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Never In Fashion, Never Out of Fashion: Ocean Colour Scene Get Reflective

Thursday, 30 November 2023 Written by Simon Ramsay

No matter what anyone says, or how much certain curmudgeons have tried to rewrite history, Britpop was quite simply a golden age for British music. Aligning with fashion, art and politics, those who lived through it were fortunate enough to experience a truly great cultural movement. Such was the importance of the scene that, even when it fell from commercial grace and casual followers jumped ship, many groups from that era have remained alive and kicking thanks to the unswerving support of lifelong fans.

When it comes to both launching and sustaining a career, few bands understand that power-of-the-people phenomenon as well as Birmingham four piece Ocean Colour Scene. For although Simon Fowler, Steve Craddock, Oscar Harrison and former bassist Damon Minchella were undoubtedly one of the most successful acts of the ‘90s, they weren’t exactly media darlings at any time during their heyday. Not that it mattered.

After forming in 1989 from the remnants of two local acts, and surviving a debut album that bombed due to numerous internal disputes, they knuckled down, paid their dues and earned the patronage of Oasis, and frequent collaborator/unofficial mentor Paul Weller, before 1996’s ‘Moseley Shoals’ catapulted the fivesome to the kind of stardom that saw them living it large during the scene’s halcyon days. 

Such is their appeal to diehard followers that even after Britpop had fizzled out towards the end of the last millennium, likewise Ocean Colour Scene’s commercial potency, Fowler and the boys have continued to thrive under the commercial radar. The band’s 34 year career has, to date, delivered 10 studio albums and seen them remain a sizeable draw on the live circuit. 

With the band about to hit the road again for a near sold out UK tour, which will culminate at Cardiff’s Tramshed on New Year’s Eve, we caught up with Simon to take a walk down memory lane, strolling from the past to the present before hearing about the band’s exciting future plans.

When Ocean Colour scene formed from the ashes of The Boys and Fanatics, was there a moment where you thought, ‘This could be a bit special, we might have something here’? 

We started off largely playing songs The Fanatics had done and then came up with Sway and Blue Deep Ocean, which both ended up on the first album. They didn’t sound like anything any of us had been doing before and might have been under the influence of the [Stone] Roses. They were a catalyst back then for a lot of bands who were into lots of different music at the time. People who were into ‘60s music, it suddenly made it contemporary. So, Sway, that was our anthem. It defined a new sound for us which, largely, we lost as we ended up doing ‘Moseley Shoals’ and ‘Marchin’ Already’. But that song was when we turned into Ocean Colour Scene.     

It’s well known your self titled first album was remixed, against your wishes, to fit in with the style of the time. What were the main lessons you learnt from everything you went through making that record?

It was great fun at the time, in some cases, but was also a nightmare. It was remixed about three times. By the time it came out everyone was into Nirvana. It was very difficult and we had a very fraught relationship with the record label. So after that flopped we basically went into the studio in Birmingham and spent the next three years learning how to make records. Meanwhile, Steve was playing with Paul, I was supporting Paul, too, so that gave us the confidence to know we weren’t just pissing in the wind.  

You’ve previously said Weller gave the band some self-respect. Can you expand on what you meant by that? 

I suppose we felt flattered he appreciated us and we had a great laugh with him. So by the time we got round to playing the Albert Hall we all knew where the changing rooms were, we all knew Bob Dylan’s piano was in the corner, that type of thing. It was a good apprenticeship with Paul, so by the time it actually did happen we knew the ropes. If it had happened the first time around, with the first album, we’d have blown it. 

We weren’t good enough as a band and we certainly weren’t good enough at making records, because all we’d done was make the obvious four piece rock guitar band stuff to play live. We’d no thoughts of, ‘How do you make a record?’ Basically, it’s ‘don’t play as much’. And that was very much down to Steve and Damon. They were the brains in the studio, Oscar and I were more keen on playing table tennis. We left it to the musicians.    

Moving on to ‘Moseley Shoals’, can you tell me about the first time you heard the iconic riff to The Riverboat Song?

I can’t remember the very first time but that was Steve’s contribution. Damon, he’d actually got a piece of music which became the chorus and then Oscar came up with that loping 5 / 4 drum beat. So we got the structure and I just wrote the words and tune over it. I remember the first time I heard them doing Hundred Mile High City more. That was at a soundcheck in Japan and Chris Cradock, Steve’s dad, who’s our manager, said to me, ‘If you can come up with a song over that I guarantee I can get it on every sports programme in Britain.’ Eventually, it ended up being used as an Olympic advert with Usain Bolt running to it, which seems ludicrous, but such is life.

Were there any downsides to The Riverboat Song becoming synonymous with TFI Friday and getting so much exposure? 

That’s what made us. That song and Chris Evans. Simple as that. Without that clip it wouldn’t have happened in the way that it did. 

What was TFI Friday like behind the scenes, because it looked so spontaneous and almost unruly, but I believe Chris worked very hard to get it like that?

Yeah, Chris and Danny Baker were the brains behind it and it was great. I lived in Lower Richmond at the time, so used to go down there when we weren’t playing. Just for a nice Friday night out with him and Danny. It was great fun. 

I bet you could tell a lot of stories about that.

I could, but I’m not going to.

In contrast to that, you’ve often spoken about your time performing on Top of the Pops as being boring. What’s been the impact of that show no longer existing?

I’m not sure now because I don’t know if it would fit in with the way kids consume music these days. It’s sad isn’t it? It was such an iconic programme but the whole industry now is…I don’t really recognise it. I don’t know anything about streaming ‘cos I’ve never used a computer. It’s a terrible thing to say, though, but it was boring to do. You had to get there at eight in the morning, all the other guys were miming, I had to sing live, and there were only about 30 people in the audience. But for me it was still Top of the Pops and, because we’re an English band, if you get Top of the Pops it must be like playing in the FA Cup final.   

‘Moseley Shoals’ was the album that put you on the map. ‘Marchin’ Already’ was your first and only number one record. Which do you think is better?

They’re like two peas in a pod and kind of complement one another. I think they’ve got the same vibes and sounds, haven’t they? I guess other people can make up their minds. It’s funny because some people come up to me and say they think our best is ‘Mechanical Wonder’. Oh, is it clever clogs? Well, my favourite album of ours is actually the B-Sides album. 

And ‘Marchin’ Already’ famously knocked ‘Be Here Now’ off the number one spot. Knowing Liam and Noel as you do, will they ever give us the reunion we want?

It’s romantic to think they will but I can imagine they won’t. I think Liam would be more up for it than Noel but Liam sold out two nights at Knebworth on his own. So he hasn’t got that necessity any more, because Beady Eye kind of went nowhere, didn’t they? I think most of them are financially secure for the rest of their lives, so it depends if they can just stop hating one another. It annoys me intensely, if I’m honest. If I’d have been able to be in that position with one of my brothers, to have done that, I think it would have been incredible.  

Following ‘Marchin’ Already’ you released ‘One For The Modern’, which has been described as a slower, sadder record. After all the triumph and hedonism that preceded it, why did the album turn out that way?

I wonder if it’s got something to do with, and I’m making this up off the top of my head, those two albums being made when we were together every day in the studio, living in each other's pockets. Especially me and Steve. We used to share a flat and stuff. By the time that was done we’d all sort of moved into our own homes. I wonder if that record has got more to do with my style of songwriting, rather than jamming around in the studio.

You’ve said in the past you’re more of a folk songwriter.

I guess I am, yeah. That’s where I naturally come from.

Looking at reviews of your post millennium records, which aren’t always glowing, they often seem like personal attacks. Did it feel that way?

We were never liked by the press. I think they saw us as dad rock. You see there’s two ground zeroes in music. There’s the Beatles and the Pistols and my ground zero is the Beatles. I think a lot of those people’s was the Pistols, so they saw us as…I don’t know because Oasis were pretty retro weren’t they? I always thought they sounded like Crazy Horse playing the Beatles, but they were cool so they got away with it. Also, I know Steve and Damon could be pretty acerbic with the press and I don’t think that helped, which is probably why you’re talking to me.  

Might things have been different if the critics had been on your side?

I’m not sure they would have. One thing about being unfashionable is you don’t go out of fashion. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s actually true because if you’re flavour of this month you can be sure someone else is going to be flavour of the next month. That’s almost the essence of pop music isn’t it. But we’re seen as sort of a folk-rock band and, also, we never spent a hell of a lot of time in London. I live near Stratford Upon Avon, Oscar lives in Birmingham and Steve in Devon. So we didn’t get sucked into the London scene and maybe that meant we weren’t hanging out and taking heroin in Camden. 

When things did change and the records weren’t selling as much, did you take that in your stride or were you a bit miffed about it?

I like where we are now. We’re just going to start on this tour which is sold out. So we’ve got a fantastic fan base. They remind me of Paul’s in as much as they’re pretty fanatical, and there’s a bit of a crossover there. That’ll do me. I’m quite happy with my life now. I live a very happy, quiet life with my partner. We live in the countryside and every once in a while I go out on tour to pay the bar bill. Splendid. 

Your last album, 2013’s ‘Painting’, was your lowest charting record since your debut. Is that why you haven’t released another since?

No, I just think we’d drifted into leading our own lives with our families. And we’re sort of working slowly towards a new one which, hopefully, we’re going to be doing next year with the idea of releasing it in 2025. That’s the plan.

Alan McGee has recently taken the management reins, too.

That might be giving us a bit more impetus to have another crack at presenting something new, because you know damn well what people are wanting to hear. When you’ve been together for as long as us you can suddenly find yourself turning into Status Quo. What do they call them, a heritage act, and we’re just about too young for that. Although if it does come out in 2025, Christ, I’ll be 60.

Ocean Colour Scene Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sun December 03 2023 - BOURNEMOUTH O2 Academy
Mon December 04 2023 - BRISTOL Bristol Beacon
Tue December 05 2023 - ISLE OF MAN Villa Marina
Thu December 07 2023 - BELFAST Telegraph Building
Fri December 08 2023 - DUBLIN 3Olympia Theatre
Sat December 09 2023 - DUBLIN 3Olympia Theatre
Mon December 11 2023 - LIVERPOOL Liverpool Uni Mountford Hall
Tue December 12 2023 - SHEFFIELD O2 Academy Sheffield
Wed December 13 2023 - SHEFFIELD Octagon
Thu December 14 2023 - NORWICH Nick Rayns LCR
Fri December 15 2023 - WOLVERHAMPTON Civic At Halls
Sat December 16 2023 - LONDON Eventim Apollo
Mon December 18 2023 - GLASGOW O2 Academy Glasgow
Tue December 19 2023 - GLASGOW O2 Academy Glasgow
Wed December 20 2023 - NEWCASTLE O2 City Hall
Sun December 31 2023 - CARDIFF Tramshed

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