Daunt Square to Elsewhere sleeve notes, 2007

THE very fact of this compilation’s existence tells you a great deal about the music it contains, and the band it honours. The most recent of these recordings is more than two decades old. Not one of these songs was ever a hit. The career of the group that produced them was, to a large extent, an attritional struggle against indifference. Their split in 1988 was not attended by hysterically aggrieved mobs rending their garments and hurling themselves upon bonfires. To an observer unfamiliar with the band in question – or to any subscriber to the mystifying notion that success in the field of popular music should or can be quantified in numbers – the production of this artefact may appear to amount to a dementedly determined charge at an especially indifferent windmill.

This compilation exists, though, and it will have an audience, and that audience will contain many whose first act upon inheriting a fortune would be to buy multiple copies and press them upon passers-by (or, if the fortune was sufficient, charter an aircraft and scatter the CDs widely across the landscape, attached to little parachutes). Microdisney were always one of those bands whose audience’s size was inversely proportional to their audience’s crusading ardour. Microdisney made that painful Faustian trade, forsaking the passing affection of the many for the enduring reverence of the few. It probably wasn’t deliberate. It very rarely is – anybody who has ever strapped on a guitar and mounted a stage has thought, at least a little bit, that it might be nice to have hits, and some money, and one’s name whispered by dazzled onlookers at flashbulb-lit parties, and a house at least half as impressively overwrought as their reviews. Microdisney, however, unable or unwilling to subsume the splendid combative contrariness that characterises each of these 28 extraordinary songs, doomed themselves nobly.

Their reward has been the lasting veneration always afforded martyrs, whether advertent or not. While many of Microdisney’s more fleetingly profitable contemporaries, when their works are now exhumed by nostalgic television programmes, attract little but bafflement or derision, even from former fans, Microdisney remain adored. Those who started listening to Microdisney, however frustratingly few of them there may have been at the time, never stopped. Twenty years after Microdisney ceased recording, it is still very possible to meet people whose love for the band has not ebbed. It is also impossible to avoid noticing that these people, as a breed, tend to be smarter and angrier than average, as well as more than usually susceptible to the thrill of a truly great pop tune.

Microdisney, smarter and angrier than average, and unusually susceptible to the thrill of a truly great pop tune, first convened in their native Cork in 1982. The titular Daunt Square was the address at which the band’s founding pillars, vocalist/lyricist Cathal Coughlan and instrumentalist Sean O’Hagan, hired a bedsit in which to rehearse. The room was decorated with a large print of Pablo Picasso’s surreal apocalypse “Guernica”, which seems retrospectively appropriate in that it is easy enough to imagine the painting as a reasonably accurate portrait of the contents of Coughlan’s head.

Though a certain progressive refinement is unmistakable along the chronological course of these selections, the earliest recording here, 1982’s “Hello Rascals” demonstrates persuasively that Microdisney, like all the most arresting and worthwhile artists, appeared essentially fully formed. Everything that would be great about them is great about this, the economically enforced low fidelity of its production notwithstanding. “Hello Rascals” has an almost impudently sumptuous melody, wedded though it is to a toytown keyboard riff. It betrays an audibly restless musical imagination, in the sound of O’Hagan’s muted guitar biding time in the background, as if impatiently awaiting opportunity for one of the scintillating, mellifluous solos, evocative of James Burton or Walter Becker, with which O’Hagan would decorate Microdisney’s later work. It packs a pugnacious lyrical wallop: “Watch the dawn in sick amazement” is a heck of a command to include on a debut. And it is distinguished further, of course, by that unmistakable, defiantly and definitively accented voice of Coughlan’s, half-croon, half-snarl, a lugubrious Irish Scott Walker with fangs.

Fast forward to the end of this collection – though there is no good reason for so doing, other than to uphold the veracity of this point – and “Gale Force Wind” finds Microdisney still cleaving grimly, gleefully to the abovementioned core virtues. By this terminal stage of their career, the key dichotomy of Microdisney – the velvet glove of the music, the steel claw of the words – had reached a pitch of riotous, marvellous absurdity. Musically and melodically, “Gale Force Wind” is a confection of singular sweetness, something that could have borne the name of Prefab Sprout or late-period Aztec Camera. Lyrically and vocally, it is fabulously splenetic, and very arguably the most lucid and brutal critique of the winner-takes-all culture of 1980s Britain that anyone ever worked into a chorus: “Face extinction with a sheepish nod/Twilight of the underdog”. It certainly contained the one line that, then and since, seems to sum up Microdisney’s raison d’etre better than any other: “What the hell,” Coughlan demanded, if incongruously tunefully, of the passing listener, and the world at large, “is wrong with you?” Then and since, it’s a fair question.

The early introduction of “Hello Rascals” and final sign-off of “Gale Force Wind” bookend a collection of songs which still startle with their furious articulacy. The selections from 1985’s “The Clock Comes Down The Stairs” (“Birthday Girl”, “Horse Overboard”, “And”, the monumentally beautiful stupid question “Are You Happy?”) sound way finer than tracks on which the drums were recorded last – there were, apparently, reasons for this – have any right to. The cuts from the two albums (1987’s Lenny Kaye-produced “Crooked Mile”, 1988’s “39 Minutes”) which resulted from Microdisney’s initially positive, eventually fractious relationship with Virgin have been known to attract disdain from the Microdisney hardcore, and from Microdisney themselves, but still radiate a poise and confidence which, by all accounts, the group were far from feeling when they wrote and recorded them, insolvent and rancorous in London. Coughlan exists among that rare class of lyricist whose authorial touch is instantly detectable from any random snippet, and those last two albums caught him at full roar. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” he claimed on “Rack”, “I am just wonderful. . . I’ve got pop songs to keep me calm, and faithful friends like you.” It might be the single most sarcastic assertion ever sung. The “barbed wire rainbow” he describes at the end of the same verse, meanwhile, is unimprovable as a description of a Microdisney song.

There were reasons why these tremendous songs weren’t hits. Pop music is an environment which favours herds, and Microdisney didn’t sound like anything or anyone else – they still don’t. They were outraged, baleful and smart in an arena in which one gets further, and faster, by being pliant, cheerful and dumb – and they knew it (“Keep yourself bland,” Coughlan ruefully suggested on “United Colours”, “so folks will understand”). They were, perhaps, not the easiest people to work with – tales of erratic behaviour prompted by excessive indulgence in head-altering substances remain in currency, and at best half-heartedly denied (one has Coughlan amusing himself by riding Irish trains dressed as a priest, swearing vigorously at fellow passengers, another has him briefly changing his name to Blah Blah). They had a somewhat diffident attitude to self-promotion (“Microdisney,” declared one of their own t-shirts, “are shit.”) In the era defined by such sentimental, optimistic gestures as Live Aid, Microdisney’s politics were jarringly vindictive – and when they did sign up to the common causes, they upped the ante with discomfiting malevolence. As an anti-apartheid statement, a song (recorded by almost everybody except Microdisney in 1985) called “(I Ain’t Gonna Play) Sun City” looks rather pale of countenance and weak of knee next to an album (recorded by Microdisney in 1984) called “We Hate You South African Bastards!”.

What really matters, though, is not what these songs weren’t, but what they were – and are. They remain resonant echos of a uniquely feral intelligence, and a decent approximation of what might have resulted had Jonathan Swift ever joined The Beach Boys, Bertholt Brecht co-written with Steely Dan, Ambrose Bierce displaced Hal David by the piano of Burt Bacharach. They were clearly not to everybody’s taste, but everybody’s unerring knack for being wrong about everything should scarcely require pointing out to a person sufficiently enlightened to have purchased this item. Microdisney were a band of whom it is impossible to believe that anyone ever uttered the most damning condemnation that can be passed upon art: that they were, you know, pretty good if you liked that kind of thing.