Saturday, November 18, 2006

Songs To Learn And Sing #18

Let's just get on with it today. Next cab off the crate-digging rank is writer Dave Walsh:

Fatima Mansions - Blues For Ceausescu

It must have been early 1990 when the noise began. I was 17 and studying for my final school exams. There I was one dark night, bent over my student desk in a dark corner of Co. Wexford, listening to the Dave Fanning Show on Ireland's 2FM radio station. A vicious noise tore through my headphones. What the hell was Fanning playing at? Guitars like chainsaws beating their way through a butcher shop and howls of feedback circling overhead. A murky, distorted but recognisably Irish voice lurching through the noise, spewing vitriol. But not before it greeted the listener: "Well hello". Impossible to work out the lyrics from there but for the chorus - "Ciao, Ceausescu". The top of my head lifted off. From that moment on, rock music stopped being just entertainment for me. It wasn't a lacuna or lovestruck escapism anymore. Music could transcendent the mundane, and be charged with raw energy. And it could still be good music!

I'd grown up under the myth that punk was something from another generation. To a teenager, the music of 10-15 years beforehand was a lifetime away. My generation were left to salvage some meaning from the foppish kitsch of the 80s, all the baggy suits and bad hair.

Whatever this was on the radio, it wasn't fucking Duran Duran. The genius behind this fantastic racket was furious, that was for sure. But why was he so worked up about Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's communist dictator, who had been executed, along with his wife, while singing the fourth word of the communist song L'Internationale on Christmas Day 1989? I had no idea. I was a smart enough kid, but was only lurching towards an understanding of international politics. Fanning's voice came on, and told it was a guy called Cathal Coughlan and the band was the Fatima
Mansions. The song was called Blues For Ceausescu.

Months later, I found a 12" of Blues For Ceausescu in Dublin's Freebird Records, its cover a shock of weird green-painted images by the longtime Fatima Mansions artist Lawrence Bogle (alleged by some to be a pseudonym of Coughlan's). I bought it up and played it till my crappy needle wore it out. I had corrupted my five-year-old brother, who took to ambling around the house shouting "Ciao, Ceausescu" to anyone who would listen.

That's 16 years ago, and I'm still thinking over what Cathal Coughlan was singing about. I've met the man, but never asked him about it. Sometimes I think he's musing on the return of Ceausescu, Messiah-like, or as an anti-Christ, but this time as the King of England. Other times I think it's not really about Ceausescu at all, but the whole fucked up state of the UK at the time... and, for that matter, Ireland. Maybe it's a fusion of all these - a goodbye and good riddance to Ceausescu, with an observation that the late dictator would have felt right at home in Thatcher's Britain.

The Fatima Mansions were a band of their time - made up of both British musicians and Irishmen like frontman Coughlan, spat out of the gob of recession-era Ireland (to misquote him from elsewhere) into the belly of the beast itself - Thatcher's Britain. Oh, it's easy to whinge at the grinning duplicity of Tony Blair, but England in 1990 was a dark, dark place - on March 31st, 1990, a claimed 200,000 people turned up in Trafalgar Square to protest against the Poll Tax - an unpopular new tax which millions of people refused to pay, and riots broke out across the country.

Cathal Coughlan would have been resident in London for some time by 1990. Through the 80s, he sang with a band called Microdisney, a weird, unlikely mutation of saccharine pop and vile, angry lyrics. Coughlan left, formed the Fatima Mansions, named after an unfortunate and unsavoury bunch of council flats in Dublin. Coughlan was himself from rural Cork, and while he demonstrated unquenchable bitterness towards Ireland he also seemed to loathe London. Much of his other lyrics are luridly concerned with the "grief and dislocation". The title track of the album Viva Dead Ponies is a ballad about a shopkeeper in the London suburb of Crouch End who is convinced that's he's the second coming of Christ. The monologue of On Suicide Bridge, apparently about the suicides from the bridge at Archway, also name-checks the area, the suicidee telling of how he has become "weary of the humiliations of Crouch End". In The Bishop of Babel he sings "We don't don't talk the same, so we don't talk at all, and our hosts just look on with glee". This isn't to say that Coughlan's work is all depressing - some if it is darkly hiliarous, like the Fatima's fucked-up cover version of Shiny Happy People. It's almost unrecognisable. With the Fatima's fury and despair came a palpable sense of devilment, and a truly wicked sense of humour.

Until recently, most of my trips to London had been in-and-out commando raids - never more than a few days. Last year, I spent three months in the city, and spent a lot of time exploring by bicycle, and it was then, and only then that I realised that much of my perceptions of parts of London were completely based on Coughlan's lyrics. All I knew about Walthamstow was that some character called "Aoghdan had gone hunting" there for food and money, "but the dogs had come home alone", in a song called Look What I Stole For Us, Darling. When I mentioned to people in London, they all said "yeah, that's Walthamstow alright". I still haven't made it there. Perhaps I need to do a course with Ray Mears first.

In London again last week, I took a bus through Crouch End. It didn't seem too bad at first glance, sixteen years on - at least no more grim than the rest of the urban sprawl. But like Coughlan, I too hail from rural Ireland. If I spend more than two weeks in somewhere like London, I start to loathe the place. I don't know how he's spent more than 20 years there.

But wait - what *were* the rest of the lyrics? Ceausescu was dead, this was for sure. Coughlan sets the scene - total dislocation. Nothing can be depended upon - nothing is true, nothing is permitted. The untenable must be maintained, and the new messiah is already drawing credit on his mother's uterus. Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma gets namedropped in the present tense, despite having had the shit blown out of him by the IRA in 1979. I love living in Democracy, I really do! Some of it seems nonsensical, but Coughlan is not a man given to whimsy.

Blues for Ceausescu is, for me, a classic work of refined, yet unbridled anger and fury at the state of things. It's still relevant today. I saw Coughlan play a solo gig last week - the first time I'd laid eyes on the man in a decade. He's lost none of his vigour. It was the night of the US mid-term elections, and Cathal sat at a piano, sharing his fantasies about Dick Cheney's future funeral. Walking through Shepherd's Bush after the show, a friend and I agreed that in some ways Coughlan's work has aged none - the same issues of fear, loathing and corruption have come back to haunt us again, thanks to people like Tony Blair, and the cheerleaders of American Neo-Conservatism. Milosovic is dead, Saddam - himself big news in 1990 - is awaiting execution, and Donald Rumsfeld is the new scapegoat, chased off into the wilderness by the howling, baying masses.



Anonymous said...

Annoyed of Walthamstow writes:

Ray Mears!! Cheeky Sod. I live in E17 and from my window all I can see is playing fields and a reservoir. You could almost mistake it for rural Ireland were it not for the absence of several hideous newly built mansions (with tasteful neoclassical columns) where the view used to be. ;)

Good song though

Anonymous said...

"You're a Rose" and "Thursday" and "Broken Radio" (the romantic stuff) are my faves off VDP. But BFC is a real rocker with a great lurching riff. Check out my own blog tribute to Cathal and Microdisney at

Anonymous said...

A lot of the lyrics to this song are very obscure bits of political trivia. I suspect that every line means something, and Coughlan could explain the whole thing, if he wanted to. Of course that's the great thing about Coughlan's lyrics. There's always another layer of meaning to be unraveled. I think that property is what makes his word transcend simple lyrics into poetry.

So, I'm an American, and have been listening to this album for over twelve years. In the last three months, here are the allusions I've figured out (which might be obvious to residents of the British Isles).

"Regina" is Queen Elizabeth II. Previously I thought it had been a reference to Ceausescu's wife. Figuring that out still does not explain the lines, "She made three wishes and they all came true... The last one ended in a pulverized fist." I'd really like to know what that section of the song means.

Previously, I had taken the line "He's writing checks on his mother's womb," to refer to Ceausescu's policy on reproductive rights that produced so many orphans. Now I understand that a more reasonable interpretation is that the line is a commentary on the wealth of the Prince of Wales, who is for all intensive purposes is basically a real estate mogul through his family connections.

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