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Stay on the scene

They are retro and populist. So, asks Anthony Thornton, are Ocean Colour Scene destined to be hated?
"This is my retro car," says Simon Fowler pointedly, singer and songwriter of Ocean Colour Scene, as he picks me up from New Street Station in Birmingham in a beautiful 1965 British sports car to take me to his flat. It's a joke but he's goading me. Ah, yes, retro. That's always been the problem hasn't it? In their turbulent relationship with the press as they effortlessly notched up a million sales of their debut album, Moseley Shoals, tens of critics whined that they just weren't modern enough unlike, say, Oasis. Dadrock, ladrock and a clutch of other shallow insults were intended to bury Ocean Colour Scene for good. But singer Simon "Foxy" Fowler, guitarist Steve Cradock, bassist Damon Minchella and drummer Oscar Harrison have just celebrated a top five single, the first from their imminent album, Marchin' Already.

The last time I interviewed Ocean Colour Scene they were about to release their first single and I was working for the local newspaper, The Birmingham Post, that was also home to Simon Fowler for five years. The band were fired up with ambition but expected a difficult fight. Steve Cradock, who at the time was doubling guitar duties for Paul Weller, declared that they couldn't fail. And despite the overwhelming odds, they won hands down. How did they do it?

Simon Fowler explains, "We thought `The Riverboat Song' was pretty uncommercial. We knew it would chart, though, because Chris Evans played it on the breakfast show. We didn't know it would go in at number 15. The rest of the year just wrote itself."

Of course, it wasn't that simple - they undertook a gruelling schedule of 120 gigs in a year - but their success put a few noses out of joint. "The weekly music press were particularly annoyed because all they'd tried to do was derail it and they had absolutely no credit for our success," says Fowler. "Yet we were in a good position. I think we're pretty much the second biggest rock band now." The biggest rock band, Oasis, are friends of Ocean Colour Scene. Oasis cannot be criticised by the music press for fear of losing thousands of sales, so the brunt of criticism has been borne by the likes of Ocean Colour Scene, Cast and even Paul Weller.

The new single, "Travellers Tune", out later this month, is classic early psychedelic pop with touches of harpsichord and backwards guitar. Marchin' Already follows a few weeks later. It's not a radical change of direction but, with less to prove, this album sees them become more comfortable with the idea of being pop stars.

There are less obvious homages to their heroes of the past - the verse of "Spark and Cindy" resembles The Small Faces' "Song of a Baker" - but, that aside, it's gripping pop of the best kind: simple and enthralling.

The songs on Marchin' Already are half old and half new. Some were written at soundchecks, others were born, painfully, during a week in a Birmingham hotel.

Fowler confesses to me that recently the band all tried to grow moustaches so they could appear as Sergeant Pepper-era Beatles: "We did it in Norway so that no one would know. But we were rubbish. It was a sad, sad episode." This self-confessed wayward act makes it an appropriate time to pop the question... How does he answer some people's criticism that Ocean Colour Scene are just retro?

"I think they're right in a way. But these people like house music and ambient music which, of course, sounds exactly like what was being done in the 1970s by Kraftwerk... Yet they don't see themselves as retro... so they're all right. I'm proud to be part of the musical heritage of this country."

So are Ocean Colour Scene part of the national heritage? "I don't know if that can be judged at the present time, but we're part of the current culture and we have taken the line on from the 1960s and 1970s."

Is there any danger of Ocean Colour Scene eclipsing Paul Weller? "No, because he's the most important recording artist of the past 20 years. I mean only Elvis Costello would come close. Or Sting. But, no, it's Paul isn't it? He's consistently given us stylishly interesting music. He's sort of like Tucker Jenkins from Grange Hill but hard."

What was playing Knebworth like in front of 125,000 people?

"It was amazing... things like that don't happen but it wasn't our gig, it was Oasis's. When we last played Glasgow, there were 70,000 applications so we could do the Loch Lomond gig on our own. Scotland have really taken to us. I think they identify with us being the underdogs but maybe it's the Celtic thing - Ireland have taken to us too."

How has Fowler dealt with the sudden fame and the changes it brings? "I don't know if it's because we live in Birmingham or live very self- contained lives, but I still go to the same pub in Moseley I've been going to for years," he says.

That evening we go to check out local singer/songwriter Micky Greaney in a small pub in the centre of town. Walking to get a taxi, a drunk takes exception to him and starts shouting "Foxy, Foxy" at him. "Foxy" Fowler deals with it calmly, before the drunk's friends pull him away. Within a few months, going to the pub in his home city is going to be, like his band, a thing of the past.

`Travellers Tune' is released 25 Aug on MCA