I keep realising that I listened to John Peel before 1984. For some reason I used to think I started in the summer of 84 but I tuned in occasionally during the Autumn of 83. From time to time there will be a reference in my diary (Book 6, a thick green exercise book stolen from my History teacher at the start of September) to a song I heard on the show. For instance this was how I heard Microdisney – it’s there in the middle of October, in amongst the turbulent paragraphs of bullying and crying and fancying ten girls simultaneously but not saying anything, there’s a line like “Must find ‘Sleepless’ by Microdisney”. I must have heard the song on the band’s first Peel session and it obviously made an impression on me, so much so that I could still remember it years later, even though I didn’t tape it. For some reason I hadn’t worked out how to record off the radio yet, I was always a late developer. But something within “Sleepless” caught my ear, the conversational tone of the lyrics, how it moved from third person description to speech in the chorus, the insistent melodious nature of the music, the curious Irish burr of the singer. All combined to make a startling discovery for me, that there was something else out there beyond the charts and the fading fast Futurist chart on Radio Luxembourg.
At the time I couldn’t have been able to find “Sleepless” in any record shops, even though I may have tried. I can remember the blank faces behind the counter at HMV as I asked if they had any records by Microdisney. The band were still a year away from recording their debut album, which would include “Sleepless”. However that debut passed me by at the time, I wasn’t aware of its release until later. But I was aware of Microdisney’s continued existence as they recorded three sessions for Peel during 1984. I missed the first two sessions but the third session was taped, or most of it was taped, or half of it… let me explain… My Sanyo music centre had developed a few annoying quirks in the tape deck department. Firstly the keys wouldn’t lock down unless a weight was placed on them – such as a finger or an Ever Ready bicycle light. Secondly once the tape deck was warmed up, it tended to stop recording one channel of the stereo. This could happen quite randomly, sometimes mid song, and this is what happened on the Microdisney session.
So there were four songs on the session and I always managed to miss one song each time the session was broadcast, and that song was always “Goodbye it’s 1987”. But the other three songs – “464”, “Genius” and “Horse overboard” – ended up on tape, though the latter two were only on one side of the stereo. I also missed the intro to “464” as well. Peel would introduce the song, I’d start the tape rolling, the gentle piano introduction would sound, a roll of drums then all hell breaks loose, Cathal Coughlan screams, guitars wail and I would stop the tape thinking I had the wrong band. Then the song itself would start, a mid tempo melodic stroll, and I’d have to start recording again. “464” is a remarkable song – especially in the Peel version – and it was this song which convinced me of Microdisney’s greatness. Coughlan croons a beautiful melody during the verses with a distinctive chorus of “Bring back the street, I liked it so”. The middle eight returns to the noisy intro, after which the final verse has Coughlan chuckling to himself – “Oh dearie me, I’m in a state”. How could I not love a song clearly taking the piss out of itself so perfectly, and so melodically? The tape of the three songs were constant companions that Autumn, even if two of the songs only had half of the musical information on them. I kept an eye out for Microdisney.
A few months later they appeared on TV. 19th March 1985, 7pm, BBC2, “Whistle Test”. It was my mother’s birthday, and God knows why we weren’t out celebrating it, but I was sat in front of the Betamax ready to record the best bits. And hell Microdisney opened the show, and played a second song later on. Oh and James played “If things were perfect” and “Scarecrow” from the ICA. But no, Microdisney on TV. Coughlan in a defiant green suit jacket (I always presumed this was a hint at his Irish heritage), larger than life. The rest of the band were just there, the focus was on Coughlan. Opener “Loftholdingswood” took a swipe at English privilege, or so I heard it that way, while “Birthday girl” was a jaunty little number which hid some harsh thoughts. More songs to learn and sing throughout the year as I waited for the album. Yes they already had their debut album out, ‘Everybody is fantastic”, but I didn’t buy that until years later for some reason. Even if it had “Sleepless” on it, I didn’t feel it was vital to my little world. It would become part of the story of my life a few years later on. Finally towards the end of the year the second Microdisney album emerged, and it was one of my Christmas gifts that year (alongside “World Shut Your Mouth”, “Without Mercy” and “Songs to learn and sing”). Strangely the album doesn’t feel like a Christmas album like others I have mentioned receiving as gifts. I suppose that makes “The clock comes down the stairs” timeless. It doesn’t sound particularly dated or tied to its time, the band didn’t have access to a Fairlight and there’s no gated reverb on the drums. What the listener gets instead is a glimpse of mid 80s London from an outsider’s point of view.
“Horse overboard” is a perfect opener to the album, bright and breezy and hiding it’s secrets within the melodic bliss. There is a tale somewhere in the song which I’ve still not managed to work out, but the chorus line of “Can we sleep alone?” is irresistible. “Birthday girl” appears to be about the birth of the song’s narrator – a fiction I presume – but hides darker thoughts. The second verse is full of drunken ideas of misplaced passion and private jokes while the final verse is a glimpse of the narrator’s death, sad and alone. But the music is upbeat and tuneful, this could pass for something on the radio. “Past” is a look at how London is changing and the type of people it is attracting. Cocktail bars and dressed up cashed up Londoners – “They say ‘Who won the war? Who ruled the world? Who showed them all?’ Well who cares?” An escape from one version of the past (the real one everyone runs from) to another past (the one London wants you to believe). For some reason I’m reminded of some of the Martin Amis books of this time like “Money” and ‘London Fields”, though my memory of those books may be wrong, it’s been a long time… But it sounds like it could be today, not 1985 … “And all the papers say ‘Go back to work, you’re all alone….'” “Humane” is a good opening line looking for a song to back it up, and is too similar to “Past” to distinguish itself. Please remember that these are my own opinions and interpretations, I am probably wrong and you may feel differently. The album side closes with “Are you happy?” – A change of tempo, slower and minor key throughout. Is this a series of vignettes of a relationship in crisis, falling apart? Again I’m ready to be corrected. But hell there’s some fabulous lines here – “This joke will run and run, just like you”. Sean O’Hagan adds mournful slide guitar and it’s a beautiful sad moment.
Side two starts in the middle of a situation – “Genius” throws the listener straight in, again bright and breezy but there’s a character assassination in progress, someone is having their shallow wonderful life dissected and Coughlan enjoys every moment. There were people like it then, now they’re called hipsters. “Begging bowl” hurts like hell, a slow crawl through another relationship in crisis. Scary and true. I know that now. “A friend with a big mouth” has a country lilt, and merges dreams with reality, someone destroying your dreams, someone spoiling the grand design. And yes I knew a friend called Howard and still think of him when I hear the song. “Goodbye it’s 1987” is another song it took me years to work out. Again the music is deceptive but the lyrics paint a portrait of nouveau riche yuppies in love with themselves and money, there’s tell tale signs though – before the guitar solo Coughlan adds “Let’s tax the wages of sin”. Of course June 1987 was the projected election month as seen in the middle of Thatcher’s second term. Like I said I’m slightly slow. “And” is another assassination, Coughlan and June Miles Kington singing in harmony words that kill, but gently. “And some people have it bad, yes it’s true. But they wouldn’t if they did not know you”. Is that about Thatcher? Throughout the album, there’s hints and glimpses of a world in disorder, the world that Thatcher had brought in, selling off public utilities, the need for greed, the people left behind not being cared for. Halfway through the second term of a morally corrupt and uncaring Tory government. … Does this sound familiar? Is it like today?
‘The clock comes down the stairs” did well within its own limitations, being issued on Rough Trade so it reached the top of the Indie Album charts. They appeared on “The Tube” playing “Birthday Girl“, this time with Coughlan screaming “Just like JESUS!” just before the chorus. Well it was Christmas after all. In the new year they recorded another Peel session, three new songs and one old one. “Begging bowl” from the previous album gets a new spoken bridge from Coughlan, ending with him yelling “I’m never right, am I? Am I? Am I? Am I?” It’s a scary performance. “Bullwhip road” is another glimpse of a sordid existence, more self hate and more confusing changes of pronoun. Again another lyric which immediately found itself in my personal lexicon – “I hate the world. I hate my life and this song – now run along”. “People just want to dream” is another song of disgust at the Tory leader. The best song of the session was “Town to town”, which sounded immediately like a hit single, even if the lyrics inflict nuclear destruction on so many cities. But it’s a pop song and a bloody fantastic one and I played that tape over and over again. Microdisney signed to Virgin Records and recorded their third album produced by Lenny Kaye. This seemed a common trick of indie bands in 1987, getting a learned wizened older musician to produce you (John Cale for Happy Mondays, Kaye again for the Weather Prophets, Mayo Thompson for Felt and Primal Scream). Did it work? Not always.
“Crooked Mile” was issued in the Spring of 1987, a few weeks after “Town to town” was given a chance at the hit parade. If great things were expected of the single, it didn’t achieve them. Sure it was played on the radio and I saw the video once or twice on TV but it wasn’t as ubiquitous as it should have been. Maybe the strings used had sweetened the song too much? Maybe the energy and verve of the Peel session version had got lost along the way? Either way this was a portent of what was to come with the album. I’ve never been able to adequately identify my problem with “Crooked mile”, is it the songs or the production or the band or the insistence that O’Hagan gets a guitar solo on every song or… whatever it is, something is not quite right.
It’s not really the songs to be honest. Most of them are great, the lyrics throughout are spot on, continuing the themes developed on “The clock comes down the stairs” mostly. Maybe it’s the order of the songs, maybe it’s too many mid tempo strolls halfway through side one. “Our children” is an emotional ballad but derails the flow after “Angels” and the first side doesn’t recover until the end, which is a shame as “Mrs Simpson” is a sharp song and “Hey hey Sam” plays at war games which was fashionable at the time, we were still in the midst of the Cold War. Finally “Give me all of your clothes” is a change for the better, slightly funky and also humorous – Coughlan ripping into a certain type of person again, a hipster again. It’s rather good. Side two is better, helped by “Bullwhip Road” and “People just want to dream” (a perfect closer). “And he descended into hell” is another morality tale with a lot of wit, and I’ve always suspected that it’s the source of the name of Harvey Williams’ nom de plume at Sarah Records. “Rack” is marvellous, and I’ve always taken it to be about music journalists – again is “The Doctor” in verse two Stuart Cosgrove from the NME? Not sure. “Big sleeping house”… how much of these songs is real? A tale of a terrible doss house and also someone who got out of there. Finally “People just want to dream” closes the album in style. Beautiful music and lyrics to kill for. Sorry but I’m going to have to quote a chunk of the second verse.
The High Street, it used to be such a slum
(Petrol queues and bomb scares and liberal confusion)
Until we prised it away from the welfare scum
(Marching piggy-wiggy and bovine retribution)
Oh take it any way you want, everything is better
We used to play around before too long we found that
Money is everything
Don’t make the gentry mean
It’s for you they dream
In their private homes
Their hatred flows in streams
Some things never change.
Although “Town to town” had made a small dent in the charts, clearly Virgin still had faith in the band and they recorded another album in the autumn of 1987. Now well into the third term of Tory rule, the songs are less about the past and more about the awful present. In October Virgin issued a taster single “Singer’s Hampstead Home”, a very thinly veiled dig at Virgin recording artist Boy George. Of course the label didn’t promote it but I bought the cassingle (what a horrible word) on the day I saw them play at the Leadmill in Sheffield. Two of the three extra tracks were quite hopeless – Microdisney weren’t a b side band – but the last track “Half a day” was from a Peel session recorded at the end of 1986, a song they’d never record again and really quite wonderful in its own way. Or maybe it was my circumstances that made some lines leap out – “There’s someone I miss, like there always is, she’s not mentioned round here. …” Well yes.
Nothing really prepared me for the Microdisney live experience, and it was my first time at the Leadmill so I was taken aback by the venue and the band. Coughlan spent most of the time bent double like a man in agony, screaming random abuse between the songs, getting lost in the music. As I was stood by the mixing desk I spied the set list and noted lots of new songs, which would end up on their next album. “Back to the old town” was ferocious, “High and dry” was blackly funny, “Soul boy” was oddly moving. At the end they played a song called “I can’t say no” which started like “You’re the one that I want” from “Grease” and Coughlan spat out the words with contempt. A vicious show, a baptism of fire at the Leadmill.
Onwards into 1988 and a second single is issued to promote the forthcoming album, “Gale force wind” was recorded on the day of the Great Storm in Autumn 1987 and shows it, but the b sides on the cassingle were more interesting. “I can’t say no” was a straight band recording of the song only with “Betty Lou” singing, and in a parallel universe this could have been a novelty hit, all cheery keyboards and smiles. “Say no I can’t” is Coughlan reinterpreting the same song as the band play the song Greek style, but the opening is telling – “What song would our record company like us to sing?” Was there internal pressure for the song to be a single? Finally “Can’t I say no?” is the same song as played by Chas and Dave, all beery atmosphere and drunken vocals (who does sing this? It’s hilarious!). “Gale force wind” stumbled into the lower fifties of the charts and disappeared.
Before we reach the fourth album I have to mention the press advert for “39 Minutes”. It is a cutting from “Meddly Maker” written by “Simon Reinhardt” and the font and format is a perfect facsimile of an album review in Melody Maker. It just repeated “Microdisney Is Shit” (which was the album’s working title, the phrase crops up in “Can’t I say no?” too) over and amongst other abuse. I’m going to see if it’s online… No? Bollocks. It was fantastic, take my word for it.
“39 minutes” then. Rarely has a record hated itself and it’s surroundings so much. It is humorous in a blackly comic way, so you’re not even sure if you should be laughing. It holds a mirror to late 80s society and says “Look at yourself, you English b-boy Soho tea boys… what are you?” Every lyric is a gem, Coughlan is on top form throughout. And this time the music packs a punch. On the surface it would be perfect Radio Two fodder, and adding Londonbeat on backing vocals adds a nice touch. There’s less authenticity and more variety in the sounds too. And the credits are an absolute hoot – backing vocals by the Fabulous Golden Showers, plus Eugene Terrablanche on “Send Herman Home”, with a tap dancing jack boots instrumental section. This is subversion at its finest. If only somebody listened. There’s too many highlights to mention, it’s criminal that this record is ignored. In interviews Coughlan stated that all the previous albums were nostalgic but the new album was current and it shows. God, the contemptuous way Coughlan sings “Says his name is Tim” on “Ambulance for one”, spitting out that name. Of course it would never work, Microdisney were classed as entryists and schemers by Simon Reynolds and they could never realistically be a hit single machine. The album swipes at racism, movie stars and directors, fashion, yuppies…. “There’s nothing wrong with the young would-be rich that a head full of lead would not cure” sung so sweetly. Again, this is still relevant stuff. And finally “Bluerings” is another great album closer, another song aimed at those in power – “The road to honest happiness ploughs straight through yellow scum like you”. Perfect.
Of course it didn’t work, sales were negligible and Microdisney fell apart. Were they dropped by Virgin before they split? There are some tremendous Youtube videos of them playing live around the time where they are just at the end of their tether, Coughlan looks like he could explode at any moment. Three songs broadcast on the BBC for Amnesty International at the ICA could be their final farewell, tension palpable in every gesture.
Did anyone care or miss them? Well obviously both O’Hagan and Coughlan went on to other things – The High Llamas and Fatima Mansions respectively and both have produced their own share of genius along the way – “Gideon Gaye”, “Hawaii”, “Viva Dead Ponies” and “Bertie’s Brochures” should be part of anyone’s record collection. But those Microdisney records are special too, and as I keep saying over and over just as true today as they were thirty years ago.
Isn’t that really rather sad?