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The day Ocean Colour Scene caught the train to stardom

Ocean Colour Scene’s rip-roaring live shows have long been one of the most extraordinary sights in modern rock – communal outpourings of hope and joy which boast the most life-affirming sing-alongs you’ll ever hear.

Ocean Colour Scene
Ocean Colour Scene

However, their upcoming tour promises to be their most emotionally charged yet, as it marks 30 years since the release of the band’s debut single, ‘Sway’. “I remember thinking back then that we were in it for the long haul, purely because we didn’t have a plan to do anything else,” says the band’s singer Simon Fowler. “Of course, we had no idea that we’d still be here 30 years later.”

OCS remain one of the most successful – and most loved – bands of the modern era. Having spent six years fine-tuning their sound, they lit up the Britpop party, chalking up three Top 5 albums – 1996’s Moseley Shoals, 1997’s Marchin’ Already and 1999’s One From The Modern and a run of nine successive Top 20 single’s including the immortal The Riverboat Song (in total they have 17 Top 40 singles and six Top Ten singles).

In the years since they’ve honed their craft in the spirit of the soul, folk and blues greats who inspired them – returning the favour in 2018 when they took Martha Reeves and The Vandellas out on tour. “We couldn’t quite believe that Martha Reeves was supporting us, it seemed absurd,” says Simon. “But our crowd loved it, she went down really well.”

While 2019 saw the band only play a handful of festivals and a low-key six-date tour of Scotland (“We wanted to do something a bit different – go back to being The Beatles”). Due to Covid the tour dates in 2020 had to be rescheduled to 2021. It will see them back in their element – reaffirming a kinetic bond with their audience which grows stronger with each passing year.

“It’s great playing live these days because the mums and dads are at the back and their kids are down the front singing all the words,” says Simon with a smile. “We can’t wait to get back out there.”

Strange, then, given the band’s reputation for uproar, that Fowler likes nothing more than sitting in his local pub, working his way through a crossword while supping a pint. The hellraiser who’s played gigs to vast audiences lives a quiet life when not on the road, enjoying the leisure time that success has brought.

“I’m in the local pub. I woke up and turned my phone on and it had no charge at all. I don’t have my charger so I had to come to the pub to use theirs.” As excuses go, it’s right up there with ‘the dog ate my homework’.

OCS have played a couple of gigs already following the July 19 Freedom Day, and fans have revelled in the chance to sing old classics.

“We did shows in Margate and Bedford. We’ve barely seen one another for two years because of the pandemic. We rehearsed for two hours and then realised we could remember all the words and the songs, it’s muscle memory. So that was enough and the gigs were really good.”

Fowler has enjoyed a quiet pandemic, though his life tends to be on the downlow most of the time. “Apart from the pub closing, my life was pretty much the same as it is normally. Robert (his partner) was home and that was good because I normally spend too little time with him. I did a lot of shopping for the neighbours. That’s how I occupied myself. I have a lot of time in my life. We work in fits and starts. The rest of the time, I’ve learned how to live in the country and have a very quiet life with neighbours and friends. I do lots of local things.

“I’ve had enough excitement in my life. It’s called growing older. We used to be in all the nightclubs but I can’t imagine going to a nightclub now. I’m just looking at the picture of Phil Collins – Jesus Christ, is that what we have to look forward to?”

Beyond the present OCS gigs, there are no immediate plans. “I don’t know what we plan after this. I’m going to go and do some gigs with Oscar in the new year. Steve Cradock is doing a lot with Paul Weller, so he’s very busy. Next year will be a non-OCS year, so it’s see us now or miss out.”

There are no new recordings on the horizon. While some bands spent lockdown writing and recording, OCS took time out to stop and smell the roses.

“There’s always a chance that we could do another record. The idea of doing albums now doesn’t excite me in the way that it used to. They don’t mean the same to me. They kind of don’t exist in the streaming era. People say isn’t vinyl doing well, but it’s still a miniscule proportion of sales. How young bands start today, God only knows. European touring is more complicated too, following Brexit. So in my case, I haven’t for a while written new songs.”

And so Fowler falls into reverie. Having spent a few minutes saying: ‘We’ve not done very much, nor do we intend to in the next year,’ it’s time to look backwards, rather than forwards. For lest we forget, OCS and The Verve were Britpop trailblazers for a little while, riding the Oasis slipstream and enjoying a moment in the sun.

“It was great. It was fantastic. It was everything everybody imagined. We made a load of good friends and saw the world. We were successful. It was more than we could ever have imagined

“I knew we’d give it a crack because we didn’t want to do anything else. We’d been together for seven years before anything really did kick off. We didn’t expect that. It just came almost out of nowhere. It came from Chris Evans playing us all the time on the radio and on TGI Friday. That was the total gamechanger. He helped make us.

“It was brilliant. We toured a helluva lot. We did TV shows and radio shows. All the time we were holed up in Birmingham in our studio. That was fantastic. We were there every day. That was our day.

“I remember being in a restaurant and suddenly was surrounded by 30 people and we just ran out of the restaurant. I remember being chased down a high street and having to go into WHSmith and hide behind the counter.

“I used to write so we had something to record the following day. That was the impetus at the time. I’d sit down with a little tape player and an acoustic guitar. Pad and paper and pen. Just la de dar de dar and see what came out. Often nothing would come out, sometimes something like The Circle would come out. I’m convinced anyone can do it if they try. It’s the doing of the thing you need to do. I have a certain ability, but it’s not God-given. I grew up singing and loving music. So it just seemed so natural. When I was 13, my songs were probably awful.”

That seven-year period before the band broke gave them time to refine their sound. For a while, they were influenced by punk, then by baggy and Madchester. Eventually, they settled on an English sound, influenced by mod and R’n’B bands.

“There’s something on YouTube and it was us at the Irish Centre and I was struck by how much I was influenced by the Buzzcocks and the Velvet Underground. Those two really did connect.”

Yet away from OCS, Fowler is most at home playing folk. “I think to be honest, I’m probably most at home with an acoustic guitar. That’s what I was used to. That’s how I grew up. Also, it allows me to interact with the audience, which I quite enjoy doing. I enjoy being silly.”

The highpoint for OCS was probably Knebworth, where they played as support to Oasis.

“I remember being petrified. I was standing at the side of the stage and I looked over and I saw Chris Cradock, Steve’s dad, who was managing us. He’d got a cinecamera and I asked him how to use it. He gave that to me and I went to the front of the crowd and filmed the crowd. I instantly felt at home then. You must remember, at that point we were the second biggest band in the UK after Oasis, in terms of sales and popularity. We went down a storm. It wasn’t our huge break. By the time we got to the end, all the people at the back were singing along with us.

“I don’t remember a great deal about the day, at all. What saddened me was the way that half of Oasis ended up not in the band. Tony wasn’t on the drums, it was Alan. That was Oasis. I think they lost it when they started getting rid of everybody.

“But it was remarkable. Looking back at it, I can’t believe that it was me. My life is so different to that now. I’m glad I did it, I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

Ocean Colour Scene play Birmingham’s O2 Academy on December 12 and 22

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