5. Ocean Colour Scene, NEC Arena, Birmingham – 16/2/1998

Previously on Sweating With Strangers: teenage Hodge experiences a giant curtain, and doesn’t really care about quality.

It’s happened at last: I have a different band to write about. Still at the same venue however, because as all good Dr Who showrunners know, you don’t change everything all at once. One series it’s the Doctor, the next it’s the companion, but not both at the same time. So having already once changed the venue at which I saw bands, now it’s time to change the band.

Ocean Colour Scene are one of a number of groups that I initially heard and dismissed, only to later revisit when one great song changes my mind (see also: Muse, Biffy Clyro).

In the case of OCS, although I was familiar with the stuff from their break-through album ‘Moseley Shoals’, it hadn’t really grabbed me. I saw them as a kind of Oasis-lite, in that I assumed they were also from Manchester mainly because the singer had that same too-long-to-be-greased-down-and-forward hair that northern indie bands seemed to have, and because I wasn’t smart enough to realise that the ‘Moseley’ in their album title was the Moseley in south Birmingham.

However, ‘Hundred Mile High City’, the opening track and lead single from their follow-up record ‘Marchin’ Already’ certainly got my attention and made me reassess my opinions, after I heard it live on TFI Friday.

When this happens, the best thing to do is to discover the band in reverse. So I started by buying ‘Marchin’ Already’ and playing it to death, then moved on to ‘Moseley Shoals’, at which point I promptly went “Oh THAT’S Ocean Colour Scene? I thought it was just the theme tune to TFI Friday!” and also “Oh yeah, I LOVE this song… I think I heard them do it on TFI Friday!” Dammit, I should’ve been paying more attention to TFI Friday.

I also found their self-titled debut album in the bargain bin at Woolworths. I wasn’t actually sure it was them at first, because it never seemed to get mentioned, and everyone seemed to be pretending – or mistakenly believing – that ‘Moseley Shoals’ was their first record. But it is theirs, and if you haven’t heard it and like their other stuff, it’s actually really good, and it’s available for only £4.99 on the end of the CD aisle in your local Woolworths, 20 years ago.

At this time of my young life I didn’t have cool or outgoing friends that went to see bands live, so when I found a new band I liked, I never really held out much hope of seeing them in concert, because I wasn’t going to go to a gig on my own (well, not yet), and Dad certainly wasn’t going to take me to see someone he’d never heard of. I needed a partner in crime, and I found one when Jason joined us on a family holiday to Blackpool towards the end of 1997. That’s right, we went on family holidays to northern seaside resorts in November, what of it?

In between riding rollercoasters and playing roughly 7.4 billion games of pool in the campsite rec room, we discovered we were both currently loving Ocean Colour Scene, although not for entirely complimentary reasons. The main unifying factor seemed to be an appreciation of how utterly – and unintentionally – hilarious the lyrics to many of their songs were, and how this could be emphasised to comic effect by simply quoting one or two lines out of context:

“Check this out: ‘And when she blows the candle flame to smoke

She says a prayer for all those who live in houses and in homes‘”

“Hahaha. Houses AND homes!”

“Hahaha…. what about: ‘You and I should ride the coast and wind up in our favourite coats‘?”

“Teeheehee.. or: ‘Tomorrow she’ll fly a plane over the fields where the houses aren’t built yet‘!

“Mwahahaha!!! And, “Where do you go, buttoned in your favourite coat?

“Yeah, what is it with these guys and their coats? How many do they have to be able to identify one of them as the favourite?! Hey whose shot is it?”

“Oh I’ve already won. Rack ’em up loser”

One guess which one was me.

Somehow, a week of mocking the band’s lyrics ended with us deciding we needed to see them live, and, after finding out on Teletext (RIP) that they were playing the NEC two days before my birthday, we were able to convince my dad to take us along. It probably helped that I asked him right in front of my friend, for that extra be-a-cool-parent guilt-pressure.

Slightly surprisingly, Dad wasn’t up for just dropping us off and picking us up 3 hours later, so bought himself a ticket too, and for the first time he became one of those parents at gigs. Of course, instead of standing at the back shaking his head disapprovingly while his young son threw himself around a crowd to some tuneless noise like many dads have to, he got to sit quietly in his chair next to me – around half way back on the side, as normal – clapping politely after every song and being pleasantly surprised at the musical talent on display.

I did worry I’d feel guilty about dragging him along, but he seemed to enjoy it, and was particularly impressed at the bits where the band members swapped instruments. As the group started playing ‘Get Blown Away’, he leaned over to me and said “This sounds like ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’!” DAD! Not cool! We’re with company… but yes, yes it does.

For me, this gig was a damn fine introduction to other bands – although, while listening back to ‘Marchin’ Already’ recently my wife pointed out that ‘Traveller’s Tune’ is basically a Status Quo song with more piano, so maybe it was something of a gateway drug. Also, it was a very well-chosen gig, as this was the peak of their powers, and their home town. I’ve learned over the years that two albums in is a good time to see bands live, as they have enough material for a proper length show, but basically have to play everything, so you’re not going to miss your favourite track (see also: Stereophonics, 1999; Mumford and Sons, 2012; Royal Blood, 2017; and the exception to the rule: The Darkness, 2004) And yes, I’m counting this as the first of those gigs, because like I said, no one seemed to acknowledge the debut album existed.

It was my third visit to the NEC arena, and the place was finally packed to the gills. No curtain was needed this time, and I remember realising that neither of my previous visits had included the seats right at the back. How demoralising.

As the show went on I observed that parts of the audience seemed quite subdued, compared to my usual experiences, but I put that down to the different nature of the bands and their crowds. After all, if you’re seeing Status Quo in 1998, it’s pretty damn likely that you’re a massive die-hard Status Quo fan. But if you’re seeing Ocean Colour Scene at the height of their popularity, you might just be there for something to do with friends, you might be only vaguely interested in the band, or you might be the parent of a teenager.

However, my attention was constantly drawn to the front 10 metres or so of the crowd, which was anything but subdued. For the first time I witnessed a standing crowd, rammed together, bouncing up and down or swaying side to side in unison. Even considering that this was Ocean Colour Scene at the NEC, not Megadeth at Download, it looked both exhilarating and terrifying, and I wanted to experience it. That desire would last until halfway through the support acts at my next gig, but that’s a story for another time I’m afraid.

My other major memory of this show was that we spent all our time before the band came on looking for another kid from our school who had told us he was going and would be sat on the right hand side, about half way back, which would put him directly opposite us. We scoured every seat for a good half hour, but couldn’t place him and had to give up to, you know, watch the show. When the lights came back on and we got up to leave I immediately spotted him rising from his seat on our row, about 10 seats to our left. Oh how we laughed!

True story.

Setlist thoughts:

I can’t find one online for this exact gig, and the ones for other gigs on this tour suggest that they switched it around a lot. Good on them, 10 Hodge-Live-Music-Points for doing so, but it renders posting any of those setlists pretty useless. That said:

  • They definitely started with “Hundred Mile High City”, of course. Predictable, yes, and I usually scoff at bands just picking the first track of the new album to play first, but zero points should be docked here because it was awesome and a great opener. Looking around online, it seems they tend to start with ‘Riverboat Song’ these days, which is a fair enough choice, but ‘100 Mile High City’ was epic on the day.
  • They ended with a special guest appearance by Roy Wood! He joined them for a rendition of ‘Blackberry Way’, which brought about a nice sing-a-long. Dad thought it was strange to finish with someone else’s song, but if you check chapters 1-4 of this blog you’ll notice the words ‘Bye Bye Johnny (Chuck Berry cover)’ at the end of each setlist, so he may have been being a little forgetful.
  • They played everything I would’ve expected, including ‘Get Blown Away’, which was my favourite album track, but the highlight was of course ‘The Day We Caught the Train’. It’s also a highlight whenever my friends and I do it at karaoke in Birmingham, because those Brummies loves them some OCS, but also because having the lyrics displayed on a screen really helps hammer home how weird they are.

Thanks for reading, come back next time for a stadium rock and roll show, in a whole other country. Well, Wales.

Until then, rock on.

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