Divine Comedy (The) Biography
The beginning & early success (Fanfare to Promenade)
Neil Hannon has been the only ever-present member of the band, being its founder in 1989 when he was joined by John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor. Their first album, the heavily R.E.M.-influenced and now-deleted Fanfare for the Comic Muse, enjoyed little success. A couple of equally unsuccessful EPs - Timewatch (1991); Europop (1992) - were to follow, with newly-recruited member John Allen handling lead vocals on some tracks. After the commercial failure of the Europop EP, this line-up soon fell apart.
Hannon, however, was not deterred in his efforts and re-appeared in 1993 with Liberation. Featuring a fairly diverse musical outlook that goes from the tongue-in-cheek synth pop of 'Europop' (nearly unrecognisable from the previously-released version) to the classical stylings of 'Timewatching', it is also characterised by a plethora of literary references: 'Bernice Bobs Her Hair' recalls a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald; 'Three Sisters' draws upon a play by Anton Chekov; and 'Lucy' is essentially three William Wordsworth poems abridged to music. 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. Released in 1994, this was heavily driven by classical influences, with Michael Nyman's stylings clearly an influence. Hannon himself acknowledged this when he apparently sent a copy of his new album to the composer, jokingly asking him not to sue. 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 despite some of Hannon's best songwriting to date, including "Don't Look Down", "The Summerhouse" and subsequent live favourite "Tonight We Fly". Soon after the release of the album the Divine Comedy went on tour with Tori Amos, supporting her during her European dates.
At around the same time, Hannon also wrote and performed the theme music for the sitcom Father Ted (which would subsequently be incorporated into the song "Songs of Love" on the album Casanova), and later wrote the music for the deliberately bad mock-Eurovision song "My Lovely Horse" for one episode. Hannon resisted widespread requests from fans to release the track as a single for the Christmas market, but it was eventually released in 1999 as the third track on the CD-single "Gin Soaked Boy". This would not be the only time they would be responsible for a TV theme, as "In Pursuit of Happiness" was also used by the BBC science and technology show, Tomorrow's World. Hannon also recently composed the music for the comedy series "The IT Crowd", written by Father Ted co-writer Graham Linehan.
The road to fame (Casanova to A Secret History...)
The album Casanova (1996), and in particular the single "Something for the Weekend" led to the band's first major successes, with Neil Hannon becoming a distinctive, albeit unlikely, popstar in an immaculate suit, and always appearing the elegant dandy. At the height of their commercial success, the band put out A Short Album About Love (a reference to the Krzysztof Kieślowski movie A Short Film 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 Noel Coward's "I've Been to a Marvellous Party" to 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", a song about the national coach operators, belied its more intimate, soul-searching tone. Maintaining the balance between these poles, 1999's Secret History - the Best of The Divine Comedy included rerecordings of Liberation tracks ("The Pop Singer's Fear of the Pollen Count" and "Your Daddy's Car") and two new songs ("Gin-Soaked Boy" and "Too Young to Die") alongside the band's main hits. In the same year, the band also collaborated with Tom Jones on a cover-version of Portishead's 'All Mine', featured on his album Reload.
A serious side to the band was also in evidence in 2000's collaboration with Ute Lemper on her album Punishing Kiss, most of which featured The Divine Comedy as Lemper's backing band. Neil Hannon and Joby Talbot also contributed two original songs and an arrangement of Brecht and Weill's "Tango Ballad", whilst Neil Hannon sang two songs ("Tango Ballad", "Split") as duets with Lemper.
Post-Setanta & recent activity (Regeneration to present)
The 2001 album Regeneration attempted to remove the band still further from its association with comedy. Hannon hired famous producer Nigel Godrich to "remake" the band. 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, who would cover The Divine Comedy's "Songs of Love" on his Sunny 16 EP.
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. 2004 saw two dates of particularly acclaimed performances, one at the London Palladium (which was later released as a live DVD) and one at the Royal Albert Hall.
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 declared on the band's official website that he would be launching his own record label Divine Comedy Records in order to re-release his 1990s output.
Hannon's ninth album under the Divine Comedy moniker, Victory for the Comic Muse, was released in June 2006. It is suggested by fans to be less personal and more free-approach in tone than his most recent albums. The bulk of the record was recorded in just two weeks, hence the more spontaneous sound, and features appearances from Travis bass player Dougie Payne.
Neil Hannon also provided vocals for songs on the soundtrack for the film of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy released in 2005, working with Joby Talbot, the composer for the film and former Divine Comedy band member. This sci-fi connection continued in late 2006, when he contributed vocals to two tracks - 'Song For Ten' and 'Love Don't Roam' - on the official Doctor Who soundtrack. In an interview with Bullz-Eye.com, Hannon explained that, "literally, I was asked to add my vocal by the composer of the songs, who writes for the show. And I didn’t feel that I could say no, simply because I spent my childhood watching this program. It would be just plain wrong to not do it."
Hannon also lent his vocals to "Aliens", the last track on the Irish charity album The Cake Sale in 2006, organised by Brian Crosby of Bell X1 and featuring a variety of mainly Irish musicians.
In 2006, whilst on tour, the band did a Take-Away Show video session shot by Vincent Moon. Most recently,[when?] the first ten or so seconds of 'Tonight We Fly' was used as the ending tune to BBC7's Digi Radio. The song was also used for an advertisement for the Airbus A340 airliner.
On 10th January 2009, it was announced on the band's official website that a new album was being created, and was set for a release in late 2009. On their Twitter page, March 2010 had been stated as a possible date for release, but the official release date has now been set as 31st May 2010. The album is titled 'Bang Goes The Knighthood'.
Meanwhile, Neil took part in various projects: he recorded the beautiful "Perfection as a hipster", included in "God help the girl" soundtrack, a soon-to-be-released musical film by Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch as well as the LP The Duckworth Lewis Method, together with Thomas Walsh of Pugwash.