John Fleming writes: A sturdy melodic voice emanates from a man whose face and twisted body communicate some existential torture. Precise narrative lyrics work with enticing pop and charm, and then the voice explodes like a nail bomb. The singer projects bemused unease. A history of sneer and insight. Rich layers of observation piled on top of sociopolitics. Words and descriptions are crafted into cultural violence. His articulations between songs, his words and music, his sometimes brawling and sometimes subtle band-leader theatrics make their way towards twin targets of love and hate.
Microdisney’s “Everybody is Dead”, a last song from a Peel session pulled from the ether with co-axial cable, is a tender tune about late-night carousing. With the evocative line “She squeezed my hand in the back seat of a taxi / The best days of our lives were just shortly ahead of us / None of this had ever happened / So I looked out and / There was only one thing I could say: I love you.” This declaration turns into howls of demonic catharsis as it plays out in some echo chamber of psychosis. The 1980s were not yet half-way through and this powerful aesthetic algorithm or technique would be employed potently in nearly all of the musician and singer’s subsequent musical phases (Fatima Mansions, North Sea Scrolls, Telefís, several solo albums).
Cathal Coughlan was a high benchmark for how to be Irish abroad. In an insecure Irish world where many raced to hide their thin facade behind the depth of cliché, he was nobly detached from the simplistic badge of national identity. While he still exuded its traits, he stayed aloof, an apparent globalist despising much about the quagmire that was the second-last decade of the twentieth century – despising Ireland, along with Britain and the US. You got the impression he, his magical musical partner Sean O’Hagan, and the various bands and their members were getting on with being citizens of the world. He coded local cultural references into their work, be it Alan Vega or the Famine or UK figureheads of privilege or Romanian dictators or 1980s London. But his Cork accent immediately profiled him: a brogue that kicked, a tattered flag that flew. Here was a heart, soul and mind which had crawled off the introspective national grid and on to a wider forcefield centred mainly on the British capital. He once said Microdisney being known in Ireland meant no more or less to him than the band being known in, say, greater Yorkshire. This unsentimental approach calibrated by scale (and, early on, the vague prospect of career potential and UK pop success) was both understandable and admirable. To be cogent and ambitious, you have to move on: the evolution’s fingerprints show in song lyrics referencing Hamstead homes, William Blake, halves of ale, cocktail bars, Engels Court, lp cover shots of train tracks going everywhere and going nowhere, Ceausescu, Turkish migrants, door-to-door policing of the poll tax.
Cork was sometimes presented by him in interviews as a dark Soviet gulag in the south of an essentially Eastern Bloc Ireland from which escape had been the only option. It might have been more strategic to crank out origin myths about hotbeds of strangulated creativity, a mould in which the passing decades and inevitable yearning and nostalgia by middle-aged observers have cast 1980s Irish cities. Of course things were awful; of course things weren’t. But Ireland felt further away from everything back then. Coughlan’s distance from professed affection for Ireland probably endeared him and his bands to the diaspora. Microdisney and Fatima Mansions felt at times like cult secret weapons: the soaring and definitive, clean, new-wave sound and slow pacing of “Loftholdingswood” (1985) offered a tale of something vivid with lines about rakish hats, brandy glasses, racing forms, Edgeware Road, livers giving up, and dying on the cross. This song culminates with the infinity of the line “You will never see me again.” An earlier song, “Idea”, off Microdisney’s first album, Everything is Fantastic (1984), threatened “One morning I will give up and go.” This was a band who shared with many of their contemporaneous fans a sociology seeped in scenarios of escape – of getting out of your town, getting out of Dublin, getting out of Ireland, of fleeing your family or flatshare horror, of staying one step ahead of bedsit landlords, of simply dissolving as an outsized individual into the populous sprawl of a bigger city. To many who left Ireland in the 1980s to have a stab at a life in London, such basic simple lines, unembellished by lyricism or particular wit, spoke directly. This was not the world of designer suits and cars and City careers and property purchases often reported in co-operative Irish media in articles which smacked of emigration agency. London, like any metropolis, was complex enough to stop the most able and ambitious in their tracks just as it could also furnish avenues of significant or lofty success: the 1980s brain drain was a weird and many-headed beast. And to some degree Microdisney’s work, interviews, self-sabotage and being pushed off their Virgin Records perch spoke for its lostness.
An NME interviewer once attempted to phonetically inform the unwitting reader how to pronounce “correctly” the name Cathal Coughlan: the singer had misled the gullible hack right up the garden path towards a nomenclature of farce. The resulting sound-bitten mouthful was stretched tight and alphabetically on the rack of Coughlan’s own career-destructive glee. It was one more Morse code message of in-character malice, a game of leapfrog over the speech patterns of these west European island landmasses. As he sang on “Bluerings”, the last track on the final Microdisney album 39 Minutes (1988): “Scum condensed of Irish bog / Ruffian, traitor, demagogue.”
Coughlan’s public discourse was imbued with balanced and informed purview and intelligence. In interviews, he articulated richly in deft spoken prose and syntax that complemented the poetry of his vivid lyrics. When such now faded concepts as the new world information order still prevailed, he drew as much from them and the political landscapes of current affairs as he did from the force of a Suicide song or Scott Walker’s majesty: Frankie Teardrop gently weeps into Microdisney’s malicious, insightful MOR pop/rock. Fatima Mansions veered more from strange modern ballads into grunge sonic bombast. And there were always tender narrative tales of casts of individuals unhinged and unbalanced and unhappy, right through decades of his consistently excellent solo work.
The last few years saw Microdisney’s return to the public’s gimlet eye. Coughlan reunited with O’Hagan and the band to play two special concerts in June 2018 – in the National Concert Hall in Dublin and at the Barbican in London a week later. Track by track, they played their critically lauded 1985 album The Clock Comes Down the Stairs, with the same musical reverence as they had at last been shown by establishment gatekeepers. It was a magnificent and triumphant moment that linked many of those assembled with their earlier selves. On stage, Coughlan was statuesque; his occasional gesture and facial expression playing out the drama and poise of his words. His mesmerising presence combined with a command of frontstage craft as focal point for the band’s performance. Try tear your eyes away – you just can’t. Early in 2019, two more shows were played – in Dublin’s Vicar Street and Cork’s Cypress Avenue. They presented a wider array of Microdisney’s historical material. These shows were looser and more joyous – unburdened by the sense of formal occasion, they were simply brilliant gigs, if framed by the declaration of being one-offs that would never be repeated. This was a resurrection. A reformation. A renaissance.
As the dust settled, Coughlan used this versioned memory lane as a runway for a flurry of subsequent new projects. There was a complex new album Song of Co-Aklan (2021). It was accompanied by numerous expert and striking videos. There was online footage of him proudly inspecting the vinyl offering, a cool, mature man polite and appreciative of the reawakened interest in his work. There were loads of Zoom and podcast interviews, including a great conversation with John Robb. Through the internet, he seemed omnipresent for the first time ever … and perpetual hopefully forever. A new project, Telefís (with Jacknife Lee), and several more insightful videos delved into an anachronised, resequenced Ireland of evergreen newsreaders and presenters. As the clouds of the lockdown at last lifted, a whole kettle of musical fish appeared to be leaping. Coughlan’s ambition and energy seemed endless and unstoppable. And his death on May 18th after a long illness seemed inconceivable. Rightly or wrongly, one could join some dots to speculate on the creative propulsion behind his vast recent output. The stoicism of his passing at just sixty-one gives those who loved his work one more reason to marvel.
In the snapshots afforded by frequent gigging in Dublin over the years, he evolved into a displaced statesman, a Belong Nowhere ambassador, a type of vulpine sage whose attitude and force was masked by insight and cunning.
In the mind of a fan, it was a long journey that started with almost half a dozen ragamuffins in gaudy cowboy shirts in a cramped room in the Magnet Bar on Pearse Street. They were opening for The Atrix. A very early Dublin gig for Microdisney, it must have been 1980: there was a morass of fake funk riffs, mock can-can dancing and a roaring, beaming singer who melded charm and anger with the occasional intersong excursion into vulgarity.
In the bleak December of 1987, a 16mm documentary film about the young Irish in London is being shot. A leather-jacketed man springs up onto Clapham Common bandstand and seats himself for interview. There’s no money, no budget, hardly any reels for the camera, almost no audio tape. The shivering off-camera interviewer with a head of hair no longer possessed asks Coughlan to build the questions back into his answers: “We’re not doing a voiceover you see and need to be able to edit cogently.” Precious feet of film ran through the Bolex as he spewed his smart psychocultural sociology about the migrant hordes. When we were done and had repaired to the Windmill for late-morning refreshment, he remarked on the semiology of the ambiguous park bandstand. That film was Guests of Another Nation, for which I take half the credit and half the blame.
1997 or 1998: The small crowd in Whelans parts as he walks through it to the stage where his band are assembled. He jumps up and stands for a moment behind the microphone. His hands cover his face for a few seconds of subterfuge, maybe fear. He looks desolate and lost. And then the band strikes up and we are off.
A bar on the corner of St Stephen’s Green and Leeson Street. It’s called The Eastside Tavern. This is the immediate aftermath of the Microdisney NCH performance on Saturday, June 2nd, 2018. The venue’s formality and weighted reverence added to the show being a superb 3D reanimation of a classic album. The performance seemed note-perfect and faithful but for a few eccentric recording studio asides and quips omitted. The NCH foyer was a mix of delight and vague unease – like a school reunion, this was an amalgam of counterparts, a generational show of strength, immaturity, frailty, obesity and baldness, and the bonding pulse that is curative pop. There are faces not seen since the Gaeltacht in the mid-1970s; there’s a sea of ancient record shop acquaintances and gig-going familiars and loads of people you don’t know. There’s word of others sighted who you might selfishly prefer had been refused admission. It all felt a bit overwhelming. Torn between the temptations of queuing up, seeking handshakes, getting autographs, perhaps suffering some sort of lifetime short-circuitry or beating a hasty retreat, I chose the latter. Many others bravely went for the once-in-a-lifetime full menu: it was a fantastic chance to meet Cathal and Sean and all the other members of the band. I strolled to one of the nearest pubs which had already lured many of the ecstatic audience. The Eastside Tavern’s sound system was belting out a mixture of Microdisney songs. Once a beer was acquired, I located myself close to the window, now part of a ragbag of emotionally moved enthusiasts. We laughed while correcting an infiltrating novice whose starved artlife had them benchmarking the brilliant gig in terms of mediocre bands.
Relaxing into the epic scale and musical time travel of what had just been seen, I placed my long-distance specs on my head to better read the joyful faces of my immediate group. Turning to the window, I looked out at a Lesson Street on which the summer dark had not yet descended. I sipped, vaguely aware of one more figure of a certain age describing a diagonal trajectory across from the concert hall. He stared intently and bemusedly at the bar as one of his tunes spilled out over the PA. And I stared back, half-hearted, distracted, contemplative and swigging from my pint as he came closer. For the brief moment in which I appeared to ignore him, I lowered my specs back to my eyes only to realise it was Cathal Coughlan as he passed from my view.
Cathal Coughlan RIP
(December 16th, 1960 – May 18th, 2022)
John Fleming is an Irish Times journalist and writer. In the Guests of Another Nation documentary mentioned above, the 1987 interview with Cathal Coughlan starts at 13 mins and 50 seconds in.