Microdisney — ‘Town to Town’

“Irish people are all so cool towards U2,” a non-Irish person once said to me. “Why is this?”

Well, you can go into all sorts of post-colonial theories about begrudgery and material success, or pass remarks about anti-poverty campaigners and their corporate tax loopholes, or even point out that British people are also fairly indifferent towards U2. (Young Italians and middle-aged Americans seem to be the band’s most fervent followers.)

But the truth of it is that a lot of Irish people, including me, correctly believe that U2 are only alright.

Pick any point along U2’s timeline and there’s another Irish band who were demonstrably better than them. In the early 1980s it was The Undertones; in the early 1990s it was My Bloody Valentine and Whipping Boy. And in 1987, the year that U2 hit their pomp with The Joshua Tree, it was Cork band Microdisney.

In the same way that ailing elephants were believed to leave their herd and gather instinctively at a mythical “elephants’ graveyard”, promising young Irish bands in the ’80s (except U2) all seemed to go to London to die. Microdisney are perhaps the textbook case of a promising Irish band who went to London and had to survive on critical acclaim alone. All of their five albums earned rave reviews, but only their 1987 single ‘Town to Town’ threatened to do any dollar, shooting up to a less-than-stellar number 55 on the UK charts.

Am I saying that, nonetheless, ‘Town to Town’ alone is better than anything on The Joshua Tree by U2? Yes; yes I am. It has a satisfying radio-friendly chorus and a lush, soaring arrangement, plus it touches on that popular theme of how romantic rejection is only a minor problem when seen beside the Cold War-era threat of nuclear holocaust obliterating a selection of western Europe cities. (Follow-up single ‘Singer’s Hampstead Home’ was about lurid tabloid revelations on their record label’s biggest star, Boy George, which must have pleased their record label.)

The engine room of Microdisney was the duo of fiery singer Cathal Coughlan (the Roy Keane of ’80s indie) and muso guitarist Sean O’Hagan (a more demure, Scholesian figure). Neither seemed the type for ’80 pop promo staples like appearing on Saturday morning kids’ TV or telling Smash Hits about their favourite vegetable. That said, I discovered ‘Town to Town’ when the video was shown on Saturday morning kids’ TV (Pajo’s Junkbox, on RTE). As with all great songs, I heard it once and never forgot it.

Aside from Cold War fears, Microdisney’s brand of indie angst was noticeably Irish; only an Irishman called Cathal living in London could invest such soreness and sourness into the line “She’s trying to pronounce my name”. ‘Town to Town’ also resembled ‘Panic’ by the Smiths (four Irish-Centre Mancunians) in reeling off a list of endangered cities that included Dublin; despite the efforts of U2, Ireland just didn’t exist on Planet Pop, so this recognition was a thrill even if it was in the context of atomic Armageddon.

Coughlan and O’Hagan both went on to form equally-lauded new bands, Fatima Mansions and the High Llamas respectively. And yes, both these bands were also better than U2.

Here’s the video for ‘Town to Town’, which shows something else that Microdisney had but U2 lack — a sense of humour: