Sean O’Hagan

MICRODISNEY : THE END

Photograph © Fanning Sessions

If anything, they’re probably the best accidental band of our time, a haphazard and unlikely collision – or collusion ? – of reference, diffidence and influence that in theory, and maybe every other way too, never stood a chance. Like the central character in their opening number on this week’s farewell dates, ‘Mrs. Simpson’, they made ‘like a head on legs and the rest of person’. And it’ll not be lost on Cathal, in particular, that at the very end, Microdisney finally sold out in Cork.

I’m sure that, on some sort of emotional level, it was appropriate they called it to a halt in the city where they started it off almost forty years previously. In as much as Microdisney – forever Cathal and Sean and in that order – ever followed formal process, last night’s show in Cork was as close as they got to the convention of completing a circle. But where it leaves them in the history of popular music – in Cork, Ireland or beyond – is irrelevant for now :- Microdisney were far too free-spirited, cranky and loose with their ambitions to ever sit comfortably in general company.

Buried somewhere in that line of thinking is, I think, the essence of their allure. They were so wrong and so utterly disconnected on every level and yet, whenever the sun broke through onto their palsied, malformed view of life in the drain, they could glisten with the best of them. They were defined to the very end by the endless pull-and-drag of the sweet against the sour, maybe best captured on ‘464’, one of their most potent songs, that opens in anger over a hail of shouting, spit and guitar noise but that quickly finds its feet in the mellow. And, this last nine months, by the peerless vocal interplay between Cathal’s full-bodied tenor – he has never, to these ears, been in better voice – and Eileen Gogan’s soft touch around the edges.

Photograph © Jim O’Mahony

Microdisney were never completely at ease in their hometown and I’ve written at length about that aspect of the band’s story here. And still they consistently represented, far better than many of Cork’s better known ambassadors, the city’s best, worst and most bizarre attributes, often for comic effect within their songs and often not. For many years, weird as it sounds now, they actually blazed a trail and led the way :- by taking the Innisfallen and upping sticks in the early 1980s, they gave Cork the middle finger and, for years afterwards, a fleeting glimpse of something more exotic and glamorous abroad. The ‘big fat matron with turquoise hair’ left behind so the band could dream more freely.

We now know, of course, that the reality of Microdisney’s life in London was far more chaotic, undercut like much of the largely untold Irish emigrant experience at that time by pills, hooch, squatting, general blackguarding and penury. But their story was, for many, the story of Cork city itself too, the boat at its core as an escape from the despair and torpor. Even if, once you reached Fishguard, you were almost certainly on your own.

Outwardly at least, that truth was just an inconvenient one, especially irrelevant on the old broadsheet pages of The Evening Echo where, in the odd dispatch from London, the local boys were clearly having a right old cruel-up, leading a charge, making hay.

Photograph © Siobhan Bardsley

What we can say with certainty is that there is no clear lineage between what came before Microdisney and what came afterwards ;- they literally fell from the sky, consistently out of reach and constantly out of time. It took them many years to finally grow into their bodies and, even then, I was never wholly convinced that they were built to accommodate the scale of their ambition, such as it was. And so, even when under the gun of a major label to crack the mainstream market, they just couldn’t help themselves. On the band’s best known song, the lavish ‘Town To Town’, with its shine, polish and spit, the lover is in the past, the winter is sick, the harvest has failed and, maybe as tellingly as anything, the singer’s name is still being mis-pronounced.

When Cathal, as he did on-stage in Vicar Street on Monday night, refers to the band’s later material – the Virgin years – as ‘joined up writing’, he’s talking about the well-upholstered gut of the likes of ‘Gale Force Wind’, ‘High And Dry’ and ‘Singer’s Hampstead Home’, ‘not cursive or grown-up but joined-up’ and over which he continued to sprinkle the petrol with a heavy hand. Only the really brave or the perennially diffident aspire to love songs where the moon is shapeless and dim but then that was Microdisney’s stock-in-trade until the very end, the closest they may have ever come to consistency.

From ‘Everybody Is Dead’, a stand-out from the band’s debut album, to ‘Loftholdingswood’, their best song and in which Dan McGrath’s liver just eventually gives out, the sweetness of the sound is counter-pointed and warped by the vicious malady of the grotesque. ‘Sulphates and slap bass’, one of Cathal’s off-the-cuff quips on Monday could, for years, have well been their mission statement.

Photograph © Siobhan Bardsley

And because of that, it’s easy to forget just how intelligent they were with their sound. With seven players on stage for much of this week’s farewell – Cathal and Sean joined, for the occasion, by Rhodri Marsden on keyboards, the imperious John Bennett on lead guitars, most potently on twelve string acoustic and Eileen backing-up on vocals – they’re at their most fetching when they bring five harmonies to the mic. And become, maybe even in spite of themselves, an unflinching, all-out pop band.

Which won’t surprise those long familiar with the breadth of their primary references and source material, Sean’s, in particular. Microdisney borrowed liberally, and as freely from Steely Dan and The Beach Boys as they did from Lee Perry and Lee Hazelwood. And much of Sean’s body of work in the decades post-Microdisney, especially that formidable High Llamas canon, is testament to that.

It’s just as easy to be side-blinded too by the attention long-afforded the band’s second album, ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’, ostensibly the trigger behind those four live shows over the last nine months. And for which they were garlanded, formally, on stage at Dublin’s National Concert Hall last summer.

Because far from being one of the greatest Irish albums of all time – and that’s a dark valley of a discussion in itself – ‘The Clock’ may not even be Microdisney’s best album, even if, given the circumstances that begot it, it’s the record about which the band feels most proud. As strong a case can be made for ‘Crooked Mile’ [1987], the band’s major label debut that saw the dinner-jacketed five-piece seamlessly master the dark art of the velveteen pop song wrapped in a knuckle-duster. While Andrew Mueller, one of the best and more perceptive music writers of his generation – and recently a member of The North Sea Scrolls alongside Cathal and Luke Haines – has long batted for Microdisney’s last album, ’39 Minutes’ [1988]. Which, if it is indeed the sound of a band on the precipice, certainly captures, in vivid colour, the full spread of a magnificent view across the valley of death.

So, why did they go back for afters and why now ? Time, of course, is as much of a cleanser as it is of a healer and those most recent Dublin shows saw an older, possibly wiser, certainly far fitter, sober and way less anxious band roll back the years without either the fuss or the general codology that pock-marks much of Microdisney’s story. And without saying as much, the band clearly believed it had unfinished business or an unpaid personal debt somewhere :- was there a sense that they never really did those terrific songs justice at the time ? Or, perhaps, that others – the market, the public, the industry – didn’t cut them an even break ? Or did they simply fancy taking the music out of its casing one last time just because they could ?

I’ve never had Microdisney pegged as old nostalgics, Cathal in particular. And so it was interesting to hear him, in Dublin on Monday, dip into the earliest chapters in the band’s history to reference Dave Clifford, their first manager and Elvera Butler, who committed their first track to vinyl and who ran many of their most formative shows in The Arcadia Ballroom in Cork. Indeed in prefacing their closer, Frankie Valli’s ‘The Night’, Cathal referred to a Lene Lovich live show in that same venue in January, 1980, where himself and his long-time writing partner and friend heard that song performed for the first time.

In introducing the band, there’s an unusually fuzzy outbreak of bonhomie as Cathal and Sean reference each other and their long, colourful and no doubt often bizarre and fractured friendship. Cathal – maybe half-jokingly and maybe not ? – cautions against too much good-will as if it might just sooth the edge a bit too much. And then they’re gone and it’s over.

On the walk back into town after the Vicar Street show on Monday night, I remembered an old yarn that Cathal once told Dave Fanning during one of their many memorable radio interviews. During the band’s early years, the singer would regularly take the mainline train – a battered, bone-shaking and deeply unpleasant experience at the best of times – from Cork to Dublin, during which he’d dress in priest’s garb and pickle himself with booze, effing and blinding at all-comers during what could often be a torturous four-hour journey.

Photograph © Jim O’Mahony

One of the more frustrating aspects of that long, long haul – and, believe me, there were many – invariably came at Limerick Junction, a desolate outpost that’s actually in Tipperary and where, as a regular passenger, I spent far too long stuck in the sidings, waiting in the worst possible kind of limbo for something, anything, to happen before we’d eventually stutter back into life and re-commence our journey onwards.

You’d see and hear all sort of mad stuff as you were trapped in Limerick Junction, caught quite literally between worlds, gazing listlessly out of the window at the spread of verdure and the thickets beyond. I spent far too many languid hours paralyzed there, listening to Cathal and Sean’s alchemy on a variety of different devices.

As metaphors go in respect of Microdisney, Limerick Junction is as valid as any. Forever crippled and consistently failed by the machine, witnesses to the bizarre and the grotesque, waiting endlessly for another stuttering start and the next inevitable breakdown.

And yet for all of that they were consistently magnificent and leave behind a terrific body of work beyond the catalogue of carnage.

Photograph © Fanning Sessions

SEAN O’HAGAN LIVE AT THE CORK COUNTY CRICKET CLUB, JULY 2nd, 2017

Sean O Hagan 1

Picture Courtesy of Dominic Moore

 

The last time I got beyond the gates of The Cork County Cricket Club, on that magnificent, tree-lined stretch out in the west of the city, a small group of us were making an unofficial, no-budget video for ‘The Summerhouse’ by The Divine Comedy. And the last shot in that clip, which was for the fledgling No Disco series, features my late friend, Philip Kennedy, on a hired old bicycle, shakily making his way up the narrow pathway, being hunted off of the premises by an official – was he a night watchman ? – who threatened to call the guards on us.

 

In keeping with the general spirit of that series, and the cavalier mood of the time, we had no permissions in place, no facilities and were pretty much making it all up as we went along. And so we’d spent the early part of that quiet Sunday lunchtime rambling around by The Shaky Bridge, absolutely on the fly and with the minimum of film stock. But once we spotted the small pavilion inside the hedged surround of The Richard Beamish Grounds, it felt like we’d made it home. And off we went ;- the closest any of us had ever been to a summerhouse.

 

Many years later and Sean O’Hagan, once of Microdisney and Stereolab, now of The High Llamas, once of Luton, briefly of Cork and now resident in Peckham in South London, wanders into that same, small premises and casts a fond eye across what, on every level, are lush surroundings for any engagement. It’s a long way from the room in Bennigan’s Bar in Derry where, a couple of nights previously, he began his short, four-date acoustic tour and, back in Cork, an appropriate place in which to conclude it.

 

The walls inside the pavilion remind us of some of the great merchant princes of Cork sport, former captains and international players who, with their first names captured in double and triple initials on mounted wood panels, graced the crease and the outfield beyond the wide bay-windows. And there, among them, a familiar name I recognise from our old school, the former Cork county captain and Ireland all-rounder opening bat, generally, and military medium bowler as required – Ted Williamson. From a staunch, well-known Northside family steeped in hurling and football, I wonder, in the worst Cork traditions of social stereotyping, when Ted became T.E.J. Williamson and how he ever ended up here ?

 

Which is a question that Sean O’Hagan too, from behind his acoustic guitar and hired-for-the-night keyboard, might well have asked himself at various points throughout his sparkling, soft and magnificent set in front of a packed house in the small, fancy function room inside the clubhouse. Organised, he tells us, through friends and like-minds using social media and, for a change, plugging nothing, tonight’s show has all the hallmarks of an over-due visit back to see family and to catch up with old friends and a smattering of anoraks. And, to this end, feels like a civil ceremony that’s been gate-crashed by a handful of well-wishers, many of them lavishly bearded.

 

Sean O hagan 2

Picture courtesy of Dominic Moore

 

Half-way through the supple, sixteen song set, and with the doors and the windows open out onto the verdure and with the low, late-evening light clinging on for life, he reminds us who he is and mentions his band, the excellent High Llamas, with whom he’s now compiled a formidable back catalogue. Lest anyone in the room – and it’s nicely full – think that he might pull an old Microdisney oddity from the pack and bring it up for air. And he doesn’t, thankfully. The closest we get is the dead air when someone in the front row mentions ‘Horse Overboard’ after Sean tells a soft yarn about a rural scene he saw out of the window of a speeding train on the journey down from Dublin earlier.

 

It’s been thirty years, more or less, since the fabled Cork band he back-boned with Cathal Coughlan pulled the shutters down on their premises one last time and, in the decades since, he’s made number of fine, fine records ;- more than enough to draw a wide-ranging set from. And he does, scattering the evening with dreamy personal testimonies and under-stated vignettes as he explains away the background to some of his material. Culled from a solo career that began in earnest with 1992’s ‘Santa Barbara’ but that’s dominated tonight by cuts from the three High Llamas albums issued immediately thereafter, the wonderful ‘Gideon Gaye’, ‘Cold And Bouncy’ and the formidable and defining 1998 monster, ‘Hawaii’.

 

Stripped back to skeletal form, and without the multiple layers of brass, strings and chintzy keyboards, Sean is kept nicely busy all evening working the frets as he reaches his head back, stretching his soft voice to tip the high end of his register, and often beyond, just about making His playing style is as gorgeous and gracious as it’s ever been and, without the blankets – The High Llamas boast more a temporary partition than a wall of sound – the source of the magic at the heart of much of that solo work is clear. Often as redolent of the fresh, balmy bossa nova that dominated Everything But The Girl’s fine debut, ‘Eden’, other times sprinkled with soft jazz shapes, I’m reminded, fleetingly, of the delicate core of Microdisney’s early releases and opt, correctly as it happens, to keep it to myself.

 

A dedication to the late Mary Hansen, the Australian guitarist who played with Sean in Stereolab, prefaces ‘The Dutchman’, again from ‘Gideon Gaye’ before Jerome Kern’s ‘Ol Man River’ closes the innings for the night, tenderly political and prescient, soft and telling. And then he’s done, gone, and back into the arms of friends and well-wishers beyond in the bar.

 

On the walk up to the show hours earlier, I passed the small building that, years ago, housed the old Elmtree studios and that faces almost directly onto the flower-lined pedestrian gate at the County. The small plaque that identified that bunker for years, in among the back garages, has been painted over in beige. But it was here that, in the company of the likes of Peter West, Dennis Herlihy and Ger O’Leary, many an aspiring local outfit laid their first, tentative shapes onto tape. Any roll of honour on the walls here would capture honourable statesmen like Cypress, Mine !, Belsonic Sound, Burning Embers and The Frank And Walters, among a host of others :- Elmtree was, indeed, where another strata of Cork society sported and played.

 

And at the end of a warm, classy night in the company of one of the great, unheralded names in the history of music in Cork city, you’d be thinking that, if you can’t put your arms around your memories, you need to capture these kinds of moments while you can.