The Fantasticast at 100: In Pursuit Of Happiness

This week, we released the 100th episode of The Fantasticast. In a break from showcasing tropes of The Fantastic Four (nearly) ever day, we're celebrating this milestone with a week of special blog posts taking a behind-the-scenes or sideways look at the show. Today, we take a look at the first thing we ever released...

One of the first things I did when planning the Fantasticast was to try and come up with a unique idea for a trailer. I knew that I didn't want a portentous narration (although I ended up flirting briefly with one in the final edit), I didn't want obvious music, and I didn't it to be boring. There were a lot of podcast trailers around at the time that hit at least one item on that list, and with the amour of podcasts I was listening to, I was hearing those trailers a lot. The idea that stuck with me was creating a very brief narrative of The Fantastic Four's origin, then showcasing several notable villains. I'm still not sure how good a trailer it is for the show as it is now (it's definitely too long, and it does rather suggest that we're dramatising the issues rather than analysing them), but I think that as an interesting and repeatable piece of audio, it stands up.

The key to this, I think, was in choosing the right piece of music. As great as the acting is in the trailer, without the driving escalation of the music behind the voices, the trailer is simply a collection of villainous pronouncements. But the music - the introduction and orchestral break from the Divine Comedy track In Pursuit Of Happiness - is what holds the trailer together and makes it, if I may be a little vain here, something a little special.

The Divine Comedy are a special band for me. They were the first 'current' band that I started following, off the back of their hilarious song 'National Express'. Pretty much the only constant element in their music, aside from vocalist and front-man Neil Hannon's amazing voice, is their refusal to conform to any kind of genre. Their 1999 Greatest Hits album was a wonderful mix of deliberately-cheesy pop, dark and twisted love songs, Noel Coward remixes, and stunning orchestrations. And this is where I first encountered In Pursuit Of Happiness.

I love this song so much. It's the lead song from A Short Album About Love, and for the most part, it's a gleefully joyous song about confessing the feeling of being in love with someone for the first time. It's upbeat, it's got a great piano riff, and it's even got castanets. Neil Hannon's vocal is, frankly astonishing - the way he he ends each verse on the word 'happy' makes my spirits lift no matter what the mood, and his attack on the third verse is just wonderful. But something starts to happen to the lyrics in that third verse: "Hey, I'm not so blind / that I can't see where we're all going / and it's no fault of mine / if humankind reaps what it's sewing." There's a darkness coming into the song, which resonates throughout the instrumental section, which lasts for nearly two minutes.

The orchestrations on this section are utterly gorgeous. There are so many little touches that I love during this section. The staccato of the xylophone. The way the drummer sounds like he's having the time of his life without ever once overpowering any element of the orchestra. The brass section drives the entire piece, gently discordant and keeping the darkness from the lyrics present throughout. And then there's the climax to it all, that driving crescendo that was so damn good, the BBC nicked it for their science and technology magazine show Tomorrow's World. I love and adore this section of the song, especially when the brass kicks in at the top of the melodic progression to top it all off.

As anyone who's listened to an episode of the show will be aware, the climax of the song stops suddenly. Normally, Andy and I then chime in with a grand 'Hello!' and rapidly improvise an introduction. But the original song ends with a dark coda:

Hey, don’t be surprised
If millions die in plague and murder
True happiness lies
Beyond your fries and happy burger

 It's a perfect example of the Divine Comedy's refusal to be categorised, to turn on a sixpence and flip the mood of a song entirely.

The music gave me everything I needed for the trailer. It opens brightly, underscoring the theme of being explorers that runs throughout the best Fantastic Four stories. It starts to darken as the villains appear, and the final section starts to build as the villains get stronger, ending pretty damn epically when Galactus appears. The final notes, underscoring the battle cries of 'Flame On!' and 'It's Clobbering Time!' still make me shiver with delight three years later. It was only later that I remembered the use of this track for Tomorrow's World, an incredibly happy and appropriate coincidence.

I'm very proud of the trailer. I consider it to be pretty unique, and whilst I am certainly biased, I never tire of hearing it when it turns up in other podcasts. This is due partially to the great acting of various podcasters who volunteered their voices, but mostly to the music, which worked better than I ever could have imagined. I've taken delight in including the whole song a couple of times in the show, and I hope you'll click on the above video for an amazing live performance.