Microdisney - Crooked Mile

Crooked Mile

Released 1987 on Virgin
Reviewed by Valve, 16/02/2005ce

“—We’ll ask Jimmy, said Outspan.—Jimmy’ll know.
Jimmy Rabbitte knew his music. He knew his stuff alright. You’d never see Jimmy coming home from town without a new album or a 12-inch or at least a 7-inch single. Jimmy ate Melody Maker and the NME every week and Hot Press every two weeks. He listened to Dave Fanning and John Peel. He even read his sisters’ Jackie when there was no one looking. So Jimmy knew his stuff.
The last time Outspan had flicked through Jimmy’s records he’d seen names like Microdisney, Eddie and the Hot Rods, Otis Redding, The Screaming Blue Messiahs, Scraping Foetus off the Wheel (—Foetus, said Outspan. —That’s the little young fella inside the woman, isn’t it?
—Yeah, said Jimmy.”
—Aah, that’s fuckin’ horrible, tha’ is.)

The opening exchanges in ‘The Commitments’, ©Roddy Doyle 1987, his debut novel, no less. How long must he have thought about which artists to use for the scene setting? Otis is there for fundamental all round unquestioned greatness, the Hot Rods and Messiahs for the garageland rock ‘n’ roll ethic, one pre and one post punk, Jim Thirlwell’s variation on a foetus theme for the gag and Microdisney, well they’re there for local flavour (Cork not Dublin mind) and as a representation of ultimate committed (They probably should be) knowing-your-stuffness. I’m guessing that ‘The Commitments’ will be on English Literature course syllabus by now which means that someplace somewhere some poor sap teacher, leather patched and tweeded, is going, “Now then, Otis Redding - I think we’re all familiar with him, yes? Erm... Microdisney - any takers? C’mon. Anybody?”.

I first became aware of Cathal Coughlan’s and Sean O’Hagan’s Microdisney at the end of ’83 or start of ’84 (I honestly can’t recall which - the early 80’s were a bit of a drop out zone for me), when they played a Thursday nights residency (I can remember the day but not the year) at Garfunkel’s Burger Bar on that stretch between Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, Coventry Street in London’s West End. “Rock” music was pretty much off limits at the start of that decade. Most of us buried our heads in African pop, Blue note jazz, kitsch country and anything else esoteric you could pick up from the Cheapo Cheapo Records’ barrow in Rupert Street... oh, and drank a lot. Microdisney fitted in perfectly. They did their thing in front of the chattering tourists and tipsy afterworks crowd, didn’t appear to be bothered by the indifference coming their way AND sounded to be playing some very gorgeous little tunes. Plus, in Cathal they had a frontman who looked ready to out lout any trouble makers who may have happened in for mince and cheese. The Microdisney sound? At that time, to these ears, there were traces of Young Marble Giants and Band of Holy Joy mixed with a love for shit-kicking Country and Bacharach lush, but as they developed over the next few years they were routinely likened to Steely Dan and the Beach Boys (If Sean was Brian Wilson sifting teenage symphonies to god in the sandpit, Cathal’s Charles Mansun penning poison from the cell on Terminal Island). It’s probably more instructive to list the cover versions the band performed at their gigs, often done perversely as final encores with the audience baying for their album favourites, to reveal where the Micro-music was rooted: The Isley Brothers’ Harvest for the World (always magnificent); The Commodores’ Easy; Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock; Richard and Linda Thompson’s Withered and Died; Holy Cow - Lee Dorsey via The Band; Promised Land - Chuck Berry via cajun Johnnie Allen; Creedence’s Who'll Stop the Rain; Johnny Cash’s Cocaine Blues; Neil Young’s Don’t Cry No Tears; Drifter’s Escape - Dylan; Honky Tonk Women - The Stones; Down in the Bottom - Howlin’ Wolf; Merle Haggard’s Fighting Side of Me (Dedicated to Prince Edward, “a fucking pansy disgrace to this country”. Cathal, who had a gob on him that makes Bob Geldof and Sinead O’Connor in their highest dander seem like Lord and Lady Simpering-Acquiescence by comparison, introduced each song with similarly sardonic asides) and The Fall’s No Xmas for John Quays! Songs to cry into your beer and lurch about and spill it over another man’s best mate’s girlfriend to. You’d have paid good money to see a showband doing THESE at the Galtimore on Kilburn High Road.

We stalked Microdisney as they graduated from the college bars and smaller clubs to bigger venues like the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, The Fridge in Brixton and The Albany in Deptford. Waiting on the steps to the Astoria on Charing Cross Road in February 1987 I was accosted by Phil Daniels (Yeah the Park Life berk) demanding: “Who’s on tonight mate?”. So I tell him. “Oh Mi-cro-dis-ney, r-i-g-h-t” (meaning: “Catch me watching a dopey band called Microdisney?”). “See you then” I shout after him (meaning: “They’d be wasted on you yer talentless mockney twat. . . actually I quite liked you in Quadrophenia”). Microdisney were never in the business of making friends - with anyone really, but particularly within the music industry. Rough Trade once dispatched them to Poland while they spent the budget on The Smiths and heaven only knows what the cloth eared A&R boys and self promoting PR girls at Virgin made of them. An air of surliness came off of Microdisney like steam off an overworked horse. If you wrote to Tiger Ward at the Microdisney Love Club, advertised on the backs of all the records, did you get a reply? Did you bollox! The hottest selling/only item of Microdisney merchandise was a T-shirt proclaiming - MICRODISNEY ARE SHIT - and in the spring of ’88 after a gig at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town they split.

But... by the end of that year Cathal was back - albeit in the backroom of a pub, The Bull & Gate, further back down the Highgate Road from the T&C - with Cathal Coughlan and the Freedom Association. In the summer of ’89 they became Fatima Mansions and lo! Cathal’s sarcasm and vitriol is given its equivalence in sound, (A Mansions gig at the Marquee in ’91 had Cathal’s carousing backed by what can only be described as speed metal) not that Microdisney couldn’t scare the living bejeezus out of you with their sonic assault (‘464’ off the ‘In the world’ EP for ear- bleeding instance!) and equally F.M. occasionally slipped into no-static-at-all mode. A bit of arseing about with Sean Hughes in Bubonique and then from 1996 Cathal’s releasing stuff under his own name - and you best pronounce it correctly - 3 albums on 3 labels, the latest, ‘The Skies Awful Blue’ receiving critical acclaim from John L Walters in his ‘On the edge’ column for the Guardian where he has the enviable position of reviewing stuff that’s... on the edge. Meanwhile in November ’89 I know I saw Sean O’Hagan playing with a group called something like Tricia and the Twilites(?) which involved, and I’m sure I didn’t just dream this, a number of French girls (Laeticia Sadia? or was it Tricia who’d sung on 83’s ‘Pink Skinned man’?). A year on and Sean was releasing a solo album called High Llamas before forming the band of the same name, contributing to Laeticia’s and Tim Gane’s Stereolab, collaborating with the likes of Jim O’Rourke and Will Oldham and continuing to develop and widen the wonderful soundscape vistas that the early Microdisney releases had promised.

As far as stuff that’s committed to vinyl and disc my recommendation is simple. Acquire everything that Sean O’Hagan and Cathal Coughlan, and especially the pair of them together, appear on. CROOKED MILE is Microdisney’s third LP proper, coming after ‘Everybody is Fantastic’ and ‘The Clock comes down the Stairs’, both on Rough Trade, and proceeding the final record for Virgin, ‘39 Minutes’. In amongst these there’s ‘We Hate You South African Bastards’ which is a collection of tracks recorded 82-84 in a small studio in Cork and a ‘Peel Sessions’ which pretty much spans their whole career. And then there’s those staple eighties items - the 12inch singles (thankfully void of syndrums and rap), that contain in ‘Loftholdingswood’, ‘464’ and ‘She only gave in to her anger’ three tracks that would serve as the perfect introduction to the band, combining as they do sumptuous melody, poetic lyricism and searing vitriol in equal measure. By CROOKED MILE the band’s lo-fi beginnings were a world away (The first album’s more introspective songs are backed by carefully plucked guitar, cheapy organ and a hardly fluctuating drum machine - except on a couple of tracks where John McKenzie and Terry Stannard play bass and drums - a pair whose lineage, and I make no apology for crowbarring this information in, includes The Global Village Trucking Company, Man, The Grease Band and Kokomo. Hurrah for them!). Production on CROOKED MILE is by Lenny Kaye - compiler of “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era”, Patti Smith Group guitarist and lately, Waylon Jennings’ biographer, a curriculum vitae that should probably make him some sort of patron saint of this here site. Sean says now that it “sounded like it was recorded in 1973...” adding, before you get too excited, “... and that’s bad”. Never happy these pop perfectionists.

Sure, if Microdisney’s product is sugar coated pills this is their sweetest confection - but also their most poisonous. The gigging band of Cathal and Sean, vocals and guitar, Jonathan Fell aka Ed Flesh aka Steve Pregnant aka Crazy Johnny Nancy on bass. Tom Fenner drums and James Compton Keyboards is augmented here by the ubiquitous B.J.Cole who is to the pedal steel what Ken Morse is to the rostrum camera and, crucially, the beautiful supporting vocals of June Miles-Kingston, ex-Modette and probably best remembered as the blonde bobbed singing drummer on the Fun Boy Three’s Our Lips are Sealed. Cathal’s rogue brogue joined by June’s Home Counties harmony is a coupling second only to that match made in Nudie suit heaven, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. God, it’d be something to have heard these two doing Love Hurts. The poison is provided naturally by Cathal’s lyrical attacks. Targets? Whaddya got? This is the eighties after all. Of course it’s all done with the wit and style you’d expect of an Irish satirist. No dogma. I’m reminded of Randy Newman’s Jolly Coppers on Parade, upon which his sneering contempt for authoritarianism is blatent all the while he’s trilling, “Oh they look so nice, Look like angels come down from Paradise”. Crooked Mile is subtitled on the inner sleeve: “Camping it up with the Cops”.

Track one TOWN TO TOWN sets off all jaunt and bounce with Sean’s guitar dealing clipped slick americana licks. This was the single and a promo video had the band performing on the back of a flat bed truck, flying down the high street serenading bemused shoppers. It also got them a slot on a Tom O’Connor seaside special. - Come on everybody, sing along - “Fry Dresden, Fry Dublin...”. Summer holiday meets nuclear winter. The “angels” get “grievous” on OUR CHILDREN as BJ Coles mournful pedal steel sets a scene of quiet desperation, like only a pedal steel can, and June Miles Kingston pushes Cathal aside for her sombre opening line, “...jesus was reading the news”. When June sings with Cathal there’s no sitting at his feet and doe-eyed gaze. She’s shoulder to shoulder, head turned away, a sneer pulling at her lips. It’s like Scenes from a Marriage. She’s rising high above him, all chatty nasal Cynthia Payne, on the droll GIVE ME ALL YOUR CLOTHES where Cathal’s giving the “art student all dressed in chains (yankee porn Weimar fashion so fake Berlin)” a good “Kings Road jackboots with matt black toes” kicking over an insistent sub-Chic riff. “...I went to college and I was so messed up, but I found noo wave and so I was saved”. Oh, Stop it! and as Cathal’s crooning “...I f-e-e-e-e-l like Alan Vega when I dream baby dream...” and Vega-Iggy-Elvis mumbling “Drmbabydream, Aoww Drmbabydream” with Suicide yelps to the fade, June’s primly spurning his advances. Irish blood, English rose. I was trying to avoid mention of the Morrissey/Marr alliance, ’cos I don’t think Microdisney need comparison with The Smiths but there is a similarity in the way Coughlan and O’Hagan meld memorable lyrics and spine tingling melody (HEY HEY SAM’s exhilarating anthemic mid section contains the immortal lines: “The anglo-saxons make their love - in frogman’s suits and boxing gloves - These electrodes sure are fine”). Also - both bands were often accused of being miserable, when they were in fact as funny as fuck.

ARMADILLO MAN’s a rousing tale of heavily armoured invasion - “with a whoosh and a whistle and a bang!”. Sean’s hokey harmonica and James’ Frenchie accordion suggest a vaguely European location but like they say, “It doesn’t matter what country you are in” and only the line, “off to torch that red infested land” dates it. Was there a more depressing piece of footage from last year’s warring than that of dozy young American artillery men visiting push button death and destruction on “soft” targets with Bloodhound Gang’s Fire Water Burn pumping on their stereos?

The hilarity continues with AND HE DESCENDED INTO HELL where backed by Sean’s plaintive harmonica Cathal’s offering the following advice to the homeless: “When screaming in the street, you use a disco beat, or your audience will flee, and you’ll be all alone”. There’s a cinematic quality to this music - Sean’s arrangements all widescreen tracking shot and Cathal looming up close expressing the story - like Ford and Wayne... or probably more like Herzog and Kinski.

RACK is an organ led (oo-er) reaction to an ill informed government/media scare campaign, the sort of thing that’s now reserved for The War Against Terror (T.W.A.T.), then designed to keep us all buttoned up during the “Aids crisis” - Remember Lisa Stansfield on Yoof TV wondering out loud why condoms needed to be flavoured? - with Cathal charting a “victim’s” decline via his record collection: “Here comes the sun till black is black... Let’s spend the night becomes Get back”, over suitably George Martin like strings riffing.

Saving the best till last, like a magnificent requiem mass for everything we SO loved about the eighties, the Barbara Kruger/Jenny Holzer style slogan titled PEOPLE JUST WANT TO DREAM - ”She’s a big fat matron with turquoise hair” (Can you tell who it is yet?), “She is lunging for the black and white lounging chair” (Habitat on the un-lawyered version). “Money is... EVERY-THING”. Cathal telling it like it is and Sean filling in the detail, “The high street used to be such a slum (petrol queues and bomb scares and liberal confusion) till we prised it away from the welfare scum (Marching piggy-wiggies and bovine retribution)” and with the Micros slo-mo beach babying away on the songs spiralling coda: “Let’s - leave - them - to - dream”, Cathal’s moaning and primal screaming the words “Dream and dream and...” to his heart’s discontent. Fucking brilliant!

As yer man says on ...DESCENDED INTO HELL, “I’m gonna leave you now so you can go Knee-jerk, knee-jerk, knee-jerk! Knee-jerk, knee-jerk, knee-jerk, knee-jerk, knee-jerk, knee-jerk!”

Microdisney. They were stardust. They were golden...


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