Tuesday 18 September 2018

Getting the band back together... Microdisney return for a special show

Cork band Microdisney reconvene for a special show tonight at the NCH. Founding members Cathal Coughlan and Sean O'Hagan tell John Meagher about the challenges of revisiting songs they wrote three decades ago

Simpler times: Microdisney in 1987
Simpler times: Microdisney in 1987
Coughlan (2nd left) and O'Hagan (2nd right) with the band now

Mickie Most was a pop writer and producer responsible for some of the biggest British chart hits from the 1960s though to the 1980s. He worked with everyone from Suzi Quatro to Hot Chocolate and knew a thing or two about the perfect three-minute pop song.

In 1987, Microdisney were recording what would turn out to be their final album, 39 Minutes, at RAK Studios, the legendary London recording facility Most owned, when the man himself made himself known to the band.

Sean O'Hagan, the guitarist who co-founded Microdisney with singer Cathal Coughlan in Cork in 1980, takes up the story.

"He pulled up outside his studio in a gold Rolls-Royce and he jumped out, and I do believe he was wearing a shiny tracksuit and a lovely gold chain. I looked out and said, 'There's Mickie Most!' We hadn't seen him before and he came running into the control room and I thought 'What's all this about?'

Coughlan (2nd left) and O'Hagan (2nd right) with the band now
Coughlan (2nd left) and O'Hagan (2nd right) with the band now

"He came running in with a copy of 'Town to Town' and a marker and he said 'I just needed to get in and tell you that this is one of the greatest pop singles of the last 15 years; why it wasn't a smash top 10, I have no idea. It was an absolute crime and please, please sign this copy for me'."

'Town to Town' had been the lead single of previous album, Crooked Mile, and was seen at the time as the song that would take Microdisney out of the indie margins. But it wasn't to be and in 1988, the band dissolved, leaving behind four albums and a reputation as one of the very finest Irish groups of the decade. Their reputation has burnished with time and their second album, The Clock Comes Down the Stairs, is regularly cited as one of the best Irish albums ever.

Now, three decades after they split, they are reconvening for two very special shows, one in Dublin's National Concert Hall (NCH) and one in London's Barbican, and The Clock Comes Down the Stairs will take pride of place on both nights. O'Hagan and Coughlan, who have lived in London since 1983, are clearly excited about the prospect of playing their old songs once more.

"We've all felt for a long time that it was the most fully realised album that Microdisney did," Coughlan says. "In Ireland, people kept writing kindly about it over the years. It reached a little bit of a crescendo last year with something that Tom Dunne was kind enough to say ["If my house was on fire, I would rescue Microdisney"] and around about that time the NCH were thinking about initiating this new Trailblazer Award [which seeks to honour outstanding Irish albums] so it all made sense."

The NCH, Coughlan insists, have been instrumental in making it all happen. "They've been very helpful to us," he says. "It's not easy, logistically, to bring back something after all this time. The members of the band haven't played together as a unit for 30 years, but they've made it possible for us to put it all together and we've been working on it since the beginning of the year."

O'Hagan says: "It was a good job we started when we did because it has been quite an effort to get on top of them. Playing them has been a real challenge and really difficult. Those songs were created in a very strange headspace a long time ago. Arrangement decisions were made by people who were effectively very different from the four people who are in the room now. Reaching back and getting hold of these objects so to speak and getting your hands physically around the shape of those songs was a real challenge."

Despite such difficulties, O'Hagan says that when he and Coughlan, along with English bandmates Jon Fell on bass and Tom Fenner on drums, first reconvened earlier this year, there was little awkwardness.

"It was surprisingly natural and surprisingly normal - and probably way easier than it was 30 years ago. As you get older, you understand the gentle politics of living that bit more, especially when communicating with one another."

Looking back, Coughlan sees The Clock as an album documenting a simpler time. "The Cold War was a very binary thing," he says, "and elsewhere there was a feeling of us vs them. That's the way it felt like in the Britain of 1984."

It was also the year of the IRA bombing in Brighton and anti-Irish sentiment was running high. It was something Coughlan - who still has a pronounced Cork accent - says he was acutely aware of. O'Hagan, who was born in Luton and moved to Leeside with his family at 14, would not have been easily identified as Irish on the street.

The pair met at a New Year's Eve party in Cork to welcome in 1980 and found they had an immediate kinship when it came to music. Their early sound found them being lumped in with the local punk and post-punk factions and soon they were making enough waves to be playing support to U2.

The pair had little interest in breaking into Dublin's sometimes self-congratulatory scene and like many people of their generation, they upped sticks for the bright lights of London. The newly expanded Microdisney soon attracted the attention of such tastemakers as BBC DJ John Peel, who regularly played them. But, as O'Hagan points out, their first album, the sarcastically monikered Everybody is Fantastic, was released at a time of a journalists' strike and barely received any publicity.

"Back then, music critics - and radio - were terribly important and the album ended up in a vacuum."

Like many of their contemporaries, hard living, drink and drugs were the order of the day, but O'Hagan says their work ethic never stinted.

"The combined effort of the band, and particularly myself and Cathal as writers, was never a problem. It was always a given we would work every day, that we would work systematically. We would strive to surpass a previous high.

"And we weren't really interested in the circus that surrounds pop music, media, celebrity or anything like that."

The Clock Comes Down the Stairs was released in November 1985 on Rough Trade. The label's founder, Geoff Travis, had been a huge support for the band and must have felt great pleasure when it topped the indie charts.

But Rough Trade had bigger fish to fry: The Smiths were conquering all in the mid-1980s.

"The success of The Smiths had increased the size of the operation [Rough Trade] dramatically but, equally, if by any fluke The Smiths hadn't made a single for a couple of months, there was a need to have other things coming through in order to keep the wheel ticking over," Coughlan says. "We were not the only priority. I'm grateful for what people did for us, especially on the distribution side, but it wasn't going to be easy to remain visible there, even though on a personal level the support was there."

They left Rough Trade and signed for Virgin. Coughlan says they had wanted to "make more effusive or lush records - history alone can judge whether or not that happened" but admits that there were financial concerns, too. Microdisney owed tax to the Inland Revenue and needed an advance in order to pay it. Looking back, he says, there are no regrets about the move, even though the band's final two albums simply didn't reach the sort of audiences they - and their record company - would have hoped for.

Post-Microdisney, O'Hagan went on to enjoy much critical acclaim in The High Llamas while Coughlan's jaundiced and richly observational world view was given expression in The Fatima Mansions.

Is there any bitterness that Microdisney didn't 'make it'?

"It's for others to say what might have been [about Microdisney]," Coughlan says, "but we are where we are and it's very nice for us to be able to reconvene and do The Clock and other Microdisney music in this way because we're not just doing it in some little venue somewhere, only having done a handful of rehearsals. We're doing this properly. Artistically, it's a real shot in the arm."

Both men insist there will be no new Microdisney music but they would be happy to collaborate on other projects. "One of the reasons why we're so relaxed about it is that we know that this is a special, isolated happening," O'Hagan says. "We're enjoying the music and enjoying the playing of these songs in this strict and special context. And, for now, that's more than enough."

Microdisney will perform The Clock Comes Down the Stairs at Dublin's National Concert Hall tonight

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