RIP Cathal Coughlan
I’ve been feeling pretty numb for the past few hours, since the passing of Cathal Coughlan was announced - the singer, songwriter, contrary musical explorer and so much more who has left us after a long illness at the criminally young age of 61.
It’s not unfair to say that his musical output, in a string of guises, has been a huge part of my life for 35 years, ever since I first saw the video for Microdisney’s ‘Town To Town’ on Channel 4’s ‘The Tube’ in early 1987. Its stirring, string-led melody sung by a leather-jacketed, sneering Cathal was absolute catnip for this 14-year-old who had very much decided he was going to be Different while also still loving the bones of pop music.
That blueprint held firm for Microdisney’s ‘Crooked Mile’ album and its 1988 sequel ’39 Minutes’ before internal tensions and the inevitable drag of being signed to a major but failing to trouble the charts led to the group splitting up.
It wasn’t long before Cathal was back with Fatima Mansions, and a mini-LP ‘Against Nature’ that rummaged around in the gardens of pop, spoken word, ballads, moody instrumentals and in ‘13th Century Boy’, a song that could easily have been a number one if Pet Shop Boys had recorded it (and maybe if it wasn’t set in the middle ages).
The first full Fatima Mansions album ‘Viva Dead Ponies’ continued that genre-rummaging, and one of the astonishing things about Cathal’s career is that not only did he fearlessly explore so many different musical areas, he always pulled it off seemingly effortlessly. He just had one of those ears I guess. Perhaps that magpie ability was one of the reasons he was underappreciated - maybe listeners would be put off by a sudden swerve into hi-NRG pop or Ministry-esque industrial metal.
After ‘Viva Dead Ponies’ came my favourite Mansions song - the blistering, venomous ‘Blues For Ceaucescu’ - a fucking relentless howl of precision rage, drawing comparisons between the recently-executed Romanian dictator and the unshiftable regime of Thatcher’s Britain. It was probably Cathal Coughlan who handed me a righteous fury back then that I’ve carried ever since (sometimes right, sometimes wrong but always certain!)
That group endured for another two brilliant albums, honing their sound into a blend of intense but melodic industrial rock and balladeering that it’s fair to say was in thrall to Scott Walker’s imperial phase (there was a cover of The Walker Brothers’ ‘Nite Flights’ just in case you weren’t sure).
You were never far from a ridiculously catchy hook with Cathal, especially when you least expected it, but he was often a musical nihilist at the same time, the blend of which always scratched my itches as a listener.
Post-Mansions, a string of solo albums and side projects with assorted collaborators continued to hit the spot for me - that blend of gorgeous melody and avant-garde playfulness went a long way. In amongst it all, Microdisney briefly reformed for a handful of live shows in 2018 and 2019 and I’ve spent the time since then regretting that I didn’t get along to see them.
After a quiet spell, Cathal’s productivity levels soared again over the last couple of years, with the lockdown-completed album ‘Song of co-Aklan’ and another collaboration project, Telefís, with Jacknife Lee, and their a hugely likeable electronic-fuelled album, ‘a hAon’.
There was me hoping that this revived level of output would continue, but he’s gone. A man blessed with a galaxy musical brain and intelligence that felt intimidating to me at times, but also with that magnificent melodic ear that underpinned everything and that unmistakeable voice that I’ll never tire of hearing.
Cathal followed me on Twitter, possibly because I’d regularly praise his work while @’ing him in. The last brief words we had on there were about Bucks Fizz, which isn’t a bad parting exchange.
The man could probably have been a chart star if it wasn’t for the fact that he clearly had no interest in such a mainstream pursuit. Thank fuck for that. Rest easy, Cathal, and thank you.
(Damn - I forgot to mention the time Fatima Mansions supported U2 on a European tour and Cathal enraged an already-hostile Milan crowd by spitting out some unflattering words about the Pope and pretending to shove a soap statuette of the Virgin Mary up his arse - the man was never not uncompromising…)