Discover more from This Week in The 90s
'Screamager' is the Therapy we need [March 14, 1993]
Plus: Shabba Ranks, Ugly Kid Joe, and Frank Black
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋
It’s March 14, 1993 again
📰 Warrington is rocked by an IRA bomb, killing two children. There’s a massive backlash in Ireland and the UK, and The Cranberries are inspired to write their song, ‘Zombie’.
📽️ Horror classic Candyman is summoned into British cinemas.📺 On American TV, Harrison Ford makes a cameo in Young Indiana Jones.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Oh Carolina’ by Shaggy, so let’s talk about…
This week’s Number 9: ‘Screamager’—Therapy?
Why do so many of us miss the 90s? Mostly for personal reasons, I imagine. We were younger then, and we wore skinnier jeans, and we could join a mosh pit without first stopping to check if our health insurance covers hip replacements.
But there was also something uniquely optimistic about this era. I remember the 80s as a very grim, grey decade, a tense time filled with the threat of nuclear war, economic collapse, and a decaying ozone layer.
Then suddenly, the 90s arrived, and everything seemed to get better. The Berlin Wall collapsed, apartheid was ending, the ozone layer was healing, and even Isreal and Palestine were inching closer to some kind of detente. The End of History was in sight; world peace seemed an attainable goal.
Except in Northern Ireland. In 1993, Northern Ireland remained stubbornly locked in a cycle of violence euphemistically known as “The Troubles”.
Thinking like that, I won’t make any friends
Now, I should mention that I’m from the other side of the border, and The Troubles weren’t really part of day-to-day life in the Republic. There was the odd incident—shootings, robberies, kidnappings—but those rarely involved civilians. The last major terrorist attack in Dublin happened in the mid-70s, a few years before I was born.
In spite of this, the violence in Northern Ireland was almost always the leading item on our TV news broadcasts. RTE reported every bomb and bullet, and every day seemed to bring a new atrocity.
It became this incessant drumbeat, the endless rhythm of solemn-voiced newsreaders saying, “a man has been shot”, “a woman was killed”, “a child was injured”. These reports always made me feel sick and scared. Not because I was worried I would be next. I just didn’t like it.
Northern Ireland was less than 300 miles away, but it felt to me as far away as Jupiter. I’d never crossed the border, and I didn’t know anyone who ever had. Everything I knew about Northern Ireland came from news reports, which painted a mental picture of blasted buildings, army checkpoints, underground weapons caches, and bodies dumped in wasteland.
When the 90s rolled round, Northern Ireland seemed stubbornly resistant to the new decade’s optimism. Things actually got worse, with a renewed IRA bombing campaign on mainland Britain. As mentioned at the top of this newsletter, this week marks the 30th anniversary of the Warrington bombings that killed two children—Tim Parry (12) and Johnathan Ball (3)—which left everyone with this feeling of nausea for months.
But the worst violence happened within Northern Ireland, which seemed doomed to keep living in this Groundhog Day of revenge attacks and revenge-for-the-revenge attacks. Peace was unimaginable. The place just seemed cursed.
I used to wonder what it would be like to live there, to be grow up in that environment. What would it do to you? I imagined all Northern Irish civilians as unsmiling, ashen-faced refugees. They seemed so alien.
And get screwed up on you
Now, if you’ve ever so much as had a conversation with a Northern Irish person, you know that last part is absolute nonsense. First of all, they’re not aliens (although I do know one Belfast guy who’s really into UFOs and he might argue with this).
Generally speaking, Northern Irish people tend to be extremely sound and cool and funny. I’ve enjoyed some excellent nights on the lash with people from the North. I’ve also felt quite stupid about having ever imagined this huge cultural gulf between myself and the people who basically live up the road.
The thing is, I just didn’t really know anything about the place or its people, other than what was in the news. Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams were the public face of Northern Ireland. Stephen Rea appeared in a hit movie in 1992, but even then he played an IRA gunman.
And then one day, I turned on the radio and heard a barrage of drums, followed by a power chord so crunchy that I shit my pants.
I think I was vaguely aware of Therapy? and I probably heard ‘Teethgrinder’ a couple of times, but I definitely wasn’t cool enough to buy Nurse or their earlier indie albums.
‘Screamager’, however, was love at first headbang. One of life’s rare, blessed moments when you’re 15 years old and you hear a brand new song, and before it’s even reached the chorus, you say, “I love this song so much, I am going to make it a core part of my identity forever.”
Discovering that Therapy? were Northern Irish kind of blew my mind. They didn’t sing about The Troubles or talk about The Troubles, or exist in the context of violence and bombing. They were just… really fucking cool guys.
And slowly, the little hamster wheel in my brain started turning, and I began to realise that there might be other cool people in Northern Ireland. There might be lots of them.
Screw that, forget about that
And there were! Some excellent people emerged from the six counties shortly after Therapy? Neil Hannon released the first Divine Comedy album later in 1993, then rode the Britpop wave to success.
Ash released Trailer in 1994 before also getting tangled up in Britpop. Joyrider didn’t have as much success, but I think they’re really fun, so we should have a quick listen to them.
Beyond guitar music, David Holmes emerged as an A-list DJ with his debut album This Film’s Crap Let’s Slash The Seats, before becoming a big-shot Hollywood composer.
Derry boys D:Ream released the monster single ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, a pop song so powerful that both Labour and the Tories used it as their 1997 election anthems.
None of these bands were explicitly political. They weren’t even really part of a scene. They were just talented folk who happened to be from the same area.
However, their very existence is political, because seeing them broke the spell.
The non-stop media narrative of bombings and shootings helped to create this image of the North as a cursed land, doomed to eternal violence, and there was very little to contradict it. But when you see these people doing their thing—making art—you begin to understand that there’s no curse. It’s a normal place, just like anywhere else.
This leads to the final epiphany: all this violence is the result of a political failure, and it can be solved by electing different politicians.
All art is inherently political, because art is about people talking to each other, and conversations change everything. Even a 2.5-minute rock song about chatting up girls can transform the way someone sees the world.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 3 (↑ from 12): ‘Mr. Loverman’—Shabba Ranks
Number 13 (↑ from 21): ‘Cat’s In The Cradle’—Ugly Kid Joe
I try to keep things positive in this newsletter, even when talking about my least favourite songs. It takes some effort to swallow down the bile and be objective, but I do it anyway.
Sometimes that’s impossible though, and I cannot fake a smile while listening to Ugly Kid Joe’s dogshit novelty imitation of grunge. Jump in the sea, you When-you-order-Pearl-Jam-off-Wish-ass motherfuckers, and take ‘Everything About You’ with you, because that song is also terrible.
Also, they left out the apostrophe in “cat’s”, which is just annoying.
Number 26 (New Entry): ‘Them Bones’—Alice In Chains
Honestly, the gulf in class between Ugly Kid Joe and Alice In Chains is ridiculous, and I would consider AiC a B-tier grunge band.
‘Them Bones’ actually has a slightly comic tone to it, even though the lyrics are about wishing you were dead. I dunno, it’s kind of jaunty.
Number 22 (New Entry): ‘When I’m Good And Ready’—Sybil
Sybil is in the charts twice this week, as her version of ‘The Love I Lost’ is hanging in there at Number 21. A pretty good week for her! ‘When I’m Good And Ready’ is a very lightweight pop song about the virtues of abstinence, but Sybil’s remarkable vocal dexterity elevates the material.
Weird thing about this video though—the dancers keep looking off-camera at an unnatural angle, which makes it look like they’re reading the choreo from cue cards. It’s very distracting.
Album of the Week
Frank Black—Frank Black
Call it the Morrissey problem. You founded one of the greatest bands of all time, you changed music forever, and you’ve become an immortal icon. What do you do next?
If you’re Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, the first thing you do is change your name—again. Pixies fans know you as Black Francis; you adopt the more conventional-sounding Frank Black. Pixies fans also want to hear more of your prolific and original songwriting, so you surprise them with an album of covers.
Fortunately, your collaborator (your collaborator is Eric Drew Feldman, formerly of Pere Ubu) talks you out of the covers album. Your solo debut album contains only one cover, a track from Pet Sounds that you absolutely nail:
And here’s where you hit the real Morrissey problem. Because no matter how good your solo stuff, you’re always in the shadow of your past achievements.
Frank Black is a terrific album that comes out of the gate swinging with the very Pixies-ish ‘Los Angeles’, followed by ‘I Heard Ramona Sing’, which is a crucial part of the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack.
Great songs with one small problem: they often make me wish I was listening to Pixies instead. No matter how good Frank Black gets, it’s always a little short of Doolittle.
It’s a problem that persists in the album’s second half, even though the tracks get less steadily less Pixies-ish, such as the reggae vibe of ‘Adda Lee’:
Obviously, this is not actually a flaw in this record. If I’d rather listen to another record, then that’s on me. But that is a common response among audiences who love your old stuff. Neither Morrisey nor Frank Black could ever quite escape it.
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