“Irish people are all so cool towards U2,” a French 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 some other nationalities, notably the British, 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.
Of their two biggest albums, I can admire the sound of The Joshua Tree (the long-distance ache it shares with older country music and Glen Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’) and the spirit of Achtung Baby (the smoke-filled playfulness of Berlin cabaret that also appealed to David Bowie) but I have no urge to re-listen to any of the songs off either. It’s telling that you rarely hear cover versions of U2 songs in the charts.
Ah, you say, and possibly in Italian: U2 are all about the live show, the communal experience! Well, I put it to you that for many of us, listening to music was done alone in our bedroom, and the best music has to work on that stage too. U2 may pride themselves on making a vast crowd feel intimate, but it’s a weird, weaponised intimacy, like mass religion (pun intended) or mass politics, where the individual is subsumed by the crowd, with no space for your own personal feelings; you’ll feel what you’re told, thank you very much. Their ostensible ‘relationship’ songs, such as ‘With Or Without You’, ‘All I Want Is You’ and ‘One’, sound meaningless if you imagine them sung to an actual person; which is it, with me or without me? The truth is, with U2 everything is for show. Invite U2 for a sleepover, tell them who you fancy, and first thing Monday morning they’d go and blab to the whole school, while probably showing your diary too. They just can’t help it. Besides, they have to fill that stadium-sized screen with something. The you in U2 is usually plural or performative, but never really singular — never you.
Bono’s much-vaunted aspiration of U2 being both the biggest and the best band in the world collapses because U2’s concept of ‘best’ is just ‘more biggest’. Not only are they no one’s idea of the best band in the world, but pick any point along U2’s timeline and they weren’t even the best band in Ireland. At the turn of the ’70s into ‘80s 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.
I say “in Ireland” loosely. In the same way that ailing elephants were believed to leave their herd and gather instinctively at a mythical “elephants’ graveyard”, young Irish acts in the ’80s (except U2, who stayed in Dublin but extensively toured the U.S. and, it’s often forgotten, the erstwhile West Germany) 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 were met with rave reviews. However, only their 1987 single ‘Town to Town’ made any move towards the charts, shooting up to a less-than-stellar number 55. The following year they split up.
Am I saying that, nonetheless, ‘Town to Town’ is better than anything on The Joshua Tree by U2? Yes I am. It has a satisfying radio-friendly chorus and a lush, soaring arrangement. Also, 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. (For what it’s worth, follow-up single ‘Singer’s Hampstead Home’ was about lurid tabloid revelations on their record label’s biggest star, Boy George, which must have delighted 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 the ’80 pop promo staples I had access to: getting gunged on Saturday morning kids’ TV or telling Smash Hits about their favourite vegetable. That said, I did actually discover ‘Town to Town’ via Saturday morning kids’ TV, when its video was shown on Pajo’s Junkbox on RTE. As with all great songs, I heard it once and never forgot it. A highlight is Coughlan’s astonishingly forceful yet nimble voice; his first pass of the words “town to town”, as an ornamental mini-bridge between the first and second verse, is simply thrilling. Not all their songs were as effective in mixing O’Hagan’s sweet and Coughlan’s unsavoury.
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”. Now that, with all its bitterness and embarrassment, is the genuine hurt of real human intimacy. (My name, which is an anglicised Irish name anyway, is straightforward for English and Americans to say, so I’m free to emigrate there with no such discomfort.)
‘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 profile of U2, Ireland didn’t really exist on the pop map 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:
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