12 June 2008
Microdisney - The Clock Comes Down the Stairs
Year of Release: 1985
Label: Rough Trade
When I’m wed, I will dream/ in champagne haze of my first affair/ like a private joke on the one I love…
Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why Microdisney weren’t huge in the mid-eighties. Their reference points – Steely Dan, Scott Walker, Big Star, The Beach Boys, The Eagles – were simultaneously music press friendly and yuppie friendly. The spit and polish of their production sat well amongst the other sounds of that decade. Above all else, at their none-too-impressive “peak” (just missing the Top 40 with “Town to Town”) they managed to consolidate all the good feeling that had been building up around their work with peak time television and radio exposure.
Perhaps the reasons for their failure may also lie in some of the above. Whilst, for example, some of their reference points may have been yuppie-friendly, few yuppies would have enjoyed listening to lyrical content snarling at their lifestyles with delicately delivered lines such as “There’s nothing wrong with the young would-be rich/ that a head full of lead would not cure” (although it’s easy to fantasise about Patrick Bateman types humming along without twigging the full content). Additionally, Microdisney despised the music industry so much that there’s probably little doubt they occasionally pissed on their own chips. It’s difficult to forget the Virgin budget they blew on a series of “Microdisney are Shit” T-shirts, although in fairness this prank did emerge at a time when all concerned felt the game was probably up.
Whilst there will always be a divide in their fanbase as to which period of Microdisney worked better, the slightly better fed major label years or the more low budget, squat dwelling indie years, it’s arguably too close to call. The former period produced one disappointing album (“Crooked Mile”) and one which contained endless thrills which combined red-faced rage with pristine melodies (“39 Minutes”). The latter, on the other hand, brought us a rather patchy, slightly dispassionate affair (by their usual standards at least) which suffered from obvious rush recording in places (“Everyone is Fantastic”) and perhaps their finest album ever in “The Clock Comes Down The Stairs”.
TCCDTS should have been awful, of course. The band were so broke and in such a state of disarray at the time of its release that the entire album was recorded arse-about-face, with the drums being laid down after the main songs had been put to tape. A cheap drum machine track was all that held the initial recordings together, which then apparently had to be wiped and replaced with more adequate drumming once the appropriate candidate had turned up. This is not the way “great albums” are traditionally made. To make matters worse, it was supposed to have been their debut major label release, but the initial recordings and demos were rejected amidst some furious arguments at blanco y negro records (a subsidiary of Warner Brothers). It would seem that whilst one director there loved their work, the other was determined to reject it out of hand and instead focus on promoting Everything But The Girl and The Jesus and Mary Chain. More fool him, you might say – except, of course, if we’re judging his decisions based upon commercial success alone, it would be fair to conclude that he may have had a point.
On top of that, the band were adrift from their native Cork in Ireland and living in squats in London, living from one gig booking to the next. According to the sleeve notes on one reissue, they took LSD just to pass the long days in their diaries where absolutely nothing seemed to be happening. Lead singer Cathal Coughlan became so paranoid that nobody in England could pronounce his name he decided that the best thing to do would be to stop responding to it, referring to himself instead as “Blah Blah”.
Somewhere amidst the chaos and odd behaviour they obviously found the time to write some of the best tunes of their career. The album is filled to the brim with them, from the misleading jaunty pop of “Birthday Girl” (misleading primarily because the lyrics are so relentlessly bleak), to the mournful, end-of-an-affair, inappropriately sun-drenched “Are You Happy?”, to the guitar twanging London apocalypse referencing “Goodbye It’s 1987”. Throughout all these tracks and beyond, there’s a sense of a tension between the twisted, scabrous lyrical content and the sun-polished melodies. The entire disc is an eighties pop “Ring a Ring a Roses”, with the title of the collection itself even acting as a subtle metaphor for death.
Without being told, you would also have no idea that the budget for the recording was a struggle for all concerned. The end result is as marvelous as many of the pieces of “production genius” the press were prone to writing about at the time. It has none of the showy mess and clutter of some of the more ambitious works of that era, and a bit more clarity and coherence in its favour. Ironically, their follow-up album “Crooked Mile” was produced by Lenny Kaye, but the band have since agreed that his efforts were less satisfying.
Whilst this album didn’t bother the national charts, it did manage to spend a number of weeks on top of the Indie Albums chart, and generated enough positive press to convince Virgin to sign them. Since then, it seems to have fallen out of print, been reissued, then fallen out of print again more frequently than the eighties themselves have been revived. Some of its content can be found on the compilation “From Daunt Square to Elsewhere”, but it really deserves to be heard in its entirety.
As for the band, their Virgin contract predictably ended without success (the final album “39 Minutes” barely even getting a proper distribution) and Cathal Coughlan went on to form Fatima Mansions, a band named after a Dublin housing estate. Without Sean O’Hagan to act as the yin to his snarling yang, they were a much more noisy and unforgiving proposition, but no less brilliant. Sean O’Hagan, on the other hand, went off to fully realize his Californian pop obsessions in The High Llamas. Traces of both bands can be very obviously heard throughout TCCDTS, and fans of either band should not overlook it – but anyone with a love of lyrical satire and deftly arranged melodies should also tune in. This is as subversive, measured and intelligent as eighties pop ever got, and we will probably never hear its like again.
1. Horse Overboard
2. Birthday Girl
5. Are You Happy?
7. Begging Bowl
8. A Friend With A Big Mouth
9. Goodbye It’s 1987
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