In Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: The Divine Comedy frontman Neil Hannon.
1: Which pop star’s single did you provide backing vocals for alongside Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant?
“It was Robbie Williams’ ‘No Regrets’”
“And I should have gone to the studio to the mix because Neil Tennant did and got himself turned up and you can barely hear me!”
How did it come about?
“We were set to tour with Robbie when he asked. He was the largest pop star in the history of the world that year. There was obviously a slight loss of indie credibility – but I was never bothered about that anyway. All I remember is occasionally being in a club with Robbie and him bellowing in my ear about how the lyrics of ‘Generation Sex’ were what he wanted to write.”
2: In the Father Ted episode ‘A Christmassy Ted’, Mrs Doyle mentions your name when trying to guess the identity of Father Todd Unctious. Which other former NME cover star does she namecheck? No clues!
“(Laughs) That’s a good question! Was it Father Jarvis Cocker?”
WRONG. It was Father Jack White.
“Nooooo! Rats! I remember Father Brian Eno [played by Eno himself] being in the last episode which was funny.”
For a bonus half-point, which dance music star once covered Father Ted’s Eurovision entry ‘My Lovely Horse’ (which you composed and sang) with Ardal O’Hanlon?
“I know this! It was Moby!”
“Frankly, I didn’t believe it until someone finally found me the proof on the internet. It seemed too outlandish like an urban myth, but apparently he’s a big fan of the show. It’s all true.”
Anyone more unusual than Moby said they like your music?
“Iggy Pop! On his 6Music radio show recently, he played ‘National Express’ and went (Imitates Iggy) ‘Hey, I like this guy. He’s got a bit of the Engelbert Humperdincks about him. Dude looks a little French to me’. (Laughs) I’m going to put that on the ads for the new album: ‘Dude looks a little French – Iggy Pop’.”
You’re working on songs for Pope Ted, a Father Ted stage musical with original creators Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews…
“I think I’ve got a few gags in it because I’d say ‘Why don’t they do this?’ and Graham and Arthur would boggle ‘That’s funny! I didn’t know you were funny?’ I replied: have you listened to any of my songs?!’ God, I’ve written a lot of songs for it! I loved the original series and we’re trying to do justice to the style and give the characters proper stories. You’re trying to make a proper musical with a proper plot yet if it becomes too plot-heavy, it doesn’t feel like the original series which was so silly sometimes. It’s a delicate balance but we’re getting there. I think it’ll be a hugely entertaining evening out – but then I would say that!”
3: Name the guests on The Duckworth Lewis Method’s second album, ‘Sticky Wickets’.
“There was David Lloyd, Henry Blofeld, Stephen Fry. Is Matt Berry allowed? ‘Cos he’s all over them.”
CORRECT-ISH. HALF A POINT. You missed out Daniel Radcliffe.
“Oh! I forgot about Harry Potter! Jesus Christ, the weird things we get ourselves into! We knew we could ask Daniel because he’d been to a Divine Comedy show and knew he was a fan which is lovely. If you’ve ever seen him performing ‘The Elements’ by Tom Lehrer then you’ll know he’s Divine Comedy fodder. He regaled us with stories and didn’t mind signing our DVDs for our nieces and nephews. He was super-sweet.”
4: You performed ‘Love Don’t Roam’ for the 2006 Doctor Who Christmas special The Runaway Bride. Which companion’s wedding reception does it soundtrack?
“I don’t know! I don’t watch it! (Laughs) The last Doctor Who I watched was Tom Baker – that’s how old I am! I did it because all my nieces and nephews were into it and it was just brownie points. Was Kylie involved in it?”
WRONG. It was played at the reception of Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) and Lance Bennett.
“You literally could say any name and I’d nod in agreement!”
5: Kevin Dewsbury impersonated you on Stars In Their Eyes in 1998 singing ‘Everybody Knows (Except You)’ and came last…
“It’s true! I was hoping you’d ask what song he did because I can remember that.”
…Can you name any of the acts he was beaten by?
“That’s a very obscure question! I challenge that for being an impossible question to answer because obviously I only watched him – I didn’t care about the other guys. (Laughs) Boy George?”
WRONG. You could have had: Julie Andrews, Luther Vandross, Karen Carpenter or Jim Croce.
“I remember looking at him going: ‘Tsk! You’ve got the suit all wrong!’. As a review at the time said, the funniest thing was seeing him saying ‘Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Neil Hannon from The Divine Comedy!’, and there was a collective ‘Who?’ from the nation as tumbleweed rolled silently across the stage’. (Laughs) We got him up onstage at a gig in Liverpool and sang together. I told him he should have chosen someone more famous if he wanted to win.”
6: Which political party were you once asked to write an anthem for?
“I’m going to hazard a guess because this is not in my memory anymore. Was it Labour?”
CORRECT. You claimed in 1999 that you had been asked to ‘write a new anthem for the Labour Party’ and there were ‘loose plans’.
“Result! Because that was a guess. I don’t remember that at all. I’m sure I would have lost them the ’97 election, if I had! I did write an alternative Irish National Anthem with [The Duckworth Lewis Method bandmate] Thomas Walsh which didn’t go down terribly well. We were just observing the state of the Irish Republic at the time and people don’t like being shown themselves.”
What’s the most unusual offer you’ve turned down?
“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been offered Eurovision – but ‘My Lovely Horse’ was the ultimate Eurovision entry that alas could never be. So I prefer just having that lovely albatross around my neck.”
7: Which album did you cover in its entirety in 2011?
“(Long pause) Huh? I covered an entire album in 2011?”
By an American band…
“Oh fuck, I remember! (Laughs) Yeah – that’s an easy one. Really, you should try harder! It was Vampire Weekend’s first album.”
CORRECT. Did they give you any feedback?
“None! I was waiting patiently for Vampire Weekend to call saying: ‘That’s the best thing we’ve ever heard!’. It was a weird concept – ‘let’s get bands to cover their favourite artists’ albums at a live gig and write Jack Daniels all over the wall’. Though I haven’t really got their later material, I adored that first album – it reminded me of my early work. That slightly baroque feel to it with indie guitars. Everything about it made me smile.”
8: You appeared on Band Aid 20 in 2004. Up until that point, who were the only two acts to have sung on more than one Band Aid record?
“Well surely Bono must be one of them? Oh God, I’m going to say Kylie as well…”
“You keep reminding me of odd days I’d more or less blanked. I have no illusions [of why] I was there because we’d just made an album with Nigel Godrich who was producing it – he just got his mates along (Laughs). I remember ending up walking to [Travis bassist] Dougie Payne’s house with Ash’s Tim Wheeler just to drink more and seeing Midge Ure on the other side of the road and yelling ‘Midge! ‘Vienna’ was my first single! I loooveee yooouuuu!’, as he looked at me like I was a madman and veered quickly away. Then at Dougie’s house, we all drunkenly sang Bowie songs at each other. It was fun.”
9: You recorded a banging version of ‘I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party’ for a 1998 charity Noël Coward tribute album. Can you name three other acts on it?
“OK… I really should be able to remember some of them and I’m struggling. I’m going to say the Pet Shop Boys, but that’s obvious because Neil curated it. (Laughs) Nah, it’s all gone. Rock ‘n’ roll does kill brain cells. True!”
WRONG. Apart from the Pet Shop Boys, you could have had: Texas, Paul McCartney, Shola Ama, Craig Armstrong, Robbie Williams, Bryan Ferry, Marianne Faithfull, Space, Suede featuring Raissa, Damon Albarn with Michael Nyman, Vic Reeves or Elton John.
“I could have just named anybody in the world and I’d have got one!”
It was a star-studded album and you were the first single…
“Which maybe wasn’t their best idea! (Laughs) It was the most expensive video we’ve ever had – it looked like a Pet Shop Boys promo, which was amazing. But I live with the constant fear that I have disappointed Neil Tennant – one of my childhood heroes – because in the ’90s when we started having hits and going on TFI Friday, he said: ‘The Divine Comedy are who we want to pass the baton to for intelligent pop’. Talk about pressure! I’m a massive Pet Shop Boys fan and feel like: ‘Aww. I did an indie-shmindie rock album and then I went off and did a bit of classical stuff and I never took that baton and ran with it’, so apologies, I feel very guilty, Mr Tennant. But I’ve enjoyed my albums.”
10: You won Celebrity Mastermind in 2012 with your specialist subject of Frasier…
“Thank you for mentioning that!”
…Kelsey Grammer was nominated for an Emmy for playing Frasier in three sitcoms. Can you name them?
“Ah fuck, three sitcoms? Definitely playing Frasier? So the first one was Cheers, the second surely has to be Frasier, and the third… they haven’t made another one! I don’t understand!”
WRONG. He received Emmy nods for Cheers, Frasier and for a guest appearance as the character in a 1992 episode of the airport-set sitcom ‘Wings’.
“I need to look that up. Goddammit! I thought I knew everything about Frasier!”
You beat the BBC’s then-political editor Nick Robinson to win…
“(Affects false modesty) Did I? Oh, I’d forgotten! (Laughs). That’s something I’ll always hold proudly to my chest. I had a confidence going into the day – when all the other contestants were nervous – but not because I thought I deserved to win, just because I was so looking forward to being on something that’s part of my childhood and would have made my granny proud. I trended on Twitter for the only time of my life after that because millions of One Direction fans were going: ‘Is that Niall Horan?!’.”
Bonus Question! You did the music for The IT Crowd, including a jingle for a new easy-to-remember emergency services number. What’s the number?
“(Uproarious laughter, then sings) 099…No – 0118 999 6279 0119 725 3. I didn’t get it right, but I remember the tune!”
WRONG. Close – it’s 0118 999 881 999 119 725 3
“(Laughs) I was very fond of the 3 on the end because that was my idea. When I got to the end of the number that its writer Graham Linehan had sent me, I sang ‘3’ on the end. See, I am funny!”
The verdict: 4/10
“It’s not enough! But in my defence, I’ve been at this for 30 fucking years!”
The Divine Comedy’s new album ‘Office Politics’ is out now