RIP Cathal Coughlan

May 24, 2022 § Leave a comment

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Cathal Coughlan has died. You probably don’t know who he was. Coughlan was the frontman of a criminally underrated band in the late 80s/early 90s, The Fatima Mansions. They were an Irish band, from Cork, but they took their name from a housing estate/project in Dublin. They were wild.

The Fatima Mansions Estate, Dublin. Photo courtesy of RTÉ

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest in the late 80s, it was very hard to get access to what was then called alternative rock. This was especially true in the suburbs of Vancouver, which were pretty bland and boring in those days. Vancouver was going through this massive change, evolving from a backwater outpost of the British Empire into the modern, cosmopolitan city it is today. Part of this was due to Expo 86, part of it was due to global politics. Vancouver had always been a disembarkation point for immigrants from South and East Asia, that much is true. But in the late 80s/early 90s, with the impending handover of Kong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997, there was a massive influx of East Asian immigration to the city, which, combined with the already extant East and South Asian populations, changed the city massively. This had not yet filtered out to the far eastern suburbs of Vancouver.

The cultural shift of the city meant many things, including me being confused c. 2004 watching the NHL playoffs and an Air Canada ad that showed a city that looked like Vancouver, all these tall, angular glass towers, and the mountains behind them. It took me awhile to realize this was Hong Kong, not Vancouver. But the other thing that happened is that Vancouver emerged from its cocoon and became the international city it is today.

But all of that was still to come. I had read about The Fatima Mansions in The NME, they counted U2 amongst their supporters and fans. They eventually opened for U2 during one leg of the Zoo TV tour in 1992 in Europe (Pixies were the openers in North America). But it was damn near impossible to get their 1990 album, Viva Dead Ponies. I went to all the usual suspects on Seymour St. downtown (Sam the Record Man, A&A Records and Tapes, A&B Sound, and the indie store, Track Records). No dice. The guy at Track suggested I try Zulu Records on W. 4th in Kitsilano. I didn’t know anything about Kitsilano, but the guy was nice enough to tell me how to get there, the #4 bus. But they woman at Zulu, whilst she had heard of The Fatima Mansions, they didn’t have anything by them.

I did eventually find joy a few months later. Columbia House. Maybe it was a scam, but I sure as hell didn’t think so. Yeah, you could get your Brian Adams and Aerosmith this way. But Columbia House had all this random underground music. I found so much amazing alternative, hip hop, and techno music this way, everything from They Might Be Giants to Living Colour to Public Enemy to Boogie Down Productions to The Sundays and The Stone Roses. And The Fatima Mansions. Viva Dead Ponies was in the catalogue. I ordered it. It was glorious.

Things got a bit easier, music-wise, when I moved to Ottawa for undergrad, as Ottawa had The Record Runner on Rideau St., and they had damn near everything. Including their 1992 album, which actually charted in the UK, Valhalla Avenue. The Fatima Mansions were amazing, they weren’t any one thing in an era when record labels encouraged artists to be one thing. Coughlin was mezmerizing as a front man in their videos, tall, angular, Nordic-looking, and rather intimidating. Their music ranged from vicious industrial-inspired grinding guitars and shouted vocals to the tenderness of their cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘A Singer Must Die,’ on the brilliant 1992 Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan.

I don’t think The Fatima Mansions ever came to North America, at least not anywhere near Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, or Vancouver. Maybe they went to New York or Los Angeles. But not Canada. And these were the days, the early 90s, when Vancouver was the starting or end point of most major tours. This led to some amazing shows, when the artist(s) were fresh and stoked for the road trip, or when they were exhausted and drained at the end of it and they dug down for some amazing shit to end it all.

I obsessed over Viva Dead Ponies for a long while after I found it in the Columbia House catalogue. I can’t remember exactly when I got my hands on it, though my memories have me listening to the album, which was supposed to be called Bugs Fucking Bunny (I think it’s kind of obvious why that didn’t happen), over the Christmas break that year. None of my friends liked it, which was interesting, even the ones who liked synth-pop (which also features on Viva Dead Ponies) or industrial. I guess The Fatima Mansions were too many things to be anything. And I suppose this is why they remained obscure, at least in North America. It always felt to me in those days that the Europeans could handle their musical artists being more diverse in their sounds than we could.

I lost track of them after about 1992, and they broke up in 1995, Wikipedia tells me. Coughlan died on 18 May after a long illness. He was only 61. Before Mansions, he had been in Microdisney, who scored a few hit singles in the UK, and after Mansions split, he released a raft of solo music, his last album coming out in 2020.

May he rest in peace.

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