Microdisney, The Irish Steely Dan, as they would have been called if the world had been a kinder place. And also if the Cork-formed band hadn’t actually spent most of its life in London, the city that provided much of the inspiration for some of the most powerful, affecting and acerbic songs of the nineteen eighties, found on Everybody is Fantastic.
From their moment of inception back in 1980, Microdisney seemed destined for heroic failure. As with fellow Irish contemporaries U2, they were full of energy and angst, but were too ‘off genre’ for early eighties music fans to truly understand. 1980 marked the dying days of thrashy, guitar-based new wave, and an explosion of new, style-obsessed, synthesiser-driven pop about to be labelled ‘new romantic’. Microdisney were neither, instead offering an odd combination of soft, light, sugary middle-of-the-road rock and bile-filled, angry vocals.
By the time Fantastic was released in May 1984, the band’s sound had evolved but – much to the chagrin of Rough Trade records – not in a way that made them as saleable as some. By this time, The Smiths, The Cure, The Cocteau Twins and Felt all defined ‘indie pop’, whereas Microdisney remained an odd adjunct. Whereas indie music was dense, dark, brooding, minor key infused and experimental, they deployed bright, lilting and melodic keyboard-based grooves courtesy of Beach Boys devotee Sean O’Hagan.
This wasn’t to say the music was insipid – Cathal Coughlan’s vocals saw to that. Blessed with a distinctively boomy, snarling voice, his singing soured the band’s songs just as Donald Fagen’s had spiked Walter Becker’s sleek, polished jazzy chords some ten years earlier. And the Steely Dan comparison was even more marked with the lyrics, which took Microdisney songs to dark places that few other eighties bands ever reached. The simple, sparse production by Smiths producer John Porter was a long way away from classic west coast American rock, however.
In 1984, Britain was recovering from a recession which decimated swathes of traditional industries. The country was divided, the economy weak, and unemployment at hitherto unknown levels. Into this world Microdisney’s first album launched with its optimistic name and cover picture of a pretty cityscape set before a beautiful sunset. The irony wasn’t lost on the band’s devoted fans, but the concept didn’t communicate well to those not in the know. The sleeve was devoid of cultural iconography, and lacked the traditional eighties photo of sexy but surly looking young musicians. This put countless indie pop fans off the scent completely – to the untrained eye, it could have been an album of nineteen sixties easy listening favourites.
The only clue was a note on the back of the LP sleeve which read, “For optimal listening pleasure, please listen to this record at least four times”. It wasn’t wrong, because the first few listens left many people puzzled; Idea is a brisk, jaunty little song behind which a metronomic drum machine beats slavishly away. It sounds so fey that it could almost be a demonstration song for a Casiotone keyboard, until you listen to Coughlan’s broody vocals. “Sheer tiredness keeps the sun in the sky,” he writes, confessing that “false promise lives with me like a friend”. Suddenly you realise everything isn’t fantastic, after all!
The album continues in the same vein for the next forty minutes. The pace slows then quickens, the music lightens then darkens, and the lyrics occasionally get happy, then descend into the depths of bitter, world-weary gloom. But still there’s a naive optimism to the album buried deep inside. One by one, Coughlan chronicles the miseries of existential life (Idea), loneliness (A Few Kisses), obsession (Escalator in the Rain), jealousy (This Liberal Love) and loss (Everybody is Dead), almost like he’s reading excerpts from his diary. But O’Hagan’s delicate and seductive melodies keep the listener enthralled and upbeat, making for a bizarre and bittersweet listening experience.
Everybody is Fantastic is a special album. There are no others like it, not even from Microdisney. It’s one of those rare musical works that takes you on a journey, dropping you down to the depths of despair then pulling you back out again to a better place than where you started. It teaches you to laugh at a world you know is wrong. In the chilly Cold War gloom of 1984, this rare Rough Trade long player was in the right place and the right time. Such a shame then, that no one really noticed.
[Rough Trade ROUGH 75]