Classic Song #38: The Divine Comedy – National Express

Never in a month of Sundays did I think I’d write a review of this song in this section of TMB but I have to admit it is a classic in its own sneering way.

But what prompted me was seeing that The Divine Comedy is touring again soon, and that tour includes a date at Manchester’s Albert Hall on 25th February that is already sold out, along with one of three nights at the highly appropriate London Palladium and three other performances in Dublin, Hamburg, and, believe it or not, Lisbon. They open with the first of three nights at Paris’ Folies Bergère on 23rd January, which in its time has witnessed performers as varied as Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers, Edith Piaf, Charlie Chaplin and Benny Hill.

The Divine Comedy is, of course, essentially Neil Hannon, the only constant in a Northern Ireland orchestral pop band that has recorded 11 albums and a super-busker multi-instrumentalist who often plays all of the non-orchestral ones himself.

The Divine Comedy started off as a serious rock band, their first album influenced by REM and subsequent ones were characterised by literary references or were outright classical pieces. All of which generated critical acclaim but hardly any commercial success.

A long overdue breakthrough came with the 1996 album Casanova, which was strongly supported by BBC DJ Chris Evans, and especially the single ‘Something for the Weekend.’ But it was the next (1998) album, the more serious Fin de Siècle, that was the home of the contrarily jaunty National Express, which was at odds with the introverted soul-searching nature of the album, and which brought them their only Top 10 hit.

The Divine Comedy was and remains a contradiction. The following album, released at the height of their commercial success, was A Short Album about Love, a reference to the Krzysztof Kieślowski film A Short Film about Love and which advocates the philosophy that there is no love, only sex.

Meanwhile, almost as if he inhabited a parallel universe, Hannon was churning out the theme music for television series such as Father Ted, Tomorrow’s World and The IT Crowd, while penning a deliberately bad mock-Eurovision song. (It strikes me he would have been better advised to write a deliberately good one if he was seeking ironic effect).

Even TMB’s youngest readers will be aware of National Express. Founded in 1972, it’s still going strong and I was one of the company’s early customers, enduring frequent five-hour bone-rattling plods between Manchester and London when I was a student, along the M6, A5 and M1 (it wasn’t motorway all the way in those days), sometimes with a change of bus at Digbeth Coach station in Birmingham, a forlorn windswept place, and often through the night.

National Express is referenced many times in literature and so it should be, it is an institution, although I am glad to see that it has exited the rail sector and abandoned its ill-advised experiment with airport ownership in the UK and US while persevering with and expanding its Yellow School Bus operations in the States. (Just thought I’d throw that in; I am a transport analyst after all). It is mentioned for example in Alexei Sayle’s Barcelona Plates, as the medium by which anti-hero Barnaby, who goes on to total Princess Diana, Henri Paul and the others,  travelled back and forth between London and Hull in the mid-1970s. (If you haven’t read Sayle’s short stories, you must; if you aren’t barking when you start you certainly will be by the time you finish the last one).

The song chronicles Hannon’s observations of life within and from the window of one of the celebrated buses. Quite why he chose to set the video for it in a hospital (apparently as he awaits psychiatric treatment) is anyone’s guess; perhaps it is a form of irony that is lost on me. It has been suggested that Nat Exp was simply a metaphor for the NHS and I’m prepared to buy that; the video certainly hints at it strongly. In which case a sequel is well overdue and the song/video should be set in the departure ‘lounge’ at Digbeth as the ailing customers wait at least four hours to board while they are berated by a Prime Minister who is in denial.

I’m hoping to see Divine Comedy if I can get in. I’m sure they will be highly entertaining. I don’t know who their support act is but if I might make a suggestion, perhaps local fun guys Tigerside might fill that slot. Two of the band and their manager are very frequent travellers on the London – Manchester route though I’m given to understand their preferred carriage comes in the form of a competitor to Nat Exp that is owned by the Stagecoach Group. So my challenge to them is to write a new song that typifies the zeitgeist. So, ready when you are lads, for ‘Megabus.’

©D J Bentley, 2017