Cathal Coughlan obituary: Singer and songwriter who never stopped exploring musical frontiers

Microdisney and Fatima Mansions singer pursued new horizons and leaves vast legacy of songs

Born: December 16th, 1960

Died: May 18th, 2022

Cathal Coughlan, who has died at the age of 61 following a long illness, was among the foremost singers and songwriters of his generation, his formidable body of work stretching over more than 40 years from Microdisney and the Fatima Mansions to the series of solo albums and collaborations that followed.

Known principally for his involvement in rock, he saw himself as belonging to the wider tradition of chanson: lyric-driven songs. His commercial success was modest, partly due to his ambivalence about the music business and partly because of his uncompromising approach; but his sonorous baritone and his songs – intelligent, literate, emotionally complex and seldom other than searing – made him a figure not just influential and respected but also, by many, revered, with the 1985 release The Clock Comes Down the Stairs, Microdisney’s artistic peak, widely regarded as among the greatest albums ever released.

Born in Cork, Coughlan grew up in Glounthaune, a village to the east of the city. His mother, Eleanor, was a primary schoolteacher, and his father, Paddy, was a public servant. After attending secondary school at Presentation Brothers College, he had begun studying microbiology at UCC when, at a party on New Year’s Eve in 1979, he met English expatriate Sean O’Hagan, a factory worker with whom he quickly bonded over their mutual interest in music, particularly in the Fall, Suicide, Magazine, the Only Ones and Erik Satie.

Coughlan and O’Hagan formed Constant Reminders, who morphed into the five-piece Micro-Disney, the name coming from one of their early songs. Members of a vibrant young scene that clustered around the Arcadia venue, the band quickly earned a reputation for combative live shows, Coughlan’s confrontational approach and sulphurous lyrics having something in common with another Irish band of the period, the Virgin Prunes, whom Coughlan liked.

Avant-garde frontiersman

Acquaintances from that time describe Coughlan as an elusive figure, somewhat aloof and studiously hazy about his background of relative privilege, someone who looked down on much of post-punk, who was interested in jazz and traditional Irish music, a nascent avant-garde frontiersman already eager to push musical forms into fresh territory.

By mid-1982 the band had slimmed to just Coughlan and O’Hagan, now styling themselves as Microdisney. Initial singles on Dubliner Gareth Ryan’s Kabuki Records led to a session for BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel which they recorded within a week of their arrival to London in 1983, Coughlan and O’Hagan preferring even the brutality of Thatcher’s fractious Britain to the enervating entropy of Ireland. They recruited more members to become a gigging band and went on to record a further five sessions for Peel, a key champion who described the band as an iron fist in a velvet glove and who famously said he could listen to Coughlan singing the phone book.

A recording contract with independent label Rough Trade gave Microdisney freedom to write, and what followed was the purple patch that secured Coughlan’s reputation. The band’s 1984 debut album, Everybody is Fantastic, was quickly followed by a compilation that included the much-admired Loftholdingswood; and then came their masterpiece, The Clock Comes Down the Stairs, the evanescent melodic beauty of which, influenced by the Beach Boys and Ennio Morricone, whom O’Hagan loved, was undercut by Coughlan’s lyrical obsession with themes of mortality, dislocation and complicated love. “The existence of death seems like such a glammy toy when you’re 25,” Coughlan tweeted last August during an online playback of the album. “Now, not so much.”

Former Microdisney and Fatima Mansions singer Cathal Coughlan, who died on May 18th, 2022.

The prospect of a financial cushion lured the band, by then penurious again, to mainstream label Virgin Records, notorious for its brutal culls of underperforming acts. The band’s mixed feelings showed in the cover image of their 1987 album Crooked Mile: golden handcuffs. The lead single, Town to Town, was a radio hit, but it was not enough: within months of the release in 1988 of the band’s next album, 39 Minutes, Virgin dropped them. The relationship between Coughlan and O’Hagan had already soured, their interactions on stage visibly strained, and the band soon split.

Coughlan quickly formed the Fatima Mansions, named after a ravaged Dublin flats complex, and in guitarist Andrias O’Gruama he found another ideal collaborator. After the sonically conventional 1989 debut album Against Nature the band hit on what became their signature industrial sound with Blues for Ceaucescu, an incendiary, scabrous, post-apocalyptic single. They perfected this aesthetic over the three albums that followed – Viva Dead Ponies, Valhalla Avenue and Lost in the Former West – with the band’s commercial appeal gradually waning in the burgeoning era of grunge despite Coughlan’s songwriting reaching peaks of dyspeptic paroxysm with songs such as Popemobile to Paraguay.

Allergic to praise, Coughlan tended to look forward to the next project rather than back at his catalogue. Other musicians understood how special he was. He and Prefab Sprout singer Paddy McAloon had a long, mutually admiring friendship. Go-Betweens co-founder Robert Forster, another friend, regarded Coughlan as an ethical exemplar exceptional for his artistic probity. During the Mansions’ support slots on a European leg of the Zoo TV tour in 1992, members of headliners U2 hovered in the wings, mouthing the lyrics to Behind the Moon, one of Coughlan’s most tender yet acidic ballads. In 2000, Scott Walker, one of Coughlan’s few heroes, booked him for the Meltdown festival that he curated, an honour that meant a great deal to Coughlan. They remained in touch.

Ascetic reset

After a long relationship ended in the early 1990s, Coughlan reformed his self-destructively hedonistic lifestyle, becoming a teetotal vegan and taking up running, this ascetic reset enabling him to rededicate himself to his work as a songwriter, though he remained, as he put it, a highly compartmentalised person.

Contractual difficulties stalled his solo career for a period after the Mansions split. Frustrated but sanguine, he embarked upon work in web development, eventually rising to a senior position in the BBC’s online division.

Between 1996 and 2021 he released a series of solo albums – Grand Necropolitan, Black River Falls, The Sky’s Awful Blue, Foburg, Rancho Tetrahedon and Song of Co-Aklan – that allowed influences ranging from Tommy Potts to Jacques Brel to permeate his writing. Voraciously curious, he kept exploring music to the end, his interests covering a broad span from contemporary classical to Brazilian music.

In 2018, the inaugural IMRO/NCH Trailblazer Award prompted Microdisney to reunite to perform The Clock Comes Down the Stairs from beginning to end. Three further concerts completed the circle, allowing the band to appreciate how much they and the album meant to so many.

Latterly Coughlan struck out in a new direction in another of his many collaborations, working with producer Jacknife Lee on Telefís, a project that mixed Krautrock and techno with a warped Irish nostalgia. They released an album, A hAon, recently and completed a follow-up. Having moved past the career longueurs inflicted upon him by the music industry, Coughlan was determined to keep moving forward.

He is survived by Julie, his wife, and by Pat and Denis, his brothers.