If you've only just tuned into the wonderful world of the Divine Comedy, you might like to know that frontman Neil Hannon has friends in high places... After featuring on Robbie Williams' hit single 'No Regrets', he was invited to support him on tour - during which Robbie repayed the favour by proving live backing vocals on 'National Express'.A cynical person might suspect that Robbie was so addicted to adulation from the crowd he even wanted to muscle in on the support band's set. But to be fair to the guy, it's hard to resist singing along to this song, one that was obviously held back to the third single from the album (which had been released back in August the previous year) because it was the big potential pop hit and could benefit from the quiet January charts, even at the expense of it not being released in the festival season. Never mind, we bought it anyway. Strangely for me, a man rarely reluctant to enter a record shop, I remember sending my brother out to buy the single. I remember specifically telling him to buy CD1, which features the radio edit, so as to reduce duplication. The edit (also featured here) is actually a bit brutal, with a rather abrupt fade just after the three-and-a-half minute mark. However, swearing fans will be pleased to note that it does leave in the word "arse", and I've never encountered a censored version: it's not the strongest swear word ever to appear on a Now album but it does seem to have been left on intentionally.
The song's jolly mood is a bit of an outlier on the Fin De Siecle album which, as the name and the monochrome cover suggest, is one of Hannon's darker albums, albeit that the social commentary is often buried by his typical ironic humour. And 'National Express' itself has signs of bitter experience: a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the joys of low-budget coach travel, you can imagine it's the product of many years when he couldn't afford to get between London and Northern Ireland any other way. In fact, it always seemed a high point of the album, more effective than some of the more obviously serious tracks which fall prey to pretentiousness, excessive length or simple factual errors. In fact, Hannon seems to have lost his way slightly at this point in his career - the success of the single and album got him a major label contract but he seemed uncomfortable with the fame, drifting through image and style changes and starting to lose his songwriting mojo a bit - I didn't like anything I heard from his last set, Bang Goes The Knighthood. This song too became a bit of a victim of its own success, becoming frustratingly overplayed and overshadowing the rest of the catalogue. I'm not sure I've totally got over how tired I got of this.
The third act out of four to collaborate with Tom Jones, too.
Also appearing on: Now 36
Available on: Fin de Siecle