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The Divine Comedy

The Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde of indie Britpop, sophisti-cratic singer-songwriter/guitarist Neil Hannon was the wit and the brain behind The DIVINE COMEDY. Ever since the early 90s, Neil and his revolving-door cast of chamber-pop musicians have thrown a lifeline to the pop/rock music industry by way of lyrically-astute, behind-the-curtains (or indeed woodshed!) songs of romance and chance: `Something For The Weekend’, `Generation Sex’ and `National Express’ the DC’s most memorable pieces.
Born 7 November 1970 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, bishop’s son Hannon was happy to find his niche within the music biz, having been inspired by LEONARD COHEN, BOB DYLAN, RAY DAVIES, ELVIS COSTELLO and MORRISSEY. In 1990, after forming The DIVINE COMEDY the previous year (alongside bassist John McCullagh and drummer Kevin Traynor), Neil’s rising band were the second ex-pat Irish act to sign for London-based independent Setanta Records; Dublin’s INTO PARADISE were the first, incidentally.
Although only 7 songs strong, the Sean O’Neill (THAT PETROL EMOTION) produced mini-set FANFARE FOR THE COMIC MUSE (1990) {*5}, kick-started their campaign as another British contender for the best R.E.M. impersonation.
A subsequently-released shared EP (contributing the self-penned `Jerusalem’) alongside stablemates A HOUSE and The FRANK AND WALTERS, led to a couple of other “extended plays” in `Timewatch’ and `Europop’. But it was clear that extrovert Neil was holding the reins; McCullagh and Traynor both bailed out. Free to pursue his own eccentric muse, Hannon steered The DIVINE COMEDY away from staple indie-rock towards a more self-consciously cultured approach which suggested the influence of everyone from MORRISSEY to PULP’s Jarvis Cocker in a cod-romantic Lloyd-Webber-esque fashion, of course! Together with engineer Darren Allison (drums/percussion), Lucy Castle (viola/violin), Monica Scott (cello) and `Europop’ guest Quentin Hutchinson (French horn), Hannon’s first step towards re-educating the alt-pop scene came in the shape of 1993’s LIBERATION {*6} album; his debonair charisma in full effect on tracks such as the aforementioned single platters, plus `Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ and `I Was Born Yesterday’.
Hannon and Allison had added Joby Talbot (wind) and Chris Worsey (cello), while working on the next batch of orchestral manoeuvres on the beach, PROMENADE (1994) {*7}, a loose concept affair that featured Irish comedian, Sean Hughes (of FATIMA MANSIONS off-shoot Bubonique), who provided verbal support on the multifarious name-checking run-through of `The Booklovers’. Almost NYMAN-esque in the intro piece, `Bath’, there was indeed a campy, classical, MOMUS-stature to the stately `A Seafood Song’, `A Drinking Song’ and `Tonight We Fly’.
Long-time fans of Hannon and his DIVINE COMEDY crew, scriptwriters Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, were looking for a theme to enhance soon-to-be TV sitcom smash, Father Ted. After a few rejections here and there, an instrumental take of `Songs Of Love’, was chosen as the theme tune to the popular Channel 4 programme; Hannon also co-wrote another “Craggy Island” ditty for the second series of the show; the downright silly `My Lovely Horse’ for the singing priests (Ted and Dougal’s) entry for the Eurovision Song Contest!!!
In spring 1996, Hannon and The DIVINE COMEDY (together with Darren, Joby, guitarist brother Ivor Talbot, bassist Bryan Mills and a plethora of others) released his most perfectly conceived pop masterpiece, CASANOVA {*9}; the BACHARACH of rock crooning his way through a dapper set of richly-orchestrated diamonds including `Songs Of Love’. Duly encrusted into the Top 50, the album contained such memorably tongue-in-cheek breakthrough hits, `Something For The Weekend’, `Becoming More Like Alfie’ (an homage to the Michael Caine character) and `The Frog Princess’. A truly wonderful trip full of film-noir nostalgia and references to exotica and lounge music, Neil created his own fantasy island via `Middle-Class Heroes’, `Through A Long & Sleepless Night’ and the sing-a-long `A Woman Of The World’.
Now a firm critical fave among the Britpop indie elite, The DIVINE COMEDY (well, Hannon) had further Top 20 successes with mini-set A SHORT ALBUM ABOUT LOVE (1997) {*7} and the attendant single, `Everybody Knows (Except You)’.
On the back of an exclusive double-headed single, `Someday I’ll Find You’ and `I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party’, the following September, the “Leslie Thomas of indie-pop” Hannon/The DIVINE COMEDY had their first Top 10 album with FIN DE SIECLE (1998) {*7}, a record that boasted three major hits including `Generation Sex’ and `National Express’; the slightly dull `The Certainty Of Chance’ stalled at No.49.
A stop-gap Top 3 compilation, A SECRET HISTORY: THE BEST OF THE DIVINE COMEDY (1999) {*8}, proved Hannon and Co were no flash-in-the-pan, whilst the accompanying `The Pop Singer’s Fear Of The Pollen Count’ breathed fresh-air into the charts. An altogether different whiff of air was afforded outtake companion, `Gin Soaked Boy’.
The aptly-titled REGENERATION (2001) {*7} displayed a wholesale change of tack as Hannon and Co employed RADIOHEAD producer Nigel Godrich and ditched the arch theatricality of old for a more forthright, if not exactly earnest, musical and lyrical approach. A Top 20 success bolstered by the modest hit singles of `Love What You Do’ and `Bad Ambassador’, the album suggested that the impish Irish chameleon was sufficiently savvy to carry the whole thing off.
Neil returned to more familiar territory on the self-produced ABSENT FRIENDS (2004) {*7}, an album that generated a few middling hits in `Come Home Billy Bird’ (featuring vocals by KENICKIE’s Lauren Laverne) and the title track. So far the American public were never given a chance to appreciate the divine Mr. Hannon and his quirky chamber-pop exploits, so when Nettwerk Records opened up their cheque-book, a brief chance was on the cards. All it needed was a hit song.
While hardly one to congratulate himself, the title of the man’s ninth set, VICTORY FOR THE COMIC MUSE (2006) {*7}, summed up the longevity of his highly original style, one which wasn’t afraid to channel the past into the future: as well as covering the ASSOCIATES’ drama-fuelled `Party Fears Two’. The DIVINE COMEDY – featuring TRAVIS bassist Dougie Payne – guaranteed supernatural nostalgia with the track, `Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World’.
If some fans had thought Neil’d slipped into a covers artist, they’d only had to press-play B-sides:- `There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ (The SMITHS), `Johnny Mathis’ Feet’ (AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB), `Make It Easy On Yourself’ (BACHARACH-DAVID), `Miranda’ and `Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds’ (MICHAEL NYMAN), `Radioactivity’ (KRAFTWERK), `Love Is Lighter Than Air’ and `Famous’ (The MAGNETIC FIELDS).
As his pop mantle faded into the ether (the previous album and two singles – `Diva Lady’ and `To Die A Virgin’ – failed to breach the Top 40), a sabbatical of sorts was in order while HANNON sorted out his domestic life; his marriage of several years to Orla Little ended in divorce in 2007 (they had one child).
Settling down once again, this time finding love with Dublin lass and accomplished chanter CATHY DAVEY (daughter of multi-instrumentalist SHAUN DAVEY and sculptor Agnes Conway), man-about-town Neil’s DIVINE COMEDY were back in contention – and the Top 20 – with tenth set, BANG GOES THE KNIGHTHOOD (2010) {*7}. Reminiscent of a 60s Anthony Newley-via-BOWIE motif (example on the frivolous title track and `Assume The Perpendicular’), the theatrical baritone was also updating PULP’s “Disco 2000” by way of the disconnected `At The Indie Disco’. Meanwhile, the entertaining Mr. Hannon was on board The DUCKWORTH LEWIS METHOD (alongside Thomas Walsh) for two sets: an eponymous piece in 2009 and “Sticky Wickets” in 2013.
If four years was a lengthy time for fans to await the words of wisdom from guarded genius Hannon, then it was six before The DIVINE COMEDY came up with the Top 10 part-concept set, FOREVERLAND (2016) {*7}. Once again, one could hear the influence of the late BOWIE (on `Napoleon Complex’ and others), whilst the almost pastoral-folk of the title track was endearing and obviously inspired by his Irish partner; a thinly-disguised nod as of `Catherine The Great’ marked out his pro-romantic side, while his better-half turned up on the cutesy-pie `Funny Peculiar’. If saying “something stupid” was still ringing in one’s ear, `The Pact’ and the cringe-worthy `How Can You Leave Me On My Own’, strolled back to a time in the 60s when pop musicals, crooners and soul stars were the order of the day.
Many of The DIVINE COMEDY’s craftiest and up-to-date tunes were duly available in limited-edition form the following November. Entitled LOOSE CANNON: LIVE IN EUROPE 2016-17 {*6}, deepest devotees could experience Hannon’s night on the styles.
2019’s quasi-concept OFFICE POLITICS {*7} was scribed within Hannon’s usual wry and witty whim. Mr. DIVINE COMEDY (and Co) retained a plaintive panache on at least three kooky cuts: `Queuejumper’, `Absolutely Obsolete’ and `Norman And Norma’; the latter a tale about an ageing couple trying yearly to re-kindle their romance, only to end up stoking their lustful desires at a Clacton-on-Sea battle re-enactment. At an hour long, the Top 5 double album might seem taxing. However with sprawling genre-busting from glam (`Infernal Machines’), to the electro-disco of the title piece, to his usual display cabinet of dedicated re-imagined characters on board (e.g. `Philip And Steve’s Furniture Removal Company’ concerned a faux sit-com starring minimalists PHILIP GLASS and STEVE REICH), the album somehow gelled. Pitching ever so BREL-meets-BOWIE, `A Stranger Here’, and the concluding crescendo-enhanced `When The Working Day Is Done’, compounded Neil’s self-indulgent Dickensian-to-Dada-ish décor; and all achieved without an un-PC David Brent in sight.
© MC Strong 1998-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Sep2016-Jun2019

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    1. Martin Strong

      Thanks for checking my oversight; sorted. If you see any more on your travels, give me a shout.

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