Goodbye Britpop: The Oasis Story
Robert Samuelson | Wednesday, 23 September 2009
So, farewell then, Oasis. Britpop extraordinaires. Rock 'n' roll luminaries. Siblings at war.
Since 1994 they have dominated the airwaves, selling over 50 million records, achieving numerous number 1 singles and albums, not to mention Brit awards, Ivor Novellos, Mercury Prizes and general critical acclaim.
I grew up listening to Oasis, to their swagger and arrogance, their commitment to escapism, the can-do above the cannot. For Be Here Now, I was there then. That album, much lambasted, affirmed my love for these Madchester madcaps. I adored Liam's croon, Noel's hooks, the soundbites, the live sights, the street fights. At their peak, Oasis defined the mood, nay the epoch, of an entire generation, and at their worst they still gave us something to talk about.
The critics, and there are plenty (and not all unwarranted), point to a formulaic policy of chord progressions and average lyrics, of the same Gibson Epiphone guitar making the same slide, the familiar beat, the traditional process of verse-chorus-verse-chorus. They are wrong. Just one listen to Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants will demonstrate Noel Gallagher's ability to mould and shape a song with more than just a guitar, bass, drums set-up. Here is an album of psychedelic charm and gothic acknowledgments, of slap-bass, gospel choirs, electric organs, flutes and synth. Musically, it is by far and away the most complex Oasis album, with syncopated rhythms and time-signatures, odd but appropriate key changes, and genuinely impressive instrumentation. People forget this album, this backwater of 2000's belated post-Bonehead, post-Guigsy comeback, but ultimately it is a fine piece of work that helps illustrate that Oasis were not just about four chords and an uplifting chorus.
Being a self-declared muso, a lover of many forms and genre, I will not be arguing that Oasis have stood above and beyond other artists over the past fifteen years. I will not suggest they were artistic revolutionaries (though politically and culturally they may have been). Nor are my affections held solely by Oasis. After all, I am sat here writing about the brilliance of Oasis while my Ipod is currently playing Everything Is Borrowed by The Streets (more on Mike Skinner's genius another time). Yet after the news last weekend of Noel's departure, of one final brotherly barrage, it is only appropriate to pause a moment and reflect on all that Oasis were and represented. So, in the words of Mike Skinner (and I'm sure you all enjoyed how I segwayed back into him): "Relax in your sitting position and listen; it's fitting."
During the early years of Oasis, from 1994-1997, they defined an era. Every decade since The Beatles has had one or two era-defining bands. Think The Beatles and The Stones in the 1960s, The Who perhaps for the 1970s, maybe Michael Jackson in the 1980s, and so on. Oasis were that band for the 1990s, capturing the mood of a UK hit by a recession (sounds familiar) and an uninspiring government who had clung to power for too long (sounds even more familiar). Unemployment was rife, crime high, and England weren't very good at football. Then Definitely Maybe came out, with its tales of living life "for the stars that shine", of just wanting to fly, living forever, feeling supersonic, of looking for some action when all that existed were cigarettes and alcohol. The guitars were turned up high, the reverb was left on, and five lads from a council estate in Burnage, Manchester, dreamed of escaping, of something better than what they had experience so far. Rock'n'Roll Star, the first track on the album, is less a statement of intent and more a call to arms. "Wake up England!", it rasped. "Let's get going."
Oasis encapsulated the mood of change, of increasing optimism that surrounded the birth of Tony Blair's New Labour. The summer of 1995 was like 1969. Knebworth. History. Right here, right now, they said. Years of Tory rule was about to end: the people would remove the chains of traditionalism and embrace a new liberal cultural of free markets, innovation, inspiration, aspiration. And whilst this sea-change in emotional, social and political opinion increased, Oasis released records with a zeal and vigour that matched the people's drive. If Noel and Liam can roll with it, so can we. If they have a masterplan then we can have one too.
This, of-course, is representative of the exterior Oasis, the chart-topping band of critical acclaim. Yet Noel Gallagher's songwriting has always contained subtleties that people today, in 2009, often dismiss. Back in the mid-1990s, Noel clearly knew his band were destined for, well, destiny, but often let his most prosaic offerings take a back-seat as b-sides and album tracks. Half The World Away, immortalised by the BBC comedy The Royle Family, strives for the same escapism of larger-than-life numbers like Rock'n'roll Star and Morning Glory, but in a far more reflective way, almost quietly noting that the madness surrounding the band and its individual members was transitory, whereas nobody could give Noel Gallagher the dreams that were his all along. It's a wonderful song, simple but so effective, still talking, almost desperately so, of something better ("I would like to leave this city/This old town don't smell too pretty/And I can feel the warning signs running around my mind"), but equally very personal: "You can't give me the dreams that are mine anyway." Similarly the arrogance of Oasis came later. 1994 b-side Going Nowhere longs for "a motorcar, maybe a Jaguar, maybe a plane or a day of fame" but ends with a negative refrain: "Here am I, going nowhere in the rain." Perhaps the adulation ruined Oasis. They were fine when there was something to strive for, but once that was achieved, one they were there then, the interest faded.
This is what makes Be Here Now so fascinating, not just as a piece of music in its own right, but where it sits in the lexicon of British culture. Released just two weeks before the death of Princess Diana in August 1997, to an hysteria last seen when Abbey Road was released, it sat perfectly as the epitomisation of new Britain. The Labour landslide was still being enjoyed, the weather was hot, the country basking in the warm and comforting glow of progress. This is why it is such a genius album title, almost as if Oasis knew that this was the highest, the biggest, they would ever be, arm-in-arm with a period of time on a societal level that could not possibly last. Be Here Now makes perfect sense and, crucially, tense: the Gallaghers were offering a final rallying-call - to join the party while it lasted, not because they were going to all of a sudden become incompetent and stop releasing great records, but because trends, by their very nature, are transitory, and deep down everyone knew this. If you weren't there then, and many were sadly not, it is likely that today you regard the passing of Oasis to be nothing more than the latest in a series of daily celebrity news stories, a fleeting by-line to a bygone era.
Be Here Now is full of imperfections and lyrical inconsistencies, from the confidence of It's Getting Better (Man!) and D'you Know What I Mean? to the heartfelt and tender insecurities of Don't Go Away (a genuinely moving track that should be on any Best Of compilation) and Stand By Me. Today it may not sit together well as a long-player, but take each track on its own for a moment, and it deserves to be listened to again. There are few better Oasis moments than seeing Liam spit out the words to My Big Mouth, as they have done live recently, a song that acts as a microcosm for the whole album: staggering arrogance mixed with genuine concern for the future - "Guess who's gonna take the blame for my big mouth, and my big name, I'll put on my shoes and walk you slowly down my hall of fame."
Without knowing it, the band became the first winner of The X Factor before Simon Cowell had even thought it up. People liked Oasis because of the aspirational attributes of the personnel and the music they played. They dared to dream, and through them so did many of us. It is why the Knebworth gigs were so triumphant, so epoch-defining, because they represented rags-to-riches in startling detail, like a real reality TV show. "This is history. Right here, right now. This is history," bellowed the band on that Hertfordshire stage.
So where were you while they were getting high, while they were providing the soundtrack to millions of people's hopes and dreams, loves and hates, highs and lows? It is easy to pick holes in Oasis, to criticise for criticism's sake, to jump on an increasingly popular bandwagon of counter-culturalism, reactionary attempts to play down what they signified and how good they were, almost as if we are embarrassed. Ultimately, folks, you simply cannot sell that many records if you are no good. Somewhere, beyond the in-fighting and the drugs, the press attention and the celebrity lifestyles, at the heart of it all, lies the music, and when you list the multitude of famous, radio-friendly songs you have to concede that these guys knew what they were doing.
"I think you're the same as me,
We see things they'll never see,
You and I are gonna live forever."
For more musings, catch up with Robert Samuelson on Twitter.