The original celtic-punk band!
In the crazy world of celtic-punk we have to admit that their are two levels when it comes to bands. The top level of course belongs to by far the two most famous bands in celtic-punk, The Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. Their appeal has outgrown the scene and most people would name them when asked about celtic-punk music. After them is level two where you would find bands who work their arses off releasing records, touring like mad and keeping the flag flying. At the very, very top of this level I would put bands like The Mahones, Flatfoot56, The Tossers and, of course, The Real McKenzies. Each of them probably spend the majority of their year on the road playing shows from across North America to every corner of Europe. What sets The Real McKenzies apart from the rest of the bands I have just mentioned, is that while the others have embraced their Irish heritage the McKenzies are a Scottish band and play Scots style celtic-punk that even though not a million miles away from their Irish celtic-punk brothers is certainly different enough to stand out like a haggis in a fridge full of Clonakilty puddings!
It all began sometime around 1992 in Vancouver when Scots-Canadian Paul McKenzie’s band split up and looking for something new he came up with the idea of combining the classic punk rock sound of his old band with the music of his Scots background and lo and behold, what we think of as modern post-Pogues celtic-punk was born. Bagpipes had of course been used by all sorts of bands throughout rock history but a proper punk band with a piper was a first and The Real McKenzies showed the world that it was no novelty either. Pre-dating The Dropkick Murphys by a handful of years, they perfectly combined the glorious soaring of the pipes with ferocious electric guitars and frantic drumming. These were not a band that wrote punk songs and just had a piper playing along with them, they were written with the pipes as an integral and important part of the band. Now having achieved legendary status they haven’t taken their foot of the pedal and still tour the world relentlessly and, even better still, release great album after great album and ‘Rats In The Burlap’ is another in a long line of classic albums from The Real McKenzies. Their eighth studio release and out on the infamous ‘FatWreck’ Record label it took only a second listen to know that this would rank among their best.
The album kicks off with ‘Wha Saw The 42nd’ and its all pipes and rocking out. The Real McKenzies have long been acknowledged to be the best pipe-punk band and the quality of the piping is amazing, so hats off to their pipers Aspy Luison and Gord Taylor. ‘Up On A Motorbike’ carries on with a more folky tune about riding through Ontario. ‘Who’d A Thought’ starts off with crashing guitars and is the story of the downtrodded man fighting back. Not much celtic going on here till the chorus and then you realise just how perfect the pipes and punk do work together.
“we wrote ‘Who’d a Thought’ for the political/social climate that people just like you and I are facing today and, even more so, in the future. One of my favorite all-time bands, the MC5, were the ones who first awakened political awareness within me at a very early age. That was back when tha ‘boil’ was already infected, but just coming to a head. Now that the ‘boil’ has burst, who is expected to clean it up? Who’d a thought? Know your opponent. Here’s to the MC5 and to the awakening of all individuals in terms of worldwide political awareness. Don’t be caught with your kilt up”
Straight up punk rock dominates the story of touring,’Midnight Train To Moscow’, with the pipes coming in again to help the chorus along. ‘Lilacs In The Alleyway’ is almost reminscent of modern day Murphys but as one of the slower songs on the album. Totally dominated by brilliant piping the song steams ahead with a great chorus. The huge disappointment of the defeat of the Scottish independence Bill last September hits home on ‘Yes’. As Paul has stated
“It’s painfully apparent the skulduggery and cheap tricks that once again played out. We as the Real McKenzies wish to let our fans and the world know how we stand on this. Scotland belongs to the Scottish….period.”
and he doesn’t mince his words in the song either evoking visions of a past filled with enforced emigration and poverty and of a future where Scots finally control their own destiny. The bright light at the end of the tunnel though is that many who voted no in the Bill have since seen the light and have embraced the idea of a Scottish republic. Its now only a matter of time before the Scots kick the empire out… the clock is ticking! Absolutely classic McKenzies with the pipes leading the way. Catchy just doesn’t describe quite how… err, well err…how catchy it is!
There’s more than a nod to Irish punk on ‘You Wanna Know What’ with the tin whistle bringing things along nicely while ‘What Have You Done’ takes on those that have irked the band and earned their wrath. The hilarious ‘Bootsy The Haggis-Eating Cat’ brings some of the bands well known humour to the fore with the brilliant jazzy/ old timey story of a cat who stole Paul McKenzie’s haggis on Robbie Burns Day. True or not it gives the listener a welcome rest before they dive head first back in with ‘Spinning Wheels’. More tales of international touring and for a band that play so many gigs, it is not suprising that they have got plenty of stories. ‘Stephen’s Green’ tells of a man facing execution. Up until the 1770s, most public hangings and executions took place in St. Stephens Green in Dublin. Great lyrics and Pauls vocals sound especially good, it is definitley one of the album’s standouts songs for me. ‘The Fields Of Inverness’ brings them back to land of their hearts. ‘Catch Me’ could be the most radio friendly track on the album and the brilliant video ought to get the Bhoys some airplay but without losing any of their appeal and sound.
“My legs are bending at the knees
I’m seeing things nobody sees
Don’t know my name perhaps it’s may be ‘Paul’
Trapped in a drunken travesty
Battling with gravity and
Feeling like I’m standing ten feet tall”
‘Rats In The Burlap’ comes to an end with ‘Dead Or Alive’ and a better pint/fist in the air song you’ll never hear. Death looms large in celtic-punk lyrics and no larger than in this. A story of loss that may well relate to the sad death of long-time Real McKenzies member Dave Gregg who passed away in 2014. Just Paul and a slow strumming acoustic guitar builds up but never takes off and I mean that in a good way. Gradually the rest of the band join in and the song soars to the heavens and back before the final sounds of a fading banjo are heard and its gone. These guys can certainly do serious too when they need it. Fourteen songs and over thirty five minutes long and not a single filler among them.
The Real McKenzies like the Dropkick Murphys have been accused by the folk purist snobs of being a ‘cartoon’ band or, worse than that, of being ‘Plastic-Scots’. What they are though and what they represent is a Scotland for the diaspora of foreign born Scots who see no positive representation of themselves in the media. What these snobs should realise is that Scotland is more than shortbread and Scotty dogs and its bands like The Real McKenzies who have evolved Scots music into the modern age while still showing the utmost respect for what went before.
The Real McKenzies have been travelling the globe now for twenty three years spreading their high-octane, booze-fuelled brand of celtic-punk rock fun and thank heavens they show absolutely no sign of letting up for years yet!
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