Track 30. The Day We Caught The Train, Ocean Colour Scene

Moseley Shoals, 1996

Ocean Colour Scene don’t get the acclaim they deserve. They were up there with the best of the Nineties, and Moseley Shoals was a definitive album from that decade. Yet they are rarely mentioned as one of the big five; Stephen Cradock is nowhere to be found on the cover of I Was Britpopped, or on the posters for Star Shaped. Like cheetahs on a safari, they must stare at their exalted rivals and wonder: what did we do wrong?

Well, there’s the name for a start. Three words? A bit greedy, lads. You can write BlurOasisSuedePulp with the same number of characters (if we include the spaces). And to be truly Britpop, they needed to make it big a little earlier than 1996 (their eponymous 1992 debut failing to make much of a mark, despite its qualities).

But I can’t help thinking they lost a bit of muso credibility due to some of the company they kept. Their most recognisable tune, ‘The Riverboat Song’ holds a strong claim to having the best riff of the decade; it’s certainly the most distinctive. But its use on TFI Friday meant it swiftly became too familiar – and too easily associated with Chris Evans, rather than them.

Having harnessed the Britpop beast for his own nefarious purposes, Evans set about casting his eye across the landscape, a Ginger Sauron looking for the next band to force to do his bidding. What said bands may have gained in PRS cheques, they lost in respect and affection among hardcore music fans (as opposed to the pissed-up buffoons that audienced his shows). And whatever he might think, Chris Evans was never, ever cool. He tried too hard and wanted it too much for that cap to fit.

See also Guy Ritchie. There is little doubt that ‘Hundred Mile High City’ is the perfect kick-off music for a fast-paced action film. But the question is which film. ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ is a fine, if flawed, film; ‘Snatch’ too. But from those high points onwards, Ritchie has sent a procession of turds floating down the Thames to his make-believe capital of comedy gangsters and laboured rhyming slang. When hearing the frantic excitement of that track’s intro, I don’t think of Ocean Colour Scene so much as fighting gypsies and fat Greek fixers and poker games; of Mockney accents so thick even Damon would steer clear; of Vinnie Jones displaying the nuanced versatility of a brick. And still outperforming Sting.

OCS 1996 v2But like many a young lad who got in with the wrong crowd, OCS had a softer, more sensitive side. And it’s here that much of their finest work can be found. The song title I borrowed for my book is the most famous of these gentler tracks, but delve into the albums and there are plenty more to enjoy. ‘Lining Your Pockets’ and ‘The Downstream’ stand out on Moseley Shoals, while ‘Big Star’ on Marchin’ Already is a touching, haunting tune, something a hundred miles away from the thrash of their noisy opener.

It’s more than possible that they couldn’t care less, of course. They have fame, massive global sales, a devoted following, and no doubt a steady stream of royalties, plus they continue to tour twenty years on to exuberant sell-out crowds. I doubt very much if Chris Evans or Guy Ritchie worry that much what I think about them either. Neither seems to be doing too badly.

But a legacy is important if you’re an artist. At what point does Robert de Niro’s shocking performances outnumber his Oscar-winning roles? Has Irvine Welsh now fully undermined the genius of Trainspotting, stretching his heroin addicts beyond their natural breaking point?

It can cost us consumers as well, if we’re too quick to judge. Those who reject UB40 as a dismal cod reggae outfit doing karaoke Neil Diamond covers (i.e. most people) will never get to hear the brilliance of their debut album, Signing Off. And non-Britpop-loving types who dismiss Ocean Colour Scene as just another all-male guitar-led rock band are missing out as well. With touches of blues and rock, soul and thunder, they were – are – so much more than that.

Top three OCS tracks:

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Track 16: Songs Of Love, The Divine Comedy

Casanova, 1996

The boundaries of Britpop are decidedly fuzzy. What counts, in terms of sound, attitude, look, time? Who’s in and who’s out? Who gets to decide – the bands or the fans?

Several artists denounced the label at the time. Longpigs, who epitomised much of what the era stood for, wanted no part of it. And the debate rages on even today; the man behind the Britpop Memories blog was recently escorted by the online bouncers to the doors of Elastica’s Facebook page for daring to suggest a connection. If Elastica weren’t Britpop, did it even exist?

One comprehensive recent assessment is the excellent I Was Britpopped. The authors make several big calls in terms of who doesn’t get in, notably their exclusion of Radiohead (controversial, but probably correct). Yet they included the Cranberries, who, by nature of not being British, should surely be left out? Perhaps we can revise that one after Brexit when all these petty border squabbles will be forgotten in a glorious new world of free trade, fewer foreigners and a fully funded health service.

The book also includes The Divine Comedy, who were hugely popular in the mid-to-late 1990s and beyond. Hailing from Northern Ireland, they meet the geographic requirements, but I would place them just outside the boundaries musically. They were too poppy – not chart pop, but cheerful pop – and there was also that constant conundrum about whether they were a band or a person. I like my Britpop acts to be bands with a clear line-up, no sleights of hand. This soloist/band uncertainty leaves me nervous, as it does with the Lightning Seeds.

So were The Divine Comedy Britpop? Who knows. Who cares? As one reviewer of my book pertinently pointed out, few people called it Britpop at the time. It was just music. The label has taken on far greater posthumous significance. And debates about who was and who wasn’t might be enjoyable but are, ultimately, subjective.

Anyway, to the track: ‘Songs Of Love’. Otherwise – perhaps better – known as the Father Ted theme, which was written for the show and then worked into the song (not the other way round). Yet this overfamiliarity shouldn’t distract from the beauty of the tune, nor from the playful, witty lyrics, which capture perfectly that widely felt malestrom of schoolboy frustrations and urgings.

Indeed, there is great wisdom and humour to be found throughout their/his back catalogue. Versatility, too; anyone who can write a song about everything from obscure cricket fielding positions to unloved coach companies to celebrity allergies is surely deserving of our eternal respect, whether they/he were Britpop or not.

Top three Divine Comedy tracks

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Track 2: Finetime, Cast

All Change, 1995

It was All Change that first made me realise that we might, just might, be on to something special.

A friend in the sixth form – Jeremy, who also introduced me to another legendary bit of Cast 1995nineties culture, Father Ted – asked me if I’d heard of Cast. I hadn’t and so, next day, he duly handed me a tape of the album, which fitted neatly on one side (it wasn’t until I bought it on CD that I discovered it had a hidden track at the end). I took it home, stole something from the fridge, and stuck it on.

Wow.

From the opening chords of ‘Alright’, I knew I was going to love this band. It’s a superb opener, superior to Supergrass’s ‘Alright’ (the lesser-known, secondary Battle of Britpop) and things get better from there onwards. It’s a joyful, vibrant album, full of energy and crammed with melody.

Cast were even better live. Keith O’Neill remains the most energetic drummer I’ve ever seen, and a night in their company always flew by; don’t take my word for it, take Noel’s. That’s what I want in a band; I want them to be deliriously, stupidly happy on stage, utterly incredulous at the fact that they are getting to be rock stars, to do what so many of us dream of doing for a living. (Not me, though; first I wanted to be James Herriot, then I wanted to play for Liverpool. I still haven’t fully given up hope of the latter.) It’s comforting to know that the band are still touring, still playing festivals, still doing what they do best.

If they ever make a film of Love In The Time Of Britpop (a big if, admittedly, but let me dream), this will be the song that opens it. It was, and remains, a definitive nineties anthem and is, for me, Cast’s signature tune. Listen to it, marvel at it, then ponder this: it’s not even the best song on that album. Fourth place at best, after ‘History’, ‘Four Walls’ and ‘Walkaway’. Perhaps even behind ‘Promised Land’. A song this good, struggling to scrape into the top five on a debut album. That’s why Britpop was so fucking awesome.

Top three Cast songs:

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