[23 May 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
“HOW CAN YOU REMASTER SOMETHING THATS ALREADY BEING MASTERED. DONT BUY INTO IT. LET IT BE LG X”
—Liam Gallagher via Twitter (Feb. 28th, 2014)
The party line is this: Oasis absolutely defined a generation with their first two albums and then pretty much never were able to match that legacy ever again. Liam Gallagher had the greatest sneer in all of rock history, and for a time his brother Noel just so happened to write the best songs. Following the coke-fueled disaster that was third album Be Here Now (which the band has all but disavowed, refusing to include a single song from it on their 2006 hits compilation), the band was never able to fully recover on an artistic front, leading to some great songs spread out over increasingly-mediocre albums (save Don’t Believe the Truth, of course), thus making most of the UK music press go back and canonize those first two albums in shrines of absolute infallibility. The situation got so out of hand that, in 2006, a NME poll ranked Oasis’ debut disc, Definitely Maybe, as the greatest album of all time, ahead of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Then again, this is NME we’re talking about, and colonial nepotism is pretty much their bread and butter.
Now, two decades since Definitely Maybe‘s release, it finally succumbs to the inevitable “Deluxe Edition” bonanza, which, we are told, will also be extended to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and Be Here Now. Although Glory contains the band’s biggest hits, there are Gallagher purists who feel that Definitely Maybe is the finest distillation of Oasis’ entire aesthetic, and was never bettered. It is definitely a ripe time to look at the band’s legacy, given how the brothers’ own legacy is in a constant state of debate just as critics and fans acknowledge that the entire Britpop movement forever altered the UK music landscape (although critics were indifferent to brother Noel’s post-Oasis outfit High Flying Birds, he still managed to outsell Beady Eye’s entire output combined thus far, proving their sibling rivalry still very much alive and well). What’s perhaps most surprising, however, is how even with all the bonus ephemera included here in this box set, not much changes about one’s own perspective of Oasis—in fact, if anything, it somewhat diminishes Definitely Maybe‘s legacy.
Released four months after Blur’s Parklife, Definitely Maybe is an album that is built almost entirely on swagger. As one of the most memorable opening salvos in rock history, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” simultaneously served as the group’s manifesto as well as an oracle of things to come: the group actually became rock stars in part due to that song. While Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker were dissecting different parts of British class structure with sharp insight and wit, Noel Gallagher espoused the virtues of sex, booze, and rock ‘n’ roll. During a year when Take That and Wet Wet Wet were topping the charts, Oasis’ sweat-soaked melodies felt like a breath of fresh air, their lean guitar hooks a perfect counterweight to some of Britpop’s headier artisans.
Of course, for all of the strut that Oasis possessed, straight-up machismo could only go so far lest the band come off as boneheads and nothing else. In lieu of showing anything close to vulnerability, Noel often married his chords to loose, goofy, and sometimes downright nonsensical lyrics. “Supersonic” seems to exist simply out of Noel’s need to find slant rhymes in every single verse (“I know a girl named Elsa / She’s into Alka-Seltzer”), while “Digsy’s Dinner” spends an inordinate amount of time using food as a metaphor for a projected relationship (catch Liam’s drawn-out long note on “lasagna” for added hilarity). What’s more, while a majority of Definitely Maybe features Noel filtering through his numerous Beatles and Rolling Stone influences through his modern rock dynamic, “Digsy’s Dinner” actually features the jangly stomp of classic British music hall—no doubt another intentional Beatles rip—and adds a bit more color into the usual 4/4 strummings that make up a majority of Noel’s vision. The only quiet moment on the whole album comes with closer “Married With Children”, but even that song is soaked in a bitterness all its own.
Yet Definitely Maybe has one accidental signifier that separates it from the rest of the band’s entire discography: on a production front, this album is remarkably unadorned. There’s no need for excessive effects, overlays, or production trickery; the band’s attitude is cranked up right with the guitars, and at a scant 11 tracks really plays well into the album’s all-killer/no-filler reputation. Of course, the band has always had a good knack for picking out singles, and so while “Cigarettes and Alcohol” has become a lad anthem the world over, tracks like “Live Forever” and the confident slither of “Supersonic” still hold up after multiple listens, their choruses still soaring even as the lyrics on the verses refuse to hold up under close scrutiny. Yet, by not cluttering the arrangements for each track with unnecessary studio wizardry, the focus is just on the songs, the words, and the leather jacket observations that set the template for the band’s entire ethos.
Of course, Gallagher aficionados know how the rest of this story plays out: Noel was at his furious songwriting peak, and he wound up penning such an embarrassment of riches that between Oasis’ early top-shelf B-sides and Morning Glory, Noel’s muse full-on evaporated by 1997, as the abysmal Be Here Now proved. Thus, for Definitely Maybe‘s Deluxe Edition, there are two entire discs of demos, B-sides, live takes, in-stores, and just about every other possible goody you could imagine outside of a remaster. What’s perhaps most surprising about these finds, however, is just how surprisingly uninteresting a lot of them are.
The worst offenders, surprisingly, are the demos. Despite the drums sounding a bit trashier and Liam’s growl going untreated, there isn’t a lot about the demos of “Columbia” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” (or especially “Married With Children”) that provides any new revelations. The studio treatment that the band and producer Mark Coyle wound up giving the tunes was more of a gentle polishing rather than turning these scraps into fully realized songs—they pretty much already were from the get-go. Even the live takes, recorded well prior to the band having any sort of sizable audience like the one they had following Definitely Maybe‘s release, sound exactly how you’d expect a live Oasis take to sound. The band weren’t big on surprises back in the day, and their workmanlike performances got straight to the point without any flourish—just like the songs themselves.
Thus, the best revelations to be found here, in fact, are the B-sides coupled with a few era-specific outliers. Virtually every single B-side you could want makes an appearance here, from the tragically oft-forgotten “D’Yer Wanna Be a Spaceman?” (which also has a fun live version as well) to the excitable “Cloudburst” to the band’s remarkably unimaginative live take on the Beatles “I Am the Walrus”. People who bought that other must-have Oasis album, 1998’s B-side compilation The Masterplan, will no doubt be familiar with a lot of the picks here, as that album pretty much cherry-picked the best of the bunch, like the single best ballad Noel ever wrote, “Half the World Away”, here closing out the Deluxe Edition‘s second disc.
Yet for people who already purchased The Masterplan (or maybe also happened to grab the Definitely Maybe: Singles box set that came out in 1996), there are still some worthwhile odds-and-ends mingled about on here. Aside from a few must-haves for completists (which includes an early draft of “Strange Thing”, which dates all the way back to the band’s demo cassette), it’s great to see the string-laced Fab Four homage “Whatever” get back in the mix of things, a rare non-album single that only recently became available for fans via their post-mortem hits comp. Even more, the Deluxe Edition‘s third disc closes out with the isolated strings from that song, which makes for a surprisingly fitting ending to the compilation, all on top of being a great standalone track by itself, as the arrangement is filled with every uptick and swoop of melody that is contained in the band’s instrumental track.
Of course, these are just a few takeaways, and while an argument can be made both for and against something like the inclusion of the “Tokyo hotel room” rendition of “Half the World Away”—which, like the Definitely Maybe demos, sounds like the same song just without the polish—this is a box set that was clearly made with the fans in mind. There are curiosities, certainly, but no out-and-out revelations, no surprises that alter one’s very perception of what the band is capable of. During later albums, where the band got more interested in expanding their sound by doing things like looping hip-hop beats into the percussion tracks, yes, it would be grand to hear what those songs sound like stripped down or done in a different setting. With Definitely Maybe, however, it’s hard to dress up something as straightforward as meat and potatoes rock ‘n’ roll, which is exactly what Oasis was delivering at this point in their career, and it’s exactly what made them stand out from 1994’s cluttered airwaves. Don’t be surprised if this box set doesn’t drastically change your preconceived notions of what this already-iconic album is about, but for those who think the Gallagher’s never got better than this, consider this the only Oasis box set you will ever need.