B-Side the Leeside: The Fatima Mansions and the story of 'Viva Dead Ponies'

Ed Power speaks with songwriter Cathal Coughlan, best known to some for his part in Microdisney, and to others in the harder-edged band he formed afterwards.
B-Side the Leeside: The Fatima Mansions and the story of 'Viva Dead Ponies'
Cathal Coughlan (right) in 1990 with the other members of Fatima Mansions. Picture:  Michael Putland/Getty Images
Cathal Coughlan (right) in 1990 with the other members of Fatima Mansions. Picture:  Michael Putland/Getty Images

The Barcelona jersey was the first thing the audience noticed.

It was May 22, 1992 and the spotlights had just gone down at the 12,700 capacity Forum di Assago in the suburbs of Milan. Out of the shadows trooped punk-pop underdogs the Fatima Mansions, led by their frontman Cathal Coughlan. His jaw was clenched, his eyes narrowed. He wore maroon and blue of the Catalan champions.

Few in the venue were there for the Mansions. They’d come for headliners U2, who were blowing people’s minds with their Zoo TV tour.

Coughlan, a combative Corkman carved from the same raw materials as Roy Keane, was about to blow their minds too. Just not in the way anyone expected.

May 22 was the second of two shows the Fatima Mansions and U2 were playing at the venue.

The previous night Coughlan had been heckled by elements of the crowd. The Barcelona jersey was his calculated riposte. In the European Cup Final the evening before, Barca had beaten Sampdoria, from down the road in Genoa. He knew precisely what he was doing.

And he was just getting started.

Coughlan shared some choice words about the state of Italian soccer, was rude about the Pope and did something unspeakable with a shampoo bottle shaped like the Virgin Mary. U2, when they finally came on, had a lot to live up to.

Pope-gate, the Shampoo-incident… whatever you want to call it, Coughlan’s U2 controversy has regrettably become the one story many people know about the Mansions.

That’s a shame, as there is a case to be made that Coughlan is one of the greatest ever songwriters to come out of Ireland.

Cathal Coughlan in action in the Fatima Mansions era.
Cathal Coughlan in action in the Fatima Mansions era.

He has been widely lauded, it’s true. But mostly for Microdisney, the Cork band he fronted prior to the Fatima Mansions. And yet, for those who like their music angry rather than clever, cathartic instead of merely tuneful,   the Mansions were the superior affair.

The differences were stark. Microdisney were influenced by the Beach Boys and Steely Dan, Fatima Mansions by Throbbing Gristle, Ministry and Einstürzende Neubauten.

Which of the two you favour is the ultimate Rorschach test: do you take your pop sun-kissed or stormy?

“The Mansions obviously didn’t sound anything like Microdisney, but the animating spirit was pretty similar,” says Andrew Mueller, who as a Melody Maker writer in the Nineties, led the cheerleading for Coughlan (he would later collaborate with Coughlan and the Auteurs Luke Haines as the North Sea Scrolls).

“It’s that sardonic sensibility of Cathal, who is one of very few lyricists of whom I think it can be said that you could see, uncredited, two unfamiliar lines of new verse, and know instantly that it’s him.

Dead Ponies

Legal wrangling has sadly put much of the Mansions catalogue in limbo.

Which is why Viva Dead Ponies, their classic LP from 1990, is more obscure than it deserve to be. That’s a travesty.

Microdisney’s The Clock Comes Down The Stairs is often heralded among the great Irish albums. But Viva Dead Ponies, a tour de force with smoke pouring from its nostrils, is every bit its equal. Here’s the story of how it came to be.

Early Days Coughlan was born in Glounthaune in East Cork. On the skirts of Cork City Glounthaune is today a leafy suburb favoured by the chattering classes. Coughlan’s childhood was far more modest.

“My upbringing was what most people would have seen as ‘lower middle-class’,” he says. “The Lemass boom had brought glossy bungalow enclaves to the slopes above us, but they might as well have been in Hampshire for all the impact they had on our quite rural lives at that time.”

His mother was a teacher. His father, a public servant, was invalided in a car accident when Coughlan was 16. Coughlan attended the fee-paying Presentation Brothers College in Cork City on a bursary. Later he went to UCC.

In the early Eighties he met Sean O’Hagan, a Luton ex-pat working in a spaghetti factory on Little Island. They bonded over their shared love of Steely Dan, Lee Hazlewood and Brian Wilson and formed Microdisney.

The story of their move to London and the critical acclaim they enjoyed has been told many times.

What tends to be glossed over is the fact that their final 24 months were a desperate slog. Looking back, Coughlan feels his increasingly extreme behaviour may have contributed.

“I have many regrets about how that ending came about, and in particular the tunnel vision which fuelled my apocalyptic over-reaction to the band’s circumstances in the final two years,’ he says.

“Compared to situations I’ve been in since then, this was truly survivable stuff. But I just wasn’t grown up, not enough to have perspective.”

“So it left me both embarrassed at having failed on mainstream terms which I’d never wanted to apply, and fearful of failing on the more humble terms which seemed to be my natural level thereafter.

Growing Hype

Coughlan was shaken by the collapse of Microdisney.

In 1988 he formed the Fatima Mansions, named after the public flat complex in Dublin. Fatima Mansions initially featured Andrías Ó Grúama on guitar and Nick Allum on drums, later expanding to include bassist Hugh Bunker.

Liner notes and artwork on CD1 of Viva Dead Ponies
Liner notes and artwork on CD1 of Viva Dead Ponies

Ó Grúama, in particular, was almost as much a veteran as Coughlan. He’d played with Co Wexford post-punks Zerra 1.

Scrappy outsiders from the sticks, they had gone on the road with The Cure for their notorious 1982 Pornography tour. In Germany, they had witnessed the infamous fistfight between singer Robert Smith and guitarist Simon Gallup that almost tore The Cure apart. So he’d been around the block.

“The contribution of the others, most constantly meaning Grimmo and Nick Allum, both of whom I met through social connections, was what got me creating the songs that I did,” says Coughlan “I wrote some real rubbish before I started working with those guys, much less so afterwards.

“Without them, and later the bassist Hugh Bunker and our multi-instrumentalist Nick Bagnall, with the others who played on the shows and the records, playing live would have been beyond me. The ongoing evolution of the songs and how they were presented would have run out of road long before it eventually did.”

Early Mansions tracks were poppy – yet without the California vibes that were a Microdisney hallmark. And they were shot through with nostril-flaring anger. Only Losers Take The Bus, a single from 1989, for instance, took as its starting point Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that a person had failed at life if ,by age 30, they themselves taking the bus.

“They provided a lot of inspiration,” says Coughlan of the Mansions. “Like the best players do.”

Recording Process

Fatima Mansions' Viva Dead Ponies, released in 1990
Fatima Mansions' Viva Dead Ponies, released in 1990

In a gesture that captured the essence of Fatima Mansions, the best song on Viva Dead Ponies isn’t actually on Viva Dead Ponies.

During the same sessions that produced the record, Coughlan wrote Blues For Ceausescu. Clocking in a six minutes plus, the track is a punk pop two-footed tackle that takes no prisoners. It is fiercely intelligent and eloquent yet brutal too (perhaps why the US label insisted on putting it back on the album).

Coughlan explains that he wanted to get away from the idea that he was still crooner from Microdisney. Still a crafter of immaculate pop.

“Here’s a truly non-crafted song. Stop thinking of me as the guy who nearly co-wrote a hit in 1987.”

Coughlan later moved to Newcastle where he would meet his wife. But at the time he was still living in North London, his home since relocating from Cork to London with Microdisney in the early Eighties.

Viva Dead Ponies – initially Coughlan wanted to call it Bugs F*** Bunny – was, however, recorded on the other side of town at Tulse Hill, near Brixton.

The studio, Gooseberry, had previously operated out of Soho, where Gary Numan and the Sex Pistols were among those darkening its doors.

“The owners were a divorced couple,” he recounts. “The female co-owner, who I think, was a long-time emigrée from Eastern Europe, lived upstairs with her kindly, blazer-wearing, commodore-type second husband.

“Her more irascible, roughly-clad former spouse dwelt, no joke, in a garden shed with his newly-wed and much younger partner, sporting what was said to be a malfunctioning nose-job, acquired somewhere in the erstwhile Eastern Bloc just after the Wall came down.”

Coughlan co-produced the record with Ralph Jezzard, a friend of Grimmo’s. Viva Dead Ponies was very much a staging post for Jezzard, later to clock up a US number one as producer of Unbelievable by EMF.

“The recording kit in there was high-spec. But it was often broken. And then came a dependence on the ad-hoc assistance of the legendary Vic Keary, the man who recorded all the London-based Trojan Records from that label’s heyday, and went on to found a highly-respected company making valve-driven sound processors. Vic really knew his valves. But this wasn’t a valve studio. The hiatuses could be very long.”

Album artwork and liner notes on CD2 of Viva Dead Ponies
Album artwork and liner notes on CD2 of Viva Dead Ponies

Coughlan and his crew toiled for some two years. The results were astonishing – like an imaginary Greatest Hits traversing a full house of genres. One of the project’s secret weapons was Coughlan’s rich voice, as deployed wonderfully on pop-flavoured You’re A Rose. A considerable chunk of the live-played keyboards on the album were played by Nick Bunker (brother of bassist Hugh), who had previously been in the live band, and had by then gone on to considerable success, on the continent, with Fischer Z.

Still, it wasn’t all sing-along melodies. Microdisney fans were put on notice early that this would not be a tight-rope walk in a gale force wind.

“Yeah!! Burn, motherf**ker, burn!,” screams Coughlan on pummelling opener Angel’s Delight.

“I got a word for you: dead… Got a trampoline – your f**kin' head.” It’s a song that wants to cosh you senseless and very nearly does.

“I liked the idea of acid house,” says Coughlan of his influences at the time. “I was a drinker rather than a clubber, and it cost money to investigate music back then. The house-trained rock bands didn’t interest me at all.

“Industrial music from the US and continental Europe were the only current ‘band’ stuff I actually liked. I’m thinking the Young Gods, Einsturzende Neubauten, Ministry and Meat Beat Manifesto. Still love Neubauten, playing them right now – still great.”

In the UK, they felt they were in safe hands working with indie label Kitchenware. In the US they ended up, rather improbably, on Radioactive, which had a distribution deal with Universal Records. Which is how the Mansions came to be hyped in America, with celebrities such as Michael Stipe checking out their shows (Stipe left early, Coughlan had his revenge with a scatalogical 1991 cover of Shiny Happy People).

An underdog all his life, the sudden attention bemused Coughlan.

“We were being ‘launched’ by a piece of a major label – an advert on the front page of Billboard, quite plush coverage in magazines, etc… It felt a bit fragile and weird, especially when we got outside certain coastal bubbles and had little luck attracting audiences in cities like Detroit and even San Francisco, which we thought of as hip and musical… The shows in New York and Boston, say, on the other hand, went really well, and gave hope for a time.

“That kind of patchy response is normal for ‘foreign’ music in the US. I shudder to imagine how much worse it is now. But in our case, we had no grassroots popularity, nor were we ever to develop any, past a handful of people to whom I remain grateful.

“It was an uneasy feeling. But it was good to have the chance to get out and play to people who related to music differently from audiences in the UK, at a time when “underground” music more generally was starting to reach a much wider audience in the US.”

Beginning of the End

Viva Dead Ponies was a classic, as was 1992’s Valhalla Avenue and their swan song, 1994’s Lost in the Former West. But by that point they’d been around too long. Britpop was happening. It was getting harder to pay the bills.

They had already sold the rights to their music in order to keep the band on the road. This would come back to bite them.

“The non-handling of the Mansions’ catalogue is a source of irritation, if I focus on it for long,” Coughlan explains.

Coughlan has no idea what became of the master tapes, other than that they are ultimately owned by Universal Music.

He suspects they may have been destroyed in the notorious 2008 fire at a Hollywood backlot in which an estimated 175,000 original recordings were lost.

“For the overlord corporate entity of Universal Music to repeatedly not even deem it worthwhile to cheaply… use the existing digital media to make the music audible, not even on the joke medium of subscription streaming, well that’s just depressing. And, I think, somewhat contemptuous towards the many acts in the same boat.”

Still the records are floating out there on the internet, if you seek them out. And those who were there will remember the Mansions as angry and apocalyptic but also capable incredible grace and beauty.

Album artwork on the sleeve of Viva Dead Ponies
Album artwork on the sleeve of Viva Dead Ponies

“Viva Dead Ponies just rocks: it’s paranoid and angry, for sure. But also weirdly gleeful and even joyful,” says Andrew Mueller.

He cites the epic title track and lyrics such as “Do you know how old Jesus feels?/ For he walks the Earth again/ but not in Mecca or in Jerusalem/ No, he sells papers and beer in a shop in Crouch End”.

“It may just be me, but the image of a returned Christ resentfully operating a news agency in Crouch End, fretting over his surplus Brillo pads, still makes me laugh,” says Mueller.

The ultimate test of a band’s longevity, says Mueller, is whether they still matter to people long after the event.

“There was nothing and nobody like them, which was clearly how they preferred it. But it did kind of mean that nobody really knew what to do with them or make of them,” he says.

“As was the case with Microdisney, however, people are still talking about them, while very much not doing so about many of their better-selling contemporaries.”

Where Are They Now?

  • Coughlan lives in London, where he continues to write and perform and has released five acclaimed solo records.
  • Andrías Ó Grúama lives in Germany, where he still plays guitar, and teaches History and English.
  • Nick Allum lives in London, still plays music and is a professor at the Sociology department in Essex University.
  • Hugh Bunker lives in rural central England where he works in environmental protection. He still plays music also.

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