FOR THE RECORD: Ocean Colour Scene ‘Mechanical Wonder’ (2001)

As part of our retrospective look at albums that really meant something to our writers, albums that may have not got the credit they deserved, I headed straight for the vast library of Ocean Colour Scene albums on the shelf. To be honest I could’ve picked one of most of them, ‘Hyperactive Workout For The Flying Squad’ especially being a gorgeous and ridiculously varied display of deep deep talent and a wide spectrum of influences.

It may be sacrilege to some to look past Moseley Shoals as the finest hour for OCS, and in many ways it certainly was that hour, but since scribbling the rough draft of this article whilst away on holiday, the band announced that they will be playing the number 1 ‘Be Here Now’ displacing ‘Marchin’ Already’, in its entirety at Shepherds Bush Empire on December 12th / 13th. Nothing warms the cockles like an OCS xmas gig! The atmosphere in the pubs before hand are for me part of what music is all about. The album was a sign of the direction the band were going in, oozing class, stomping rocking bangers with some delicate touches laid along the way. Only Radiohead in their prime stood in the way of OCS headlining the Pyramid stage in 1997 at Glasto, one of the most incredible live sets you’re ever likely to see, Fowler losing it and spazzing out on the piano with his feet, the crowd still singing “woh oh oh la la” well into Radiohead’s set. Good.

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To be honest I could’ve picked ‘Marchin’ Already’, ‘One From The Modern’, ‘North Atlantic Drift’ or ‘Hyperactive’ as they’re all immense in their own right. However, I’ve chosen ‘Mechanical Wonder’, as it’s the least mentioned of them all. Cradock once asked me what my favourite album was and I replied “Mechanical Wonder”, he said “it’s Moseley innit”, repeatedly, about 5 times, until I realised that this would continue until I said yes, so I did.

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MW’s an album which for me is unrivalled from that period in its bravery and beauty. The safe option would have been to whack a handful of accessible rocky tracks on there, but instead they turned up with the balls to make a record that lays bare their outstanding abilities and shows why they were once heralded by many as potentially the greatest British rock n roll band since the Beatles, and why Noel claimed they were the “2nd best band in the country” (to which Cradock countered “yeah, after the Beatles”). I feel that the band at this point had bloomed like a bouquet of flowers and hit a pinnacle. The sad thing is that they had gone from media darlings, heralded as the truly next great British band with longevity, to falling out of favour with many of the same hacks. I often wonder what could have been if this hadn’t been the case. The up on the downside of this is that it fermented the bunker mentality of OCS fans and added a unique aspect to following the band. (The two ensuing December gigs sold in super quick time and weren’t on the cheap side either). Cultivating a powerful ‘they’re ours, we know’ vibe, which made gigs so incredible. I don’t think any other band from that period could claim the same fervour of their following as they were invariably everybody’s property.

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I’ve still not witnessed and doubt I will, the bunker mentality and buzz that would revolve around an OCS gig at that time, it was incredible. That feeling about the place that you’re all one, a mini army, one of the few in the know, that this is a moment in time, that you all knew people who regurgitated what they’d read in the press and had ‘gone off’ OCS, but when you questioned them on it their stance never had substance. They weren’t there, f*** em. Each gig was two fingers to the rest, the sense of oneness palpable in the pubs before and also after, fans stopping traffic outside, arms aloft, singing, approaching the tube and hearing “woh oh la la!” floating up the escalators, the platforms packed singing, cans in the air. Still to this day if you’re introduced to a friend of a friend it often comes with an added “he’s an OCS fan” followed by the hugging of said stranger and grins all round, cos people know what it means, know what each other went through and the verbal battles that being an OCS fan meant. No one says that of any other band “this is Tony, he’s into Kasabian”. Never.

It was one of these gigs around that time that has always encapsulated for me the turncoat nature and futility of the music press, and one of the driving forces behind the founding of Gigslutz. I was at the after party with a friend of mine, buzzing off what had been an incredible gig. Finishing with a mind blowing rendition of ‘Song of a Baker’. A chap approached us and exclaimed that he’d never seen a better gig in his life, he was visibly moved by it, he said he wrote for the NME and wanted to make sure he had some of the track names correct. He had been well and truly converted and was effervescent in his intent to give it full marks. Between him speaking to us and writing the review, he’d obviously been told to tow the party line and the review was unbelievably negative, in some parts rude. And to think people believe what they read.

The theories for this turnaround by the press would occupy some serious column inches. Some have said it was due to the OCS / Weller camp not playing the game and allowing journos into their inner circle. This theory was endorsed to me by Stuart Cable – R.I.P – during a post midnight OCS back catalogue plunge at a friend’s flat, his respect for the band incredibly open and clear. Another theory relates to Damon Minchella calling a prominent radio presenter a “paedo”, who assured the band that they would never be played on the channel again. Things never really were the same for the foursome and in the years following, Damon allegedly had his teeth knocked out by Oscar and was sacked. (‘Drive Away’ from ‘Hyperactive Workout’ is an ode to Damon and a wonderful song in itself). The band’s feelings were made visibly clear in the artwork for their 1996 untouchable release ‘B Sides, Seasides and Freerides’. In fact I could’ve chosen that as well! The image is of some tape on the guitar with the words “THIS MACHINE KILLS THE EN.EM.Y”. I assume it’s Simon’s guitar as it’s probably a nod to Woody Guthrie’s similar tactic that read “This machine kills fascists”. That said, the gigs have never faltered and always retain that untouchable magic.

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I honestly don’t think any band from that period could have written ‘Mechanical Wonder’. I think the Bluetones would have come closest. Or Primal Scream as they could turn out a jazz album if they so desired! Ex Larrikin Love drummer Coz ‘cutter’ Kerrigan once told me that his entire class at music school were told to study the structure of OCS tracks because it was so faultless in its construction and production. The Cazals told me something similar and I quote “if you don’t dig the Scene you’re a ****!”.

Simon’s songwriting had become truly immersive. I think he had started to point the way to this album with tracks like ‘The Waves’, ‘Emily Chambers’ and ‘I Won’t Get Grazed’ from ‘One From The Modern’.

The album begins with ‘Up On The Downside’ which I still feel sits oddly on the album and is one of my least favourite OCS tracks. Rather strangely, I’ve found it to be very popular with non OCS fans. It is I suppose a catchy pop rock number, very uplifting. It almost disguises what ensues. The lace veil before a potent mixture of exploration. The video was shot in the 100 Club, a gig that I was lucky enough to be at (thanks Lisa), and found myself alone at the end wondering how to get home. Oscar and Steve approached and said “what you doing mate?”, I said “going home” and they said “nah you’re not, you’re coming with us”, and took me to their private aftershow drinks, Steve and Oscar taking time out all night to chew the cud. My first OCS interaction.

The album holds an indescribable magic to it, the stars aligned for them in Fowler’s writing and their studio prowess. It’s therefore tempting to not review the tracks but to encourage you to just sit with the lyrics in front of you and listen, uninterrupted.

As the first track ends it kind of morphs audibly into the second track and the rest of the album, as if it’s aware that it’s opening the door to another realm. ‘In My Field’ is remarkably uplifting. Written as Fowler walked his dog along a canal listening to The Who. It’s simplified, no collaborations, just a stomping rock n roll tune, but as with every track from here on in, it retains some kind of comforting magic. ‘Sail On My Boat’ continues this theme, quite literally sailing along on a glorious ride, and leads you directly into what is the first of the 2 beautiful double headers on the album. ‘The Biggest Thing’, Fowler’s favourite track on the album. Leaving that aside, it truly is a haunting track, begs you to sit eyes closed and lose yourself in it. Fowler’s voice in certain parts almost angelic, the chorus is impossibly catchy and heart wrenching and Steve’s faultless guitar work strokes it along, Foxy & Cradock in tandem and making it work. “We Made It More” just keeps the magic rolling. A love song so perfect that it seems as if it’s been accosted from an ancient novel, or the love scene of Federico Fellini’s Dolce Vita, true fairy tale stuff, the strings are faultless and the tumbling piano before the last chorus stabs you in the heart every time. My eldest brother chose this track for his wedding in Vegas as my middle brother and I waited outside the doors to enter. It was so fitting for such an occasion, we looked at each other with lips wobbling.

The pace quickens with ‘Give Me A Letter’. A funked up skip through wantaway emotions, including a brilliant piece of honky tonk piano. It’s followed by title track ‘Mechanical Wonder’. A nod to better times. A poke at the trash played in rotation on the radio, a sarcastic retort, “and the radio plays at me but it don’t sing a song, but the mechanical wonder is, how it’s all going wrong”. Followed by a typically anthemic Fowler chorus. He once said to me that he writes the choruses first, with a knowing glint in his eye. I’ve discussed this with other song writers who have all said to a man that this is what makes him one of the greats. Fowler was lambasted by some press for this track’s content, they pinned their own views and insecurities onto him “oh he’s stuck in the 60s”, “he hates dance music” blah blah. I think most of us would agree now that he was spot on with his assessment and perhaps predictions. He would often switch the line when singing it live “and the radio plays only, FUCKIN’ RADIO 1!”.

The album slides gracefully into the second of the aforementioned double headers; ‘You Are Amazing’. One of those songs that surely can only be written by someone who has truly felt those emotions. It’s the sum of the parts. It can’t be described in words. The line “like a singing widow” probably comes closest to reflecting the feel of it. It has a double verse in the second half that just tightens the grip on your emotions. As with ‘We Made It More’, piano is utilised in a manner which drills home the sentiment of the song, it sounds like a confirmation of all of the words and feeling in the song, wrapped up and emphasised right there in those chords. Quite chilling.

‘If I Gave You My Heart’ continues in the same vein of flowing beauty and reassures me that I’ve done the right thing in choosing this album for the article. The lyrics have a fallibility about them and are Shakepeare-esque in the posing of each question. It would be fitting for a suitor to read it to a balcony above; “if I gave you my heart where would you be, would it mean nothing, if not for me”, “and I sold off my soul when there was no one to pay”.  But it’s again in tandem with the gorgeous wonder of the music where the magic lies. Towards the end of the song, the strings arrive, followed closely by Cradock’s inspired guitar solo. BRILLIANT! It’s shake-head good! You don’t want it to draw to a close but it does.

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The album approaches closure with a celebratory Fowler classic ‘Can’t Get Back to The Bassline’. A nice metaphor for the lyrical content. Riddled with upbeat flute, and a searing bassline that carries this stomper through its journey, it’s a reminder that the band’s fire is still there on the album, cradled in wonderful musicianship it comes to an end and the album finishes with another Fowler classic ‘Something For Me’. The kind of simple love song that you just know he has vaults of somewhere, shrouded in rizlas, and this one’s welded together as with every other track, with perfectly crafted musicianship and production. Cradock adding just the required dose of instrumentation where necessary. The guitar sound on this track is solus to this number on the album but is exactly right for it.

Sometimes words aren’t the right medium for an experience.

Do yourselves a favour, if you don’t own it, buy it, along with ‘Hyperactive Workout’, and take a couple of hours out to play them through with a drink of choice, and sit back. (and ‘On The Leyline’ wasn’t half bad either!).

Might see some of you at Shepherd’s Bush then…

Guerre Mortale!

@gigslutz_radio

David Ham
David is a co-founder of the good ship Gigslutz, slightly obsessed with Hunter S Thompon and Public Enemy. Could be worse. He also hosts the monthly Gigslutz radio show on Hoxton Radio.