Remembering Irish Punk Legend Cathal Coughlan

The acid-tongued raconteur behind such acts as Microdisney and Fatima Mansions was 61

Cathal Coughlan (Image: Gregory Dunn/Stoneybutter)

Cathal Coughlan, who died Monday at the age of 61, was one of modern rock’s greatest humanitarians, a man who knew exactly what to love, what to hate and how to draw a line between the two with a colorful precision worthy of any of the great expressionist painters.

Over the course of a 35 year career that spanned several bands, several stylistic shifts and several corporeal moves, the Cork native never wavered from his humanism, and, yes, his dedication to songcraft – both the immediately accessible and the sort that was buried beneath thickets of burrs and thorns.

Coughlan, who began his career as one half of the lush-sounding, acid-tongued duo Microdisney, grew up in Glounthaune, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Cork, a harborside city that’s Ireland’s second largest. He described his upbringing as “lower middle class,” a status that was likely taken down a notch when his civil-servant father was paralyzed in an accident when Cathal was a teen. Around the same time, he enrolled in Presentation Brothers, a posh Catholic school that he attended on scholarship – a situation that informed his later views on both social status and religion (contentious topics in most places, but particularly thorny territory in troubles-era Ireland).

After relocating to London, Coughlan found himself drawn to pop music because, as he told The Guardian, . “I probably saw popular music as an easy route to cultural mobility, wherein a person with my then-fitful attention span and limited tolerance for the ‘wider picture’ of learning.” He found a kindred spirit in Sean O’Hagan, who shared his affinity for the orchestral pop of a previous generation – although O’Hagan gravitated more towards the sunnier strains of the Beach Boys, Coughlan  the whisky-and-nicotine dappled tones of Lee Hazlewood.

 

 

The two would meld those approaches into Microdisney, a band that quickly became an obsession for John Peel (who hosted six Peel Sessions during their existence) and held the attention of the British public long enough to graze the charts with “Town to Town.” They played their hand early, titling a 1984 album We Hate You South African Bastards (a far more direct take on apartheid than the concurrent all-star anthem “Don’t Play Sun City”). The duo would record five albums that were held up as “culturally significant” by tastemakers (a commercial kiss of death, as any major cult figure will tell you), but the duo’s tether started to fray soon after the release of their finest work, The Clock Comes Down the Stairs, and by 1988, they had parted ways.

It took Coughlan a bit to regroup – which he once attributed to a fondness for drink – but when he did, it was with the astounding fury of Fatima Mansions, a clangorous contingent that took its name from a decrepit housing project that stood at Dublin’s Center and its sound from sources as varied as Leonard Cohen and musique concrete pioneer Pierre Schaeffer. Left to his own devices, Coughlan veered wildly between bleak romanticism and feral violence – a mix that came charging out of the gate on the 1990 debut, Viva Dead Ponies.

The band wasted no time in laying out that album’s agenda, kicking off the proceedings with “Angel’s Delight,” an unambiguous take on policing around the world that borrows from South African activist treatment of oppressors via the opening couplet  “A necklace of rubber, burning bright/A burning rubber necklace for my angel’s delight” before lunging forward to sneer “I got a word for you: dead / Got a trampoline–your f–in head.”

 

 

The album, which remains difficult to find due to internecine squabbles over who owns what, lurches from the introspective (the pensive and lovely “You’re a Rose”) to the wildly overamped (the purposefully grating “Blues for Ceaucescu”). MCA chose to promote it with the slogan “Keep Music Evil,” a rare instance of a major label choosing prescience over salesmanship.

Thing is, Fatima Mansions weren’t evil in the cartoonish way that many noise-mongers of the early ‘90s were. There was a bleeding heart at the core of just about everything they did over the course of their existence, although it was sometimes hard to reach. In a way, they were the bizarro-world answer to Irish bedfellows in U2. But where Bono told devotees that love could conquer all, Coughlan took a more pragmatic approach, preaching unity through hatred of the proper targets – racists, politicians, predatory priests and, significantly, the non-committal types who allowed all the rest to run roughshod over the needy.

Fatima Mansions “Keep Music Evil” button (Image: MCA)

The two bands actually crossed paths fairly often over the years, but one confluence proved more memorable than the rest. Coughlan and company were opening a date for U2 in Milan, Italy in 1992 and the singer, who wasn’t particularly interested in winning friends and influencing people, took the stage in the colors of Barcelona’s soccer team, which had just bested Milan in a heated match. The booing started early, and reached fever pitch mid-set when Cathal pantomimed a sex act  with a shampoo bottle shaped like the Virgin Mary before launching into a diatribe against the Vatican. The act was undeniably blasphemous, but only marginally more blasphemous than using the Virgin Mary to peddle shampoo in the first place.

Coughlan’s cantankerous nature may have cost him some measure of fame, but it also brought him a share of the spotlight – as with the Mansions’ unrelievedly depressive take on Bryan Adams’ “Anything I Do,” which cracked the top ten in the U.K. He got a smaller boost stateside with a Bill Hicks-styled revamp of R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” (allegedly inspired by Michael Stipe’s ostentatious departure from a Fatima Mansions showcase at the onset of their North American push).

Fatima Mansions soldiered on through the early ‘90s, crafting several gnarled-but-groovy albums, but by mid-decade, Coughlan had grown tired of the grind – and, by his own admission, had gotten to the point where the lure of a regular day job paycheck outweighed the “glory” of non-stop slogging through endless club gigs. He teamed with comedian Sean Hughes for the ill-considered Bubonique project, then paused to take stock and stockpile a daunting array of songs.

As he embarked on his solo career,  Coughlan  realized he had the ideal tool to pry his way into the collective consciousness – a baritone that he could use to croon or to portend doom, as a megaphone or a massage wand. His closest analog on the pop landscape would probably be Scott Walker, whose incredible facility with a pop hook was matched by his desire to detach himself from the very idea of the hook and explore more shadowy aspects of the musical landscape. Yes, he certainly embraced melody on albums like 2000’s Black River Falls, which has a hat tip to Leonard Cohen here, a nod to Tindersticks there, but there were enough moments of lightness to ensure the album never became a slog.

 

VIDEO: Cathal Coughlan “Winter”

Coughlan’s output grew more sporadic in the aughts and teens due to the aforementioned need to pay the bills one begins to accrue in middle age. But when he did record, he gave full rein to his darker side, as evidenced by the 2006 album Foburg, which was dominated by Brechtian ruminations and darkly sardonic observations like “Rat Poison Rendezvous” and “The Sacrament of Killing,” both of which resonated with matter-of-fact attitude just this side of resignation.

After a long absence from the spotlight – punctuated by a handful of Microdisney reunion shows staged around the band being honored in Ireland – Coughlan returned last year with the bracing Song of Co-Aklan, an album that germinated before the pandemic but flowered during its throes. The album touches on many of Coughlan’s musical obsessions – from the Northern Soul tinges of the title track to the surprisingly spry, Tin Pan Alley styled melody that buoys “The Knockout Artist,” a pulp-fiction styled tale of a man who beats himself senseless in the ring to earn a living.

Coughlan, who was reportedly already in the throes of the unnamed illness that claimed his life when Co-Aklan was released, remained true to his muse, conjuring images that were dark, but never morose, angry, but always targeted, and never anything short of moving. Evil is in the eye of the beholder – to those who appreciate the voice crying out for reason in the wilderness, this music was pure good.

 

 

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Deborah Sprague

Deborah Sprague is a former editor of Creem magazine and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such outlets as Variety, Billboard, Rolling Stone, New York Daily News and Newsday. She’s contributed to books including Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, Kill Your Idols and Carpenters: The Musical Legacy. She lives in Queens, New York with her partner.

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