By Miranda Diboll
1995. Britpop was a battlefield created by the NME and Savage and Best. Grunge was being du-gunked by a soapy wave of British pride, dressed in mod suits, backwards glancing at the 60s. Suddenly big sound was cool, everyone owned a Scott Walker album and finally Neil Hannon and his chamber pop band ‘The Divine Comedy’ were getting a look in.
A year earlier I heard my clarion call by way of Blur’s Parklife. I was in my second year of uni and it wasn’t long before I was wearing Adidas retro trainers and gazing at them longingly. Much to the annoyance of my very much metalist boyfriend I was waving goodbye to the banging of the head and saying hello to the gazing of the shoes. Of course, I was late to that particular party. By that time Blur were shaking off the shoe gazer label and embracing this new mod inspired, British power pop thing called ‘Britpop’.
FIrst I discovered ‘My Life Story’ who are now part of my life story as there is a whole book for me to write about my involvement with them but that’s for another time.
I spent a lot of 1995 listening to ‘Welcome to Mornington Crescent’, this strange orchestral, flamboyant, camp but brilliant celebration of swinging London sung by a gap toothed dandy from Southend On Sea with an ego as big as Lakeside’s car park.
It was on a wet weekday evening Darius Drewe, music writer and promoter to the stars and myself sat in a windowless boxroom in Ilford listening to this:
”If you like My Life Story then listen to this” he said. If I remember it was a cassette copy.
It was what I’d been looking for. I loved the My Life Story sound but felt the songwriting and arrangements hit a wall to often and besides, the pure ego that went with them was a bit of a smack in the gob. This was intelligent, lush, rich, and lots of other verbs that describes Death By Chocolate cake (minus sickly) The fact that this incredible talent was a shy little Irishman called Neil, eyes hidden behind shades on the album sleeve not out of starriness more out of bashfulness made it all the better.
It wasn’t long before I’d hunted it out on CD and discovered it was already a year old. How did this wonderful concept album about the day in the life of two lovers had passed me by?
So here we were, two former glam rock freaks, him still wearing spandex, listening to this highly orchestral Gilbert and Sullivanesque sound, nothing rock about it all. Is that a guitar I hear? Nope, I don’t think so.
It made me want to wear velvet and a string of pearls. He started wearing cravats not long after. I wanted a boyfriend in a velvet suit and feather cut hear (groovy baby!… no not him)
Putting this album on took me to world of batty grannies in pinafores, parlour rooms, parlour games, Gentleman’s Relish, long walks in London parks, Gin Palaces, gas light. It still does.
I was concerned we’d never hear from Neil and his friends again. Months later they played a show at London’s Splash Club (now Water Rats) supported by The Magnetic Fields (yes THE Magnetic Fields). The tiny theatre venue was packed to the gills, you could fall over and still be standing, which is exactly what happened. By my aside I had the foppy boyfriend (no offence Nick, I’m plugging your book) and friend and fellow RepHERtoire scribe Rona Topaz (Ok, I’ll plug your song) standing either side of me. I was removed from the throng and taken backstage where I was greeted my Mr Hannon himself who was concerned that someone had fainted at his gig. Rona told him to play a bigger venue next time. Typical New York chutzpah from Rona there but she was right and he took her advice. Not only did he play bigger venues but sold more records after Chris Evans took a shine to his next album. The rest is history and why you probably have heard of him, at least for that Father Ted song.
He’s still making successful albums and is now up there with other national songwriting treasures that we worship here on RepHERtoire so it all worked out well. However, I go back to Promenade more often than the rest. It reminds me of a time when London was dining on high kicks and shiny suits, cheeky Sid James winks and go go boots.