TAKE THE NATIONAL EXPRESS

Today’s posting is looking back at what has, thus far, proved to be the biggest hit enjoyed by The Divine Comedy.

I suppose I better set the scene for some overseas readers who might not get the cultural reference(s).

National Express is a long-distance coach service in the UK, covering more than 750 locations with just under 2,000 services a day. It is a cheaper alternative to the train, but the downside is that the journeys tend to take a bit longer, albeit the majority of trips use the motorway network. Being a cheaper alternative to the train, it has an undeserved reputation for attracting folk who are less well-off, which is important to bear in mind…….

In January 1999, The Divine Comedy (which in effect is the name under which composer/singer Neil Hannon records) released a song called The National Express. It was the third single from the album Fin de Siècle and it attracted a very scathing NME review from Steven Wells:-

What a filthy, disgusting, revolting, nauseating little record this is! Summed up in one utterly crass but nonetheless deeply psychologically revealing lyric, we find all the reasons we’ll ever need to hate The Divine Comedy… This is mock-pop. This is the work of an ‘artist’ who thinks himself superior to his art form and despises his audience.

Here, in full, is the lyric that so seethed Mr Wells:-

Take the National Express when your life’s in a mess
It’ll make you smile
All human life is here
From the feeble old dear to the screaming child
From the student who knows that to have one of those
Would be suicide
To the family man
Manhandling the pram with paternal pride

And everybody sings “ba ba ba da…”
We’re going where the air is free

On the National Express, there’s a jolly hostess
Selling crisps and tea
She’ll provide you with drinks and theatrical winks
For a sky-high fee
Mini-Skirts were in style when she danced down the aisle
Back in ’63 (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
But it’s hard to get by when your arse is the size
Of a small country

And everybody sings “ba ba ba da…”
We’re going where the air is free
Tomorrow belongs to me

When you’re sad and feeling blue
With nothing better to do
Don’t just sit there feeling stressed
Take a trip on the National Express
On the National Express

Let’s go

National Express, National Express
National Express, National Express

The NME review did upset Neil Hannon a bit, and in response he pointed out he had made a bit of a living from penning light-hearted observational songs, none of which were intended to cause offence. Indeed, he went as far to state that the line about the man with the pram was specifically an in-joke at his brother’s expense and nothing throughout the lyric was a dig at anyone’s social circumstances.

Most folk ignored the spat, including a multitude of radio producers and presenters who ensured the single got plenty of air play. It went on to sell enough copies to reach #8

mp3: The Divine Comedy – The National Express (radio edit)

Here’s the two tracks made available on the CD1 version of the single:-

mp3: The Divine Comedy – Going Downhill Fast
mp3: The Divine Comedy – Radioactivity (a Kraftwerk cover)

JC

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