia tomorrow!” A fine joke, but wouldn’t you know, Shane’s still kicking (and making music) 15 years later; no doubt he’ll live long enough to bury all his roadies. He gets a boost here from Sinead, who always sounds best when she isn’t selling one of her own songs. A few years later, she turned Shane in to the cops for doing drugs, which somehow makes this duet seem more romantic.
The Hold Steady, “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night” (2005)
Craig Finn’s hard-luck stories always have a touch of Celtic dread about them, especially this fantasy where he parties with the greatest of Irish poets: “I met William Butler Yeats / Sunday night dance party, summer 1988.” The last line – “They had cigarettes where they were supposed to be eyes!” – may or may not be an allusion to one of Yeats’ finest poems, “Cuchulain Comforted,” written on his deathbed in 1939. But either way, a scary ending to a scary song.
LCD Soundsystem, “All My Friends” (2007)
James Murphy emotes like a typical Irish guy – he keeps going strong until 4 a.m. but then he sobs sentimentally about all the friends he’s left behind in his travels over the years and how much he misses them and now the bartender is desperately trying to ease him out the door but all Murphy wants is to call everyone back for one more round. Three minutes into the song, the sun’s coming up and the bartender’s passed out cold, but those drums kick in and you know Murphy is just getting started.
The Dropkick Murphys, “Take ‘Em Down” (2011)
A brand new fight song dedicated to the Wisconsin union workers, currently battling for their right to organize just as their parents and grandparents had to. These long-running punks turn it into a Clash-style solidarity anthem, chanting, “Take the bastards down” over banjo, harmonica and hand-claps. A timely reminder that oppression never ceases – and neither does the spirit to fight it.