Oasis / Britpop
Noel Gallagher had been closely involved in the Madchester scene prior to taking over his brother’s band, Rain, and transforming it into what would become Oasis. A roadie for Inspiral Carpets while unemployed on the dole, Gallagher witnessed the Manchester scene—to his mind—degenerate into a dance club culture where the only guitars to be heard emanated from faceless, moody shoegazing acts. Intent on revitalizing guitar rock in Britain, Noel took the reigns of Rain and introduced his new band-mates to the self-penned songs that would make Oasis the biggest band in Britain and the most successful band to ever come from Manchester.
Early demo recordings for songs like “Colour My Life” give clear indication of the huge influence that the Stone Roses had on Noel’s new project, and it soon became apparent that this inspiration would be more than just musical. Like the Roses—and unlike their shoegazing peers—Oasis were unapologetic about their ambitions and unwaveringly confident that they could achieve them. However, whereas the Roses had set out to revolutionize the Manchester and British music cultures, Oasis proclaimed to all that they would settle for nothing less than world domination.
That they largely failed in this quest does not diminish the characteristically Mancunian swagger that they brought to everything they did. One can hear Ian Brown’s cocky nasal snarl in Liam Gallagher’s “spit ‘n’ vinegar” vocal delivery, while the Roses’ penchant for self-aggrandizing lyrical gestures is echoed in innumerable early Oasis songs. “There we were, now here we are,” Liam boasts on the band’s initial limited demo release, “Columbia”, celebrating a success that had yet to happen, while their debut album, Definitely Maybe (1994), kicks off with the blistering “Rock and Roll Star” with its pre-emptive “title” claim a fait accompli.
For Oasis and for so many Manchester bands, superiority and stardom were given assumptions, states of mind to be willed into realization. And when Definitely Maybe rocketed to number one on the British album charts as the fastest-selling debut album in the nation’s history, it became apparent that here was a Manchester band that had more than just provincial appeal.
Like so many of the historical transformers of rock history, the key feature of Oasis’ epoch-changing releases was their sheer simplicity. Shedding the psychedelic accouterments that had often muddied the Stone Roses’ sound, Noel Gallagher replaced the wah wah with a distortion pedal and created a solid wall of loud and elemental guitar chords, colored only by simple Buzzcocks-like lead motifs. Likewise, the complex funky rhythms that had come to define the Madchester sound were jettisoned in favor of simple and restrained rock beats. The result was a crystal clear pop-rock sound where the guitars and vocals were mixed front-and-center such that the hooks and melodies were prioritized.
The fact that those hooks were often brazenly lifted from prior recordings ironically served to offer the comfort of sing-along recognition for listeners. Indeed, much has been made of Oasis’ debt to the Beatles, but the band’s reactions to the constant charges of plagiarism are just as notable. Rather than downplaying these indictments, Noel Gallagher has consistently celebrated his creative thievery, turning the practice into an exercise of postmodern provocation. Wry Beatles references litter Oasis songs, as if Gallagher is intent more on teasing his critics than in finding ageless riffs.
To those who seek originality in their rock music, Oasis are often dismissed as retro-nostalgic, overly referential and reverential of the past. A listen through Definitely Maybe is like taking a journey through the history of guitar rock. Marc Bolan riffs pop up, played through Neil Young guitar tones, over songs that evoke the melodies of the Beatles. One song, “Shakermaker”, even cribs its melody from the old Coke advertising anthem, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”, while the sounds and styles of the Kinks, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Slade, the Jam, the Smiths, and the Stone Roses seep through myriad tracks over the band’s career.
What critics of this shameless riff-lifting fail to recognize is that Oasis music is not made for such discerning critics. The typical Oasis fans are not rock aficionados but the everymen and women of mainstream British culture. They attend Oasis gigs for the bonding experience, as a (mostly male) ritual, where they can sing along in unison to recognizable anthems while—as Ricky Gervais’s character in Extras would say—“avin’ a larf”. The rock idols of “lad” culture, Oasis’ shows are the musical equivalent of soccer matches, where loyal fans go to bond, booze, and pay homage to their heroes. Indeed, it is perhaps less than coincidental that Noel Gallagher spends much of his time in interviews espousing the virtues (or lack thereof) of his beloved Manchester City Football Club.
This type of appeal and identity has, of course, a social class sub-text to it that returns us to the down-to-earth working class foundations of Manchester’s psychogeography. Asked why his band is so enduringly adored, Noel Gallagher once responded that it was because they were “the most honest band on the planet.” What he was referring to was the unpretentious character of the band, particularly their unwillingness to satisfy the demands of the media or the industry.
The Gallagher brothers, for all their bravado, are essentially “tell-it-like-it-is” working class boys; they will answer any questions posed, but will do so in their own raw vernacular and in their own “warts ‘n’ all” way. “F” bombs abound in their interviews (usually hurled at each other), and unlike most rock bands they will openly concede their own shortcomings: that much of their music is stolen, that the lyrics are mostly meaningless, and that their shows are largely unspectacular. Asked what Oasis’ songs are about, Noel once replied, “Shagging, drinking, and taking drugs”; asked about their live shows, Liam responded, “We’re actually quite a boring band, but it comes across kind of cool.”
In the summer of 1995 their “cool” appeal was put to the test as Oasis and Blur, Britpop’s two most successful representatives, went tête-à-tête in a High Noon-like showdown when Blur released “Country House” and Oasis put out “Roll With It” on the same day. This much ballyhooed “Battle of Britpop” brought to a climax months of sniping that had been on-going between the two bands regarded by many as symbolizing diametrically opposed sides of Britpop cool: Blur were southerners from London while Oasis were northerners from Manchester; Blur were middle class and college-educated while Oasis were working class with high school educations; Blur were perceived as cerebral intellectuals and artists while Oasis were typed as street kids who rocked.
Fans and media reveled in what seemed like a replay of the rivalry that had existed between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles during the ‘60s, though this one was far less cordial and both bands appeared to be willing participants in the hype. Although Blur would win the singles battle at hand, Oasis would win the war as their soon-to-follow album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory (1995), proceeded to become the third best-selling album of all time in the UK.
One keen observer of the rise of Britpop was Labour Party leader Tony Blair, who was quick to exploit the cool quotient that surrounded the charismatic cast of new British rockers. He invited various Britpoppers (including Noel Gallagher) to 10 Downing Street and proclaimed them all a part of the “Cool Britannia” cultural renaissance. And despite their differences, Oasis and Blur had, for some time, been united in their efforts to repel the on-going American invasion of grunge and nu metal bands and to establish a home-grown rock culture that would showcase artists’ national and regional traits. Such nationalistic self-consciousness reached self-parody proportions, though, as Blur’s Damon Albarn and Oasis’ Gallagher brothers began exaggerating their local accents, as though they were performing stand-up in a working men’s club.
Anti-Americanism was implicit during this period of patriotic flag-waving with Oasis even sending out a lyrical rebuttal to Nirvana, writing “Live Forever” as a rebuke to their popular pessimistic postures that ultimately culminated in Kurt Cobain’s suicide. When promoting the song in TV appearances, Noel Gallagher would invariably perform with his union jack-emblazoned electric guitar, symbolically suggesting that this rock—unlike that which was then overwhelming the nation’s charts—was “Made in Britain”.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Oasis’ trans-Atlantic sniping did little to endear them to American rock audiences, who, despite the band’s many visits there, neither fully embraced the band, nor understood why they were so beloved across the ocean. This inability to conquer America, as promised, reflected the essentially parochial limitations of Oasis’ regional identity. Like the Stone Roses before them, Oasis were just too Mancunian (with all the idiosyncrasies of local character that entails) to fully translate or appeal to mainstream American rock audiences.
Alongside Manchester predecessors Joy Division, the Smiths, and the Stone Roses, Oasis stand as one of the most influential bands in modern British rock culture. Besides encouraging a myriad of like-sounding Britpop acolytes throughout the ‘90s, the impact of Oasis is also apparent in the current decade, as evidenced in the primal guitar attack and self-conscious northern personality of the nation’s most acclaimed recent upstarts, Arctic Monkeys. Critically, too, the band have enjoyed a positive reconsideration in recent years, such that their first two albums are often cited in the top tens of “Best British Albums” polls. In 2006, the NME writers rated Definitely Maybe as the third greatest album in British rock history, behind the Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead and the Stone Roses’ eponymous debut. Such ratings are clearly a testament not only to the influence and inspiration of Oasis but to that of Manchester rock in general.
Recently, Noel left Oasis for the nth time, informing fans that he could no longer suffer the torture of working with his brother Liam. Whether this latest round in their long-running sibling rivalry is resolved, or whether Oasis really are finished, the biggest and most controversial band in Manchester’s history will surely remain a key touchstone in the city’s cultural legacy. A fitting epitaph—which the band would surely savor—might read, “Loathed by millions, but loved by millions more.”