NB: the order of events as described below may not be entirely accurate. I wasn’t taking notes.
It is the night before Advent, and I am standing on the floor of the O2 Academy Bournemouth in knitwear too big for me, playing I Spy with Mum while the warm-up DJ treats us to Serge Gainsbourg’s sleazy masterpiece Histoire de Melody Nelson. One of my most intense and enduring musical obsessions is about to reach its natural culmination. The tank top hanging off my frame has the words “The Divine Comedy” on it and I have come here to see them perform. It is the first major gig I have ever attended – and I am right at the front.
As we grow bored of I Spy and move on to Dots and Boxes, the support act sidles on. Naomi Hamilton, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter going by the name Jealous of the Birds, finishes her brief acoustic set with Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”. After that lot, the DJ gets us in the mood with tracks from Elton John, 10cc and Glen Campbell. Although I am one of the youngest there, I sing along to “The Things We Do for Love” with the enthusiasm it deserves. It’s whetted my appetite even further, and when the band finally walk on an adoring cheer arises from the audience.
And as for their walk-on music? It’s “Nobody Does It Better”. Of course it is. The sheer cheek of it. Strutting on in suit and tie, Neil Hannon resembles James Bond himself, and when they get going with “Down in the Street Below”, sliding seamlessly into “To Die a Virgin”, his stage presence is both cocky and understated. “Yes, it’s true,” he comments after the applause dies down, “we rock.” Then the thunderous galloping rhythm and clanging church bells that open “Something for the Weekend” explode across the hall, proving that statement in one glorious instant.
The caddish tone soon becomes more philosophical. “This is the chin-stroking section of the song,” says Hannon, doing so as “Don’t Look Down” begins. I stroke my own chin in emulation, apparently the only audience member doing so, and unless I’m mistaken he winks at me. The song’s building drama climactically releases itself as Hannon, a priest’s son, declares his atheism like an indie pop Stephen Fry. The stage then darkens and Hannon sings “Eye of the Needle” on a table before climbing off with a dry “so that’s God seen to.” He sheepishly raises his eyes towards the heavens. “Sorry. Just in case.”
Hannon deflects one wag’s plea for “My Lovely Horse”, which I fear may become Britain’s answer to “Free Bird”. Funnily enough, the one song he does with the words “My Lovely” in the title is somebody else’s, but it suits him far better. Recognisable from the first note, Peter Sarstedt’s lovelorn waltz “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?” is surely the song Hannon was born to sing. His trademark croon more than does it justice; it makes you suspect he travelled back in time and wrote it, and the audience sway in mesmerised infatuation throughout.
Just as he is convincing everyone that he is the secret son of Matt Monro and perhaps a descendant of Noel Coward, he announces the jangle pop number “At the Indie Disco”, an ode to the nights out favoured by shambling students like me. I mosey about in authentic shoegazing fashion, smiling in recognition as he namechecks groups from Blur to the Pixies.
And then – oh, and then – he sings the lines:
She makes my heart beat the same way
As at the start of Blue Monday
And I’ve seen videos on YouTube, so I think I know what’s coming and I’m prepared for it.
I don’t, and I’m not.
The opening drumbeats of “Blue Monday” crack with the volume of gunshots into the audience’s ears, timing as perfectly as Hannon suggests with my heartbeat. They spell the Morse code recognised by all indie kids to mean THIS IS FOR YOU, heralding the deathless keyboard pulse that thrums through my young synth-pop addict brain as the strobe lights flash like a clubber’s zoetrope. Hannon is on the floor, twanging those Peter Hook bass notes out of his guitar. “Blue Monday” is everywhere, dense and inescapable and done as properly as possible without being New Order.
Now, I like “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” as much as the next music lover, but Noel Coward never did that, did he? Blimey.
Then the lights go back on and the song continues as normal, but I am reeling. He’s not done impressing us yet, though. During the masterful “Our Mutual Friend”, he makes his way to the speakers at the front of the stage, lying down practically within my reach as he narrates his tale. With only about five people in his band, the sound is almost as rich as a full orchestra. After the song’s end, he slips off stage to leave us to breathe, and it turns out I do know what’s coming next for once.
Because when he returns, he’s dressed as Napoleon.
Yes, the song he’s performing is called “Napoleon Complex”, and not being the tallest of rockers Hannon is clearly being self-deprecating. The audience love him – following the song, he takes off his hat with a mumble of “God, I’m hot,” and a fan quips “Yes, you are!” He’s blushing, he responds, raising his Bloody Mary. “I’ve turned the colour of this drink.” Finally, the big hit arrives in the form of “National Express” with its joyous crowd singalong before he takes to the stage one more time for his two most life-affirming tracks: “Songs of Love” and the jubilant “Tonight We Fly”.
I leave the venue grinning and electrified from a timeless gig. The Divine Comedy’s recorded work is good enough, but live they are astounding, lovely horse or no lovely horse. Highly recommended.