When Sean O’Hagan returns to Cork this week he hopes to visit the Apple complex in Hollyhill.
O’Hagan left Ireland in the mid-1980s with the country deep in the economic doldrums and Cork on the way to becoming a rustbelt town. Thirty years later, he is struck by the changes every time he comes back.
“It seems pretty cosmopolitan now,” says the 56-year-old. “Everything feels very international. You go out to places like the Glen and Blackrock and there are massive amounts of development.
"When I was a young man there was a provincialism that was very isolating. But it’s what I loved about it. “
O’Hagan can claim a storied position in the history of Irish rock. Together with Cathal Coughlan he helmed Microdisney, one of the few Irish bands of the decade to achieve international critical acclaim.
Today, based in London and greatly sought after as studio arranger and composer — Paul Weller and Super Furry Animals are among his collaborators — he looks back on his Cork years with unabashed nostalgia.
“It was a pre-mass communication era. We’re talking about the late ’70s, early ’80s here. You got from news from New York and London but everything had a delay — and in that delay, you made your own fun, created your own theatre.”
Posterity has put a rose-tinted scene on the Cork scene of the period. Alongside Microdisney acts such as Nun Attax and Mean Features were carving out a distinct identity.
“There was an intellectual agenda,” says O’Hagan. “Everyone was intelligent and knew what they were doing. If you had an idea you just went out and did it. Every kind of music was being explored: punk, folk, crossover jazz. There was no fear.”
O’Hagan was born in Luton and moved to Cork as a teenager. His parents, from Louth, had wanted to go back to the old sod and chose Cork because of a family connection. He got a job working in a food factory in Little Island, and met Coughlan, at a New Year’s Eve party. They struck up an immediate musical connection.
Microdisney had a rapid ascent, critically at least. Journalists both here and in Britain went weak-kneed for their mix of raw anger (Coughlan’s contribution) and O’Hagan’s classic songwriting. Their 1985 masterpiece The Clock Comes Down The Stairs is still regarded by many as the greatest ever Irish album. Yet as the band became a job the fun began to leech out.
“The need to maintain the success and to maintain a level of income starts to drive it,” says O’Hagan. “There is a reversal of function and it stops being fun. What you do then is you stop it — which is what we did.”
Coughlan went on to establish the industrial-influenced Fatima Mansions. O’Hagan, for his part, embraced his love of Sixties soft-pop with the High Llamas and released a series of acclaimed records and even a quasi-hit with 1994’s ‘Checking In And Checking Out’. That led to one of the more surreal moments of his career as Richard Branson hired him to help cement a rift in the Beach Boys and to write their next album.
“Richard wanted to sign them and he had me go over there. It was completely mad. When I look back at it now it’s like a movie that I happened to star in. “
His forthcoming Irish shows, at the Cricket Pavilion in Cork and the Grand Social in Dublin, will see him dipping into the Llamas’ catalogue. “ I get back over very now and then but not as often as I would like to.I’m looking forward to it.”
He and Coughlan are still in touch. A Microdisney reunion appears unlikely. Yet the bond they forged at that New Year’s Eve party decades ago endures.
“Cathal was the most important person I had met in my life up to that point,” says O’Hagan.
“He changed me more than anybody. He lives in London and we remain friends.”
Sean O’Hagan plays Grand Social Dublin this Saturday (with support from Sack) and Cricket Club, Cork, Sunday.
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