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Postcards From A Mongrel Nation: How Therapy? Defied The Troubles
Éamon Sweeney , January 16th, 2021 10:00

With the publication of Simon Young's authorised biography, So Much for the 30 Year Plan, Eamon Sweeney looks back at the troubled career of Northern Ireland's Therapy?

David Holmes, whose home was pipe bombed when he was four years of age, calls the Troubles a lottery of death, where people died for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1989, Holmes brought rave culture to Northern Ireland by putting on the first Sugarsweet night in Belfast. During that same year, a noise trio called Therapy? played their first gig.

So Much for the 30 Year Plan: Therapy? – The Authorised Biography by Simon Young chronicles how the band crawled out of a brutal and violent time, when the Troubles was still at a murderous fever pitch.

Andy Cairns, Michael McKeegan, and Fyfe Ewing hailed from both communities in the North, which in itself was unusual in a still polarised pre-ceasefire Northern Ireland. An early anecdote in So Much for the 30 Year Plan details how Andy – who had a Protestant upbringing – would always get the keys for their rehearsal space in a loyalist stronghold. If bassist Michael McKeegan had gone in instead, and someone asked him where he came from, or what his surname was, there could’ve been trouble.

This is not the sort of thing you’d expect, or indeed, welcome, as a young band tries to find their feet. Music was an escape. “When it came to music and gigs, people had the good sense to leave that kind of nonsense at the door,” McKeegan says in one of his interviews with Young. “People weren’t interested in religion but more about what good records you'd heard recently.”

Andy, Michael, and Fyfe immersed themselves in American alternative rock and documentaries about serial killers. In a recent interview to mark the band’s pearl anniversary, Andy Cairns said he grasped what was behind his obsession with Charles Manson much later.

“With hindsight I also think it was a Northern Irish thing – growing up in a country that was a bit of a mongrel nation, as a mixed-religion band with none of us caring about sectarian politics,” Cairns says. “And yet everyone prejudged you as soon as you opened your mouth. I know it’s a horrible cliché, but music saved my life. It got me through my teenage years. And although there was this dark humour because of our self-consciousness, the seeds of songs are from a place of great discomfort.”

Their discomfort begat some amazing songs. Their first three vinyl releases, a self-released 7”, Meat Abstract / Punishment Kiss (1990) and two mini-LPs via Wiiija Records, Baby Teeth (1991) and Pleasure Death (1992). The latter concludes with a song that is still a fan favourite and played at virtually every Therapy? gig in the last thirty years, ‘Potato Junkie’.

Opening with the attention grabbing lyric, “I’m bitter, I'm twisted. James Joyce is fucking my sister,” it playfully baited the sectarian divide. “How can I remember 1690?,” Andy Cairns sings, referencing the Orange Order’s atavistic addiction to the triumphalism of the Battle of the Boyne. “I was born in 1965.” But there’s also a sideswipe at nationalists. “This business is pointless. To think that green’s the only colour on the atlas.”

As well as an irreverent commentary on their background, ‘Potato Junkie’ took aim at other dark forces. “I don’t have a sister, and I like James Joyce,” says Andy. “There was a thing in Ireland called raggle-taggle. It was a post-war gypsy ruffian look, like Dexys Midnight Runners in the ‘Come On Eileen’ video. It was like a Hollywood version of the Irish, with fiddles involved for a good old Celtic knees-up. ‘Potato Junkie’ was our diatribe against that. James Joyce is fucking my sister didn’t really mean anything; it was just a way of saying that it was ripping my own culture apart.” Later, Cairns seeks inspiration in the writings of Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett.

So Much for the 30 Year Plan analyses the conundrum of an underground band tasting major label success. The band’s early distribution deal with Southern led to the offer of possibilities that they simply couldn’t afford. “They [Southern] suggested we get jobs to pay for it,’ says Michael. ‘It was Northern Ireland – there weren’t any jobs. Southern said we would have to sort it out. There were a lot of opportunities we couldn’t take because we didn’t have any money.”

Andy Cairns memorably sung on their 1995 single, ‘Stories’: “Happy people have no stories." The song recalls the frontman’s formative years in Northern Ireland hanging out with a group of wealthy girls from “very big, posh houses” in County Antrim.

Darran Anderson, who deftly writes about the intersections of urbanism, culture, technology and politics, affirms that “there is no shortage of storytellers in Northern Ireland but how and why we tell stories is often overlooked.” In his marvellous book about growing up in Derry, Inventory – A River, A City, A Family, Anderson writes about his youth through the prism of chapters entitled after inanimate objects.

“Each chapter of Inventory is based on an object because it was a way of addressing difficult complex subjects indirectly; speaking of one thing but hinting at others,” he tells a new Belfast-based culture magazine called Dig With It edited by Stuart Bailie. This inclination for indirectness nails the Irish psyche, or as Anderson superbly puts it: “We became masters in extravagantly saying nothing.”

In Stuart Bailie’s own Trouble Songs – Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland, Andy Cairns reveals that some of the macabre characters in their songs originate from County Antrim, specifically Ballyclare and Larne. Cairns references local characters “as the kind of people that the Butthole Surfers would sing about,” citing an example of a lad in Ballyclare nicknamed Constable Cornflakes, who used to walk around dressed as a policeman pretending to be talking on a walkie talkie. Another local used to spend his Saturday nights decapitating rabbits. People would wake up on a Sunday morning and all the cars on Main Street would have rabbit heads skewered onto their aerials.

When Therapy? started, barbarism and violence was still part and parcel of life in Northern Ireland. By the time they released the Mercury Music Prize nominated Troublegum in 1994, the peace process had led to the Provisional IRA calling a ceasefire. During Therapy?’s commercial peak years, the province teetered towards an uncertain peace. A lot more blood was shed before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, including the bombing of Canary Wharf in 1996, and the single deadliest event of the Troubles, the Omagh bombing on August 15, 1998, which killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins.

The poet Moyra Donaldson identified an especially grim phenomenon in an excellent essay for the Irish Times, where she spoke how the names of towns, villages and bars also become the names of atrocities. Referring to the exodus of young people immigrating during the Troubles, she refers to how an old school friend likened remaining in the North during the Troubles to staying in an abusive relationship.

Northern Ireland is stuck in a pandemic limbo like the rest of us, but Therapy? and their church of noise trundle on defiantly, entering their fourth decade as alternative national treasures and outliving the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Theresa May. Some of the totemic figures of Northern Ireland’s recent past, such as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, have not only left the stage, but entered the grave.

Despite being under the cosh of Cover-19 restrictions, a new generation of artists, such as Touts from Derry, operate in a healthier climate for independent music. Electronic duo Bicep explore their background on their second album, Isles, with Andrew Ferguson noting: “You'd enter [famed Belfast club, Shine] and it would be people from both sides of the tracks and they’d be hugging. And the following week, they’d be with their mates rioting. It felt like the safest place but, on paper, it should have been the most dangerous.”

Therapy? have been blazing a trail for Northern Irish musicians for the last thirty years. “I didn’t get into this to be a pop star or an actor, or to end up playing golf with Elton John,” Andy Cairns opined last year. “I’m a musician, and I’d like to be a musician for as long as I possibly can.”

So Much for the 30 Year Plan: Therapy? - The Authorised Biography by Simon Young is published by Jawbone Press. Therapy?'s 30th anniversary tour has been postponed until October/November 2021. Details via