Orchestral pop band from Northern Ireland, formed in 1989 and fronted by Neil Hannon. He was joined by John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor. Their debut album ‘Fanfare For The Comic Music’, released in 1990, enjoyed little success. Newly recruited member John Allen handled lead vocals on some of the tracks on the EP’s ‘Timewatch’ (1991) and ‘Europop’ (1992). After the commercial failure of the Europop EP, this line-up soon fell apart.
Hannon, however, was not deterred in his efforts and re-entered the studio in March 1993, teaming up with co-producer/drummer Darren Allison, for the recording of ‘Liberation’ (1993). The album was a wide-ranging collection of songs, including classical music (‘Timewatching’), tongue-in-cheek synthpop and lots of literary references. This led to a degree of critical acclaim, but commercial success still proved elusive. Indeed, it was only some minor success in France that really enabled Hannon to proceed to his second effort ‘Promenade’ (1994). Essentially a concept album about a day spent by two lovers, it also received similar critical acclaim to that which ‘Liberation’ was afforded. Commercial success, though, was not forthcoming. Soon after the release of the album the Divine Comedy went on tour with Tori Amos, supporting her during her European dates. On some of these dates they played a cover version of Wuthering Heights, although Neil’s vocal stylings sometimes seemed to be offkey in this song.
The album ‘Casanova’ (1996), and in particular the single ‘Something For The Weekend’, championed by Chris Evans, then BBC Radio 1 breakfast show DJ and presenter of TFI Friday, led to the band’s first major success, with Neil Hannon becoming a distinctive, albeit unlikely, popstar in an immaculate suit, and always appearing the elegant dandy. Casanova was the third album to be produced by Darren Allison and Neil Hannon, thus completing a trilogy of albums. Further singles from ‘Casanova’ were ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ and ‘The Frog Princess’, both of which received widespread airplay, and further cemented the bands reputation.
At the height of their commercial success, the band released ‘A Short Album About Love’, recorded live at soundcheck with the Brunel Ensemble in preparation for a concert at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, from which several songs were released as b-sides. It was aptly released on Valentine’s Day in 1997. Subsequently, the band contributed a reworking of Noël Coward’s ‘I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party’ to ‘Twentieth-Century Blues: The Songs of Noël Coward’, a compilation of covers of the writer’s songs, with Hannon affecting a Cowardesque lilt (albeit interspersed with an aggressive electronic musical backing).
The foppish image, but not the suit, was ditched for the more sombre album ‘Fin De Siècle’ in 1998, although its biggest hit, the jaunty ‘National Express’, belied its more intimate, soul-searching tone. A compilation album ‘Secret History – the Best of The Divine Comedy’ (1999) ended this part of the band’s career.
The 2001 album ‘Regeneration’ was a conscious attempt to remove the band from its flippant comedy stylings. Neil ditched the suit and donned a Britrock band image. The album was a greater critical than commercial success, and soon after its release it was announced that The Divine Comedy were splitting up. However, within a year Hannon was touring again with a revised band line-up, playing a series of joint-headline gigs in the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland featuring both The Divine Comedy and Ben Folds.
Eventually a new album surfaced in the form of 2004’s ‘Absent Friends’. Striking a balance between the occasionally earnest sound of the band’s later material and the lighter tone of the more popular releases, it encapsulated the essence of The Divine Comedy. In January 2005, Hannon announced that he had acquired the worldwide copyrights to all of his recorded output with his former record label, Setanta Records. He launched his own record label Divine Comedy Records in order to re-release his 1990s output.
Hannon’s ninth album with the Divine Comedy, ‘Victory for the Comic Muse’, was released in June 2006. The bulk of the record was recorded over two weeks, much of it live rather than multi-tracked, hence a more spontaneous sound, and features appearances from Travis bass player Dougie Payne. In March 2007 Neil Hannon’s relationship with Parlophone came to an end.
On 31 May 2010 The Divine Comedy released their tenth album entitled ‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’ on DC Records. As with ‘Victory for the Comic Muse’ it was recorded in RAK studios in St John’s Wood by Guy Massey and the orchestra was conducted by Andrew Skeet who was the arranger on this album. The album charted at 20 in the first week of release, making it their highest charting album since ‘Regeneration’ in 2001. During live shows in 2013 Hannon performed a cover version of Hounds Of Love.
The 2016 album ‘Foreverland’ was even more successful, peaking at number 7 in the UK albums chart. A live album featuring performances from the 2016/17 Foreverland tour, ‘Loose Canon’, was released in 2018.
Neil Hannon about Kate Bush
I was 14, coming out of the plastic-y Nik Kershaw/Howard Jones period, living in Enniskillen. I’d started writing songs – terrible songs. I liked [1980 Bush 45] Army Dreamers a lot, but when Running Up That Hill was in the charts, I thought, “Oh wow, that is stunning”. And Cloudbusting – just the fantastic momentum of it, and the strings. I got it on cassette, and it completely changed my ideas of what an album can do, what it could be about and how it could sound, which was wonderful, because I loved pop music but it wasn’t quite doing it for me. It was, not in a Hooked On Classics way, a way of having action-packed classical music married with pop. I love how they married the real strings with the Fairlight’s crude samples of strings, and how a lot of the songs are built around simple chord structures, but she’s doing something completely different and more complicated over the top. (Last Night A Record Changed My Life, Mojo Magazine)
- The Divine Comedy (band). Wikipedia, retrieved 10 November 2018.
- The Divine Comedy – Wuthering Heights (Kate Bush cover). YouTube, retrieved 10 November 2018.
- The Divine Comedy/Neil Hannon – Hounds of Love [Kate Bush] YouTube, retrieved 10 November 2018.