As the legendary Cork band get ready for their ‘last ever’ gig, Ed Power discusses their short-lived reunion with guitarist Sean O’Hagan.
The return of Microdisney has been one of those fairytales that are all too rare in pop. The storied Cork group reunited for two acclaimed dates last summer, starting with a sell-out at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.
That was supposed to the final curtain for a band that had blended the sweetness of FM rock, the anger of punk and the pressure-cooker introspection bound up with growing up in 1970s’ Ireland. But such was the response to the gigs singer Cathal Coughlan, multi-instrumentalist Sean O’Hagan and their bandmates have been coaxed back a final hurrah. The play Vicar Street, Dublin. on February 18 and then bring down the shutters at what is sure to be an emotional gig at Cyprus Avenue in Cork 24 hours later.
“It is fitting that the last planned show is in Cork,” says O’Hagan, who met his foil, Coughlan, after moving to Leeside from Luton as a teenager. “I don’t know how many people you can get into the room. It’s great playing concert halls and big spaces. However, I’m much more used to small rooms and people being in your face. It will be a contrast — a welcome contrast. I’m very much looking forward to it.”
The National Concert Hall performance was enormously emotive — for the band, but also for the audience, many of whom had waited half a lifetime to see Microdisney after the band fizzled out in 1988.
In their heyday the sweet and sour duo of O’Hagan and Coughlan had been Irish rock’s most intriguing double act: a hyper-literate and melodic yin to U2’s earnest, braying yang. Now they were back and, as they romped through classics such as ‘Town To Town’ and ‘Singer’s Hampstead Home’, arguably even better than devotees will have remembered.
“It was incredible,” says O’Hagan. “You’re put in mind of all sorts of things. It very much has to do with life, your place in it, and they journey you make. You start out and you’re a teenager and then you are in your twenties but, really, still a teenager. It’s very creative and instinctive period. Then life rolls on and people change. And then, right at the end, it’s amazing to look back.”
It must have been intimidating? The band’s legacy was, to a degree, on the line. “It wasn’t intimidating,” says O’Hagan. “The NCH did it so well so that it very much felt we were among friends. Walking out on stage you saw a hall full of very happy people. The front row was red-faced gentleman with white hair. It’s funny — when you step on stage you go out as yourself but you also was out a little bit as the younger person you used to be.”
Microdisney’s classic albums – The Clock Runs Down The Stairs, Crooked Mile and 39 Minutes – were recorded when Coughlan and O’Hagan were scraping by in London, acclaimed by the music press but unable to break through commercially.
But before that version of Microdisney the group had come together in a sort of surreally protean form in Cork. They would rehearse in a room at Daunt Square and open for passing super-stars such as Depeche Mode at the Arcadia Ballroom on the Lower Glanmire Road (they also were invited to Dublin to support U2, with Coughlan taking the opportunity to pass a few pithy comments about the headliners).
Soon they were headlining the Arcadia itself. These were heady days, O’Hagan recalls. Cork was its own alternative micro-climate — a university town but also a working- class industrial city. There were still hippies wafting around, along with punks and skinheads. And a new generation as embodied by Microdisney, who bridled against the dead weight of institutional religiosity. It made for a compelling cocktail and memories of that time will come flooding back as they take to the stage at Cyprus Avenue.
“Cork was so remote back then,” says O’Hagan. “It’s important to remember that. Stuff could still happen in isolation. There was a sense of humour and a pattern of behaviour that was very much part of that remote existence. You may not have really had a band at all — so you just made it up. The next thing you’re in stage and someone is going, ‘I thought you said you’d rehearsed?’.
“I’d arrived as a teenager from a working town in the south of England,” he continues. “Cork was such an interesting place by comparison. There was history everywhere. It was also a university city with a lot of culture. And that culture existed cheek by jowl with working class culture. You still have industries back then — Ford and what have you.
“So you had culture and industry co-existing. I had never seen anything like that — a city full of breezy students swanning around but also remnants of the old Cork skinheads hanging about.”
HAVING A LAUGH
Having started Microdisney essentially as a lark, was there a point at which O’Hagan and Coughlan realised the project was growing legs and could be something more than a way of passing time?
“Because we were young it never entered our heads that we wouldn’t be successful,” he says.
“We carried on as if it was a foregone conclusion— ‘oh yeah, this will happen and then that will happen’. The Dublin press started writing about us and we got on the radio. It didn’t seem that hard. It’s funny when you look back — there was that completely undeserved confidence, which I find amusing now.”
Even after they’d decamped to the UK, their Cork sense of humour remain a defining aspect. “It was very much inherent and it confused people in London. Whether we were talking to the music press or promotes or agents. That characteristic would certainly be something they hadn’t come across. It stayed with the band.”
The obvious final question of course is whether that really is that? Is the Cork show truly the final farewell?
“There aren’t any plans after this and I”m very honest about that,” says O’Hagan. “That’s why Cork is going to be very important.”
- Microdisney’s final shows are at Vicar Street, Dublin, February 18; and Cyprus Avenue in Cork, February 19