Ocean Colour Scene: the band whose chief crime was being too normal

Nostalgia aside, 20 years since the release of Moseley Shoals seems an apt time to undo years of undeserved flak and celebrate this hardy indie rock group

A few important things happened in Britain in the summer of 1996. Dolly the Sheep was born, leading to global debate about the ethics of cloning. The Spice Girls released Wannabe, leading to global debate about who wanted to be Baby Spice. England got to the semi-finals of the European Championships, still their best performance in half a century. And a band from the Birmingham suburb of Moseley reached the top 10 with an album that combined cord-clad 60s nostalgia and northern soul influences with robust, melodic Britpop songcraft.

Today marks 20 years since Ocean Colour Scene’s Moseley Shoals entered the British charts. It was the band’s second stab at success: their self-titled 1992 debut sunk without trace and they’d been honing the follow-up for four penniless years. “We knew it was good,” said guitarist Steve Cradock. “We spent a lot of time working on it.” Championed by Radio 1’s Chris Evans – who loved The Riverboat Song so much he made it the theme tune to TFI Friday – it screamed in at No 2 and stayed in the top 10 all summer, buoyed by support from Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher. The real reason for its success, though, was simpler: it was an absolute gem of a record, by a brilliant group of musicians.

Admiration for OCS is not so common in contemporary media, however. In fact, it’s hard to think of a serious band who have inspired more contempt over the years. They have been called “painfully mundane”, “workmanlike” and laddish, accused of playing dad-rock at gigs “more akin to a beery football match than a rave”. There was a nickname: Ocean Duller Scene. The NME, after initial enthusiasm, went on the attack, branding them “out-of-time 60s freaks” and disparaging release after release. “Ten albums in and they’ve never stopped living in the past,” it croaked in 2013.

As a teenager in the 90s, listening to the band on repeat, I couldn’t have cared less. Moseley Shoals was one of the albums I knew best, back in the days when you really got to know albums. My friends and I could replicate every line, every drum fill, every guitar lick. We made the requisite fashion decisions. Chances are, if you were an OCS fan, you’ve got a train-driver hat stashed at the bottom of a cupboard somewhere and you once really wanted a Lambretta. Chances are you find yourself, from time to time, drifting into certain boutiques, hovering over the leather satchel with the Ministry of Defence target on, lingering beside the Ben Shermans on the rack. It’s OK – there are more of us than you think. The boutiques wouldn’t exist if there weren’t.

Nostalgia aside, though, how does Moseley Shoals stand up in 2016? Playing it again, I found the answer was: surprisingly well. There are a few obvious flaws. Some tracks, such as bangy piano rocker 40 Past Midnight, feel like filler, and I’ve never liked the droney You’ve Got It Bad. Then there are the lyrics, which – thanks to frontman Simon Fowler’s writing method of improvising into a cassette player – can be cryptic, to say the least. “Like a king who stalks the wings and shoots a dove and frees an eagle instead,” he sings on Riverboat. Quite! When the lines do make sense, they tend to reach for regulation Britpop images of suns, shadows, shoes and roads. Just thankfully no keys to any doors.

Musically, though, the album still prompts an all-out assault on nearby drummable surfaces. The Riverboat Song’s scalding riff – “It came from me being really pissed off one day,” says Cradock – still makes me lip-bite like David Brent and reach for my air Gibson. The Circle is a flat-out masterpiece, all the way from its feedback fade-in to its lovely, shredding outro. There’s depth, too: beyond encore favourite The Day We Caught the Train there’s the sorrowing One for the Road, the sweetly complex It’s My Shadow and Lining Your Pockets, with its pertinent lyrics about greed. Fowler’s achingly tuneful croon is light years ahead of anything his contemporaries offered: less laddy than Liam, less hammy than Damon, more sincere than Jarvis. This is still, I realise, an album I’d sooner put on than many of the others I loved in that era, including Different Class, Expecting to Fly, All Change, and even possibly Definitely Maybe.

Frontman Simon Fowler performing in 1996
Ocean Colour Scene frontman Simon Fowler performing in 1996. Photograph: Rex Shutterstock

In July this year, the band’s now middle-aged members will head out at Birmingham’s Moseley Park to play the album for a crowd of 2,000. The dad-rockers are quite literally dads. It’s hardly Knebworth, where 125,000 once shouted along, but for a group who called their greatest hits collection Songs for the Front Row, it fits. “Someone thought it would be nice for us to play the kinds of venue we were playing when Moseley Shoals came out,” Fowler said. Meanwhile, the fans continue to make their appreciation felt: in 2014, OCS came fourth in a poll of Birmingham’s best ever bands.

On the 20th anniversary of this brilliant album, it seems a perfect time to pay tribute to a group who took more flak than they really deserved, and whose chief crime was probably only that they were a little too normal. “There is an edge missing from the band’s material that could perhaps be provided if these four unassuming guys hated each other more, or were suffering a bit more,” wrote one Telegraph journalist in 1998. Mmm. By way of contrast, I’ll leave you with a comment from a YouTube user, Andy, who wrote under the video for The Circle: “Brilliant song. Nothing fancy. Nothing pretentious. Nothing over the top. Just simple, beautiful music with lyrics that conjure up a thousand thoughts and situations.”


Peter Beech

The GuardianTramp

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