OCEAN COLOUR SCENE INTERVIEWED (1996): Take it to the top

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Ocean Colour Scene: The Riverboat Song (from Moseley Shoals)
OCEAN COLOUR SCENE INTERVIEWED (1996): Take it to the top

From the outside – even on the rather mundane inside -- the Irish Centre on Birmingham's dreary, windswept Digbeth High St doesn't look like the city’s premier rock’n’roll venue.

And it’s probably not, but . . .

“Yeah, the history’s here though,” says Ocean Colour Scene’s lanky frontman Simon Fowler as he sits in a cramped room backstage after a lengthy afternoon soundcheck.

It was here he and guitarist Steve Cradock saw the Stone Roses and immediately formed a band. Cradock -- a Jam fan who ended up playing in Paul Weller’s touring band and on his recent albums (and is credited with redirecting Weller away from Eurosoul back into classic English r’n’b pop) played the Irish Centre with his previous outfit the Boys supporting former Small Face Steve Marriott, another of Ocean Colour Scene’s favourite musical uncles.

So while it might not look much, the venue in the Irish part of town has considerable personal resonance for this four-piece.

“All the bands we’ve been in – and this one – have aspired to play the Irish Centre,” says the highly likable Fowler as he makes room on the two-seater couch for the sixtysomething, former Special and legendary trombonist Rico, who is joining them for the gig.

“The next venue up from here I suppose is the NIF, which takes 3500 people, so when you’re in a band that’s getting hopefully known and you’ve played the small clubs, where else can you go? This place was always the one, takes about 800 . . . official capacity," he offers as a sly afterthought, secure in the knowledge that tonight’s gig will well exceed that.

“So the next one up is a sports venue or something. That’s why we’re filming this . . . it could be the last time we get to play venues of this size. We’re going to try to put together some kind of Pennebaker,” he says, referring to the film-maker who captured Dylan’s 65 solo tour of Britain on Dont Look Bock.

“This is an unusual time for us. We’ve never had a time like this before.”moseley

Indeed not, because Ocean Colour Scene’s emergence with the rollicking r’n’b-influenced Moseley Shoals -- the title a reference to their studios in nearby Moseley St and the famous Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama -- has put them back on the map of public consciousness after a five-year absence.

OCS emerged in the early Nineties as part of the post-Manchester baggy scene. They made some singles, were nobbled when their small label was sold out from under them (band manager Chris Cradock has some unpublishable comments about what he’d like to insert in a New Zealander involved in that debacle), sold a few copies of their debut album, toured America and had a great time (“I remember going down the Mississippi on a steamboat. smoking a spliff thinking ‘this is the life,” says guitarist Cradock).

Then they simply disappeared.

Initially it was into the studio for the all-important second album with the legendary Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller (who ominously introduced himself as “I used to be Jimmy Miller”). That turned into a marathon session of hedonism, the record company rejected the tapes and it all ended in tears (see here for that sad story).

They had another go with a different producer but that too went the way of all flesh when the edgy r’n’b outfit -- which locates itself somewhere between the Spencer Davis Group in the Sixties, the Faces of the Seventies and Pete Townshend’s windmill-style guitar playing -- were advised to “go grunge.”

They trekked back home to Birmingham and their cheap Moseley St studios and then in stepped their fairy Modfather -- Paul Weller.

Just as their fortunes were falling, Weller’s were rising. Cited by no less an authority than Oasis’ Noel Gallagher as one of Britain’s great songwriters, Weller had heard some demo tapes by OCS guitarist Cradock and gave him a call. The punk met the godfather and was signed up to tour as Weller’s guitarist. Cradock also reshaped Weller material on the former Jam-man’s first solo albums and played on the subsequent (and critically acclaimed) Stanley Road.

In no time he had also co-opted OCS bassist Damon Minchella and drummer Oscar Harrison on the touring unit. And Fowler opened Weller gigs with a solo spot of songs from which would come Moseley Shoals.

“Yeah, the Royal Albert Hall playing solo,” laughs Fowler. “It was great and I got the confidence to play it live and get my voice up to strength before going out with the band.”

But within the fickle English press which were admittedly falling over themselves to reclaim Weller the connection also worked against them. Snarky critics, often reluctantly acknowledging the band’s old-school power (Cream, Beatles, Stones and Who are the most threadbare words in reviews) saw the album title as “unsuspected evidence of a sense of humour in the Weller camp” and were suspicious of the muso-cred the Weller connection brought.

Everyone, however, seemed to fall over sideways when Noel Gallagher not only weighed in acclaiming the band but had them open on an Oasis tour.

Critical acclaim for the album followed; a four-star review in Q magazine (“exceptional stuff indeed”) and Time Out's Peter Paphides offering, “I can’t think of a single aesthetic which I could appeal to which would justify my love of The Riverboat Song (the single). I just know that I’ve spent the last week playing it to death.”

And that’s what Ocean Colour Scene are about -- not the shock of the new but the fright and fun of the familiar; but the familiar rendered loud, with rare passion and a blisteringly brilliant live energy.

“Before we released the album the only press we'd had was a slagging-off," says Fowler. “Now we’re number two on the singles charts and four on the album and they want to put us on one front cover. NME want. to come to Spain with us next week when we shoot a video.

“We‘ve got these things called go-peds which you use like a scooter but have an engine on the back - and we’re filming in Cadaques where Dali used to live. So we’ll be zooming around there on these things.

“But it’l1 be good to have a break because our feet haven`t touched the ground lately and it keeps on changing, things are coming up all the time, like ‘Huh, we’re going to Italy?’ It’s great though.”

Most of the time he spends laughing and saying how good things are . . . then returns to the specialness of playing this gig. The Irish Centre, Birmingham, just two streets away from their Moseley St studios.

“We might never get to play venues this size again,” he repeats with a tinge of sadness and expectation.

But if his expectation is part of it, it is only minor when compared with that of the capacity crowd which squeezes to the walls later that night. lt’s a party, celebration of local heroes and a gig all in one -- and the band don`t disappoint.ocean1

As Cradock windmills across his guitar you realise he may have been a Jam fan, but the Jam's antecedent was the Who and within his own band he can fulfill that agenda too.

Fowler's searing r'n'b roar rips through Riverboat Song, beefy power-rock versions of album tracks like You've Got It Bad and Circle, they throw in the Stonesy 40 Past Midnight (a complete rip-off of Jagger and Richards’ Lets Spend the Night Together), and acknowledge their tradition in a devastating version of the Small Faces’ Song of a Tailor ("sung by Ronnie Lane,” says Fowler in the interests of historical accuracy) and the Beatles’ Daytripper.

It’s a blindingly good set that you feel, because of its early Sixties r’n’b yet contemporary Britrock feel, will take them down a treat Stateside. Like the Stones, it’s a music custom-made for small sweaty clubs (and Irish centres) as much as stadiums.

Fowler is probably right. You may never see them play a venue this small again.

“I tell you what,” he has said earlier however, in a statement that might just put the frighteners up his record company.

“I heard the sound for our next album I really wanted. It was the other night on the BBC, an old Fleetwood Mac session with Peter Green [the legendary addled recluse]. Really spare. We want that sound."

You should get him to produce your next album then?

“Yeah that'd do it,” he hoots. “What a great track record, Jimmy Miller then Peter Green . . . and Lord Lucan for the third! Great stuff.”

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