A Man Of High Morale

I’ve been listening to a hAon, the new album by Telefis, which is the latest project involving Cathal Coughlan, now working with Jacknife Lee.

Musically the album is presented as what seems to be a broken transmission – the start and end tracks use what seems to be recordings from daytime television, and some unexpected incident has occurred. So perhaps we are to take the intervening tracks as some pirate station or otherwise interfering broadcast.

The music is usually a thin 80s electro-disco, cheaply produced with occasional soul backing vocals with no enhancements just making it seems even weaker and of karoake quality. This is absolutely perfect for off-setting the lead vocals. As usual, Coughlan can use a conversational, at turns confrontational style more used to “spoken word”, but he can turn in a decent Scott Walker performance, as he did when he covered a Scott Walker song.

The lyrical concerns are the same as they been since the start of Microdisney 40 years ago, through the Fatima Mansions work in the 90s. We have songs about absurd oppressive figures and mouthpieces of exploitation and imperialism around the world and also at home, which is both Britain and Ireland. Much has changed over those years: the Catholic Church isn’t what it was, at least this far North; South Africa does not have the regime it used to have. But there was always another side to this world: the absurd self-importance and self-aggrandizing of figures in the media and music business, getting away with much more success on much less than what Microdisney had to offer. “Singer’s Hampstead Home” picked away at one such target. There is also a thread of simple love songs, but it’s about love trying to exist under all the complicating reality that all the other songs are giving us.

On the new album, “Mister Imperator” gets us underway with a sneer at Vladimir Putin – not mentioned by name, of course, but clear enough in the description.

Here he comes, see how he glows

Waited on by antelopes

Break for tea with the FSB

Mr Imperator will tinkle the keys

Tonight, tonight…

This is of course a reference to Putin’s readiness to present himself as a pianist when required.

Riding down to Sochi

Custom Steinway waits for me there.

“Falun Gong Dancer” references the regular protests outside Chinese embassies against persecution that doesn’t get as much attention in the West. “Stampede” is a rather psychedelic reimagining of what seems to be the saga of Carlos The Jackal, along the way giving us moments like “Uncle Nizi traversed the River Styx/ In a hovercraft with REO Speedwagon”.

But there’s plenty here about poseurs and pricks clogging up London bars, and plenty of disappointed old failures which may be drawing on faces closer to home. “The Symphonies Of Danny La Rue” starts back in the old days of youthful hipsterdom

Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising

Camden ’84 show

The audience mostly tripping

Soundtrack missing, so here’s ELO.

Beat down in London Town

Pass the amulets around

Well-oiled social blend

None of whom need meet again.

Creative breakthrough and success is the wild goose chase, the goose ever-receding. “When I get my money, you know what I’ll do? ‘The Symphonies Of Danny La Rue.’!”

“Sex Bunting” slows down Cathal’s narration to increase the slurry sneering effect, of a vignette about creepy director making “a short promotional movie about a car” in “a greasy diesel hotel”. This auteur decides the venue is “hilarious” and it “puts him in mind of Genet”. Further moral degradation ensues.

“Picadors” mixes together regret for a son’s estrangement from his father (“Father, it’s your son, come to senses as yours leave you.”) The title plays on 2 senses: both the bullfighters, present as an image of fading heroes, and the literal name of a publisher with a distinct paperback design, which published the early works of Ian McEwan.

First Love, Last Rites stole that 2 times

Left one on a train

Drama, over-valued so’s to pose as cultured, while self-pity reigned; no heart.

I like some Microdisney, but overall the 80s pop background just doesn’t fit Coughlan’s lyrics, which are too strange for the conventional format and can’t be easily parsed as “quirky” or zany or Prefab Sprout. I much prefer Fatima Mansions as the sound is free to swerve around in a way that would be hard to place on daytime radio as it was in 1990, when “One Love” by The Stone Roses was a dangerously unusual record. Against Nature was a superb album, and even better when expanded to include singles like “Blues For Ceaucescu” and repackaged as Come Back My Children with a gloriously spiteful and detailed set of sleevenotes by Cathal. That’s where he gives his opinion on revered rock’n’roll “legends” and sticks the boot into Lou Reed, whose “Lady Godiva’s Operation” got thoroughly demolished by FM, one of their many anti-cover versions. “Only Losers Take The Bus”, “13th Century Boy” and “Valley Of The Dead Cars” should all have been 10 weeks at number 1 but never got anywhere near it. The formula continued with no more success over several more albums. Even “1000%” couldn’t get a hit even when they were playing it smart and sensible and doing support slots with U2.

I don’t know the solo albums but the North Sea Scrolls project with Luke Haines was the best of both of them (best thing Haines did in the last decade) and they deserved some sort of hit or at least a bit of notoriety for the “Anthem Of The Scrolls”.

Because I am a British person with limited imagination and a thin layer of education, I cannot think of any kind of experimental art or literature from Ireland without immediately trying to connect it with Joyce, Beckett, O’Brien and others who in fact have little discernible influence or relevance. All I can do is commit to that one thought, which is irresistible since this year is the centenary of Ulysses. A MAN OF HIGH MORALE is a section from the newspaper office chapter:

—Professor Magennis was speaking to me about you, J. J. O’Molloy said to Stephen. What do you think really of that hermetic crowd, the opal hush poets: A. E. the mastermystic? That Blavatsky woman started it. She was a nice old bag of tricks. A. E. has been telling some yankee interviewer that you came to him in the small hours of the morning to ask him about planes of consciousness. Magennis thinks you must have been pulling A. E.’s leg. He is a man of the very highest morale, Magennis.

Speaking about me. What did he say? What did he say? What did he say about me? Don’t ask.

—No, thanks, professor MacHugh said, waving the cigarettecase aside. Wait a moment. Let me say one thing. The finest display of oratory I ever heard was a speech made by John F Taylor at the college historical society. Mr Justice Fitzgibbon, the present lord justice of appeal, had spoken and the paper under debate was an essay (new for those days), advocating the revival of the Irish tongue.

He turned towards Myles Crawford and said:

—You know Gerald Fitzgibbon. Then you can imagine the style of his discourse.

—He is sitting with Tim Healy, J. J. O’Molloy said, rumour has it, on the Trinity college estates commission.

—He is sitting with a sweet thing, Myles Crawford said, in a child’s frock. Go on. Well?

—It was the speech, mark you, the professor said, of a finished orator, full of courteous haughtiness and pouring in chastened diction I will not say the vials of his wrath but pouring the proud man’s contumely upon the new movement. It was then a new movement. We were weak, therefore worthless.

He closed his long thin lips an instant but, eager to be on, raised an outspanned hand to his spectacles and, with trembling thumb and ringfinger touching lightly the black rims, steadied them to a new focus.

The great battles over language and the fierce authority figures fighting for and against new ideas. Joyce also wrote a lament about a son who was estranged from his father. As far as I can remember the one Irish writer/performer cited previously (on the sleeve notes for Come Back My Children) was Michael Mac Llamoir.

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