Before The Divine Comedy, there was October. Neil Hannon’s original band, formed with three friends in Enniskillen, only ever produced two releases: the four-track EP October 1st in 1987, and the album Exposition in 1989. Since Exposition remains elusive, October 1st is our sole insight into this formative era.
Hannon generally refers to Fanfare for the Comic Muse, the first album he released under the Divine Comedy name, as his embarrassing debut. He’s happy to acknowledge that it was massively derivative of REM, and that he hadn’t really found his sound yet, but in doing so, he skims over an entire, critically important phase of development. October 1st and Exposition don’t even merit a mention, but of course, that just makes them more interesting: before Hannon sought to emulate REM, his touchstones were U2 and Sting instead. The EP, distributed by the band themselves and only ever released on tape, makes for a fairly brisk listen at about fifteen minutes. Hannon was seventeen at the time, so naturally it’s some of the weakest work he ever released, but it’s also a goldmine for anyone interested in developing an understanding of Hannon as an artist.
What’s most striking about the album artwork is how resolutely normal it is. You couldn’t assemble a more conventional indie rock back cover if you tried: it’s literally a black-and-white photoshoot with the band standing around near a river and gazing sombrely into the middle distance. Aesthetically speaking, there’s nothing terrible about this, but at least something terrible would have been interesting. There’s no effort to convey a sense of the band’s personality, and certainly none of the foppish, extravagant silliness and detached irony that will mark the subsequent Divine Comedy albums. (At least the title font is unique, if a little forced – a tangled little sigil that now recalls the “Coexist” logo.) “Lyrics by Hannon”, intones the liner credits, but Neil’s not even positioned prominently in the group shots – on the front, he’s just standing in the background, the Brian May in the band’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” formation. Perhaps they’re trying to look like U2 on the cover of their 1981 album October, but that’s such a straightforward set-up that no-one would notice the similarity if not for the shared name. Hannon is laughing at something, which makes him look oddly like Alan Partridge – probably not part of the plan. A 1987 audience wouldn’t even have a way to know which of these lads was which, though Hannon does get a close-up inside, so presumably he was considered some sort of a frontman.
With Hannon on piano and his three mates on guitar, bass, and synths, there’s no room to vary the instruments across the four tracks, and the soulless drum machine doesn’t help. There’s not much indication of the knack for vocal variation we know Hannon will display later – the majority of October 1st is performed in the same clear, flat, faintly nasal voice, and at a pitch markedly higher than his default singing voice in adult life (to the point that it can take even a Divine Comedy fan a few listens to be certain that, yes, this is actually Neil). Strangest of all for a Hannon album, there are zero strings. It sounds like what it is: a choirboy having a go at singing in a rock band.
The only instance I’ve found where Hannon even comes close to commenting on his days in October is a 2016 interview for the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast. When asked how he first began writing music, Hannon replies: “I’d started doing piano lessons when I was seven, and I think by about ten I had written dots on a piece of paper – on a, you know, a stave – and gone, ‘Look, Dad, I’ve written a concerto for piano.’ He went, ‘Well, I think it might take a little more time and work than that, but uh, well done. And no, I’m not buying you a synthesiser.’ And it was just literally sort of incremental through my sort of early teens and, you know, my Nik Kershaw phase… The writing morphed with what I was listening to. You know, suddenly I was writing lots and lots of anti-war, political songs, because I was listening to too much Sting.” When asked if his upbringing in the midst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland had been a factor, Hannon says: “No nothing as interesting as that. Just Sting, really. And they were terrible, I have to tell you that. They were awful. But that’s okay, because you have to start somewhere, and then, you know, as I became more indiefied, they all started sounding like early REM.” When Hannon mentions Sting, he’s presumably referring to the latter’s anti-Cold War ballad “Russians”, released two years before October 1st; it’s even possible that the sombre black-and-white visuals of the Sting video was an influence on the EP’s imagery.
The opening track of October 1st, “Nobody Wins”, is one of the aforementioned anti-war songs; pacy and synth-driven. None of the three tracks which follow it are overtly political, so this must be the best of Hannon’s Sting tributes – the only one to see the light of day. Still, it’s not really possible to deal satisfyingly with the subject of war in a three-minute pop song when you’re an upper-class seventeen-year-old.
“War will break your very soul / If you let them take control”, sings Hannon, though it’s unclear which war this is, or who “they” are. “Turning man into machine / As those in Vietnam have seen”, he continues, but aside from that clumsy namedrop, the song makes absolutely no reference to anything clear or tangible, dealing entirely in simplistic and inarguable statements (as a teenager might). Since the Divine Comedy song “Sunrise” would eventually make direct reference to the trauma Hannon experienced as a young child living in 1970s Northern Ireland, the singer’s claim to have been interested in war and conflict solely because of Sting is likely facetious; perhaps he didn’t yet feel comfortable writing music that dealt explicitly with something so close to home. While the same set of circumstances gave rise to a thousand vitriolic – sometimes comical – rebel songs, the young Hannon seems content stick to drift about in the aether of the abstract, unwilling to muddy himself by descending to Earth and taking any stance more specific than vague pacifism. The refrain the song is based around comes again and again: “Everyone’s human, even those you despise / Nobody wins when somebody dies.” It may be a bland truism, but at least it’s a good-natured one. And it is intriguing that the opening song on Hannon’s first real released was overtly political – barring the exceptional “Sunrise” and the satirical Bang Goes the Knighthood, politics is a subject he’d largely avoid after rebranding as The Divine Comedy. (Interestingly, the instrumental bridge has a barely audible Hannon singing what sound like lyrics from earlier on in the song.)
Musically, “Passion Fruit” is not one of the tape’s more compelling tracks – its plodding jangles and morose vocals make it sound like a particularly weak Smiths outtake – but a closer examination reveals the second song as perhaps the most lyrically accomplished. The story, sung in first person, has Hannon sadly addressing someone – presumably a girl – who’s in the midst of making a life mistake: “The fact is you don’t know / Just who you are / You turn off your mind / And you get into his car.” Initially, the song seems condescending towards its subject, and one fears Hannon might be about to launch into a juvenile dirge about a girl who rejected him for some jock, but instead the lyrics swerve into empathy: “The engine starts and you leave behind / The successful life that you had in mind.” It becomes unclear whether the girl’s ill-advised one-night stand is a literal event, a metaphor for her losing control of her entire life through a series of mistakes, or somehow both. In a jarring moment of emotional realism and alienation, she notices the car doors are locked, and decides she doesn’t even care – now it really is turning into a Smiths song. The central ambiguity is elegantly maintained to the conclusion describing the morning after: “You picture an evening / Spent under the stars / You picture your child / In the back seat of his car.”
The song’s title, though never clarified by a name-drop, can only refer to the couple’s offspring, but again, it’s not clear whether this child has just been conceived, is destined to be, or is entirely imaginary, nor whether the girl will raise it alone or with her seemingly abusive partner. Is it her child sitting in the back seat of his car that she’s picturing, or is she simply picturing her child while she herself sits there? Could this even be a wake-up call – a positive turning point in her life? Remarkably, the lyrics support all of these interpretations. To me, what the song evokes more than anything is Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, with its ambiguous adolescent trysts and rare willingness to depict the sort of painfully confusing and open-ended relationships one rarely encounters outside reality. (That Hannon would go on to collaborate several times with Air, the film’s composers, is a lucky coincidence.)
Now, it’s possible that I’m giving credit based on Hannon’s later work and projecting subtleties that aren’t here – that this really is just a friendzone anthem that fluked its way into decency via some poetic prevarications – but I think that Hannon is selling his younger self a little short by sweeping this one under the rug. If we listen closely, we can find in “Passion Fruit” the germ of the narrative songwriting style that will eventually become one of Hannon’s most reliable techniques.
The third track, “Silent Man” is an introspective little song with a pleasant guitar melody. It’s also completely incomprehensible. Apparently, this is some sort of love song, but lines like “I can learn to like this / And so could you / Everyone is different / Girl will I do?” are vague in the extreme, and give us scant information about these lovers or their situation. Hannon tell us that he keeps a diary, “Of all my worries / For which there was no need / All the misconceptions / Misgivings and miseries.” The word “misconceptions” could conceivably have some connection to the previous song’s unplanned pregnancy story, but there’s just not much to grab onto here.
Abruptly, the song shifts into a very specific metaphor: Hannon is stranded in a desert, up to his neck in sand: “With the vultures circling around my head / How much sun can I stand?” It’s been speculated that this image was taken from the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, where David Bowie’s character – a major in World War II – is submitted to a very similar punishment by a Japanese captain. The woman Hannon’s (presumably) singing to becomes the only beacon of hope, his only possible escape: “How could you bring yourself to abandon / The silent man?” The song ends on this life-or-death cliffhanger – the same situation doesn’t end well for Bowie’s character, who has no woman to ask for help – and we’re never told why he thinks being “the silent man” is such an irresistible quality. Perhaps Hannon, being a shy and introspective teenager, just thought the phrase had a nice sound to it. (The drum kit glitches audibly when they turn it off for the final line. Limited editing and mixing possibilities can be kind of fun, really.)
The EP concludes with “October”, the track from which it – and the band – seemingly took its name. Lyrically it’s another abstract one, but the melody is comfortably the strongest of the four – this is quite clearly “the single”, even if it was never released as one. It’s also probably the strongest vocal performance on the tape (though, adorably, Hannon’s voice does crack at one point, reminding us that we are basically listening to a kid). In the first verse, Hannon conjures a complete family, member by member: “Make me a son, a mother’s son / To share a mother’s tears / Make me a mind, my father’s kind / To make the future clear / Give me a heart, a lover’s heart / With the sound of distant drums / Give me a wife to share my life / Until October comes.” It’s essentially a prayer, a plea to a higher force, and it’s structured just like the ones Hannon, being the son of a prominent clergyman, had ingrained in his mind from infancy. Many of Hannon’s compositions take a similar “list song” format, from “Gin Soaked Boy” to “If…” – are they all just prayers, in the end? We see a hint of the respect and affection Hannon holds for both of his parents (themes which will become important later in his career, sometimes toweringly so) and an amusingly chaste request not for a lover, but a spouse – how many pop songs, even by the likes of Hannon, include the word “wife”?
The suggestion that a wife will share his life “until October comes” echoes the traditional marital vow “Till death do us part”, and tips us off that the name “October” – within the song, but perhaps in a sense which can be extrapolated to the EP and even the band itself – corresponds to death. The instinctive point of comparison is U2’s song of the same name (from the aforementioned album – everything seems to be called “October” here in this weird little corner of Ideaspace). Although U2’s “October” is essentially a meditative instrumental piece with some fairly vague lyrics at the end, Bono has said that the track was intended specifically as a portrait of its time, presenting the 70s and 80s as the slow, wintry decay following the utopian dreams of the 60s; it’s a song about the icy spectre of conflict, something which would become the subject (and title) of their 1983 album War. In other words, both bands use the month of October in essentially the same totemic way. For the remainder of the song, Hannon sings of October like a delirious would-be martyr making a suicide threat: “Oh, don’t you know / That when I’m gone the rest will go / October, let it be / That when I’m gone, the rest will see, October.” (As on the first track, there’s a late instrumental section where Hannon quietly repeats some lyrics, almost as if to remind himself what he’s doing.) There’s also a hint that the singer’s predicament might be somehow geographical in nature: “Take me away, far away / Carry me ‘cross the sea / Take me back to where I am / And where I ought to be.” While the wording is paradoxical and overly poetic, it’s not difficult to draw a link between this more situational anxiety and Hannon’s Northern Ireland upbringing (deny it as he might). On a slightly more puzzling note, he continues, “That is where my heart shall be / Until my face grows thin / Finally, you will see me / Let October in.” The syntax is ambiguous (and the idea of a thinning face as the primary sign of ageing endearingly novel), but the idea of “October” as some inevitable ultimate doom is again reinforced.
When a music release is this brief, there can be no B-sides: each song here is a full quarter of the work. October 1st is a short album about love and war; about family and death. All of these heady ideas are summoned, presented, and vanished – there are no original statements here, no real stories, no stunning insights. It’s the work of a musician who has not yet found his voice, either literally or figuratively, but in its teenage fumbling there are fractured glimmers of a future we know is on its way. This may be juvenilia, but it’s interesting juvenilia – not an embarrassment to be hidden away, but the valuable tale of an artist taking his first tentative steps.
In 2005, Hannon recorded a cover of U2’s “October” for the charity cover album Even Better Than the Real Thing Vol 3. It was reasonably good. There was no fanfare.
In 2010, Hannon released Bang Goes the Knighthood, his tenth album under the name The Divine Comedy – an album containing a direct reference to October 1st. Hannon took the music his teenage self composed for “October”, and rewrote the lyrics of that dark, ominous death anthem, rearranging it to create… “Assume the Perpendicular”, a jaunty piano number about yuppies getting drunk. In a way, it feels almost like an insult to the sincere efforts of Hannon’s younger self, but perhaps that’s part of the point – to show that the composition which was once his band’s literal signature song can now be repackaged as a light and silly trifle with nobody noticing; to show just how far he’s come. This solitary intersection between October and The Divine Comedy may cast the former band in a dubious light, but in doing so it quietly illustrates Hannon’s evolution in a way simple words never could.