'ENGLAND UNDER THE MICROSCOPE' by Bleddyn Butcher, NME January 1987.

What do you make of the Peter Wright case?
'It doesn't really make much odds does it? It would be nice if England could be publicly humiliated by having it shown that they were conspiring to make Wilson look like a KGB agent but who gives a toss about Wilson, really? He was crap.'
You don't feel at all vindicated?
'No, not Particularly'
I'm disappointed. A couple of days earlier, Microdisney's Cathal Coughlan and I had renewed our acquaintance after 15 months by crowing exultantly at the spectacle of Robert Armstrong's humiliation. Our suspicion that the Tories had not expected such insubordination from the colonial judiciary greatly cheered us. Now, when I'm all set to record his delighted analysis for lucky posterity, he clams up. It's no so much his reluctance to discuss the perfidy of MI5 which surprises me as the absence of any sign of personal satisfaction.
Microdisney have just released their third LP, 'Crooked Mile', recorded last summer under Lenny Kaye's sympathetic supervision. It is, without doubt, their most accomplished yet. The sound is perfectly clear, displaying arrangements of some cunning and more wit. The songs are bright with harmonic intervention, dense with colour. The lyrics are a revelation.
Were it not for the calibre of those lyrics, the band might receive a justifiable drubbing. Their favoured musical style- one the Americans, with their descriptive flair, have termed AOR- is regarded derisively as a hopeless remnant of the early '70's.
Since the great enlightenment ten years ago, Rock has been widely perceived as the playground of the pompous, an earnest cumbersome form forever tarnished by the Great Indulgence of Pomp. This perception holds greater sway in Britain, no doubt because the poor beleaguered inhabitants were subjected to Massive Doses of Wagnerian Pretension during the Offending Years. However, despite its critics' fondest hopes, Rock simply refused to die. The view that it is a form bereft of potential, sterile and self-important, has itself ossified into prejudice. With the crapulance of BritPomp to serve as a reminder, Rock retains its ability to provoke, stimulate, incite, titillate and entertain. Microdisney prove it.
Like others before them, Microdisney have attempted a synthesis of polemic and pop. Their marriage has produced a literary experience rather than an intellectual exercise. Rather than merely exhibiting his command of conceptual nicety, Cathal's use of words shows an awareness of sound as well as sense: sonority, idiom, rhythm and tone are important elements in his songs.
At first, it's true, the lyrics seem impenetrable. Gradually, the extent of Cathal's linguistic resource becomes apparent. In 'Crooked Mile' he has captured the jostle of tones, images and attitudes which make up present day Britain with expert economy. The myriad allusions evoke the texture of our society - from shrill prurience to destitute hope - but they also expose the moral derangement which informs it. Over everything hangs the shadow of the bomb.
One image in particular encapsulates Cathal's vision of the times. It's also the source of the LP's title. At the end of 'Hey Hey Sam', he asks, 'and did those feet in ancient times walk a crooked mile?' It's a pointed inversion of Blake's cautious optimism, insisting that, 200 years into the industrial revolution, the 'dark Satanic Mills' have had precisely the corrupting influence the poet feared. They are the source of moral confusion as well as physical luxury.
Could you tell me what associations that nursery rhyme. 'there was a crooked man...' holds for you, Cathal?
'To me the message is 'he was fucked'. This guy was totally doomed from the start. He ended up on the spit of reality, basically, hanging out over the flame! He didn't know where he came from beacuse his rationale was obviously slightly corrupted by the fact that he was completely Z-shaped... The way it ties into 'Hey Hey Sam' is that the way these people, who are supposedly servants of the crown, behave would make William Blake squirm and bore a hole further into the earth from where he is at the moment'
'Hey Hey Sam' dramatises spiritual depravity in the person of a Secret Service agent. Although guarding the public interest is his professional responsibility, Sam's private life suggests that his understanding of moral imperatives does not even measure up to the gutter press's robust notions of propriety. Yet it is in the hands of such paragons that the future lies.
Choosing a secret service agent to illustrate his moral fable is, I think, a marvelous instance of serendipity. What we've learnt recently about the Machiavellian plotting within MI5 gives the song instant credibility and weight. It is one of those triumphs of the imagination which justifies careless accolades. It also demonstrates that Cathal is sufficiently in tune with the zeitgeist to describe the Tory government's moral priorities and methods with poetic accuracy.
Despite my enthusiasms, Cathal is unimpressed by the topicality of his achievement. He regards his tale of institutionalised duplicity and corruption as an expression of common knowledge, not privileged information. Somewhat inconsistently, his songwriting partner and Microdisney's guitarist, Sean O'Hagan attempts a clarification, 'I think the most important development in the last 15 years was when the Tories discovered they could lie through their teeth and get away with it'.
If they are no longer surprised by Tory skullduggery, they both remain horrified by the influence of the Conservative ethic. As expatriates, they are perhaps more acutely sensitive to the churlish unreality which affects every aspect of the English - or more properly, London - life. Cathal describes the influence on him:
'The English are still told in their schools, 'you are the centre of the world. If someone else talks your language with a different accent, they're scum. If anyone claims to be British but they haven't got the same tone of skin, they're scum'
'Being Irish, you experience it in its most pure form: because you're white, like they're white, and you speak the same language. Being Australian, you must have experienced the same thing. They've got crass generalisations about your whole race just because of where you come from. The little they've experienced of it- in the case of Ireland, they've pissed on you for 700 years; in the case of Australia, they automatically suppose they cast you out as part of their criminal class- justifies them saying anything they want about you.
Even supposedly anti-racist people who wouldn't dream of doing anything to a black or Asian person feel justified in saying anything they want because you're white. They take the piss out of your accent. They fuck up your name all the fucking time. That's something which really, really, really gets on my nerves and is the main thing responsible for driving me into myself. I don't want to talk to anybody because they're only going to ask me five times what my name is. I always end up having to settle for something less than the correct pronunciation.'
Humourless? Paranoid? Petty? Maybe. Having spent a similar number of years aboard the same raft, I know how galling it can be only meeting one person in 50 who can be bothered remembering that you're not bled-in or Bed-in or Bledwyn or Blodwyn or Bleeding or Blevin or Kevin or Gavin or Graham but Blethyn, pronounced BLAIRthin. Or dealing labouriously with the innumerable enquiries beginning 'Is that your real name?' being an impeccably polite colonial, I have constantly to restrain myself from responding, 'No, it's Bleddyn Koshermeister, actually. I changed it to make it sound funky'.
They're unusual names, certainly, but the consistent ignorance, the casual impertinence, the compulsive indifference can become irritating. CAR'hul is quite right to propose that the basic discourtesy signifies a more deep-seated attitude of disrespect for foreigners. What, after all, is so logical about Featherstonehowe? Or St John Stevas? Or Holdnorn, for that matter?
'Ah!' says CAR'hul (again), 'I can see I'm ranting at the wrong person.'
It's a fairly small stone on which to found a church. It's barely pebblesized, I admit. Luckily, this wonderful language of OURS, does provide a more instructive metaphor: from small acorns mighty oak tress grow. Did you ever see a neurotic oak?
CAR'hul (last time) admits that it was this exposure to the systematic snobbery at the root of English society which politicised him. It lead him to explore the pervasive influence of this attitude and, eventually, to conclude that contempt was part of the infrastructure.
'Crooked Mile' is informed by an intuitive awareness of the iniquities perpetuated by rank assumptions of superiority. It dramatises the rickety dictum that politics begins with the personal. Cathal's observations of the traditional hypocrisies, the routine banality, the soulless greed and torpid cruelty are perhaps those of the quintessential outsider. They are, however, presented with a generous impulse, a wit and an almost visionary passion that owes something of its inspiration to the finer moments in the history of the language. The LP is massively learned without sounding studied; informative but not lecturing. The pleasure in listening is the delight of discovery, not the chore of acknowledgement. It should prove a revelation to all but the most obtuse.
Any suggestion that Microdisney's political perspective is simply a by-product of the chip on their shoulder can be rapidly dispelled by listening to the LP's last track, 'People Just Want To Dream'. Moreso even than 'Hey Hey Sam', this song provides a cogent analysis of the country's dominant political philosophy. Not only are the characters and their credos recognisable: they are so persuasively realised that one begins to understand their damnable allure.
The song begins routinely enough with an abusive caricature of Mrs. Thatcher. Then, with unusual delicacy, Cathal slips into monologue, dramatising her thought processes. She is imagined drowsing in front of the TV, her thoughts rambling in response to some chat show. Her mumbled insistence that 'money is everything' perfectly captures the indifference, masquerading as realism, which we've had to endure for the past eight years.
Despite the fact that his disgust for his subject keeps spilling over into sardonic savagery, Cathal does not resort to outright distortion. Thatcher may never use expressions like 'welfare scum' in public but her policies make it crystal clear that the phrase summarises her attitude. The song's mimicry of her commonsensical rhetoric is devasting, emphasising the abiding commitment to the status quo that lurks beneath the mask of pragmatism.
'In this country', he observes with disgust, 'people are given nothing sensible to count out their days with.' Nothing but a kind of narcotic envy for the rich. 'There's no emphasis whatever on your internal welfare here. It's all on the way things are going to appear to people around you.'
A haunting chant of 'Dream!' ends the song, its reverberations alternating between the nightmarish (natch) and the visionary. As a piece of advice, its impertinence matches 'On yer bike!' Only the desperate intensity of the singing obstructs a complacent, sedative, interpretation of the command. It invokes poetic stimulus as much as soporific stupor.
Cathal's inspirational singing of this passage most closely resembles his approach to live performance. My chief reservation about the album lies with the vocals. In the exquisitely sculpted soundscapes, his delivery tends toward the orotund. Live, he achieves a compelling mixture of ingrained biliousness and impassioned insight, which transcends recorded perfection. The power of these seizures communicates so directly that one wonders why they aren't attempted in the studio...
A prodigious display of humming and hawing ensues. Cathal proffers the hypothesis that singing with headphones on is an enormously artificial experience. Sean suggests that their studio inexperience might be responsible. Cathal finally acknowledges a suspicion that more flamboyant vocals would have been out of keeping with the meticulous contributions of the rest of the band.
'I think the style works in the interest of the songs. While you want to hear the personality of the singer, you don't want to hear too much of it.'
Sweat, it seems, is unsuitable in seamless surrounds. The pursuit of a pristine perfection is deliberate. Microdisney's recordings aim for an airbrushed sheen- what the poets of the airwaves term an 'accessible' sound. Unlike legions of their contemporaries, they have chosen not to wear their hearts on their sleeves. They feel no need to announce their radicalism with aural assault. Recognising that over-familiarity beggars content, they have cunningly inverted faddish formula. Instead of couching vehement polemic in a coruscating sonic equivalent, they gild with gossamer.
Amazingly, this conception, the assumption that music might have a meaningful constructive application, seems anachronistic. The deluge of vapid dance floor fodder so overwhelms the trickle of 'artistic' output that it creates the impression that function has been reduced to funktion. Large groups of entirely charming people will assure you that this is meet and just and, all in all, a good thing. Microdisney, with recidivist cheek, persist in regarding cerebral self-expression as a laudable goal. For this, they will be condemned as Steely Dan revivalists.
What the esteemed arbiters of taste have so far failed to observe about Cathal and Sean's songs is their genuinely subversive construction. Following the lead of that other loathsome lamebrain, Mr. Bozo Zimmerman, who turned his back on 'finger-pointing' songs back in '64, they avoid the shrill monotony of protest, tirade and invective. Instead, they engage the listener in dialogue. They insist on symbiotic relationships: between words and music, between group and listener and, most importantly, apparently disparate thematic elements.
Microdisney have not always been so confident of their method. I recall disrupting their last NME interview by tempting them to pronounce their mixture of strong words and snappy choruses 'subversive'. They declined, as Sean somewhat sheepishly admits now, 'That whole incident was very contrary. I remember it well. The word 'subversive' was one that even then we avoided. I think we were over-conscious of the ridiculous interpretations the word might have. And probably shied away from it for those reasons.'
Fifteen months later, having successfully repeated the trick of welding an abrasive personal vision to a formulaic-sounding groove, they are less reticent:
'These days you're only allowed to talk about Captain Beefheart within certain parameters- which apply to ineptitude. That's the last thing Beefheart had in mind. He was all about people who knew what they were doing, who dismembered what they knew to completely fucking devalue it and turn it into a legitimate mode of self-expression. That's exactly what we're about- taking legitimate modes, the normal things you have to do in order to make a record, and totally shagging them up the arse. Captain Beefheart made many AOR LPs which many people would rather he hadn't done'.
At first glance, the disparity between Beefheart and Microdisney couldn't be greater: Beefheart's inversion of accepted forms was extravagently demonstrative. Microdisney, on the other hand, run a distinctly covert operation, infiltrating the Mindrot Factory and producing altogether different fare. Second thought admits an underlying kinship. Microdisney's defiant iconoclasm provides, in these conservative times, an acceptable counterpart to Beefheart's deconstruction.
Just as the Captain's experimentation showed up the longeurs of so-called Progressive Rock so Microdisney's artistry pisses on the platitudinous complacency of most current radicalism as well as the terminal vacuity of Stadium Pap.