Saturday 3 December 2016

Music: Microdisney - gone but not forgotten

Published 29/11/2015 | 02:30

Punk ideals: Sean and Cathal live at Downtown Kampus, The Arcadia, Cork in the early 1980s. Photo: Ciaran O Tuama
Punk ideals: Sean and Cathal live at Downtown Kampus, The Arcadia, Cork in the early 1980s. Photo: Ciaran O Tuama

Thirty years ago this month saw the release of one of the finest Irish albums ever. The Clock Comes Down the Stairs was the curious title of Microdisney's third album and it marked the critical high water mark of a band that were beloved by the critics but largely ignored by the public.

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Listen today to just three stunningly realised songs from the album - 'Horse Overboard', 'Birthday Girl' and 'Begging Bowl' - and it seems extraordinary that they aren't more widely known, especially as the album was released on the seminal UK label of the mid-1980s, Rough Trade.

With Sean O'Hagan's bewitching sophisti-pop arrangements and Cathal Coughlan's keenly observed, and frequently acerbic lyrics, the pair were a formidable songwriting duo and the closest Ireland got to Morrissey and Marr that decade.

Formed in 1980 in their native Cork (O'Hagan was born in Luton, but the family moved to Leeside when he was a boy), the pair were inspired by seeing the full-on punk onslaught of local band Nun Attax in the unpromising surrounds of a GAA club on the outskirts of the city.

Early Microdisney were driven by the punk ideal of playing fast and loud - and you can hear that on the live album Kaught at Kampus which was recorded at Cork's old Arcadia ballroom and featured the city's rising bands, including Microdisney - but they soon found their voice thanks to O'Hagan's cultured guitar-playing and Coughlan's measured croon. Although there was a vibrant rock scene in Cork in the early 1980s - and Mark McAvoy's illuminating book Cork Rock: From Rory Gallagher to Sultans of Ping is a excellent source of information on that - Microdisney were restless for pastures new.

O'Hagan and Coughlan bypassed Dublin's self-important music scene and headed straight for London. Now a five-piece, their best music was made across the Irish Sea and both The Clock Comes Down the Stairs and its follow up Crooked Mile - another brilliant album - capture the pleasures and pains of living in one of the world's great capitals in a most tumultuous decade.

Like countless other Irish men and women in the 1980s, Coughlan and O'Hagan were drawn to London not just for better fiscal circumstances - Ireland was a basket case economically back then - but because of the myriad possibilities the giant metropolis offered. The London of 30 years ago was a far more glamorous place than, to quote The Boomtown Rats' 'Banana Republic', the 'septic Isle' of Ireland.

And yet, as so many Irish found out, London was also a place infested with Yuppies who followed the Thatcher ideal. Listen to Microdisney's work from the period and you can sense the anger and disillusionment of not just the emigrant, but the ordinary man on the street who felt left behind by the 'greed is good' antics of the Loadsamoney generation.

Even the album artwork of Clock hinted at the transient, often tough world of the emigrant, featuring as it did a bleak vista of criss-crossing train tracks. Train motifs were a thing with this band: their 1988 album, 39 Minutes, saw them photographed in a train station. Coughlan had little interest in 'playing the game' either. Not for his band a willingness to kowtow to the industry norm.

He tested the resolve of their record label by naming their second album and Rough Trade debut We Hate You South African Bastards! -later retitled Love Your Enemies - and their anti-industry stance extended to endorsing band T-shirts bearing the words 'Microdisney are s**t'. A childish act, maybe, but you've got to admire their pig-headedness in a world where desperate acts will jump through hoops at their label's whim.

Like many Irish bands at the time, they had a myriad of record industry woes, particularly with Virgin, who released both Crooked Mile and 39 Minutes. Coughlan's wonderfully articulated bile hardly sat comfortably with the prevailing pop at the time and the latter album features a track, 'Singer's Hampstead Home', which was a thinly veiled attack on label-mate Boy George, then in his sales pomp. It's a song that could be levelled at any number of celebrities today who plead for their privacy and yet chat to Hello! for self-serving photo shoots.

By the end of the '80s, Microdisney were no more and both O'Hagan and Coughlan went off to pursue other projects. Both flourished although their new incarnations would continue to be critically-hailed while publically igored. O'Hagan let his jangle-pop obsessions run wild in The High Llamas, while Coughlan continued to offer an uncompromising view of the world with The Fatima Mansions, named after one of the most notorious flat-complexes in Dublin.

In retrospect, it wasn't just Coughlan's stubbornness that got in the way of Microdisney making a wider splash. Much of the music was poorly produced including Clock and one wonders what the likes of Thomas Dolby - who helmed Prefab Sprout's fantastic Steve McQueen that year - could have done with the exceptional raw materials provided by Coughlan and O'Hagan.

Of the two, Coughlan appears to be the busier of late. He was among the performers at a WB Yeats celebration in Dublin's National Concert Hall in September and he will return to the same venue on March 29 for an event called 'Imagining Home', which is part of the Ireland 2016: Centenary Programme.

Those who want to investigate Microdisney's oeuvre could do worse than starting with the 2007 compilation From Daunt Square to Elsewhere which features material from their debut Everybody is Fantastic on.

Meanwhile, the Cherry Red label reissued the band's Rough Trade albums in 2013 and of those, The Clock Comes Down the Stairs, is the one most deserving of your time.

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