With the death at age 61 of Cathal Coughlan, Cork has lost one of its greatest ever songwriters. Going all the way back to the early Eighties, when the city was its own self-contained pop microclimate, Coughlan’s back catalogue is wide, varied and fascinating. But if you’re confused as to where to begin, here are 10 essential Cathal Coughlan moments to get you started.
Beneath its sunny melodies Microdisney’s biggest hit – peaking at 55 in the UK charts – had a secret heart of darkness. “Me and my ex-lover,” emotes Coughlan with unsettling perkiness.”Will accept each other, Help reap the dead harvest.” It’s about nuclear devastation – Coughlan’s lyrics painting pictures of missiles raining down as people flee from “town to town”.
Rumoured to have been inspired by a visit to Boy George’s house in London, this was another outwardly sunny song that contained bleak multitudes. Among other things it was an exploration of the emptiness of fame. “Got a heart shaped swimming pool,” croons Coughlan. “Broken heart and a swimming pool.”
Microdisney’s bittersweet sign-off was released in March 1988. Two months later, they opened for David Bowie at the Dominion Theatre in London – and then announced they were splitting up.
As a final flourish, Gale Force Wind is nearly perfect. It combines Sean O’Hagan’s yacht rock sensibilities with an incandescent vocal from Coughlan and an irresistible chorus.
Following the unravelling of Microdisney Coughlan moved on the angrier, more urgent Fatima Mansions. Drawing on his loathing of unchecked capitalism, their debut single was a riposte to Margaret Thatcher’s claim that anyone taking the bus at age 30 or over was a failure. Coughlan was not a failure – but this song is a red-eyed celebration of life in the gutter, looking at the stars.
Arguably Coughlan’s masterpiece, the six minute, 20 seconds single called out the hypocrisies of a Western capitalist system all too happy to dance on the grave of Communism without confronting its own flaws and searing inequities. It also took aim at the reflexive deference to royalty he encountered in Britain while his songwriting was updated with references to industrial groups such as Ministry. Angry, articulate, addictive – if there is one song for which Coughlan needs to be remembered this is it.
Coughlan’s reputation as an iconoclast has tended to obscure his genius as a balladeer. But that other side of his oeuvre is on display on the title track from his 1991 mini-album – also noteworthy for its carpet-bombing of REM’s Shiny Happy People (less a cover version than a pugilistic act of creative revenge and a frontal assault on indie rock tweeness).
There was a Cathal Coughlan for all seasons. And on his 1993 collaboration with comedian Sean Hughes, the goal was scatalogical mischief-making. A comedy record that is in places massively disturbing, Bubonique’s 20 Golden Showers took bad taste to the limit (as did follow-up Trans Arse Volume 3 in 1995). Starting as it meant to continue, it opened with a vicious deconstruction of Summer (The First Time) by American country singer Bobby Goldsboro.
The end of Fatima Mansions mired Coughlan in contractual disputes and for several years his career foundered in a limbo. But he returned in the late 90s with a serious of graceful solo LPs that suggested a sort of Celtic Twilight Nick Cave. One of the highlights of that phase of his career was the title track from his second stand-alone record – a gothic piano ballad that delivers a minimalist punch.
A roaring comeback by Coughlan, last year’s Song Of Co-Aklan blended his ferocity as a songwriter with often delicate electro-pop. And it all came together wonderfully on the title track, which winks towards the melodic purity of Microdisney.
Released just a few months before his death, his Telefís collaboration with superstar producer Garret “Jacknife” Lee was a perfect swan-song. The project circled around to his upbringing in Glounthane – but whereas before Coughlan simmered with rage about the asphyxiating religiosity of that period now, in his early 60s, he found that he could look back with some fondness on his childhood. It was a sweet, surreal album – particularly the single We Need. And it is encouraging to know that, all the way until the end, Coughlan never stopped creating fascinating and emotionally-engaging music.