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.
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.
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.
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’ , 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’ . 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.
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.