Maverick former Microdisney and Fatima Mansions frontman Cathal Coughlan has died following a long illness. He was 61.
Thanks to a Facebook friendship, we’d become something approaching chat buddies in recent years, and despite his fearsome reputation for black comedy and acerbic, confrontational songcraft I always found him polite, open and thoughtful.
Born in County Cork but living in London, he’d even approved and shared a short piece I wrote about him for Paddy’s Day in 2021. This is it.
Though he doesn’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (“Beltane and Samhain are more to my taste,” he tells me) I couldn’t fail to spotlight the frontman of two of the most disaffected Irish rock bands of the past four decades. Cork’s Cathal Coughlan stands alone in the pantheon of disgruntled Irish shruggers. A genius cage rattler — caustic, funny, surreal — Coughlan’s anger-loaded lyrics helped brighten up the UK indie scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s, firstly at the helm of errant popsters Microdisney and latterly with the harder-edged Fatima Mansions.
Celebrating its clever, ascerbic angst-rock, The Clock Comes Down The Stairs, Microdisney’s third LP was chosen as the recipient of the inaugural IMRO/NCH Trailblazer Award in 2018, a gong which celebrates seminal albums by iconic Irish acts. Awash with Sean O’Hagan’s incredibly crafted melodies, the follow up, 1987’s Lenny Kaye-produced Crooked Mile, is also routinely praised as one of the greatest to ever come out of Ireland and contains the ironic jangle-funk classic Give Me All Of Your Clothes.
Just as good was the lead single from 1988’s 39 Minutes: Singer’s Hampstead Home was an hilarious, thinly veiled attack on the business that created the fake public personas of people like Virgin labelmate and cash cow Boy George; in other words a lyrical tirade against the mentality of celebrities who complain about privacy then invite the press around to talk about their houses, purely to show off their wealth, then snort a load of drugs when they’ve gone.
Precisely what O’Dowd was doing in NW3 at the time — “He only had planned lines to say/ but he said them in a witty and stylish way,” sneered Cathal indignantly, mocking the wannabe Wildeisms of the tent-wearing star.
The band would implode during a London charity gig supporting David Bowie that same year. Coughlan’s decision to employ a spot of cranial self-abuse by head-butting his microphone won him few new fans, though having been in the audience it did alert me to his raging wayward brilliance. (For the record, he now tells me he’s “thoroughly embarrassed” by his antics that night, which caused Bowie to be more than a little “paranoid when he saw me behind him.”)
Having carved out a reputation as one of indie’s most challenging and erudite lyricists, Cathal did it all again in the ’90s with post-punk five-piece Fatima Mansions. In many ways they were even wilder and weirder — at least creatively — as underscored by transcendental onslaughts such as Chemical Cosh and the coruscating confection Angel’s Delight, both from the group’s sophomore set, 1990’s Viva Dead Ponies.
The quintet opened for U2 on a leg of 1992’s Zoo TV tour, and had an unlikely Top 10 hit that year with an eerie trip-hop cover of Bryan Adams’ (Everything I Do) I Do It For You (the lesser known half of of an NME-sponsored double A-side single with the Manic Street Preachers’ cover of the theme from M.A.S.H., Suicide Is Painless).
Fourth and final album, 1994’s Lost In The Former West, included the single Nite Flights, a surprisingly faithful version of Scott Walker’s edgy classic that put the Irish troubadour’s rich velvety baritone to good use and the archetypal iron fist in a velvet glove. (The vocal comparisons to his hero Walker continue with 2021’s stunning solo single Song Of Co-Aklan, Curesque chords and all.)
The Mansions were put on permanent hold due to what would prove to be a long-drawn out legal battle with Coughlan’s US record label, Radioactive. However, through a sequence of subsequent solo albums over the past 20 years — as well as projects that could easily fall into avant-art categories in the areas of theatre and spoken word — Coughlan has steered clear of placing himself and his music in a corner.
After all, this is a man who dressed up as Liberace and released a pair of parodic albums with Irish comedian Sean Hughes as the side project Bubonique, which is French for bubonic, as in plague, pandemic.
Perhaps he was on to something.