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Working-class city rockers
Street Dogs fight fire with fire, plus a Boston Scene Report

"Savin Hill is where it all began," sings Street Dogs frontman Mike McColgan on the title track to the band’s raucous debut, Savin Hill (Crosscheck). Named after the Dorchester neighborhood where he grew up, the hard-charging punk anthem is full of memories that go all the way back to his schoolboy days. So it’s no surprise that McColgan is in the mood to wax nostalgic about his earliest rock experiences when I grab a bite to eat with him and bassist Johnny Rioux before a recent Street Dogs show at Irving Plaza in NYC.

"My friend Danny introduced me to the Clash when I was in sixth grade. We had a guitar, an amp, a microphone, and a crappy PA. We’d have a few lagers, and we’d be singing out the window on Victoria Street." Despite that precocious start, it would be years before McColgan met bassist Ken Casey and got around to forming his first band, the Boston punk institution Dropkick Murphys. "Ken and I just turned to each other one day — we had actually traveled down to NYC to see Swingin’ Utters. They were touring to promote the album The Streets of San Francisco [Fat Wreck Chords], which was one of the driving forces to start Dropkick Murphys. We had been listening to punk our whole lives, and we wanted to give it a shot."

The Dropkicks released their debut, Do or Die (Hellcat/Epitaph), to much acclaim, but McColgan quit about a year after it came out. Soldiering on with ex-Bruisers frontman Al Barr, the Dropkicks have grown into one of the most popular punk bands in the country. Meanwhile, in 2000, McColgan realized his lifelong dream by joining the Boston Fire Department. Despite the enduring appeal of Do or Die, few scenesters expected to see McColgan back on the microphone any time soon.

But here he is with Street Dogs, a rugged crew of Boston rock veterans: guitarist Rob Guidotti, Rioux (the Bruisers, the Kickovers), and original Dropkicks drummer Jeff Erna. Recorded at Q Division in Somerville with producers Nate Albert (the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the Kickovers) and Matthew Ellard, Savin Hill is the first release on Crosscheck, the new punk imprint of the LA label CMH. This Saturday, Street Dogs are kicking off a nationwide tour with LA’s the Briggs at Axis, where they’ll be joined by local openers Lost City Angels, Dirty Water, and the Marvels.

The video for "Savin Hill," which is included on the enhanced portion of the debut disc, shows Street Dogs in all their pogo-friendly glory. McColgan hasn’t changed a bit in his five years off: same scally cap, same rich bellow, same relentless energy. Guidotti throws in a few sleazy hard-rock licks, and Albert’s production emphasizes melody as much as aggression. McColgan’s lyrics are full of civic pride — he may be nostalgic for the good old days, but he’s also happy with what his old neighborhood has become.

"There used to be this really rough working-class bar called Bulldogs. It was kind of standoffish and cliquey — if you were from another area, you didn’t go in there. The bar was aptly named, because the guys in there were tough. Now you have C.F. Donovan’s, which is somewhat of an upscale eatery — it has the pub, but it’s cleaner. The Asian population has just exploded, and it’s benefited the neighborhood tremendously. They’ve set up a lot of small businesses along Dorchester Avenue, and that’s given some life to the area."

Savin Hill is as eclectic as its neighborhood namesake: Street Dogs are passionate about personal and political matters alike, and they cover both Kris Kristofferson and Sham 69. On "Fighter," McColgan pays rockin’ tribute to a recently deceased friend, Kenny Walls, who also gets a dedication on the Dropkicks’ new Blackout (Hellcat/Epitaph). "Kenny had a bunch of struggles in his life, but he never whined or pointed the finger at anybody else. He was the kind of guy who would look you in the eye, and if he said he was going to do something, he’d do it. I had a lot of emotion in me when he passed, and I sat down for about eight hours writing what I thought would be an appropriate tribute to him."

One thing that really gets Street Dogs pissed off on Savin Hill is the media-driven cult of celebrity worship: McColgan calls out Susan Sarandon and Madonna for their self-righteousness on the venomous "Don’t Preach to Me." "When I turn on the TV and I see people in Hollywood on the red carpet, it’s almost like they’re saying, ‘If you don’t think like we do, you’re a Neanderthal or a savage.’ What I’m saying is, ‘Wait a second. There’s such thing as a First Amendment. People can think for themselves.’"

The rousing "Declaration" is Rioux’s response to the media’s habit of shunning rock’s true heroes in favor of the big stars of the moment. "The passing of Joe Strummer affected my life in a big way. When he died, Rolling Stone magazine put some American Idol winner on the cover, with just a little mention of Joe Strummer. You see it everywhere in the music industry: you spin out the hits and you do what you need to make the record company money, but as soon as you stop selling records, the impact you had sort of ceases to be important."

The disc closes with "Modern Day Labor Anthem," a tuneful workers’ pride ballad that ends with a spoken tirade against "CEO thugs and mobsters." McColgan, who says pretty much everyone in his family belongs to a labor union, improvised the rant in the studio while his bandmates looked on in amazement. "I totally lost my cookies," he laughs. "Although labor unions aren’t perfect, they’re a really good advocate for people who usually don’t have the money to have an advocate. When Reagan became president, the Republican administration gutted organized labor’s ability to advocate. The toll has been catastrophic."

On McColgan’s cathartic "Cut Down on the 12th" and Guidotti’s bittersweet "When It Ends," Street Dogs prove that punk activists can get broken hearts, too. "Jakes" is McColgan’s revved-up tribute to his chosen profession: "Boston Jakes are on duty and they’re ready/At a blaze or incident, stay focused and real steady." "‘Jakes’ is a term that’s used within the profession to talk about a firefighter who knows his job," he explains. "The song talks about the tangible brotherhood that exists within the ranks, nationwide and worldwide. It’s not just some cliché."

Speaking of brotherhood, an impressive roster of Boston punks shows up on Savin Hill to welcome McColgan back to the stage. Bosstones frontman Dicky Barrett growls his way through the carnage on "Justifiable Fisticuffs," and Barr and Casey join McColgan on the combustive "Stand Up."

"I want Street Dogs to be looked at as its own thing," stresses McColgan. "But at the same time, there’s still a fraternal bond with Dropkick Murphys, just like there’s a fraternal bond with the Bosstones. That’s the best thing about the Boston scene: if I make a phone call, they just come down."

NOW BASED IN RICHMOND, VIRGINIA, after making a name for themselves in San Francisco, TKO are one of the most venerable punk labels in the country. Home to many an early Dropkick Murphys single, they’re once again throwing their support our way with Boston Scene Report, a new compilation with two previously unreleased songs each from local stalwarts Suspect Device, Tommy and the Terrors, the A-Team, and Fast Actin’ Fuses. Curated by the Terrors, the disc is an excellent survey of some of the most dangerous bands in town, with sound quality that’s way above average for DIY punk.

Suspect Device set a pretty high standard for themselves by taking their name from Stiff Little Fingers’ signature tune, but it’s one they lived up to on their recent debut, Boston Massacre (Pig Pile). Boston Scene Report starts off with their "The Life We Lead," which doubles as the theme song for the local cable-access show of the same name. Central Massachusetts hardcore fiends the A-Team start the mosh on "Quit the Hysterics," then slow down just enough to give the pit a rest on their cover of Motörhead’s "Iron Fist."

Not too long ago, the Terrors and Fast Actin’ Fuses both put out their first full-length albums on Rodent Popsicle, the DIY label associated with longtime Boston punks Toxic Narcotic. Both bands also recorded their Boston Scene Report tracks with Pat Leonard of local legends Moving Targets, but the similarities between the two don’t extend much further than that. After letting their straight-up rock influences shine through on "Bitter Pill," the Terrors go old-school hardcore on the scabrous "Out Tonight." Fast Actin’ Fuses are just as confrontational but more shameless about their metal side: since-departed frontman Joshua Law is a dead ringer for Metallica’s James Hetfield on "Queen of Diamonds," and he doesn’t even suck. "Feel the Haight" sounds like pre-Geffen Nirvana stranded on the streets of San Francisco, demonstrating the number one rule of Boston punk: there are no rules.

Street Dogs perform this Saturday, October 11, at Axis; call 617-262-2437. Suspect Device perform Saturday, November 1, at the Linwood Grill; call 617-267-8644. Tommy and the Terrors perform Wednesday, October 29, at Dee Dee’s Lounge in Quincy; call 617-328-5938.

Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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