By 1993, the golden age of hotel hedonism was over. And so it was that Andy Cairns and Michael McKeegan found themselves TV channel-hopping on a dull Sunday in a Nottingham bolt-hole. “Me and Michael [McKeegan, bass] were sharing a hotel room, and it was about three in the afternoon, and we were sat there like the two old blokes off The Muppet Show, Statler and Waldorf,” recalls frontman Cairns. “We were like grumpy old men, although we were young at the time, shouting at the telly. The Smash Hits Awards were on TV, and Michael was talking about all the young girls screaming at Phillip Schofield and whoever else was on, and he said: ‘Look at all those screamagers.’ I thought: ‘That’s a great title for a song.’”
Despite three strong albums and a major-label contract, Ulster alt-rockers Therapy? had little experience of screaming teens. “People used to take the piss out of us,” Cairns concedes. “We were from a little farming town outside Belfast, and there was something quite uncultured and hicky about us. We were all intelligent and we all had great taste in music, but none of us looked great in leather trousers or had ambitions to hang around with Dave Navarro. We just weren’t those kind of rock musicians. We were quite an awkward band, actually.”
Nobody expected Screamager to change this trajectory. It was not even a new song; the nagging main riff had actually been mothballed for years, as the outro of an obscure early demo called Spide With Tache (“a ‘spide’ was what you called a chav in Belfast, because they had spider webs tattooed on their necks”). Now Cairns exhumed it.
“I was into Ulster punk,” he says, “stuff like Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones, Rudi. I came into the studio one day and said: ‘That riff we used to have… Let’s turn that into the main riff and write a three-and-a-half-minute song that sounds like Ulster punk and a bit Ramones-y.’ We’d been a noisy rock band – people lumped us in with Big Black and Sonic Youth – so for us to come out with a melodic rock song was quite exciting. I remember playing it to friends who’d normally hate anything like that, and their reaction was really positive.
“So we played it, but it just sounded a bit generic, so we decided at the very start we’d do the ‘duh-duh-duh!’, stop playing and let the drums carry the melody – which was our nod to Helmet. It has a classic format, but it’s the little things: the stop-start intro, the double-time at the end… originally, Fyfe [Ewing, drums] was playing this really bizarre Neil Peart, eight-bar fill, but Chris Sheldon [producer] told us: ‘Well, if you’re going for classic Ulster punk,’ go straight in.’”
By this point Cairns was pushing 30, yet he insists he wasn’t sneering at the teenage existence. “The only autobiographical side of it was the opening line, ‘With a face like this, I won’t break many hearts,’” he laughs. “I’m sure I speak for many people who feel that way. We were looking at these 14-year-old kids, and we weren’t being patronising, we were having a rant at the artists more than the actual kids who were screaming. Everything is pregnant with so much angst and tension and adrenalin at that age. Every single thing, whether it’s who you sit beside at the school canteen, who you walk home from school with, the fights you’re having at home, the decisions you’re making at school… it’s all one massive soap opera. Screamager was about getting away from any responsibility.”
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When they finished the track there were no high-fives or popped corks. “I wouldn’t say we’re pessimistic, but we’re naturally cautious,” Cairns admits. “I remember the A&R guy from A&M came down, and we played him Screamager, and he said: ‘Oh, man… I don’t think your fans will like it. Your fans like Nine Inch Nails, they don’t like the Ramones.’ They put a bit of money behind promotion, but not as much as they’d have done with other bands.
“But it went Top 10,” he adds, “and I think that was the turning point, where they started to think, ‘We can make a few bob off these clowns.’ We were totally green and we didn’t even know what a ‘midweek’ was. We did that classic thing, where we all sat around the radio, trying not to be pessimistic. The chart got to about number 11, and we were thinking: [dejected] ‘It’s probably 42 or something.’ When it was number nine it was like, ‘Oh my God – that’s outrageous!’”
It’s fair to say that fame didn’t suit Therapy?. “Not at all,” he agrees. “Not in a million years. We just didn’t have the game-plan. We didn’t feel comfortable. We thought we made really good records, but we never envisaged hanging out and playing boules at Elton’s house on a Sunday. Some people, when you give them a little bit of fame and fortune they’re great with it. They’ve waited their whole life for it, and they take the baton and run. Hats off to them. But then you’ve got people like us, where it doesn’t sit comfortably, and it certainly didn’t at the time. We didn’t know what to do.”
It’s ironic, then, that during their mid-90s hot streak Therapy? found that their own gigs were suddenly full of ‘screamagers’. “I don’t think any of them were screaming at me,” Cairns protests, “but I did enjoy playing Screamager on Top Of The Pops, ‘cos the very first music I remember as a kid was The Sweet doing Blockbuster on that show. I was seven, and I remember thinking they all looked like aliens, and being quite scared.
“As much as we enjoyed that, we knew we wanted to be musicians for as long as we could be. And we knew that for a band like us, fame wouldn’t last forever.”