Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 10)
Before we start talking about Oasis, lets clear a few things off the table right now.
Oasis were never the next Beatles, they sent British rock mags into a tailspin from which they would never recover and are now condemned to spend every 3 years proclaiming the “Return of Rock!” as their circulation numbers continue to dwindle, Oasis spent the last decade of their career releasing awful records that continued to sell in obscene amounts, nearly every band who was inspired by them was awful, Definitely Maybe
is not – as the NME declared in 2006 – the best album of all time, “Wonderwall” put a bullet in Britpop and Be Here Now
is the sound of it bleeding out.
That said, out of all the bands I started listening to for this project, I haven’t listened to any of them more than Oasis. It’s not even close.
What Oasis did with Definitely Maybe
is create some of the most obscenely addictive pop songs of all time. It’s a work of unbelievable melodic genius. Every decision made on this record was made with the idea that once this CD entered your average bored British teenager’s CD changer it never left.
Noel Gallagher was born in May 1967 in Manchester to a violently dysfunctional family. His mother, Peggy, was married to an abusive drunk named Tommy Gallagher. His was so bad Noel developed a stammer. Liam was born in September 1972 and took a shine to the spotlight almost immediately, performing in school plays. Tommy took on a successful concrete business and it only made him more violent towards Peggy and the kids, they were divorced in 1976. In the wake of the split Liam became increasingly uncontrollable while Noel receded into solitude. Shortly after, Noel dropped out of school and started working manual labor.
It wasn’t until The Smiths earth shaking appearance on Top of the Pops in November 1983 that he had his idol, Johnny Marr. He started working through songs of his own while also attending shows during Manchester’s booming mid to late 80s music scene. In May 1989 he fell in with Madchester second stringers Inspiral Carpets as a roadie.
Liam spent his youth a rap music fan, he was even a decent break dancer, until he attended The Stone Roses’ epic Spike Island gig and saw his future in lead singer Ian Brown. He auditioned for local group The Rain shortly after and was offered the job of lead singer.
Meanwhile, Noel had been writing songs of his own ever since he got his first acoustic guitar but had nothing to do with them until he heard his brother was playing in a band. Under Noel’s leadership, The Rain started making serious progress as he joined the band with 50 songs under his belt. In 1992 the Inspiral Carpets dropped Noel as a roadie and his focus shifted entirely to the band. The Rain changed their name to Oasis after an Inspiral Carpets poster. They staged daily practices in the basement of The Boardwalk and played shows around Manchester. Following a gig at King Tut’s in which they only played four songs the owner of Creation Records Alan McGee, who had showed up to see another band called 18 Wheeler, offered them a record contract.
In many ways, this album works despite itself. There really is a strange alchemy at work here. Ever noticed that if you cock your head and squint a little the structure of many of these songs is “Chorus-Chorus-Chorus-Chorus”? The first verse is often the only verse. End rhymes are recycled with little variation (On “Live Forever” its “fly/die”, on “Up in the Sky” its “sky/fly”). Its all basic chords, the melodies are blatantly ripped, and the lyrics are nonsense. But therein lies the magic of this record, Definitely Maybe
is easy to copy but its impossible to replicate the results. It’s the album that launched a thousand cover bands.
It works because principal songwriter Noel Gallagher’s confidence never falters for a second. I don’t think he leaned back and questioned a single thing he did during the making of this album. Questions like “Should I really use chords this simple?” or “What does this song mean anyway?” never entered his mind. He’s so confident it bursts straight through arrogance, comes out confident again and bleeds through the record.
”I live my life in the city/But there’s no easy way out”
The galvanizing effect Definetely Maybe
had on a generation of kids can be felt in the opening 30 seconds of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, if you can make it through that first charging drum fill without feeling the need for a fret board under your own fingers you’re made of stronger stuff than I am. “In my mind my dreams are real,” sings Liam and so it was, its one of the canniest bits of self-actualization on record. They basically will their ambitions to life on the first song. For the next 5 tracks, Definitely Maybe
is unstoppable. “Shakermaker” snatches the melody of the insufferably lame “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” and pump it with swagger, making for one of their most irresistible sing-a-longs. “Up In the Sky”, the albums best deep cut, is an adrenaline charged pogo monster. “Columbia” unspools groove for miles and “Bring it On Down” thunders and shakes with pent up fury.
Credit for Noel, a fine singer himself, having the smarts to recognize his brothers vast singing ability and handing the songs over to him. Liam’s bratty sneer allows him to croon like Lennon and bray like Lydon. His thick accenting infuses the albums best songs with an inescapable level of personality, the way he runs the syllables of “Cigarettes and Alcohol” into “Is it m-iy/imaginat-shee-un” turns otherwise pedestrian verses into massive hooks. His performance on “Supersonic” transforms it from anthem to the soundtrack to the day you storm into your office, punch your boss in the face, give Dave the finger on the way out the door, and spend the rest of the day bench pressing your car.
On stage, Oasis were a force of nature, but when it came time to translate that whirlwind of energy to tape, nothing seemed to work, every mix ended up being too clean. It took 2 recordings and 3 different mixes by 4 producers to finally replicate the pleasurably shrill pain of an Oasis show. The results are sublime. Definitely Maybe
doesn’t strike one as a well produced album at first but the “everything in the red” mix works perfectly. The instruments bleed together in a trebly wash that was custom designed to sound great blaring out of AM receivers, a headphones album, this isn’t. This album is all about the big details, the absurd amount of overdubbed guitar parts, thunder clap drums, and melodic perfection all rendered in pulse spiking lo-fi production.
"Maybe/I don’t really wanna know"
It all comes together on the Britpop defining anthem among anthems “Live Forever”. Like all the best Oasis songs, the more one talks about it the further away you seem to get from what makes it so phenomenal, its just something you feel. It’s unsure about itself, “Maybe I will never be/all the things that I wanna be”, but it isn’t sad, instead its confident in its unconfidence. “Now is not the time to cry,” asserts Liam, “Now’s the time to find out why.” It’s a staggering achievement, it completely transcends all the things that should hold it down to become something untouchable. When Liam leans his head back and cries “Gonna live forever!” as the song winds to a close you hear it all. You hear the sound of 5 guys willing themselves into something much larger than themselves. You hear 86 thousand British teenagers rushing to stores in its first week of release to make it the best selling debut album there. You hear the untold millions plunking out the chords to it on their first guitar. You hear the rise and fall of a musical movement that transcended social classes and broke through on a global scale. Then the guitar overtakes him and the song is over.
Next: “I hurt myself to get pain out.”