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THE KING OF COMEDY
STUART CLARK collars Divine Comedy mainman Neil Hannon for a brief but highly intimate chinwag as they both take a break from drinking the bar dry at the Heineken/Hot Press Rock Awards in Belfast.
Stuart Clark, 15 Apr 1998
NEIL HANNON is in downbeat mood, having just run the gauntlet of teenyboppers outside Belfast's Europa Hotel without eliciting a single scream.
"I was trying to cheer myself up by thinking 'what's Ronan Keating got that I haven't?' but that depressed me even more," sighs the pocket-sized lothario. "I've come to the conclusion that if I want to excite the schoolgirls I'm going to have to do an Osmonds cover."
As opposed to a Noel Coward one.
"Ah yes, number 28 with a bullet! I'm amazed that people have read as much into 'I've Been To A Marvellous Party' as they have done. I thought that there was more than enough poncey wittering between the techno bits to balance things out but, no, Neil Hannon has shamelessly jumped on the dance bandwagon and will soon be fighting over one of his songs with Jason Nevins.
"The reason I wanted to be on the Noel Coward tribute album - apart from the fact that Neil Tennant, who is God, took me out for dinner and bought me the most expensive champagne in the restaurant - is that it was an opportunity to go completely bonkers and make a 'Nellie The Elephant' for the '90s. The fact that nobody got the joke confirms my suspicions that I'd make a lousy comedian."
A minor detail which has never deterred Barry Glendenning. Obviously he's in no position to go anywhere nowadays, but if Coward was to miraculously come back to life, does Neil Hannon reckon he's the sort of bloke he'd like to bring down the pub?
"He's meant to have been one of those people who you can't say anything to without having it thrown back in your face, which I find rather scary. Not only that but as the best actor, dramatist, novelist, songwriter and wit of his generation, he'd make you feel totally inadequate. Contrary to popular opinion, my ego is too fragile to be surrounded by that sort of genius."
So if Neil was to play a round of pro-celebrity golf, who, apart from Bruce Forsyth, Kenny Lynch and Tarby, would he get Pringled-up with?
"Gosh," he admits, "I don't have that many celebrity chums. I get on quite well with Matt Lucas, alias George Dawes from Shooting Stars, and Bono and Chris Evans both know my name, but apart from that I can't boast much in the way of social standing."
Although soon to get better when he picks up a Heineken/Hot Press Best Songwriter Award, the first 16 hours of Friday April 10th have not been overly kind to the Divine Comedy mainman.
"The day started badly with me having to get up before I'd gone to bed, and got even worse when we arrived at the airport and discovered that our plane had been struck by lightning and would have to be nursed back to health," he explains. "Which, admittedly, isn't as bad as the American pilot whose light aircraft is currently dangling from power lines by its undercarriage. That would put a downer on your day."
This chinwag was originally meant to have taken place a week ago on the 'phone but was put on hold because "Neil is having a nervous breakdown in the studio." Miffed as he is at not having his Timothy Everest suit torn off him by the Belfast branch of the Boyzone Fan Club, he doesn't look like a man who's been chain-popping Valium.
"We've been quite literally working round the clock for the past three weeks which, yeah, is extremely stressful but worth it when you manage to get all the recording done. I found it a lot easier this time dealing with an orchestra. Y'know, when we did A Short Album About Love, I was worried about the oboe player wanting to be higher up in the mix and the trombonist demanding a solo, but these people expect to come in and be dictated to because that's their job. If only all musicians were like that, the world would be a far better place."
Today, incidentally, is historic not just for the Heineken/Hot Press Rock Awards returning to Belfast but for George Michael being caught attempting to put his own pink oboe higher up in the mix.
"My attitude - i.e. 'who gives a fuck?' - is obviously at direct odds with the rest of the world which seems to be rejoicing in his misfortune," says Neil. "I don't agree that being in the public eye automatically means you've got to declare your sexuality. Nobody's going to force me to tell the world I'm a heterosexual.
"As for the bloody tabloids . . . the Mirror's front page headline this morning was 'Zip Me Up Before You Go Go'. Obviously, George Michael exposing himself in a Los Angeles toilet is of far greater importance than what's going on at Stormont. The worst that can happen here is that we'll be plunged into a civil war, whereas if the accusations against George are true - my God - his record sales may be affected! We all knew he was gay, so what's the fuss?"
Neil Hannon's comedic credentials may be seriously suspect, but he'd make an even worse Wapping employee. What he is good at, though, is writing wonderfully maverick pop songs which have not only made him a top 30 regular but smoothed the path for such likeminded souls as Jack L and Perry Blake.
"Jack said to me, 'I always think of you as the Aznavour to my Brel', which I not only found pretentious but upsetting because, dammit, I wanted to be Brel!"
Perry Blake, on the other hand, has emulated Hannon's career to the point where he's gone and recorded a duet with French sex siren Helena Noguerra.
"The one I did with Valerie Le Mercier didn't really come off the way it was meant to. I thought 'I'll be the next Gainsbourg' but I just looked ridiculous alongside this six-foot-something actress who in real life would be going out with someone like Antonio Banderas.
"We had a pretty big elitist following in France," he reflects, "which disappeared as soon as the Brits started liking us too. Actually, the derogatory term they use there for the English is Les Roastbeefs which isn't exactly the most wounding of insults. It's probably an inappropriate time to say it but I always thought the Prods calling Catholics 'Fenian bastards' and vice versa indicated a severe lack of imagination among both communities."
Talking of insults, what did Neil make of Tim Wheeler describing him as "pervy" in a recent issue of Hot Press?
"I think Tim should worry about his own vices," he laughs. "No, I read what he said in relation to us doing 'Oh Yeah' together at last year's Heineken/Hot Press Awards and he's spot on. As soon as the singer of the song stops being 18 and becomes my age, it loses its innocence and becomes something rather naughty.
"I also have to plead guilty to the over-zealous kissing of Ulrika Jonsson. Each time I came up to collect an award, she looked just that little bit more attractive. Bearing in mind that by the end of the night I wanted to snog Mike Edgar, this was almost certainly linked to my drink intake. Not, I hasten to add, that Ms. Jonsson isn't a beautiful and highly intelligent woman who I'd gladly go out with if I wasn't already spoken for."
Although he disappointingly fails to burst into girly tears on the podium, Hannon is tickled pink later in the evening when it's him rather than Bono, Nick Kelly, Jimmy MacCarthy or Shane MacGowan who gets to plant another smacker on Ulrika's cheek and take home the 'Best Songwriter' gong.
"You can never have too many doorstops," he beams with a grin that's not so much shit as sewage farm-eating. "I'm glad David Holmes did as well as he did. Let's Get Killed is one of the few albums I actually went out and bought last year and while it's a tad too New Yorky in places, the bits in-between are brilliant. I was disappointed that Pelvis didn't get nominated for 'Best New Band' but their day will undoubtedly come."
Before we let him go off and add another couple of pence to Heineken's share price, what's this nasty rumour we hear about The Divine Comedy covering 'Parisienne Walkways'?
"It's much worse than that. As well as paying homage to Gary Moore, we've been soundchecking with 'Baker Street' and 'Da Funk' which starts with Brian playing the bass part and keeps going until someone screams, 'Stop it, I can't take anymore!'
"Are we going to put them on the album? We're already doing 'Puppy Love' and 'Crazy Horses' so there won't be room!" n