Ocean Colour Scene's Moseley Shoals 20 Years On, By Pete Paphides
, November 28th, 2016 11:44
Ocean Colour Scene have been unfairly maligned over the years, argues Pete Paphides, as he revisits the album that brought the band back from the brink
As soon as I was old enough to go to pubs, it was Moseley for me. The stop for the Number 1 bus was a short walk from our house. At nights it would leave the silent suburbs of Acocks Green at five-and-35-past the hour, and in just 15 minutes, I could be amid Victorian pubs that heaved with indie and reggae musicians, students, artists and the Moseley CND types airily dismissed by Kevin Rowland in Dexys' 'This Is What She's Like'.
Between 1987 and 1990, this was where I drank. This too would have been where members of The Fanatics and The Boys – the bands which merged to create Ocean Colour Scene – spent their giro money. At the height of the football casual trend, Moseley was the safest place to go at night. It was only when I returned to Acocks Green that I had to be prepared to run all the way home from the bus stop. At chucking out time, two pubs on Westley Road, either side of the Warwick Bowl, decanted a range of pastel-attired lads who would have happily vented any excess aggression on any cardigan-wearing indie kid who happened to be passing.
The journey between Acocks Green and Moseley would have been known to Simon Fowler too. His father used to work at Acocks Green police station opposite my parents' chip shop. His nickname – which Simon inherited – was Foxy. My dad remembers him. Same order every time. Fish and chips with a pot of mushy peas. If my brother and I had gone to the nearest secondary school to where I grew up, my brother might have been in the same class as Simon. But the first time we actually met was in 1996 at a Birmingham arts complex called The Custard Factory (it used to be the old Birds factory). It was a pretty uncomfortable interview. I thought I might disarm him by telling him that we'd grown up a stone's throw from each other, but he had good reason to be mistrustful of journalists (a year later, he had to hurriedly tell his parents that he was in a relationship with another man when he discovered that the drummer in his old band had outed him to The Sun). Even setting that aside, Ocean Colour Scene had achieved success in spite of the music press, not because of it. They certainly didn't owe me any favours.
From the outset, Ocean Colour Scene were seen as opportunists. After Simon Fowler's old band The Fanatics failed to convert local popularity into any sort of national traction, they replaced their guitarist with Steve Cradock from The Boys. With The Stone Roses' Irish Centre gig in the spring of 1989 seemingly changing everyone's priorities overnight, the new group gave itself a suitably loved-up name. A few months later, Ocean Colour Scene played their first high profile local gig, also at the Irish Centre, opening for World Party. The industry hysteria created by The Stone Roses hoovered them up after just one single. 'Sway' sounded like it had been written to expedite just such an outcome. It was an exciting song about feeling excited along with other excited people. "Don't you want a piece of the action?" sang Simon over – tick! – wah-wah guitars and – tick! – a bustling funky drummer rhythm. Within weeks of its release, Ocean Colour Scene succeeded in doing what their preceding bands had taken years to not quite manage. They bagged a deal with Fontana, the 60s label which had been resurrected to flatter the vanity of Polygram A&R man Dave Bates. Indeed, so desperate was Bates to sign them that bought out the entire indie label (Phfftt) that had put out 'Sway'.
But despite a modicum of press, nothing from the resulting album penetrated the Top 40. By the time the record had emerged – remixed against their wishes to keep in line with the indie-dance zeitgeist – the train had left the station. With a single violent rotation in 1991, the indie Faraway Tree had landed in Seattle. Ocean Colour Scene and a lot of bands who looked and sounded a bit like Ocean Colour Scene found themselves without record deals, synonymous with a scene that the industry and press had all but disowned.
There was no need to ask Simon Fowler what it was like to be a has-been as he passed his mid-20s, because the songs he started to write tell their own story. 'The Circle' is a broken epilogue to the triumphal optimism of 'Sway'. This is what happens when you cast your gaze around the streets where you grew up and realise that everyone left town or got proper jobs. In his case, the feeling would have surely been compounded by the fact that even his bandmates had fled, albeit temporarily. Steve Cradock had landed a job in Paul Weller's touring band and soon after bassist Damon Minchella followed suit. Cradock assured Fowler that their band was still a going concern, but there must at least have been a part of him that wondered if he would ever see them again. Fowler says 'The Circle' was the quickest song he ever wrote. Most of the words spilled out spontaneously after he turned on the tape recorder. That in itself is telling. It's as if there was no time to stop and think about how much he was exposing.
"If I walk by the trees
I'll catch the falling leaves
If the wind blows
But I know all this means
Is whiling on the hours
And I feel like I'm on the outside of a circle."
For those left behind, there's far too much time to reflect upon what might have been or what you would have done differently. You're not listening to the germination of a contingency plan on 'The Circle'; you're listening to someone surveying the debris of their classroom daydreams. The only glimmer of hope in the song comes shortly after the middle eight in which Fowler sings, "Will I turn my coat in the rain/I don't know/But I'm going somewhere/I can warm my bones." And even here, the sense of resolution isn't in the words but in the ascent from sadness to anger in the way Fowler sings "I won't feel like I'm on the outside" for the final time.
But Cradock did keep his word. Using a 16-track studio given to them by Go! Discs owner Andy McDonald, Ocean Colour Scene reconvened in Birmingham and set about fitfully recording Fowler's songs throughout 1993 and 1994. Away from Ocean Colour Scene, it isn't hard to imagine Fowler's newest songs lining up alongside each other on a folky affair that owed more to his love of Tim Hardin and Fairport Convention than their mod forbears. But, in the reconvened Ocean Colour Scene, there was a fascinating tension now at work. After a year spent on the road with Weller, Cradock and Minchella brought an sizzling energy to the recordings.
Comparisons with Oasis haven't always helped Ocean Colour Scene's cause, but in that regard, this was a quality common to both bands. When you see Noel Gallagher doing a solo acoustic set of Oasis songs, it's only then that you realise how deeply melancholy a lot of them – 'Half A World Away', 'Live Forever' and 'Don't Go Away' to name three – actually sound. An Oasis song without Liam Gallagher is far more apt to conjure images of a withdrawn child in the corner of the room where their parents are rowing than anyone might otherwise expect. Similarly, listen to acoustic versions of Ocean Colour Scene's songs scattered across B-sides from his period, and there's nowhere for the sadness to hide.
As with Oasis, endless comparisons with Paul Weller haven't always been helpful to Ocean Colour Scene, but in the case of Moseley Shoals, it isn't hard to see what would have reminded Weller of himself in these songs. Fowler was going through a version of what Weller himself had gone through at the turn of the decade: feeling like the world had left him behind and wondering what it might possibly take for him to catch up again. Just as Weller wrote it all down with the songs on his first two albums, Fowler poured it all out into the songs on Moseley Shoals. When Weller's then-producer Brendan Lynch heard them, he volunteered his services. Lynch hadn't accrued a huge amount of experience until that point. At his lowest point, after losing his Polydor deal, Weller fell in with The Young Disciples and the extended Acid Jazz family. As Weller is wont to do from time to time (see also his work with Simon Dine and Stan Kybert) he eschewed a more seasoned hand in order to see what a young untried producer might bring to his sound. Lynch clearly rose to the challenge. Further to his work on Weller's eponymous set and Wild Wood, Lynch inverted a handful of Weller songs into epic space dub odysseys that numbered among the most adventurous music to bear Weller's imprint. In particular, his SX2000 Dub version of 'Kosmos' is easily the match of anything you'll find on contemporaneous albums by kindred spirits such as Primal Scream and Future Sound Of London.
Moseley Shoals was never going to be quite that sort of album. By the same token, Lynch and Ocean Colour Scene were quick to reach a mutual accommodation that played to all of their strengths. At its core, what you're hearing is the synergy of an electrifying band and a producer who knows when to get out of the way. It was one of the four songs featured on a tape sent to journalists in advance of the album's release – for many, the first indication that Ocean Colour Scene hadn't dissolved with the passing of baggy. Along with The Stone Roses' 'Love Spreads', 'The Riverboat Song' was pretty much the only single by a band of that generation – certainly from an indie background – to assimilate the influence of Led Zeppelin and remember that it was their rhythmic irresistibility as much as their heaviness that distinguished them. In doing so, 'The Riverboat Song' picks up from Zeppelin's 'Four Sticks', deploying the same 6/8 swing time with an uptight intensity that suggests something has to give. When the release comes it's thanks in part to Oscar Harrison's halving of the tempo on the chorus, one of a series of excellent decisions undertaken by him throughout the song. Prior to joining The Fanatics and then Ocean Colour Scene, Harrison had spent years in a Birmingham reggae band Echo Base, and even before that, learned to play by aping the Jamaican syncopations of Steel Pulse. You can hear all of that throughout 'The Riverboat Song': a delayed landing on the snare and cymbal here; a string of deft half-fills to accentuate key lines. Play it loud. You could listen to Harrison's drum track alone and still feel your heart racing.
And yet even on this song – the one which had detractors quickest to dismiss the band as retro-fetishists – there are flourishes from Brendan Lynch which don't really belong in any recognisable era: the delicious scaling down of the arrangement before the second verse, which makes the first verse almost seem like a false start; the staccato bursts of interference at the beginning of the instrumental break; the way Cradock's lead guitar seems to do something entirely different in each section, in particular the extended notes at 3:50 and then, subsequently, nothing at all, leaving the entire space open for just the occasional organ stab. Nuances of Brian Auger or Graham Bond are detectable alongside the obvious Zeppelin nod. Everything you hear is deliberate and immaculately executed, down to the final surge of feedback dissipates to reveal the first strummed chords of the song that follows right after it.
'The Day We Caught The Train' sat in the top ten for much of the summer of 1996. It pulled off the same illusion that Come On Eileen and Our House managed in the previous decade, creating a vicarious longing for the events it was describing. And like those songs, its almost immediate emotional pull distracts you from the unconventional manner in which it goes about its work: the sudden descent from those angelic opening lines into murky memories of half-forgotten plans and then, before you can properly get your bearings, a brief ascent into the light ("Stepping through the door like a troubadour…") before the moment when the song really reveals its hand. Why can't things just be like they were? Even for a little while?
"You and I should ride the coast / And wind up in our favourite coats just miles away…"
It's moving for all sorts of reasons. It's moving because you suspect the person being addressed doesn't feel the same way. It's moving because the sudden shift into those lines suggests that the protagonist has just decided to blurt out the thing he'd been too shy to say all along. It's moving because when Cradock lands onto Em on the word "miles", you realise that this is just one more forlorn daydream on an album that's actually full of them. And finally, it's somehow really moving when, Fowler vents his inner Marriott on "Roll a number…" and finally succumbs to unguarded longing for a more carefree time.
Moseley Shoals is studded with these remorseful reveries, and perhaps none more bereft of hope than 'The Downstream'. It's one of those songs that, in another era – when soul singers used to cherry-pick and reinterpret the best of what sat outside their immediate genre – Otis Redding, Solomon Burke or The Dells could have absolutely turned into a standard. For all of that though, it's Fowler's creation and he really digs deep for it. Over a smoulderingly empathetic accompaniment from the rest of the band, he cuts a solitary presence. "Sell me a river/And I'll skate away/To the downstream/Where I did play/So easy minded/Like a hill on the skyline/Tripped up and blinded/Getting lost on the sidelines."
Elsewhere, the picture is more allusive. Be it due to intoxicants or maybe his own introversion, 'Fleeting Mind' sees Fowler presenting himself like a man struggling to engage in a crowded room – his sense of remove accentuated by a nimble arrangement that mirrors that uncertainty. 'It's My Shadow' is like a dispatch several hours further into the same evening, from a protagonist willing the daylight to deliver him from the darkness of his thoughts. It's also perhaps Fowler's most affecting vocal performance, in particular at 2:40 when his multi-tracked harmony takes you from "like a willow to my stream/Casting heaven round my feet" and finally into the bittersweet resolution of the extended coda: "When you find that things are getting wild is that/The hardest smile that you can ever feel."
Here and elsewhere, it seems almost impossible for Fowler to get to the end of a song without pausing to see faces from his past, but 'One For The Road' is the only song that exists specifically to remember them, in particular the ones that didn't survive into adulthood. ("She was just eighteen, she collapsed/And they took her away/She didn't make it for more than an hour") More than anything that surrounds it, the song sees Fowler take real succour in survival, its becalmed sentiments framed by what stands as the most straightforwardly pretty melody on Moseley Shoals.
It's easy to forget that an album that would go on to sell 1.3 million copies was written and recorded by a group who had no idea if they would find a label to release it. But herein lies perhaps the most touching aspect of Moseley Shoals. It owes its existence to the loyalty of Cradock and Minchella, who effectively used the money accrued from touring with Weller in order to come back and finish what they started with Fowler when they formed the band five years previously. Forget about its success and the era in which it was released and listen to the songs. This doesn't sound like a play for commercial glory. It actually sounds like the end of something: a sprinkling of ash onto the last embers of childhood. The sense of finality is compounded by the album's cathartic closing song 'Get Away', a semi-improvised firestorm of regret in which Fowler concedes, "Well it comes down to the fact that I'm now different from the past," before the rest of the band steps forward in earnest as though uncertain of if they'll ever get to do so again.
The irony, of course, is that they're still playing it now. The affection in which Moseley Shoals is held by many of the people who bought it means that, twenty years on, Ocean Colour Scene can still tour on the back of it. Next week, they commence a 20th anniversary tour of the record which will take in Hammersmith Apollo, Dublin Olympia and Manchester Apollo – venues as large as the ones they were playing at the peak of the album's success.
And yet, for all of that, the record's reputation remains somewhat hampered by critical ambivalence about the era and milieu in which it emerged. At Time Out, where I was employed as a staff writer 20 years ago, I was only finally allowed (by a music section who were appalled at the prospect) to write about the band when an interview with Underworld's dropped out at the eleventh hour and the only other option in the time available was an interview with Fowler. A look at the end of year Top 50 albums lists in Melody Maker and NME for that year shows that there was no place in either for a record whose creators were regarded as mere passengers on a bandwagon which had Oasis' logo painted on it. But this doesn't really tell you as much about the qualitative merits of Moseley Shoals as it does about the dialectic that was prevalent in the music press at the time: an assumption that if you liked guitar music, you were a dadrocker who had no interest in dance music; and that if you liked dance music, then you couldn't abide guitars.
Of course, beyond the offices of music papers, this sort of tribalism was itself dying away. Ex-ravers were going to Oasis gigs; indie kids were packing out Prodigy gigs. In a world where the observation of aesthetic battle lines was itself becoming something of an anachronism, Moseley Shoals found its audience. Months previously, someone else had already made a record called The Great Escape, but actually this was far more deserving of the title.