It may have been over thirty years since The Clock Came Down the Stairs, but it seems no less punctual for all that. Tonight’s show starts on the minute at the venue’s advertised opening time, causing us (in cahoots with London’s transport system) to miss the start and Microdisney’s much heralded return to the stage. Given the band’s commercial trajectory, or lack of it, during their time together, maybe this ‘ahead of their time’ approach could fatefully serve to summarise their fruitful if not lucrative recording years.
What’s another five minutes though when we’ve waited so long for this, one of only two reunion shows. Cathal Coughlan and Sean O’Hagan are joined by original rhythm section John Fell and Tom Fenner in tribute to Microdisney’s 1985 masterpiece which Coughlan describes as the most realised of all their albums.
This they play from start to finish in faithful facsimile, while obliging to update the context of some of the tracks. Goodbye, it’s 1987 is introduced by the apology that ‘West 11’ referred to therein is now an area “largely only affordable to oligarchs” rather than ‘Nothing Hill’ as was in that decade. Begging Bowl is offered up, as untarnished as the original. Coughlan contorts his mouth to recreate every nuance of note, backed up by Eileen Gogan adding to the band’s harmonies, notably on Genius and Are You Happy?
The camaraderie tonight is obvious with O’Hagan’s pleasant plucking and drummer Fenner beaming a smile as wide as a crooked mile from between his cymbals. The band warmly introduce each other amongst a welcome dose of between song banter. Another touching moment is the coda of Michael Murphy, an early instrumental in tribute to the band’s first foot up in the music industry. For this, Coughlan, or at least his finger, takes to the keyboard, largely delegated for the rest of the evening, thus reminding us of his songwriting credentials. When music’s great judgement day arrives, Cave, Cohen and Coughlan can carry aloft their substantial canons, shoulder to shoulder.
This second half of the show frees Microdisney of their ‘Clock’ hands. Coughlan explains that they are taking the opportunity to “curate” some of their less heard material, to coin a popular phrase. In this their choices are bold, esoteric even, without being self indulgent as most of those present seem familiar with the entire back catalogue. (This still saying something as Microdisney’s light burned as fast as it did brightly).
The last time I saw Coughlan live, though solo, it was also in London where one of the crowd begged that he “show us your demons, Cathal!” Tonight they duly come hollering out in a Fatima-Mansion-feral reworking of 464. Never has the invitation to “Come home with me and see my etchings” carried such menace. By contrast the audience, sedately seated can only shuffle in our chairs. Here we are reminded of John Peel’s description of Microdisney as ‘iron fist in velvet glove’ with Coughlan’s furious lyric beautifully backdropped by the sublime melodies of the other musicians. The directions Coughlan and O’Hagan have taken since could be generalised as ‘iron’ and ‘velvet’ respectively, though not without exception and cross-pollination, such was their mutual influence.
As if to demonstrate their softer side, typically from the band’s later material, Coughlan introduces ‘hit single’ (relatively speaking) Town to Town as ‘”one you can all hum too” as with the pure polished pop of Singer’s Hampstead Home.
One of the most universally undertaken standing ovations I’ve experienced brings an encore which culminates in a cover of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. The Night comes down finally as the clock runs back up the stairs, presumably back to bed.