Simon Flower and Oscar Harrison from Brummie heroes Ocean Colour Scene.
At the end of the eighties when Ocean Colour Scene launched, lead singer and guitarist, Simon Fowler, was quoted as saying he thought the band had staying power which was just as well because they didn’t know how to do anything except make music.
“Yes,” he laughs, “that was pretty much true.” Even so, could he ever have dreamed that over three decades later, they’d still be making records, still delighting their hard core of fans, still doing what they do best?
“I think again, yes would be the answer. We came together very quickly and established ourselves as the top band in Birmingham. It meant we identified with being successful early on. We also had the dedication to go and live in slums and bedsits if we went through a rough patch.”
Certainly, the music business is notoriously fickle. “But I didn’t know that then. I was naïve which was probably a good thing. Anyway, you’re not cynical when you start out.”
Drummer and bass player Oscar Harrison echoes Simon’s words. “We did have our low points like any other band but we just stuck with it. Overall, we kept rising and rising.”
Formed in 1989 as a rock band, they parted from record company Fontana and started writing their own material in a Birmingham studio. “It was there that we learnt how to make records rather than just playing two guitars, drum and bass on stage.”
It’s an easy label, says Simon, but by the mid-eighties they were identified as part of Britpop alongside Oasis, Blur and the rest. He agrees, if reluctantly. “To be honest, we never thought of ourselves as a pop band – more a folk/rock band.”
And no one championed them more, says Oscar, than Paul Weller. “In fact, we recorded our first album in his studio near Marble Arch in London.” By 1993, OCS founder member Steve Cradock was playing in Weller’s band which went on to tour Europe with Simon as the support act.
There again, being a support band isn’t necessarily the golden key to the door. “We supported the Rolling Stones in Stuttgart at one point,” says Simon, “which we were thrilled about although, as it turned out, we never met them.
“There were two stadiums in the city and a football match at one of them. So our dressing rooms were two miles away and somehow, in all the logistics, we never got to shake Mick Jagger’s hand.”
Noel Gallagher was another fan of the Scenies (as their fans like to call them). Says Oscar: “We supported Oasis on their first proper UK tour although, in all honesty, we didn’t go down great. Everyone was there to see Oasis. It was the same with Weller. ‘All we could hear were shouts of ‘Paul, Paul, Paul’.”
They were grateful for the exposure but, if they could thank one person more than any other for putting them firmly on the map, it’s Chris Evans. “We did the pilot show for TFI Friday. He made The Riverboat Song record of the week on his Radio 1 breakfast show two weeks in a row. Before we knew it, we were on Top of the Pops.”
OCS were on their way. In 1996 and 1997, they were the second biggest band in Britain after Oasis. There were nine Top 20 singles, half-a-dozen of them Top 10. There were hit albums. Says Simon: “We had Beatles moments. On a visit to Dublin, our coach was surrounded by hundreds of screaming girls thumping on the windows.”
Spool forward some 20 years and there was proof positive that OSC were a headlining band. On their 2018 tour, Motown’s mighty Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, no less, were their support act. “And they were terrific, delivering a proper old-fashioned soul set.”
So who do they think is their current audience? Have they held on to their original set of fans or have they acquired new ones? “Both,” says Oscar. “And sometimes their grandchildren, too.” Adds Simon: “The front rows get progressively younger; the ones behind lose more and more hair each year. But they all know the words.”
So how is it personally for each of them? If they walk down the street today in, say, Birmingham, are they immediately recognised? “Oscar more than me,” says Simon. “The first band I was in, Echo Bass,” says Oscar, “were signed by UB40 so, from the early eighties, I’ve been well known in the city.
“Even when I go supermarket shopping with my partner, I’m always stopped and asked for a selfie.” But he’s not complaining. “It’s part of the job. You never forget the fact that the fans put you where you are today. And not bad that it’s still happening more than thirty years later.”
Simon tells a slightly different story. “I was walking down Richmond High Street in west London when I suddenly heard these schoolgirls screaming my name from the top deck of a bus. They piled down the stairs and started giving chase.
“I ran into the nearest branch of WH Smith and threw myself behind the counter, flat on the floor. I think the shop assistants were a bit surprised, to say the least.”
But isn’t that the price of fame? “It is. It’s what you sign up for. You’re not always in the mood, though.” But they love their fans. “We have hundreds of them who come to every concert, many of whom we know by name.
“One woman, whose husband sadly died last year, told us that she’d just attended her 184th OCS gig. As a matter of fact, I think she’s been to more of our gigs than me.”
The latest round – 25 in all – will feature just Simon and Oscar hitting the road, opening the tour at Fat Sam’s in Dundee on April 29th and going all the way through May, ending up at The Globe in Cardiff on June 6th. Simon will sing and play acoustic guitar; Oscar will also sing and play piano, bass and percussion.
This will coincide with the re-release on Record Store Day (April 23rd) of their hit album, Live on the Riverboat, from twenty years ago. It was recorded on the Renfrew ferry which operates on the Clyde in Scotland. Why? “Well, it connects with our Riverboat Song. And Glasgow is our favourite place to play.”
Finally, the question to which everyone wants to know the answer. Who came up with the name for the band and what on earth does it mean? Simon laughs.
“Steve, Damon [Minchella] and I were in Solihull Library and we started choosing words whose sounds we liked. ‘Ocean’ and ‘colour’ appealed to all of us and then I picked up a book about the railway scene in Nuneaton, possibly the dullest tome ever published. But I liked the word ‘scene’.
“When we told Oscar the next day, we were so self-conscious about how stupid it sounded, we had to write it down.” So when did he come round to accepting the name? “It was majority rule,” says Oscar, good-naturedly.
For some time, people invariably referred to them as Ocean Colour Blue but not for many years now. “I think you could say we’re pretty much established these days,” says Simon.
Simon Fowler and Oscar Harrison will be appearing with Dexy’s Midnight Runners founder member Pete Williams as their guest for a hometown show at Birmingham Town Hall on Friday 29th May. Tickets.