a short site about The Divine Comedy

Champagne Casanova

The Divine Comedy are this year’s finest purveyors of unlucky-in-love pop - this year’s Pulp, in other words. Which makes mainman Neil Hannon, the new Jarvis, only shorter. He wrote the music for ‘Father Ted’, he’s the brainy sex geek who calls himself ‘Casanova’, and he’s about to win the General Election for Labour. Whatever next?

The ‘F’ in ‘TFI’ stands for F***

Not to put too fine a point on it, Neil Hannon’s been shitting himself all day. His trail of nerves has led from a sleepless night in a hotel bed, via four fraught hours in the pub, to the backstage canteen at ‘TFI Friday’, where we sit now, watching Neil Hannon shiver himself into a fit. The cause of Neil’s internal earthquakes? He’s making his proper TV debut in front of 2,4 million viewers.

Which is probably why, in his primrose-yellow jersey, he looks a sickly pallid green.

“It’s the only item of ‘leisure wear’ I possess, says Neil, panicking. I thought I’d wear it to make me feel comfortable, and evoke a sense of security and relaxation. It hasn’t worked. I still feel sick.” Neil has tried to be calm and rational, but it’s just not working.

“I’m very, very nervous, as you’ve noticed,” he explains, sucking on his one comfort fag of the day with hands so trembly they begin to blur. “I left France at five this morning, so my brain’s all spongy from lack of sleep. Oh God. Sorry. Sorry!”

Neil mops up his spilt drink, then continues.

“Fear is scrambling my mind - I’ve only done television once before - L!VE TV, that cable channel - but that doesn’t really count, does it? We did a song and a little interview, and the bloke didn’t have a clue - he was one of those bouncy children’s TV presenter types that don’t listen to a word you say. I think I insulted him. I can’t really remember.

“But that’s all I’ve ever done. And now this…”

Neil, despairing, stares at his glass of water and ponders his present, tensely: the set of ‘TFI Friday’, seven cameras, The Cure, Dodgy, guests Vinnie Jones and Jack Dee, host Chris Evans, and now, curious tiny indie interlopers The Divine Comedy, all in front of 2,4 million viewers.

Just three weeks ago, ginger minge Chris Evans (voted number one top king of cunnilingus in an informal, internal Channel 4 poll two years ago - ALLEGEDLY) heard the Divine Comedy’s ravishing ‘Something For The Weekend’ single while over at a friend’s house, and by Monday morning was playing the single obsessively.

At one point, Evans actually extended his show for an extra five minutes in order to play it for the fourth time that day. As ‘Something For The Weekend’ made its way from the C-list to the A-list, Evans called The Divs back from their French tour and insisted they perform on that week’s ‘TFI Friday’.

“I wish he’d never heard it now,” Neil whispers, before being ‘sushed’ by one floor manager, and herded onstage with his hand by another. The full set of players in this Divine Comedy could easily populate a small village - drums, bass, two guitars, strange wheezy organ, those racks of dangling metal tubes that you hit with hammers, and a short-order trumpet player who only joined the band six hours ago.

The DivCo posse faff around a bit - experimental wheezings and parpings that sound like the intro to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - before Neil summons up sufficient courage to sing the first couple of bars. Suddenly, he turns a whiter shade of pale.

“The monitors are not working,” he hisses.

The floor manager has his hand up the air, and is counting back from 10. The audience has been hushed. Chris Evans is telling the story of his Divine love, and why they’re here tonight…

“The monitors are not working,” Neil hisses again, a mist of sweat starting to form on his forehead. Looks of alarm take over the Divine retinue. The floor manager’s on three, two, one…

And so it comes to pass that Neil Hannon and The Divine Comedy make what is, to all intents and purposes, their TV debut with these words:

“Could someone turn these f***ing monitors on? F***. F***.Argh.”

Son of a preacher man

It’s been one of those traditional long and winding roads to the airless hangar of ‘TFI Friday’ and the subsequent lush verdant pastures of The Top 40. Neil Hannon, quite literally The Son of A Preacher Man, was born in the exceedingly rubbish year of 1970, and raised in a part of Londonderry that sounds quite mythic and faerie-like.

“There’s these two lakes, right,” Hannon explains, sketching in the air with his hands. “And in between those two lakes, there’s a hill. And on top of the hill, there’s a cathedral. And besides the cathedral, there’s a little house built for the priest. And that’s where I was brought up.” So, your dad works for God, eh? Was that a bit freak’n’spook?

“We didn’t have Jesus rammed down our throats, if that’s what you mean,” Neil says, with a wry twirl of his eyebrow. “I was the little stick-like thing at the edge of the playground that lectured my class-mates about socialism and the importance of a United Ireland. And luckily they didn’t beat the shit out of me. I was just kind of…ignored. Actually, the dad/God thing’s been quite handy - I’m thinking of doing a version of ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ with different lyrics, apposite to my upbringing: ‘I’m the only one who could ever reach her/I WAS that son of a preacher man.’ Or maybe not.”

Hannon started composing early.

“I’ve been working backwards,” he smiles. “Around the age of seven or eight the piano entered my life, and I’d compose huge avant-garde symphonies. Really experimental, sprawling operas and suites for instruments that hadn’t been invented yet. And since then, the songs have been getting shorter and simpler and more pop until now, where I’m writing singles that are played on Radio 1. I always saw myself as more of a Radio 3 bloke. It’s all very strange.”

Of course, as soon as you start writing pop songs, you have to gather a group of like-minded rock’n’roll desperadoes around you, to trade ‘licks’ with, and accompany you on raiding parties in search of wine, women and, erm…well, just wine and women.

“Well, no,” says Neil, almost apologetically. “It’s just me, really - I am The Divine Comedy. Apart from the crap bits, and anyway, those weren’t me, someone else came into the studio and did those while I was away.

“And we’re not really desperadoes,” he smiles. “I’ve a friend, Dr Joby Talbot, who’s a really well-respected classical avant-gardist, and he sorts out the string and horn sections, and session musicians. And that’s about as near as we get to a gang or being rock’n’roll.

“I was in a fight in Paris once,” he suddenly remembers his one experience of bad-boy desperado activity. “But it was a case of mistaken identity. He was hitting me, and I just cowered there, saying, ‘Sorry’. I’m not very ‘cool’ or ‘hard’. I like dogs and horses and the odd pint of Guinness. I generally think most rock’n’roll things look a bit silly.”

It’s the refreshing viewpoint that fuels The Divine Comedy’s first two albums. Liberation and Promenade are records of spiky, eccentric beauty - Neil sings pop songs, pop as in Pulp or Crowded House - but the arrangements are pure chamber orchestra, all baroque strings and symphonic sweeps, occasionally driven, but mostly floating and otherworldly. ‘The Booklovers’, from Promenade, is typical. Seemingly conceived as a piss take of labelmates A House’s ‘Endless Art’, Neil recites a list of his favourite authors, and as he namechecks each one, they rise from the dead/Hampstead, and acknowledge Neil with an atypical one-liner. For example, Neil says “Vladimir Nabokov,’ and Nabokov says, “Hel-lo, little girl.” Neil says, “Doris Lessing,” and Lessing replies, shrewishly, “I hate all men.”

The track following ‘Booklovers’ is all about how much Neil loves seafood, even ‘pilchards and plankton’. Promenade comes from the part of Hannon that hates being a musician. Why? “Because it means you can’t have any pets,” he says. “You’re always on tour, and you have to be there for dogs, don’t you? You can’t just drag them to festivals in Amsterdam because of the quarantine regulations. I suppose I could smuggle one in my luggage, like Elizabeth Taylor, but I like big dogs. I’d have to smuggle the kind of dog I want in a wardrobe.”

Neil’s main objective around the time of Promenade was to “romanticise real life, to show it’s cool. None of that rock’n’roll stuff.”

And it was all very lovely, and very frequently inspired. But these days we want lovely, inspired stuff in the charts. We want our genial pop star nutters to be panel members on ‘That’s Showbusiness!’ next to Cheryl Baker and the one surviving cast member of ‘Dad’s Army’.

Luckily, it just so happens that the public currently adores gawky, witty, besuited pop stars who are obsessed with shagging.

This time next year, Neil Hannon will be Jarvis-size. “I doubt it,” he says. “Jarvis is six foot something. I’m only five foot five.”

Women - can’t live with ’em, don’t live with ’em

This is where the glorious Casanova comes in. Things obviously went a bit pear-shaped between 1994’s Promenade and this year’s Casanova. Gone is the fiercely humanitarian, Zen-balanced, joy-in-the-simple-things-in-life ‘vibe’, replaced by the electric charge of rage, disgust, thwarted desire, and at least seven tons of cynicism.

Disappointment, it would appear, has focused Neil Hannon’s aim. He can now contrast the simple, love-this-life attitude of stuff like ‘Songs Of Love’ (aka ‘The Theme From Father Ted’), with the deadly accurate revulsion for new Yobs in the popstatic ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’.

It’s the high-resolution contrast between these sort of songs - the slight and the serious, the daft and the dramatic - that makes Casanova this year’s Different Class.

“Yeah, well, I was living in Camberwell [aka Camberhell] while we were recording Casanova,” Neil explains, “and it occurs to me that Jarvis Cocker once lived in Camberwell, too. Maybe it’s something they put in the water?

“The thing is, the album was conceived in a mood of confidence and joy, but it took so long to record that other events rather took over, and made themselves felt. I kind of realised that things weren’t as cool as I’d thought. Erm…”

Hannon casts his eyes around the room a bit, and decides not to say any more. I rather suspect Girl trouble, but Neil’s staying mum.

“Just, generally, things weren’t as cool as I’d thought. And around that time, I started having, erm, well…I found it easier to find women who’d sleep with me. And casual sex affects the way you think - you become a bit more cynical. But, yes, things had changed around this album.”

Or, as Hannon puts it in ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’: “Once there was a time/When a kind word could be enough/And I could blindfold myself with love/But not now - now I’m resigned/To the kind of life I had reserverd/For other guys less smart than I.

Or as I, crown queen of cod-psychology, put it: Neil became dissatisfied with what he had, and started wanting. And all good pop comes from wanting so bad your guts go up in flames.

This year’s different class

In every respect that an album can be perfect, Casanova is perfect. It starts, as every album should, with two girls giggling as Hannon - who, on the front cover of the album, is wearing a well suave jacket and smoking a cigarette - says, in his best ‘Carry On Martini’ voice: “Hel-lo. I say. Come on - give me a little kiss. Don’t be unkind.”

Then, almost one hour of baroque pop later, Casanova ends with the huge, Pompeii-in-ruins elegy of ‘The Dogs And The Horses’, with Neil whispering, “Goodbye” as if his heart has been snapped in two. In between is an album which seethes and sighs with last summer’s heat and lust - Neil longing for ‘Wonderbras and thunder thighs’, squealing like a rogue, sexually frustrated BeeGee in Charge”, and drowning in ‘hypnotic eyes’ throughout ‘Woman Of The World’. Top pop god of tracks, however, is ‘Through A Long And Sleepless Night’, six minutes of trousers-aflame lust. Hannon begins by hissing out his current situation: hotel, hard-on, hard-hearted ‘bird’…Then he gradually works himself into a state of fever-pitch hysteria. “You deserve to be horsewhipped/But I’ve no horse/That joke’s so shit!” he squalls to his ‘totty’, who remains oblivious to his advances. In a deceptively sleepy middle-eight, Neil realises that he will never meet the girls of his dreams, and seemed quite resigned to his fate. Which is why it comes as such a shock when he suddenly goes insane, a chorus of squealing, shrill, oxygen-deprived trumpets reaching an orgasmic peak as Hannon screams soulfully “I DON’T REALLY CARE!

You can sense the rolling eyes, clenched hands leaving nails marks in the palm, spit on the mic shield, sweat down the spine. It’s pretty f***ing astonishing. Remember that bit where ‘Common People’ takes off, and you’re just astonished that Jarvis can be that angry and still remain that focused on the cause of his misery and anger? Well, hello - here’s the sequel. We can even refer to it as ‘Hard-On People’. So that’s cool.

David Copperfield

It’s a very big album, Neil. I mean, the scope of the music is huge, all-embracing, oh-mother-we’ll-need-two-orchestras-for-this-one. Yet your voice is also a grandiose thrill - Scott Walker in a wheelchair in his Home For Retired Pop Gods, singing the story of his life with the London Symphony Orchestra, all cramped onto a small bed, all playing their hearts out.

“I had a singing lesson once,” Mr D Comedy reveals, supping his pint. It’s quite late now - four hours after Neil Hannon said his first big ‘Hello’ to Britain’s pop kids via Channel 4. We’re relieved to see that Neil is no longer a revolting pale green colour. Meanwhile, the rest of the DivCo gang are sprawled across the seats of the pub, intermittently playing with a stray dog.

One rather suspects that, instead of the usual porn and ‘Young Ones’ videos, on the DivCo tour bus it’s all ‘Heidi’ and ‘One Hundred And One Dalmatians’.

“I went to see this lovely lady,” says Neil, carrying on his singing lesson story, “and I felt a bit silly all the way through. So I went home and didn’t bother again. But Scott Walker is my hero - in one of the studios we used for the album, the engineer informed me that Scott Walker had been in there the week before. So I made him show me the chair, and how Scott had been sitting, and then I sat in that chair all day, being Scott Walker, squirming around on the seat and trying to get pregnant.”

When you get past the sumptuous popness of it all, the songs are very complex: you use different time signatures, tempos speed up and slow down, the middle-eights are practically different songs…

“Well, I know I’m a genius,” says Hannon, employing his roving wry eyebrow so that we can’t tell if it’s bluff or double-bluff. (But I mean, why bother? Neil Hannon is a genius. “And when you get songs this good, they’re deserving of the four weeks of nervous breakdown it takes to put them out there in 7/8 time. But all of this is nothing compared to the most difficult commission of my life, which I’m embarking on now.”

Which is?

“‘My beautiful Blair’.”

The rest of The Divine Comedy camp - who are crowded round Neil in this dismal pub off the Holloway Road - dissolve into fits of giggles. Hello?

“Well, you know of the previous apogee of my carreer, ‘My Beautiful Horse’,” says Neil, referring to the song that he wrote for that episode of ‘Father Ted’ where Father Dougal and Father Ted enter the Eurovision Song Contest with the hauting ‘My Lovely Horse’- and WIN!

“Well, I’m a life-long Labour supporter, and I wrote to my MP a couple of weeks back, and asked if there was anything I could do to help them in the forthcoming election, as it looked like I might become a bit famous,” Hannon explains, barely containing his mirth. “And he wrote back, saying ‘Put your money where your mouth is, and write us a campaign song. And if we like it, we’ll use it.’ So I’m just starting to write it, and the suggested title is ‘My Beautiful Blair’. Life’s weird sometimes, isn’t it?”

So, Neil Hannon, this is your life: outcast runt boy turns avant-garde composer at nine, releases two albums of life-affirming loveliness on food, horses and dogs; has a bit of a problem with women; goes all mad and genius-like; releases the album of 1996 so far; pops up on TV; storms the charts; and brushes with high-ranking politicians.

Neil Hannon, your life is as weird and f***ing mad as a melon of the moon.

“This is my theory,” says Neil, leaning back and regarding his pint with a great deal of love. “This has always been my point - that anyone can do and be anything they want, because everything is an illusion.”

Hello, David Copperfield - come again?

“Well, the universe is infinite, right?”


“But humans literally cannot get their heads around infinity - it’s just too big. You’d go mad if you really knew what infinity was like.”

Hannon takes another suck of his pint, then continues.

“So all humans lie - we pretend that we live in something finite. We wander around pretending that the universe is cosy and manageable. So once you know that - that everything we base our lives on is a huge, communal lie - then you can start making up something for yourself. Like, ‘This universe is a lovely little universe, and I’m a pop star. This universe is a lovely little universe, and I’m on ‘Top Of The Pops’.’ Try it. It works.”

It obviously does.

The single, ‘Something For The Weekend’, is out now. The album, Casanova, is re-released on July 1. Both are on Setanta.

Caitlin Moran
Melody Maker 22/06/96