1996 was a leap year. If the past four years were any barometer Ocean Colour Scene would be bound over again. Instead the four-piece band from Birmingham would release one of British rock’s greatest records. It was the year football was coming home. Brit Pop was at its most triumphant. The Beatles were back in the charts. Even The Monkees and the Sex Pistols were touring again. Take That had split and Oasis were sowing everything up.
In February The Riverboat Song exploded across the airways courtesy of Chris Evans, host to the biggest programme in the UK, the Radio One Breakfast Show. The impact was immense. The opening track on Moseley Shoals had originated from one of Steve Cradock’s conquering riffs. ‘It came from me being really pissed off one day and I started playing it on the bass. I was just playing this riff to get rid of my annoyance and that became the tune’. The middle section was Damon’s; a previously recorded piece jelled into the rhythm offering variation from the musical coda. The rhythm intensified by triplets on the double maracas. The track stood alone and worked as an instrumental. Then conjuring up images of Hearts of Darkness and the journey to Kurtz, lead singer Simon Fowler interpolated. ‘I visualised the scene from Apocalypse Now, when they’re going down the river and are been attacked’. Simon sang to the ready-made piece and the lives of these four musicians would be indelibly altered. ‘Like the best and worst of thoughts before you lie on your bed’.
Moseley Shoals had been a year in the making. Conceived and recorded out in the music industry cold now the rank outsiders were to force their way into the warmth of the record buying public. The past was slowly being buried. The first three years from the group’s formation in 1989 to the release of their debut LP Ocean Colour Scene had been an upward trajectory. Then two years followed lost in a musical wilderness, devoid of clarity and direction. Former Melody Maker cover stars. Dropped by Fontana. A debut album they all disowned. Banned from playing live by record company red tape. A house re-mortgaged by Steve’s dad, Chris, manager and former copper. Dole was bringing in the chips. Housing benefit a musician’s development grant. The band, lost in production and a filtering of new and often contradictory sources. Then, and it seemed suddenly, Steve was re-awakened. His first love returned: Mod. The affair rekindled; Sixties Soul. Traffic. Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. The Who. Tim Hardin and the omnipresent Beatles. It was all utter dedication and belief is all in the soul stirring power of music. There was a new sound for the rocket and the engines roar would soon deafen all. It would define the career of Ocean Colour Scene. Tough. Soulful. Spacious. Fire and Skill.
In April, Ocean Colour Scene supported Oasis atMaine Road. Noel Gallagher was of the moment, had been for two years, charging guitar bands with new vigour. His songs flooded the singles chart. The groups met in 1994 after Oasis had supported Whiteout in their local Moseley pub. A friendship grew. Kindred musical spirits. Noel extended an invitation backstage at a Paul Weller gig to support on the ‘Live Forever’ tour. Later, Noel and Liam would be seen joining Ocean Colour Scene on stages across the country when Moseley Shoals success had the band moving from pubs to the Albert Hall to Wembley for a ToTP special. Later still, when Marchin’ Already knocked Oasis’ Be Here Now off the top spot, the senior Gallagher brother, not one to concede an inch, sent his competitors a plaque engraved with the inscription, To the Second Best Band in Britain.
In the summer of ‘96 the two bands played together again. This time at Knebworth. In the mid-afternoon sun, over two days, half a million voices hailed back to the stage Ocean Colour Scene’s latest melodically infectious top five hit The Day We Caught the Train. ‘I remember writing that in Steve’s flat when he was away in Japan playing with Paul’, Simon recalls. ‘I based it on two things; Jimmy on the 5: 15 (The Who) but really I based it on Jimmy Miller on our train with us. So when it says, ‘Like Jimmy heard the day he caught the train’ that was a joke really, to myself’. The Rolling Stones producer had been a great figure to Ocean Colour Scene four years earlier. A connection to a past golden era of rock. Daddy to the band, but not of their time. But The Day We Caught the Train was. The song was a defining anthem for the nineties despite its less than conventional structure and reference points. ‘He sipped another rum and coke and told a dirty joke…walking like Groucho’. Simon again, ‘All of that was from the studio. Steve when he used to get stoned or pissed used to walk around in this funny way, like Groucho Marx. ‘Sucking on a No.10’ that comes from Oscar’s mate Delroy, who used to mark our spliffs. You wouldn’t get passed eight unless they could stand up on their own’. The album version is taken from the bands demo, the only track recorded in 1994. The newly recorded vocal had a distinguishing distortion on Simon’s voice, achieved with a cheap guitar pedal. Stranger still, the crowd pulling ‘Oh oh la la’ sing-a-long doesn’t figure in the songs original form.
During these heady days home for Steve and Simon were damp-ridden Moseley flats at odds with a leafy view, from the cracked windows of their first and second floors. It was here The Circle was written in a squalid, box-living room. ‘That’s probably one of the best songs I’ve ever written’ Simon fancies, ‘Ninety per cent of it ended up straight off like that – as you hear it’. It would be the band’s fourth consecutive chart hit, reaching number six in September, the last to be recorded for Moseley Shoals and one of the more difficult grooves to capture on tape.
‘Initial paranoia’ was Steve’s reaction to Simon’s freshest composition Lining Your Pockets after the guitarist’s latest sojourn with the newly media crowned Modfather. Believing the words to be about him, Simon re-assured Steve that he was thrilled with his extra-circular activities. Oscar Harrison’s hi-hat’s and poised snare rolls on the albums fourth track are welcome relaxation after the blistering pace set by the opening three singles. Alongside bass player Damon Minchella, the rhythm section cut mesmeric paths from their combined catholic and far reaching influences. Moseley Shoals subtly reveals those rich dynamics, elevating the reach of the band beyond many of their peers.
If Oasis were the Beatles, and Blur the Kinks and Pink Floyd, then Ocean Colour Scene were the Stones and the Small Faces. Of course the comparisons are simplistic. But mid–nineties Britain was re-discovering its rich heritage of guitar bands and classic songwriting. Whilst the Spice Girls offered glitz and Girl Power, Paul Weller provided the raw and the cooked. Wildwood and Stanley Road celebrated all that was natural. Sounds, emotions, approach. The former Jam frontman recognised a similar spirit within Ocean Colour Scene. With Steve and later Damon integrating into Paul’s band, time was divided between studios. But Weller was equally giving. His lead guitar played out The Circle. His organ accentuated The Riverboat Songand his piano and vocal harmony subtly mixed into One for the Road – a song written on the same day as The Day We Caught the Train. Simon’s chorus stanza proclaimed the zeitgeist, ‘Get up and dance. Get up and smile. Get up and drink to the days that are gone in the shortest while’. On release a Spanish fan requested to use the lyrics on the gravestone of their brother who had recently died in a car crash. Simon was deeply touched, but grateful to lift the mood, with a levelling Dylan impression, ‘I write gravestones, man’.
By now television offers came from all networks: The White Room; the foursome resplendent in button down’s and Ben Sherman’s; Justine Frischmann introducing Riverboat on ToTP; new entry number fifteen; Hotel Babylon; Immediate soul legend PP Arnold duetting on TFI; More ToTP; Mark Owen introducing The Day We Caught the Train, then Steve moonlighting with Weller live for The Changing Man and Peacock Suit; Later…with Jools Holland, now Weller at the piano and ska legend Rico Rodriguez on trombone. The host jubilant, ‘The most exciting band in Britain today’. Chris Evans agreed. Anchor to TFI, Friday night’s television must – a Ready Steady Go for a nineties movement discovering their own generation – The Riverboat Song not only became the opening theme, but the walk on music for every guest too.
Simon’s writing technique was a mainstay from his early teens: sing words and melody into a cassette player. Get lucky. Fleeting Mind was one such beneficiary, ‘Poets, they are too grim, they steal like party thieves from crowded rooms, to rhyme their homes with better places’. Creativity was more often served and blended in a haze of cannabis and beer. ‘I used to mainly write them at night, drunk. I remember writing Fleeting Mind and It’s My Shadow in one night’. The former local journalist’s stimulated imagination unmasked a sub-conscious release of word play and layered meanings. ‘When you find that things are getting wild is that the hardest smile that you can ever feel’. These Neil Young absorbed acoustic originals would then be transformed. Enter Brendan Lynch. Martin ‘Max’ Heyes and a blagged 16-track desk from former Go Discs! head Andy Macdonald. Damon illuminates, ‘We started on the album the day we started in the studio, 2nd January 1995. Just as demos we recorded Lining Your Pockets and The Downstream along with Mr Bojangles and Fairport Convention’s Meet On The Ledge. ‘Simple as that’, Steve picks up the story, ‘We learned how to use the desk and spent a month writing twenty songs for the album. We thought we were doing them as demos but they were the versions that were used. Brendan came up and listened to them and said, ‘Well, let’s just use these tapes, they sound great’.
Brendan had produced the Young Disciples and Weller’s first solo album. During the Wildwood sessions, Lynch brushed shoulders with OCS in London cutting the demo Hello Monday. Now the production duo came to Birmingham to flavour the atmosphere, ‘At the time they had a vibe, a whole entourage. I think they had a manifesto about the way they wanted to do things. What sort of band and people they wanted to be. How they wanted to live’.Steve had previously confessed to being, ‘intimidated by the popularity of computers’ but the recording and mixing of the album on to half inch tape would lend an endearing and distinctive brilliance to Moseley Shoals. Most tracks were captured live in three or four takes; drums, bass, guitar and vocal, then overdubs. In fact, many of Simon’s guide vocals were kept in their original form. With relaxed studio time this is incredible testament to the singer’s natural ability and indifference to modern pop vocal manufacturing.
Creatively, Oscar Harrison has remained the dark horse of Ocean Colour Scene. The piano riff that initiated 40 Past Midnight was his. Let’s Spend the Night Together, was not in his mind-set, but immediately thrown back by the others with knowing, light smiles. Steve played the drums. Simon tipped a hat to a reggae classic, Love of the Common People, With my pockets holey in the inside/With my bus ride rolling in the gutter. The track was recorded and finished in a mere four hours.
The Small Faces. The Casuals; Jesamine. Denny Laine’s Say You Don’t Mind. Admiration for Kenney Jones drum rolls. Stevie Wonder. Switching the speakers on stereo Beatle records. The bass on Free. Steve Cropper chops. Throughout 1995’s recording of Moseley Shoals, nothing was more important than music and the band. Life and influences were all filtering through. Shared discoveries. Shared money. Steve, all familiar spins and woops as the band’s latest demo threatened to blow the speakers. The twenty-three year old guitar player’s passion for music was infectious. A comic book hero who people flocked around. Always dressed impeccably with a cool, Mod sensibility. Simon, a wonderful cocktail of hometown brevity mixed with impulsive hedonism. The party’s life and soul. The eternal court jester. Extremely loyal. Hilarious. Damon, academically intelligent like Simon, but still knowing how to party. Meticulous attention to detail. Always knew what was coming next. Always had the new releases. Oscar, shy to use his beautiful and naturally gifted harmony. Still striking the elegant, smartly dressed, but don’t mess pose of his former Rude Boy persona. Musketeers; sounds romantic, but the brotherly faith was beautiful. That strength would translate to electricity on stage in the coming years. A force of conviction.
Throughout 2010 as Ocean Colour Scene celebrated their 21st anniversary, the three chord trick of Policeman and Pirates had been dusted down to thrill audiences. Live had always been the bands forte. Damon close to Oscar locking the notes to the bass drum kicks. Steve all twists, kicks and Townshend windmills. Lost in pedals. Accentuating, on the vocal, on the beat. Soul influenced. Simon, concentrated, mesmeric, but always the voice. Paul Rodgers. Mick Jagger. Reflective and pensive to cut to the heart, then soaring and inspirational. His voice shined. Soaring to razor blade slashed notes out of melancholic, plaintive verse. In November of ‘96, the band headed to America to support The Who on their ‘Quadrophenia’ tour. On New Year’s Eve, they headlined Edinburgh’s Hogmanay entertaining 350,000 chilled, but thrilled Scots. After playing only a handful of gigs in the previous twelve months, the band now played on average every third day of the year. On the calendars turn they’d be in Abbey Road recording with Paul McCartney. Ocean Colour Scene demanded attention. ‘Some people are into the music and some people are into the trip’ Steve reasons. ‘You’ve just got to work out which one you’re chasing after; the music or the trip’.
The ever confident guitarist describes You’ve Got It Bad as, ‘Northern Soul crossed with Jimi Hendrix’. It gave the group their first taste of top ten success, reaching number seven in April ‘96. The original tape box has two versions labelled, Jam II and Beach Boys III. Simon elucidates, ‘We based that on an extended outtake of The Beach Boys, Good Vibrations – that’s the same two chords, F and Eb. We looped that and then worked out a mad drum/guitar thing’. Jam II is around three minutes long, kicking back between E and D chords with occasional attempts to break the cycle. The second outtake lifts the key half-a-tone, still without vocals, but, over nine minutes familiar guitar riffs compete against bass runs, an organ and occasional drum rolls. Simon found the melody on the acoustic guitar later. The cassette reveals the songwriter sounding out words which after three or four attempts become the familiar, ‘Oh you’ve got it bad, but you shouldn’t expect cover’. Released as a limited edition 7” single towards the end of ‘95 it was circulated to DJ’s and was rewarded with heavy radio rotation.
Moseley Shoals’, fifty minute journey starts with the lyrics ‘I see double up ahead’ and ends with ‘ I follow you and get away. The themes of escapism and the celebration of better days are complete. Ironically, Get Away recorded in the spring of ‘95 varies the most in arrangement from its recorded version. Just shy of eight minutes, much was changed in the edit. Brendan and Max were editing four bars of music at a time. Without a computer it wasn’t possible to hear a whole song back until the mix was complete, as a result amazing things happen. Instruments jump out. Reverbs cut to the quick. Guitars sweep left to right. Textured. Multi-layered. Pulsating. There are over 550 edits on the complete album – it’s a great listen on headphones. The closing songs cyclical guitars, reminiscent of Tim Hardin and White Album period Beatles nest unsettlingly around the writers reflections of trust and remembrance, before finally surmising, ‘Well it comes down to the fact that I’m now different from the past’.
Now it was the turn of the music press to reclaim their adoration. Front covers on Q, Time Out, NME. The band had won the hearts and minds of music fans first, the printed word reluctant, unbelieving and finally surrendering to the beat of the Brummies. Blur, similar casualties at the turn of the decade had celebrated with a trilogy of quintessential English pop albums, now Ocean Colour Scene’s Vorsprungdurch Technik had got everything to do with their rightfully earned regularly entertained praise. They had kept their name against all opposition. Remained true when the industry lost faith. Re-defined themselves drawing on a truer spirit. They were confident. Deserving. Fearless. Armoured against judgement. As Simon quipped when asked, Do you not get nervous stepping out in front of 125,000 people? ‘It’s alright, there’s four of us’.
Moseley Shoals pays homage to the album art form. Connected. Thematic. Visionary. The music was explosive. Ballads sit beside rockers. A blended marriage; something old, something new, sometimes borrowed, the truth of the Blues. The title: a tribute to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio 3614 Jackson Highway. The Jerry Wexler sound. Black singers: Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin. White rhythm section. For Ocean Colour Scene a new home. Industrial. Suited to the grit of the band. Independence. Ownership of sound and direction. The front cover: four faces looking out from under the Victorian monument shot in Jesphson Gardens, Leamington Spa. The album was flying out the shops. The record boasted four smash singles and jostled for the number one spot throughout 1996. Spending over a year in the chart, selling over 1.3 million copies, including an incredible six month tenure at number two, the record finally surrendered to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill.A year later, the top honour was bestowed upon Marchin’ Already. Very much Moseley Shoals’ sister release, but very much another story.
Daniel Rachel London 2010
©2010 Daniel Rachel.