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Andrew Mueller On Fatima Mansions' Lost In The Former West
Andrew Mueller , September 8th, 2022 07:10

In this month's Low Culture subscriber essay, Andrew Mueller writes about how his love of Fatima Mansions' 1994 album Lost In The Former West was part of a life-changing friendship with the late Cathal Coughlan

There are many subjects on which music journalists are capable of being mercilessly passionate, but none more so than the under-rated album: that work whose manifold virtues were lost on that heedless rabble known as the record-buying public, but which should have sold several zillion copies, and by golly would have, if only these dunderheads would listen, etcetera.

In 1995, the music weekly Melody Maker, for which I was at the time writing, decided to exploit this grimly evangelical tendency among its contributors. That year, the March 4 edition of the Maker was packaged with a slender paperback entitled Unknown Pleasures: Great Lost Albums Rediscovered. It was a collection of essays in which Maker hacks were given roughly 2,000 words a time to exhume whichever treasures they wished from the depths in which popular indifference had buried them.

Some of these records had been biggish at the time then forgotten, others more or less entirely ignored all along. But they'd mostly been wandering in the wilderness awhile, since the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. I wrote about one which had been released a matter of months previously. The band concerned managed, I think, to find this bleakly amusing. 

The album was Lost In The Former West, the fifth and – it turned out – last album by The Fatima Mansions. The Fatima Mansions, named after a decrepit Dublin housing estate, were the band formed by Cork songwriter Cathal Coughlan after the demise of his previous band, Microdisney, themselves favourites of overly zealous rock writers: my ‘Unknown Pleasures' essay also considered Microdisney's equally outrageously disregarded valedictory statement, 1988's sumptuous 39 Minutes, a record which sounded something like an Irish Phil Ochs blessed with the voice of Roy Orbison singing to the arrangements of Billy Sherrill.

I had started getting to know Cathal in the early 1990s. We first met when I interviewed him for Melody Maker around the release of The Fatima Mansions' second album Viva Dead Ponies. As I loved The Fatima Mansions to distraction, and nobody else at Melody Maker seemed all that interested, I interviewed Cathal pretty frequently, often in peculiar circumstances: backstage in Belfast at an aftershow party inexplicably gatecrashed by a gang of fortunately affable Loyalist skinheads; on a rollercoaster at a funfair at Whitley Bay, for reasons I no longer recall; on the tour bus bearing The Fatima Mansions to their opening slot on U2's Zoo TV tour at the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona. This was accompanied with a parping soundtrack of the Mansions' on-tour alter-ego group, the inept if enthusiastic brass ensemble they called the Tower Of Crap, opening the sunroof to accommodate their trombone slides. On Zoo TV's merchandise stalls, the myriad U2 gear was joined by The Fatima Mansions' lone contribution: a black t-shirt on which was scrawled, in white, ‘Fuck Your Showbizness'. (The ‘Keep Music Evil' t-shirt worn by this correspondent in the photo accompanying this essay, taken at the misbegotten Woodstock revival of 1994, was also an item of Fatima Mansions couture.)

Tower of Crap: Trombone slides through the sunroof

Whether due to mutual recognition of a kindred spirit, or Cathal being afflicted by some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, an actual friendship developed. When Cathal's scabrous side project Bubonique – a partnership with the late comedian Sean Hughes, among others – played their only ever live show, opening for The Fatima Mansions one evening at The Garage in Islington, I joined on lead guitar for their epic version of George Michael's ‘Careless Whisper', under strict instruction not to bother learning, beforehand, how it went. 

Eventually, there was a more coherent, if scarcely less absurd, collaborative partnership: around 2011-2012, myself, Cathal and Luke Haines wrote The North Sea Scrolls. This was a song cycle, linked with spoken-word narrations, which chronicled an alternative history of Britain, in which these islands had been colonised and occupied by Ireland, with the help of English quislings, and the interventions of vindictive Australians. 

The author backstage with Bubonique circa 1994, Cathal Coughlan with the laser gun, Sean Hughes in blonde wig

In our parallel universe, sketched over a series of dinners at a Vietnamese restaurant in Shoreditch, Dublin gangster Martin Cahill is governor-general, idling in an expropriated Buckingham Palace. Oswald Mosley is Lord Protector, Joe Meek his despotic cultural commissar. Enoch Powell, disgraced Poet Laureate, joins an apocalyptic cult commanded by Steve Hillage out of Gong. Tim Hardin leads a rebel Cornish militia. Hawkwind are hot-air balloonists. Chris Evans is burned at the stake. The IRA are superseded by an Australian tribute act, recreating famous atrocities at rock festivals. Only Cathal could have set, to a jaunty seaside brass-band air, the lines “Who'd have thought we'd find ourselves untouched by any rage/From our tooled-up former comrades as we mount our burning stage?/They're tied up beheading Latvians for the Leinster poppy trade. . .")

We performed this baleful nonsense around the UK and Ireland clad in fatigues and pith helmets, with the incongruously dignified assistance of cellist Audrey Riley, and recorded The North Sea Scrolls as an old-school double concept album. There is not a great deal I'm likely to be prouder of than the joint Haines/Coughlan/Mueller credit.

North Sea Scrolls painting by Luke Haines

This essay is being written a matter of weeks after Cathal's death, after a long illness, aged 61 – and at a table overlooked by a painting Luke did years ago of him, me and Cathal, clad in our Scrolls costumes, standing in a rowboat, notably lacking a paddle between the three of us. So this is still very much that surreal stage of early grief in which, despite having attended the funeral, and commiserated with others who knew him and will miss him, it still reflexively occurs to me occasionally that I haven't seen Cathal for a bit, I should drop him a line, or that I must ask Cathal what he makes of this thing I've read or heard – not least, of course, Lost In The Former West, which I've been listening to again, a lot. It's an extraordinary record: smart, fierce, and funny. Listening to it again now, it's a bit – though not nearly enough – like he's still here.

The cover image of Lost In The Former West is a riff on a famous photo of Liberace and his chauffeur. Cathal appears shrouded in a coat of white ermine fur, his fingers adorned with ridiculous rings; to his right, Fatima Mansions guitarist Andrías Ó Grúama – generally known as ‘Grimmo' – beams from within a gold-braided hussar's uniform.    I don't know – it's something else I always meant to ask – if Cathal also intended this burlesque as a pictorial representation of one particular track on Lost In The Former West, but it's what I think of when I hear ‘Brunceling's Song', which I've advanced more than once to the unconverted as a demonstration of how Cathal's imagination operated. To no other songwriter would it have occurred to narrate a furious metal thrash from the perspective of a driver engaged by James Jesus Angleton, the long-serving CIA counterintelligence chief, in fictional post-espionage twilight years eking a living as a door-to-door sunlamp salesman, drunkenly raging at enemies real and imagined (“‘I know Khomeini, John Wilkes Booth and The Jackson Five'"/The old man roared as I poured him into his bed/‘They control the bourbon runs/From Bialystok to Brunei. . .'")   If an album as weird as Lost In The Former West can be said to have a signature tune, ‘Brunceling's Song' is it. Musically, ‘Brunceling's Song' is seething, claustrophobic heavy rock (and though I know The Fatima Mansions always had mixed feelings about the production of Lost In The Former West, I always  believed it the closest any of their albums came to capturing the gleeful, pugnacious careen of the band in concert). Lyrically, it is a counter-intuitively jaundiced survey of the post-Cold War landscape.   Here is where Lost In The Former West may have been a stretch ahead of its time. Across the (largely) western and (more or less) democratic world, the mid-1990s, into which the album was released, was pretty much the peak of end-of-history hubris. It was a few years since the Soviet Union seemed finally to have grasped that the moment at which you had to build a fence and erect watchtowers to stop everyone from leaving might have been, in retrospect, the moment you had lost the argument. The nations once held captive by the Warsaw Pact were starting work on their applications to the EU and NATO. What would become a cosy centre-left consensus had been inaugurated by President Bill Clinton in the US; in the UK, Tony Blair's Labour were waiting out a knackered and rancorous Conservative Party. Just in time for a new century – indeed, a new millennium – a glorious golden age, or at least relatively trouble-free future, appeared to have arrived.   Not, suggested Lost In The Former West, so fast. The upending of any order is a messy business – scattering certainties, derailing trajectories, causing casualties, one of which might well be you, even if you haven't realised it just yet. On the album's opening track, ‘Belong Nowhere', Cathal half-rapped and half-howled a sort of manifesto for the newly deracinated: “No family, no history, a permanent delinquency". It set the scene as Cathal now saw it: “No deathcamps here, I tell you/Just grey ‘convenience' hell". And it introduced an underlying theme of Lost In The Former West: the concurrent war consuming the former Yugoslavia, which Cathal saw, entirely correctly, as a suggestion that we might all be less clever than we thought: “You'll drink the Balkan brandy/You will forget your name."   The point was remade even more bracingly on ‘Popemobile To Paraguay' – which, buoyed by a swaggering riff not distantly related to Aerosmith's ‘Walk This Way', linked the squalid shadowplay of the western world's previous great triumph to the giddy, deluded self-congratulation of the present. The song's starting point was the infamous collaboration of the post-World War II Catholic church in spiriting Nazis to South America from the ruins of Germany, and the clutches of justice: “A man with your knowledge of electrical goods/Should not be condemned because he's misunderstood/Trip from Zagreb to Rome, onto Asuncion/In the clothes of a bishop, the new beard being your own". But its real theme is the perennial enthusiasm of Europeans for tribal warfare, and the gruesome uses that nationalist and/or religious demagogues may make of it: “They'll mass when commanded/They'll hate when they're told/They'll murder their neighbours for the good of their souls/And they'll punish your enemies/If you'll read out their names/They'll be adorning the bridges from the Don to the Thames".   The author in his Keep Music Evil t-shirt

The period around the release of Lost In The Former West was also, I guess, roughly the period in which I started trying to be other kinds of journalist than a rock journalist. It would be a reach to suggest that thus album was wholly responsible for propelling me along a path which would take in variously hot, simmering or frozen conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Gaza, Kosovo, Cameroon and Abkhazia, among others, but it remained a touchstone as I roamed what Cathal called, on ‘Belong Nowhere', the “mirthless Earth".    I met my share of Angletons and Bruncelings: spooks, soldiers, mercenaries, terrorists, activists and assorted other carpet-baggers, all taking, to defer to Cathal's metaphor on the eponymous song, “A walk in the woods/After a storm". These were people seeking an answer to the question posed in ‘Your World Customer': “I know you think you have a job but the whole world knows it's ended/Why do you laugh at the dying of the senile god on whom your devilish life depended?"     I cannot quantify precisely how much influence Lost In The Former West may have had on my own journalistic efforts to make sense of any of this, but I am sure it percolated through somewhere. I always admired Cathal's facility with language, his ability to conjure the couplet instantly recognisable as the work of no other author. It is – obviously – not for any writer to judge whether they have themselves succeeded at that, or indeed at anything, but it's not a bad mark to aim at. And when, by tiresome symmetry, the books I wrote also ended up accruing, much like Cathal's records, rather better reviews than sales figures, I guess I came to regard Cathal as an example of a way to be: just concentrate on the work, rather than what does, or does not, happen as a consequence of it. I'm sure Cathal would rather have sold more of his stuff along the way – who wouldn't? – but I never heard him complain about it.   There is one cover version on Lost In The Former West, though it is not like the covers for which The Fatima Mansions became mildly infamous – pornographic desecrations of Bryan Adams' interminably chart-topping ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You)' and R.E.M.'s emetic ‘Shiny Happy People' (I can confirm that Peter Buck, for one, holds The Fatima Mansions' version of the latter in rather higher esteem than his own). And Bubonique's second album, Trance Arse Vol. 4, included among other delights a techno version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's ‘Free Bird'. But on Lost In The Former West, Scott Walker's ‘Nite Flights' was treated rather more reverently.    For any singer, obviously, a Scott Walker song is a daunting challenge – but Cathal, possessed of a rich, careworn croon, rose to it handsomely, and amid a crowded field it's one of my favourites of his vocal performances. In the context of the rest of the album, this particular slice of proper late-1970s Cold War paranoia, agonising at horrors its narrator cannot quite bring himself to describe clearly, reminds the listener that the territory mapped by Lost In The Former West is long and wearily trodden.   The lead single from Lost In The Former West was ‘The Loyaliser'. It spent a week at Number 58, which was disappointing, yet remarkable for a record which sounded like the result of one of those sandwich board-draped Jeremiahs who prophesy doom at irritated commuters enlisting Ministry as a backing group. On the experience of these recent plague-stricken years, it is tempting to advance ‘The Loyaliser', with its refrain of “Lockdown London!", as some sort of foretelling of recent travails – but that's not what the song was getting at, at least as I ever heard it.   The key line of ‘The Loyaliser', and indeed of Lost In The Former West, is the one carried by the relieving  melodic phrase which resolves the fury of the headbanging choruses back into the – somewhat – gentler ferment of the verses. In the – at time of writing unlikely – event that I ever find myself moved to open the kind of café decorated with kitschily framed aphorisms rendered in florid typefaces, I can imagine it hanging up above the espresso machine, shrouded in steam: “You get older, you get scared, but you get no wiser."   When you reach a point at which you find yourself listening to music you first encountered half a lifetime ago, you're probably doing it for one of two reasons. One, probably more commonly, is to soundtrack a saunter down memory lane – recall the gigs and the friends and the mildewy houseshares of the period, and perhaps to reconnect with aspects of yourself which have been, for better and for worse, grown out of. The other is that a given record has grown up with you, or vice versa – and given that this particular record was the work of someone I know for a fact to have been about a hundred times smarter than me, I can't imagine that I heard quite as much in Lost In The Former West as I do now (at the time, I probably mostly just thought it absolutely rocked, and I was right, but still).   It never quite happened for The Fatima Mansions. Lost In The Former West didn't chart, they split shortly afterwards, and Cathal's subsequent career was thwarted vexingly by various contractual difficulties (though the solo albums he did manage to release are astonishing, especially 2000's Black River Falls and 2002's The Sky's Awful Blue, each a testament of and to Cathal's signature sardonic compassion). Microdisney eventually reformed, accruing the overdue ovations of packed houses with a short series of stunning live shows in Dublin, Cork and London, but The Fatima Mansions did not, largely for logistical reasons.    As for Lost In The Former West, its title also served as its epitaph. It is perfectly possible to meet fervent Cathal Coughlan fans who have never heard of it, much less heard it. But it remains one of my favourite albums, and not entirely because it is the work of one of my favourite people.