Perfect Sound Forever


"People Just Want to Dream"
by Brian Cousins
(June 2019)

Microdisney are one of the great '80's bands that have been overlooked and almost forgotten, particularly in the U.S. In the U.K., this Irish band from the early and mid '80's were one of the defining voices of the time. Championed by John Peel, they recorded a total six Peel Sessions between '83 and '86 and were label mates with both the Smiths and the Fall on Rough Trade records. Although never as successful as either of those bands, they left a similar indelible mark on the collective consciousness of the time.

Hailing from Cork City, a small enclave in the southwest of Ireland they moved to London circa '83 and their early music is best appreciated as the experience of exiles adjusting to an unfriendly and daunting environment. Later signing with Virgin, which by then was a major force in the U.K., they experienced the frustrations, compromises and the economic realities of big city life. Almost a tragic tale, the band imploded in the late '80's and briefly reformed only in the past 12 months to play a handful of shows in Ireland and U.K. This was prompted in June of last year when their 1985 seminal album The Clock Comes Down the Stairs was award the inaugural IMRO/NCH Trailblazer Award. The award "celebrates pivotal albums by Irish musicians, songwriters and composers" and was honored with a show at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. A London performance at the Barbican Theatre followed, as did two final shows early this year. But almost as swiftly as the returned, they were gone again.

Essentially, Microdisney were Cathal Coughlan and Sean O'Hagan. After the band's demise, Coughlan fronted the Fatima Masons and released numerous solo albums and collaborations. A striking vocalist, drawing comparisons ranging from Scott Walker to Jello Biafra and also a unique and un-paralleled lyrist, he was the public face Microdisney.

Sean O' Hagan was the band's understated multi-instrumentalist and arranger. He later formed the High Llamas and worked extensively with--and was briefly a member of--Stereolab. Together in Microdisney, they formed an unlikely alliance between Coughlan's poetic and sometimes brutal vocals/lyrics and O'Hagan's haunting melodies and deft arrangements forming what John Peel described as "iron fist in velvet glove." There is an expansive podcast by the same name that serves as an excellent oral history of the band (and is the source of the band quotes below).

And how did it all begin? O'Hagan and Coughlan meet at a New Year's Eve party in Cork in '79 and at the start of the new decade, they formed the first version of the band, a raucous, brutal hardcore burst of noise and energy that featured two lead vocalists and a penchant for profanity. Few recordings exist other than the excellent "National Anthem" from the Kaught at the Kampus live EP. This version of the band is mainly interesting for the fact that Coughlan would return to this approach with Fatima Mansions after the band's demise and with much greater success.

The band really came into focus when they became a two-piece and turned their attention to music and influences outside of their punk/new wave/hardcore contemporaries. Finding music to feed their voracious appetite was more of a challenge in the pre-internet age, particular in trad/folk based Cork, but somehow both members started to embrace Brian Wilson and the sounds of Van Dyke Park-era Beach Boys as well as such diverse other sources as Scott Walker, Gram Parsons, Big Star, Erik Satie, John Cage and Suicide. Brian Wilson was by no means an easy choice as it would hardly have been possible to find an artist so neglected by the British rock press at the time. Perhaps this appealed to Coughlan's chosen method of interacting with the world at that time (i.e. being an "awkward bastard") as well as O'Hagan intuitive sense of melody and structure.

For whatever reasons, by '82, Microdisney had become a keening poetic duo writing and recording fragile and often beautiful compositions with Coughan playing keyboards/drum machine complementing O'Hagan growing guitar skills. In a similar manner to Donald Fagan and Walter Becker in Steely Dan, the sonic pleasantries masked a dark cynicism and sense of outrage. Coughlan was the archetypical angry young man that turned most of his anger and frustration against himself and those people and things he loved.

Song lyrics often don't stand well alone well but Coughlan's are an exception. From the '83 single release, "Pink Skinned Man":

Autumn comes in here
Hedges heaving huge
At the touch of driving rain
Dear lover, you're no good
Dear lover, you're not right
Yours sincerely, someone else with a grudge.
Having out grown Cork and then Dublin, Microdisney were ready to move on. Coughlan remembers "We arrived in London with a strong sense of entitlement" but with no real plan. Fortunately, Geoff Travis of Rough Trade gave the band a home on his label and found "conglomerates of people that are so unlikely that the that they're just marvelous… Cathal's a great writer, in the great tradition of Irish wordplay … and Sean's proven himself to be a great arranger." And they recorded their first album for Rough Trade, Everyone is Fantastic, as O'Hagan puts it "so we made the record and it sounds unlike any other record." EIF, recorded in '83 but not released 'til May' 84, is a 13-song snapshot of emotions, regrets, relapses and recoveries. Haunting and idiosyncratic, this is a beautiful assembly of lonely nights and drunken afternoons with the would-be artists afoot and in old London town.

Soon, the band added a conventional rhythm section with Tom Fenner on drums and Jon Fenner on bass, and keyboardist James Compton would join in late '85 to expand the live sound and allow Coughlan to concentrate on his vocal duties.

A harrowing and unconventional tour of Communist Poland and Western Europe reinforced their disconnection and distrust of media, image and the monetization of music and art. Having experienced real austerity in Poland and returning to a country still with a strong class system (which deemed them outsides and unworthy), a political vein intertwined with the personal developed in their music and songwriting. Coughlan recalls "the personal aspect of being an exile was inspiring as well, it was painful, it changed everything, it brought a focus to everything, much more than the internal exile of what Cork became for me."

A collection or early singles and unreleased recordings "We hate you South African Bastards" (named for their opposition to apartheid and also a desire to provoke) ironically garnered the band much-needed media attention.

'85 found the band releasing the excellent EP In the World early in the year and later on, the peerless The Clock comes down the Stairs. All aspects of the band improved and they found a gifted producer in Jamie Lane that allowed the songs and music to breathe. Lane states, "the essence of Microdisney is the marriage between Sean's complex and beautiful arrangements and Cathal's biting lyrics and the incongruity between the two things is stark, they had an intelligence that you don't often find in the music industry. "

Well-received by the record buying public (it went to #1 on the Indie charts) and by critics at the time, TCCDTS is still seen by many as a crucial addition to modern Irish music. Although written and recorded in London, it could be well argued that it is of that provenance, however there is so much alienation and anguish, not to mention real anger directed towards its surrounding, that it is an album also celebrated by those that endured and survived London rather than those born and bred there. Death, decay and decline, but not despair, prevails throughout. A dark melancholia pervades this requiem for innocence, naivety and idealism.

Coughlan asks in "And":

And as it comes, it must be took
And your life was like a big open book
There before your eyes
Go on
Take a look.
And in "Are you happy now?":
Streets shining morning
Whey faced and shaken
And the bus people argue
Everyone sees you.

Are you happy now?
Laughing at the world.
The whole collection is very much of its time and a reflection of the conditions and social norms of that time. In the '80's, it was the National Front, the Poll Tax (a universal tax on each resident) and Margaret Thatcher that were the focus of Coughlan's ire. It was almost as if Coughlan was fighting against the emergence of Nigel Farage and Rees-Mogg and the rise of Nationalism in Britain some thirty some years ago. In "Past," he resorts the plain mockery:
They opened up a cocktail bar
In the shadow of Engels Court
Now folks dress up
And spend their cash
They say, "Who won the war?
Who ruled the world?
Who showed them all?"
Well who cares?

Run from the past
Into the past.
On TCCDTS, all the elements come into focus. This was a band that could write great lyrics, strong melodies and near perfect arrangements and had a passionate vocalist and robust live sound. Al that was needed was to continue moving in the same direction. Certainly, the subject matter was intense but that was a reflection of where they were at in the lives at that time.

Unfortunately, they moved from an independent label where they were appreciated and supported to a major label that sensed a major windfall and pushed the band in a more conventional direction. O'Hagan remembers that he was now listening to Bobby Womack and wanted to take the band in a more soulful direction. Live recordings from December '85 and a Peel Session from the same month show how strong the band was with two new standout pieces fully formed, "Bullwhip Road" and 'Town to Town."

Recorded in the summer of '86 and not released Jan '87, Crooked Mile was, and still is, a disappointment. It contains many great songs and some fine ideas. However, the band parted with producer Jamie Lane (he was to return for the next album) and instead worked with Lenny Kaye. As great a writer and producer that he was otherwise, this was a very poor choice here; it seems the band bowed to pressure from Virgin who saw them simply as a "rock-guitar band." Nothing they had recorded prior to this was remotely conventional "rock." Kaye's production is over-wrought for them and while up to this point, there was nothing "typical" about Microdisney, this was a typical mid-80's, mid-Atlantic production job. The songs are overall strong but they struggle to emerge from the intrusive production. Given O'Hagan's proven ability before and after, this failure of version seems to lie with the producer. Perhaps the band gambled the combination of opposites would produce some interesting results. As it is, the material only emerges after several listens but it would be instructive to have a 'naked' version of these sessions or to hear the demos that O'Hagan describes.

The songwriting and tone moved had a more surreal/ absurdist quality, something that Coughlan continued to develop throughout his career. However, the lyrics are as biting as ever too, how he just seems to be in the sonic equilvant of the morass he objects to, far too often.

On "Rack," he spares no mercy (and may be describing a distant relative of Justice Brett Kavanagh).

The doctor is a fool
He's just a callous snob
He had 15 years in the Jesuit school
And now he's not fit for any job.
He just sneers and drives a big car
Is this my savior?
On "Angel," he turns more benign:
So sue your baker
Sue your tailor
And your sweetheart too
With wings of white and skin of blue
Tomorrow belongs to you
The single from the album, "Town to Town," was a big radio hit and still receives considerable radio play to this day in Ireland and the U.K.. However, this was closest the band came to the success that Virgin were looking for.

The band reunited with Lane to record a second album for Virgin in'87 (39 Minutes) that included two excellent singles and was a return to form with the band, sounding more relaxed and the album more cohesive. However, the first single, "Singer's Hampstead's Home," was a blatant mocking of Boy George, still one of Virgin's best earners. That probably didn't help matters for the band with their employers.

It seems as if Coughlan had too much bile and venom in his system to be content (anywhere) and seemed intent on burning as many bridges as he possible could.

There were plans, according to O'Hagan, for another album for Virgin with Don Was scheduled to produce. However, Virgin ended their contract and the band broke up shortly afterwards.

Coughlan at that time seemly hugely conflicted about even wanting success, much less achieving it. Immediately after Microdisney disbanded, he formed Fatima Mansions where he gave free range to this all-sides of his personality. "Blues for Ceausescu," usually the brutal climax to the band's set, was an all-out chartartic release for singer/band/audience. It signaled a complete return to hardcore roots, reinvented through a trash metal, riff centered brain freeze.

Sean O'Hagan, by contrast, embraced his inner Brian Wilson fixation and gave himself whole heartily over the pursuing that particular muse. With both the High Llamas and Stereolab, he anticipated the '90's faux lounge music craze but more importantly, he created an enduring body of work that reflects his overriding passion.

Barbican Session, June 2018, performing "Dolly"

While there is apparently "no chance" of any new Microdisney music, both artists continue to perform outside the their comfort zone, pursuing challenging material. Coughlan performed in May at Dublin's Sugar Club as part of "Mahler Reimagined" with Cello Ireland and a jazz quartet signing in Mahler's native German. O'Hagan also preformed in May on a short Irish tour with vocalist Eileen Gogan. O'Hagan has a new album scheduled for release this year with Coughlan providing vocals on four tracks. It remains to be seen if these are Coughlan/O'Hagan compositions but this writer, for one, hopes so.

At the Trailblazer Award 2018 ceremony

And hopefully, someone will see fit to release the complete Peel Sessions, (an incomplete collection exists) as well as demo or 'naked' versions of the Crooked Mile material and a complete live set (or sets) so that Microdisney can get their due and most of the world can see what they have been missing all these years.

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