a short site about The Divine Comedy

A Secret History... - the very best of The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy's 1999 'Best Of' compilation now repackaged in limited-edition hardback book and accompanied by 'Rarities', a 19-track CD of live tracks and home demos. Alternative titles included 'Crimes and Misdemeanours' and 'A Bluffer's Guide To Pop'.

If The Divine Comedy's original 'Best Of' collection was a secret history, what price this package's collection of live tracks and demos recorded above Ealing launderettes?

This is a set of sealed occultist documents to fascinate even the most skilled master of the dark arts. It's a collection that stretches from a version of the hymn 'Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind', recorder for BBC Northern Ireland, to a "hugely out-of-tune" 1989 demo of the discarded song 'Soul Destroyer'.

There's a temptation to survey The Divine Comedy's more Wildean tendancies and decide this is Neil Hannon's version of A Picture Of Dorian Grey - blighted documents left to fester in the attic while his LPs flourish beneath the sun. Hannon sees it in a less haunted light: "It's a CD of things you shouldn't admit to. Plenty of fun for the more avid Divine Comedy fan, but not to be taken too seriously."

The original version of 'A Secret History...' was a telling synopsis of Neil Hannon's career as a polyglot pop boulevadier, a man modestly dedicated to distilling essences of Noel Coward, Jacques Brel, Scott Walker and Ned Sherrin into one convenient package. However, that collection only ventured so far into Hannon's clandestine interior - not quite daring to unleash anything from The Divine Comedy's long-deleted 1990 mini-album 'Fanfare For The Comic Muse'.

Rarities corrects earlier omissions with a version of that debut LP's 'Bleak Landscape'. However, this minimal, synth-mediated variant stems from the Ealing launderette period of 1993. "I was living with my brother and trying to re-ignite my career," Hannon now recalls. "I was planning the 'Liberation' LP and I was thinking of doing that song again. So, it appeared as one of these demos I was doing at the time, veryinfluenced by U2's 'Zooropa' album. All those 'boooo' noises..."

Beyond the live versions of songs from 'Bernice Bobs Her Hair' to 'National Express', there are covers of 'Moon River', Talk Talk's 'Life's What You Make It', and Bowie's 'Life On Mars'.

But it's the demos that hold most interest. They include an adept, fragile take on 'Your Daddy's Car', an instrumental home recording of 'Generation Sex' and 'Painting Of The Forth Bridge'[sic], the music from which went on to form 'Middle Class Heroes' on 'Casanova'. There's also a drum machine-driven but essentially fully formed version of 'The Certainty Of Chance'. The latter song has since appeared in instrumental form on an advert for second-hand cars. Not that Neil was fully aware of this when Select spoke to him: "Yes, it's now on that advert for Network Q, isn't it? What's Network Q? Actually, errrm, I don't know..."

Even when you've exposed your most inner working practices to the world, it seems some things must remain secret.

Roy Wilkinson

Father Ted co-writer Graham Linehan tells Select of his work with Neil Hannon and the glory that is The Divine Comedy

"I probably used Father Ted as an excuse to meet Neil. He wrote two pieces. One went on to become 'A Woman Of The World' on the 'Casanova' album. The other was 'Songs Of Love' and, initially, we thought it was too twee. Our producer persuaded us to use it - something I'm very glad of.

"At this point he'd had the 'Liberation' and 'Promenade' albums out - for me, any concert that he does with just songs from those two LPs is all I need. I think he's subsequently hit the heights of those two, but not so consistently.

"Neil has a similar relationship to England and America to the one Arthur [Matthews, Father Ted co-creator] and I have. I found it hilarious that an Irishman would sing in this vaguely English, sergeant major-ish accent. In the past, the Irish have been so paranoid about their identity. Neil doesn't have any of those worries. If you grow up in Ireland, you're just as much influenced by England and America as people from England and America are. I just find it so astonishing that a young Irishman would say that A Room With A View is a film that changed his life.

"There are a few things he's doing now which worry me a bit - I don't think he should automatically release the funny song off each album as a single - like 'National Express'. That's maybe getting him a reputation as novelty when he could be the best songwriter since Elvis Costello. His quieter, more beautiful songs could well last forever, but something like 'National Express' is just pop. I know this is slightly ironic - here's someone who got him to do 'My Lovely Horse' for Father Ted telling him to stop doing the novelty songs... But my advice to Neil would be to stop putting out the silly songs and stop doing fashion shoots wearing scarves in Loaded. It's beneath him. You don't get Scott Walker modelling scarves in Loaded...

Select 05/2000