Sound job: the oral history of Microdisney
As band reforms to perform their acclaimed album, those involved explain how it was produced
Cathal Coughlan and Sean O’Hagan met in Cork at a New Year’s Eve party in 1979 and formed Microdisney. In July 1983 the determined duo upped sticks and emigrated to London. In 1985 Microdisney’s second album The Clock Comes Down the Stairs reached No 1 in the UK indie chart.
Richard Boon: I was the production manager at Rough Trade at the time. Rough Trade was expressing an interest in their work but nothing had being confirmed so during part of the summer of 1983, as they were two unemployed Irish navvies in London, whenever records needed stickers applied to them, they’d come in and do piecework. Then of course the label made an agreement with them and they started releasing records.
Cathal Coughlan (vocals, keyboards): Re-sleeving Smiths records when Rough Trade couldn’t get the right to use Terrence Stamp’s picture on the cover of What Difference Does it Make. Richard saw us alright on that elite activity.
Geoff Travis (Rough Trade Records): I can remember seeing them play, they were fantastic, they were so singular, Cathal obviously is such a great character. They were one of those great conglomerates of people that are so unlikely that they are just marvellous. I held them in very, very high regard.
Sean O’Hagan (guitar): We’d work, we’d go to the Kensington Park Hotel and play pool and drink a lot of beer. Cathal and I were living in the same flat for about six months and then I moved to a squat in Rotherhithe and we’d be writing these tunes for The Clock Comes Down the Stairs, coming up with ideas and all those songs are absolutely pouring out of us.
Coughlan: Things were beginning to kind of fall together lyrically for me because instead of just churning out asides and stringing them together, I was thinking outside of that and actually coming to have some facility with it. The personal aspect of being an exile was inspiring as well, it was painful but it changed everything and it brought a focus to everything much more than the internal exile of what Cork became for me.
Jon Fell (bass): We were very focused. Sean and Cathal were writing at a ferocious rate and working together really well; everybody was incredibly enthusiastic. It was the first record that had a budget to record a band. In a way the band had become something different, it probably wasn’t what Cathal and Sean were thinking of when they first started playing gigs in Cork as a duo.
Coughlan: There was a deep paranoia attached to being Irish in London at the time. The armed struggle was still in full swing and was prone to bigger flare-ups from time to time. Thatcher paranoia was still in full effect, it was at its zenith: there was the miners’ strike; and the print dispute; the privatisations; and the whole sense of confrontation. As an Irish person you certainly felt that you were in as dicey a position as you could be in really once you actually opened your mouth. There was quite a lot of stop and search and if you happened to be off your head, or just drunk or something, it was edgy. We all knew about the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four and from time to time you would meet someone who was even on the fringes of that.
Robert Forster (The Go-Betweens): We were immigrants and I think that was something that pulled us together. We were both struggling and we were both doing good music – both bands, and in a way we were up against the music scene of that time. We had no support system, it wasn’t as if Microdisney had moved up to Dublin – you know you can go and see Auntie Rosie and she’s got a fridge full of food, you know Uncle Seamus will put you up for a couple of nights. Neither band had that in London, there was no fall back, and so you just had to get money for the next meal. You were in the game and there was a certain amount of great enjoyment and opportunity and both bands made really good music but it was very, very tough.
Travis: Cathal’s a great writer in the great tradition of Irish wordplay. His usage of language is fantastic. And obviously Sean has proven himself to be a quite remarkable arranger, he’s done so many great projects. They very definitely had something special going on. Contrariness, you know, spikiness, being unafraid, being adventurous, being bloodyminded, all the great things about making good music.
Tom Fenner (drummer): By the time we did The Clock . . . we had done the Peel Sessions. You must remember that Sean and Cathal were extraordinarily prolific, we would get tapes sent round on a real regular basis with new songs that they had just been working on. They did not want for material.
Jamie Lane (producer): I was persuaded to work with them because of their characters and the fact that they had a sort of intelligence you don’t often find in the music industry, and that was very appealing.
Coughlan: The best record-making experiences are those where you do learn. I learnt a lot about actually constructing a record as opposed to recording the songs that you’d been playing.
Lane: The Clock Comes Down the Stairs is the essence of Microdisney because of the marriage between Sean’s complex and beautiful arrangements and Cathal’s biting lyrics, the incongruity between the two things is stark and that’s what appealed to people but they are a very particular band and inevitably they have a fairly confined sort of appeal. The producer’s main job is to provide the means to realise an artist’s ideas, but the thing is as both Cathal and Sean are musicians it was just a matter of allowing them the space to actually explore their ideas. I always remember it being very positive, all the time.
Felicia Cohen (photographer): The brief was pretty open. All I can remember was walking around south London with them, looking for interesting locations. That album cover was my one and only. I was mostly shooting portraits for magazines. I wish I could come up with the reason I chose Clapham Junction; maybe I heard it was the largest station where several tracks converged. I remember being very impressed with the scale, and loving the patterns created by the tracks.
O’Hagan: I think we did know something good was happening. Rough Trade had done a really good little job with the press. I remember we went off to Europe to tour and when we came back the papers were full of all this stuff. The critics were saying these guys are reinventing pop, it was like, “Wow, God.” Even though we always knew that it could or might work it was like, “Oh God, it is working, Jesus it’s working.” Everything that we thought would work was happening. Then suddenly the big labels start taking an interest.
Coughlan: We had managed to kind of take this misshapen thing and not really alter its fundamentals very much and actually get to the point where it hung together. It was validation in that sense, being noticed was nice, but that kind of thing can easily go to a person’s head and it kind of did in my case. Not in the predictable way of expecting to have a penthouse in Regent Street but in terms of not needing to deal with the aspects of myself that had been weighing things down.
Forster: I can remember Microdisney supporting us at the Town and Country Club [April 30th, 1986]. I can remember that performance. That suited them and that suited Cathal. I can remember watching him that night and he had a stage – it wasn’t a pub or a small club. He really took to it. With Microdisney he honestly could have played to 5,000 people because he had that charisma and he had that command. He was sort of wasted on small stages.
Boon: They should have been more than just cult heroes. I don’t really know why they didn’t cross over a bit more, given the strength of the material. People who love them, love them and still do. I could appreciate their frustration because The Clock Comes Down the Stairs didn’t make the impact it deserved to make.
Fenner: They always say that Microdisney are sort of uncategorisable – and maybe that’s true, perhaps it’s easier to like things that are more one-dimensional. I’m very happy to say that playing with Sean and Cathal kind of ruins it for the rest of your career because the combination of music and lyrics was absolutely everything. I was left stunned by it essentially.
Lane: It’s the only time I’ve been anywhere near a No 1 record. I’m very proud of it because we made it under very lean circumstances and we used all our ingenuity and worked very hard to do it as well as we possibly could. It sounds like Merle Haggard on acid, lyrically it’s biting but melodically really sweet and approachable.
Coughlan: If it’s an album I suppose it would be The Clock Comes Down the Stairs, if it’s one piece of music I think something like Are You Happy? or Birthday Girl, both of which are on that record. I get why people mention The Clock . . . as something that flows from beginning to end and that just about transcends some of the sonic anachronisms; it works.
O’Hagan: The Clock . . . was very different from any other record at the time. There was a joy in the music. Cathal and I meet at a party in 1979, New Year’s Eve, this stumbling pair, and then it ends by 1988. But here we were in 1985 with this record where it just all came together. I think that’s it, where these emotional intentions and discussions, and influences, and shared experiences, that whole thing of our growing up articulated as music. That’s exactly what The Clock . . . >is.
Coughlan: All through my teens I had pretensions to just try and do something creative. It was really only meeting Sean that gave me any indication of how you could practically go about it. The things that we learned together are things that I still put into practice anytime that I’m fortunate enough to be able to make music.
O’Hagan: We were just kids, growing up but the great thing about pop music made by young people is that it is the music of young people discovering things. It is the music of youth, it absolutely is.
This is an extract from Iron Fist in Velvet Glove – the story of Microdisney. The oral history can be read here . A radio documentary of the same name will be broadcast on Newstalk at 7am on Sunday, May 20th and repeated at 9pm on Saturday 26 May.