Playing with Weller, meeting Muhammad Ali and enduring the Spice Girls
The early to mid-’90s were a special time for indie kids in the UK. Oasis and Blur had become the figureheads of a brave new musical movement – well, new if you ignore its rip-off of ’60s mod culture – in which Brits singing about UK life kicked those mopey US grungers out of the charts with an arched eyebrow, a sarky comment and an upbeat guitar riff. And in 1996, with critical darling album Moseley Shoals, near-constant airplay and a supporting gig on Oasis’s now-legendary, 250,000-ticket Knebworth gigs, Ocean Colour Scene were riding high.
Then, a year later, Oasis released the dire Be Here Now and the game was up. The movement’s time in the sun was over, and Ocean Colour Scene had only enjoyed a year and a half of the big time. But the band had been in circulation well before the music press coined the Britpop genre, and they had no intention of going anywhere. Blur dissolved, Pulp were axed and Oasis shuffled forward as self-parodying ghosts for another 13 years, but Ocean Colour Scene kept going strong, putting out albums like clockwork every two years and continuing to pull in the crowds. So what, we ask guitarist and lead singer Simon Fowler, have they learned in the past 19 years of gigging?
‘Get a good lawyer,’ he laughs. ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea. Mostly I guess we learned to be the band that we are, rather than being an amalgam of our favourite records. And we became better players, really. Well, not me – in terms of technical proficiency I peaked when I was about 13. I still play like Neil Young. But it’s Steve [Cradock, fellow guitarist] who has really grown. His musical development has been the most significant, and has helped to develop our signature sound. Steve becoming a great musician has been really instrumental. Hah – no pun intended.’
Cradock’s blossoming ability has seen him pairing up with Paul Weller on several albums, both Weller’s and his own. He even supported Weller at his Dubai Desert Rhythm Festival appearance last year. So given these solo projects – and the band’s impending 20th birthday – how long can we expect Ocean Colour Scene to stick around? ‘I can’t see why we should split up, really,’ says Fowler. ‘I mean Oscar [Harrison, drummer] and myself are 44, Steve’s 40 and the other two guys are a lot younger. So, not now. But does a Rolling Stones-style twilight beckon? I don’t know…’
Between this and his description of the band as being ‘like a family’, Ocean Colour Scene fans should be well served for the future. And they can rest assured that the most questionable entry in the band’s story is already behind them – namely Fowler’s participation in ‘On Top of the World’, a song created to promote England’s participation in the 1998 World Cup. Not that he was the only one; the other unlikely candidates included Ian McCulloch of Dubai SoundCity headliners Echo & The Bunnymen. ‘God, yeah it was brilliant,’ laughs Simon. ‘When we were making the video, it was me, Ian and Tommy [Scott] – the lead singer from Space, if you remember them. We were sitting on the settee being useless, you know – not knowing how to perform in front of the camera – when suddenly [The Spice Girls] march in and just take over. It was particularly Geri and Scary who were at the helm. They’re all over the cameras, and Ian turns to me and says, “Do you know what? They’re like a real group!” Not that the song did very well. Everyone was still singing ‘Three Lions’ [The Lightning Seeds’ European Championship song from 1996].’
But Simon should have been well versed in celebrity encounters by that point. Not only did he have eight years as a professional musician under his belt, he’d also trained in the, er, glamorous world of journalism. And that meant interviewing Muhammad Ali, the boxer who’d famously gone into a furious tirade in the ’70s when UK TV presenter Michael Parkinson queried his religious beliefs. That must have been a little scary… ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘I was 17 and doing work experience at the Birmingham Post and Mail. This was 1983, I think. It was difficult because I couldn’t really understand what he was saying – everyone was saying, you know, “He’s always punch-drunk,” but in retrospect I guess it was that the Parkinson’s disease had started. Maybe he got that from doing Michael Parkinson’s show. F****** ironic. But yeah, that was pretty scary.’