Jeff Whiteaker

My ex-wife hated Microdisney. "I can't stand the singer's voice" she said, "he sounds like a big, gross, sweaty oaf. Please don't play them when I am home!" Long story short, the marriage didn't work out. She was into Current 93 and Coil and all that escapist/pseudo-spiritual/mystical/satanic/goth crap anyway. As if I would place any faith in the judgment of someone who thinks David Tibet's voice is "sexy".

Most of my friends can't stand Microdisney. Believe me, I've tried to convert, to spread the word. I always start out with Everybody's Fantastic. "Dolly," "Liberal Love," "I'll be a Gentleman," "Dreaming Drains," etc.., then move on to "Pink skinned Man" from Bastards, "Genius" from Clock. You know, classic Microdisney. But somehow it just doesn't register. Most seem to hate the production, especially the not-so-subtle drum machine on Fantastic, or the undeniably 80s synth sounds employed on much of their later work. They say it's just too slick, too 80s for their liking. Others share my ex-wife's disdain for Cathal's voice, and if they're being nice they'll say stuff like "the instrumentals [on Bastards] are pretty cool." Some don't understand why Cathal gets so pissed off. "That guy just doesn't fit with the music. No wonder no one's ever heard of 'em. I'll stick with Edwin Collins, thank you." And still others only like those parts where Cathal gets violent and aggro, e.g. his "I LOVE YOU!" at the end of the Peel Session version of "Everybody is Dead"; the grinding metal "COME HOME WITH ME" of the intro to "464"; the "IDIOTS, FUCKING IDIOTS" of "Love Your Enemies," etc… That stuff you pull out at parties where everyone goes, "hey, it's sorta like Hall and Oats but with some totally deranged freak shouting his head off! Whooo!"

One time I got a friend of mine really drunk and then brought out Everybody is Fantastic. I laid it on him, and he listened. He couldn't deny the sad beauty of the melodies in "Liberal Love." He couldn't resist the laid back, melodic breeziness of "Sun," nor could he find any reason to hate the hook-filled, lilting "Dolly" or "Dear Rosemary." "Shit, I can see what you get out of this… it's really not so bad… damn, the guitar kicks ass, the keyboards are very 'Smile,' etc…" I smiled smugly, thinking I'd won over a new convert, and a particularly resistant one at that. But of course, the next morning he awoke, sober but groggy, face out of alignment, and, like the guy who wakes up in the bed of a chick who's 50 pounds heavier than she appeared the night before, he denied and blacked the whole thing out entirely, quickly wrestled on some clothes and split. The subject of what happened that night has never come up between he and I since.

Every now and then I run into someone who just so happens to have a copy of Clock Comes Down the Stairs, Microdisney's most well known and well-regarded album. "Whoa, you have Clock! So, you like Microdisney then?" To which they respond, "Um, I'm not sure why I have that record, actually. It kinda blows, I never listen to it. Why, do you like them? Do you want the record?" I could've amassed about 6 or so copies by now had I felt the urge.

Microdisney isn't the only band I like that everyone hates. You've got the Associates, Eyeless in Gaza, Stockholm Monsters, etc.... But you see, I can fully understand why someone would hate those bands. Mainly, those three all happen to have vocalists who are, to put it politely, difficult. I mean, shit! I wouldn't force anyone to sit through Billy Mackenzie's whiny warbling, or Martyn Bates' village idiot-cum-wild boar tantrums on the early Eyeless records . Not even just to light-heartedly torture my girlfriend with a little "Party Fears Two." I think she'd rather I pin her down and tickle her 'til she pees. But with Microdisney, I cannot wrap my brain around why they elicit so much indifference (if not outright disgust) in the people I've known over the years. One would think Sean O'Hagan's gorgeous, catchy, accomplished guitar melodies, and Cathal's rich, powerful, beautiful voice and brilliant lyrics would transcend the 80s production values and truly resonate with people. Especially some of the Microdisney haters who have no problem with other 80s melodic, guitar pop bands like the Go-Betweens, Orange Juice, Felt, Aztec Camera, McCarthy, etc…

I remember my one encounter with Sean O'Hagan. My then wife and I were on a low-budget honeymoon up in Portland, Oregon after just having been married, and the High Llamas were on tour here in the US in support of their awesome Cold and Bouncy, while in the midst of riding a mini-tidal wave of hype that had been building up since their monumental masterpiece, Hawaii. We chatted with Sean before the show, and I felt like an ass since my shyness got the better of me, and my wife (yes, the one who abhorred Microdisney) did more of the talking than I did. Still, we managed to shoot the shit for a good 15 minutes or so, despite my melting in the presence of my own personal guitar-god. But one thing I noticed right away was Sean's evasion of all Microdisney related questions. Apart from his "you're too young to be an old-school Microdisney fan" or something to that effect, he made his unwillingness to dwell on that part of his life clear by the way he constantly brought the conversation back to the High Llamas and their current success (we also talked a little about the Beach Boys, obviously). I felt bad, really. I mean the guy was finally enjoying some of the spotlight that had eluded him all these years, having already made several brilliant, critically lauded albums with his own band, and he was obviously pretty ecstatic about the whole thing. And there I was pestering him about what he probably looks back on as some massive failure from a dark, dreary time in his life he'd rather not return to. I realize I'm projecting, but that was the feeling I got at the time. And of course, what am I to do when I can't even talk about Microdisney with Sean O'Hagan!?!? (I do admit it was probably kinda lame of me to ask about the prospect of a Microdisney reunion).

Of course it's impossible to talk about Microdisney without brushing on Cathal's heavily ironic lyrics and passionate (sometimes violent, self-obsessed) delivery. For the sake of brevity, here is a tiny sampling of some of my favorite lines:

From "Love Your Enemies": "Take everything you own, make it into a neat pile, set fire to it, burn it all, see what your love can do, and say 'OH LOOK WHAT MY LOVE DID!' The power of love! The power of love!" (Spewed with sarcasm not heard since John Cale in "Leaving It Up to You").

From "Loftholdingswood": "I died on a cross - and now I'm the boss."

From "Sun": "When I'm lonely I do tricks for the barmaid. She is not amused."

From "Genius": "But you came from rocks and rain, where the people have no pride or hope, and you're oozing both, now they won't help you… You're a genius, you're a giant, you're a prince, you are the pope, the things you feel are just a joke so BURN! BURN! BURN!"

From "A Friend With A Big Mouth": "I brought home his money, and I nailed it onto the wall, doused it with diesel and as it burned I prayed. Watch history made with a glass and a blade…" (above two both sung joyously, passionately over bouncy, breezy melodic pop).

I could go on and on about this subject, but I'll spare you, since if you've read this far, chances are you already know these lyrics by heart. If you're new to world of Microdisney, just go listen to these songs, go find their lyrics online or something. I'll just say that few lyricists write with such insight and perceptiveness and attention to detail about the world around them, while simultaneously sending a huge chill up my spine when they sing.

I could also go on and on about the wonderful, religious-like (gasp!) experience their music puts me through. Those sophisticated, moody chord changes in songs like "Sleepless," "Dolly," or "I'll Be a Gentleman"; the smooth Beach Boys-inspired, atmospheric keyboards in songs like "Moon," "Sun," "And," and those instrumentals on Bastards. Sean's airy, deeply moving guitar melodies on "Liberal Love," "Dreaming Drains," "Pink Skinned Man," or "Goodbye It's 1987." Cathal's full, powerful, emotive voice, singing lines like the few I've referenced above. All of these things literally send chills down my spine. They give me goose bumps. I don't know why, and I don't care; they simply do, and I apparently have no control over this. Since the goose bumps occur with greater frequency here than with most other bands, I suppose that explains why Microdisney occupies a particularly special place in my life.

It's difficult to explain why some music just really DOES IT for certain people and not for others. On a very basic level, Microdisney's music DOES IT for me, and apparently only a handful of other people on this planet. I wish I knew why. I wish there were some way someone could study my brain and the brains of other Microdisney fans, and figure out exactly what's different about our brains that forces us to respond so favorably to these sounds. I'm awfully curious to know why so many people responded with such favor to bands like the Wedding Present, or Pavement, or whoever, and not Microdisney. I mean, apart from marketing and trends and scene-y-ness and etc., why, on that base, primal level, do these bands DO IT for so many, while Microdisney DOES IT for so few? Are most brains just more inclined towards certain riffs and beats? Or is it more psychologically linked to one's personality and life experiences? This is going to open up a huge can of worms that would be unwise to pursue further, but still, it's got me squirming with curiosity.

Despite all that, Microdisney always made perfect sense to me. They were something that simply had to exist. More importantly, the fact that they existed in the 80s made all the more sense. Context is hugely important here. Yuppie culture seemed to permeate everything. Whether it was Reagan here in the States, or his evil twin sister Thatcher in the UK, the supposed advantages of consumerism were being shoved down our throats. Spending money will solve all the nation's problems by generating more wealth that will trickle down onto the poor and help them out of their misery. Class differences in both the US and UK were intensifying, and yet much importance was placed upon spending money on shit. Meanwhile, our governments supported genocidal atrocities and some of the harshest human rights abuses in the history of the world under the guise of protecting our freedom, since the Sandinistas were but several days marching distance from our Texas border, after all. The world was fucked with the US asserting itself, hegemonically stretching its corporate tentacles across Latin America and the Middle East. And with Reagan breathing new life into the Cold War with his reckless dogma, a lot of people honestly thought nuclear war was only just a matter of time. AIDS was scaring the shit out of everyone, and our government was reluctant to do much about it, instead placing more importance on running drugs into the country. Drugs that went straight up the noses of everyone from your well-groomed plastic surgeon in So Cal, to the inner-city crack-whore offering $5.00 blow jobs to passersby. This is all just the tip of the iceberg, and much of this pertains to the political climate in my native US, obviously, since I know far less about what was going on in England at the time. But I think this goes to show that in both countries, there was an abundance of confusion, corruption, violence, and suffering. There were enough parallels for Microdisney's lyrics to potentially resonate with people in the US, so it's necessary to acknowledge this when discussing Microdisney and their place in the 80s.

I suppose that in the context of all this stuff, Microdisney made sense. While so many rock stars were participating in bombastic "Feed the World" and "We Are the World" sloganeering, Microdisney tackled political issues with an eye for the everyday details that lurked in the detritus of the chaos that was the 80s. With tongue sometimes ambiguously planted in cheek, they reveled in what was construed as yuppiedom with some of their sounds and melodies (heavy nods to 60s-70s west coast melodicism and increasingly slick productions) yet they attacked the very same thing more viciously than most of their peers (just read most reviews written on them for a reference). Just look at the title of their 1984 compilation We Hate You South African Bastards and take a gander at its punk rock, political, pen 'n ink cover art (courtesy of the Mekons' Jon Langford). At this point, the neophyte is probably expecting something akin to the Subhumans, but then listen to the soulful synths and infectious pop melodies that beat Hall 'n Oats and "Tusk"-era Fleetwood Mac at their own game. Few bands could juxtapose such strong, sincere (yet still poetic) political tirades with beautiful, catchy, soulful pop music the way Microdisney did. Had Cathal been content to sing insipid love songs, and spend more time on his hair, Microdisney could've kicked the Blow Monkeys and Level 42 clear off the charts (at least with their post Clock material). Or, had Cathal gone the other way and turned Microdisney into another Exploited-Subhumans-Crass, thousands of urban gutter punks would have Microdisney patches sewn onto their hardcore uniforms. Point is, they stuck to their own vision, fusing the two opposites together, perfectly summing up the political mood of the times, and conjuring up some of the prettiest melodies.

Of course in the end, they just seemed like a band that couldn't possibly fit in. Too sophisticated and slick to fit in with C86 jangle-pop, too violent and too new wave to truly fit in with the MOR camp, but also too caustic to sit comfortably next to Lloyd Cole, not pretty enough to compete with the Smiths or Aztec Camera, not hip and 60s-derivative enough to be in with the Creation crowd, not kitsch-y enough for El, etc…. Sure, you can lump 'em in the broader melodic guitar pop tag with bands from all these sub-genres, but to the fickle hipsters adhering to the tenets of these silly genres, scenes, and sub-genres, Microdisney truly looked like the black sheep.

But that's partly why they've always appealed to me. They seemed to shun any notion of playing by the rules of any particular scene. They stuck out like a sore thumb. Having been in several bands myself, immersed in indie scenes whose "rules" and oppressive fashion consciousness frequently proved infinitely more importance than the music or art being created, Microdisney's outright refusal to identify with any specific scene has always resonated strongly with me.

I kinda see them as a logical continuation of John Cale's work in the early to mid 70s. Cale could compose the most sophisticated, gorgeously heartfelt tunes and lay some of the most frightening, tortured, pissed off, paranoid lyrics over them. Though different from Microdisney in his stylistic approach, the songs were often similarly accomplished and beautiful, and Cale had a commanding presence, going back and forth between angry bile and weak-in-the-knees, heartfelt crooning within the same 3 minute song. Cathartic explosions like "Save Us" and "Engine" ( both from his mind-blowing Helen of Troy) could sit comfortably next to immaculate pop concoctions like "China Sea" and "I Keep A Close Watch." For these reasons, Cale too, is often misunderstood in a way not dissimilar to Microdisney, but at least he's got the Velvet legacy under his belt to add whatever legitimacy one needs to convince the skeptics of the significance and impact of his work. With Microdisney, it ain't so easy.

At this point I'm not sure what else to say except that I never get sick of this stuff. It's like comfort food, which I suppose is a bit weird since usually the purpose of comfort food is to make you feel warm and cozy when you've had a shitty day at your mind-numbingly dull job, or your girlfriend's just dumped you for some strapping, Strokes look-alike, so you curl up with take-out pizza or a burrito and some beer and gorge yourself to sleep. It's not supposed to yell at you, shower you with sarcasm, and remind you how alarmingly bleak the world is, or that yes, other people are just as painfully inept at maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships as you. But, somehow, coming from Cathal, and when sung over the band's gorgeously melodic, undeniably well-crafted, utterly distinctive brand of pop, it somehow works for me; one of the first things I think to reach for when I need some reason to keep trudging on.

In closing, to all the airline bag-toting, badge-covered, puerile scenesters out there who'd rather listen to their fey, calculated Belle and Sebastian twee crap - just fuck off! Okay? I'm not snide enough to revel in my little secret band that no one knows about, yet who every other fucking cardigan wearing, mop-haired twat in a college town obsesses over. No, I'd love for people to know about Microdisney, if for no other reason than to just share the experience with someone else. But if no one will have it, if my only chance of shooting the shit with likeminded Microdisney freaks is by accidentally stumbling into a few of 'em on the internet, then so be it. I've done all I can possibly do. I can say with absolute certainty I'll be taking these records, that for some inexplicable reason just DO IT for me on so many levels, with me all the way to the grave.

Geoff has a website for his, actually pretty good band HERE- well worth a look.