Monday, 2 May 2016

Oasis in History

by Alfie Perry-Ward

In 1994, Nirvana released a song called ‘I hate Myself and I wanna die.’ The same year Oasis put out their debut album ‘Definitely Maybe’ which became the fastest selling British album of all time. One of the songs on the record (‘Live Forever’) had this to say: 

Maybe I just want to fly, want to live I don’t want to die.
Maybe I just want to breathe, maybe I just don’t believe.
Maybe you’re the same as me; we’ll see things they’ll never see.
You and I are going to Live Forever.”

The songwriter and lead guitarist of Oasis, Noel Gallagher, explained that although the song wasn’t written as a direct response to Kobain’s assumed philosophy of self-hatred, he did declare in a retrospective interview that “Kids didn’t need to hear that nonsense. He (Kobain) seemed like a guy who had everything and was miserable about it. We had nothing, but I still thought that getting up in the morning was the greatest thing ever.”

This ethos certainly drew huge attraction to Oasis’s music. However, there many other reasons why the band rose to such extraordinary heights in the nineties and today remain one of the greats.

The Historical Context of Britpop

The Britpop movement was initiated in the dying moths Thatcher’s Conservative government when the Stone Roses played a legendary gig on Spike Island, an Eastury of the River Mersey in North West England, in May 1990. When the ‘Iron Lady’ was toppled by her own cabinet in November 1990, it ended 11 years of Thatcherism. Regardless of the controversy over Thatcher’s legacy, it is evident that the times under Thatcher were bleak for the working class of Britain with disbandment of the Unions, sweeping privatisation and men and women being on the ‘dole’ (benefits) becoming the norm.

The Spike Island gig was almost a return to the sixties with use of marijuana and psychedelic drugs becoming increasingly popular. The new high end fashion drug ‘e’ or ecstasy was also introduced in the clubs and venues of Britain. The new arising culture gave an enriching psychedelic sound to music with dance and acid house becoming thriving genres in the late 80s and in the 90s.
Grunge also became incredibly popular when Nirvana’s influenced manifested itself in Britain. Although the US group were popular, many felt that the Americans in general were dominating the music scene. The term “shoegazing” was adopted by the British music press to ridicule those on the indie circuit who had taken on this grunge culture. The idea was that these bands always had their head down while they moaned introspective / depressing lyrics.

Britpop really came about as a reactionary product to grunge culture. This subgenre sought to emphasize and celebrate the “Britishness” of music. The pendulum swung from America to Britain and many new bands / singers / groups were drawn to this rejection of American influence. Rather than loud and aggressive songs in Britain became more like catchy pop songs. For example, songs like ‘Country House’ (Blur) and ‘Common People’ (Pulp) were certainly a departure from grunge. The “Pop” in the 90s was different to what we know as pop today as most bands in the charts were guitar led.

Also, bands that represented this new indoctrination of British music mainly arose from the independent music scene of the early 90s. The independent record labels let bands have full (or near enough) creative control (which is most certainly not the case today). Thus, the British scene became a very exciting time in the mid 90s. Britpop was coupled with the social upsurge of the British creative industries; the likes of Kate Moss and Damien Hurst also celebrated the same notion of “Britishness.”

Despite Britpop often being disregarded as a marketing tool, it is no secret that some highly influential BRITISH bands arose. The Verve, Suede, Massive Attack, Pulp, Blur and not least Oasis were among them.

Oasis in History 

Greater Manchester was hit hard by Thatcher’s Britain with over 4 million unemployed and a prevailing dole culture. However, this was translated into the acid house culture in which brothers Liam and Noel, drummer Tony Mccarroll, guitar player Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs and bass player Paul “Guigsy” McGuigan formed Oasis. With musical influences such as the Bee Gees, Joy Division, The Smiths, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets breaking out of Manchester throughout the late seventies and the eighties, Oasis had a wealth of Mancunian music behind them.
Initially, Oasis played gigs up and down the UK playing a mixture of original songs and covers, particularly of the Beatles whose music had a profound impact on them. Noel was a prolific songwriter in his youth. Although the chord structure in his songs was often formulaic, it sat so well with his gift for melody that he was writing songs with an established identity. Coupled with Liam’s distinctive tone, it’s no wonder that the band signed with Creation Records when they impressed co-owner Alan McGee at a gig in Glasgow.

Definitely Maybe / (What’s the Story) Morning Glory

The debut album was released in 1994 and saw a phenomenal success. The songs on the record are a mixture of anthems, psychedelic tunes and stripped, acoustic melodies. Songs like ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ and ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ with their in-ya-face guitar solos and huge stadium sound appealed to the hardcore rock and roll culture that was in upsurge. The lyrics reflected a blurred depiction of the rock star life style but maintained that uplifting, do it yourself attitude that you see in songs like ‘Live forever’ and ‘Slide Away.’ This contrasts with ‘Shakermaker’ which sounds like a different song altogether. The incoherent lyrics and hallucinogenic sound was well suited to the context of the far out nineties lifestyle. For example, the third verse goes:

“Mister Sifter sold me songs
when I was just sixteen.
Now he stops at Traffic lights
but only when they’re green”

This verse, amazingly, makes no sense at all. In fact, “Mister Sifter” was a dry cleaner’s chain that Noel Gallagher spotted on the way to a ‘Definitely Maybe’ session. The album finishes with a song called ‘Married with Children’ which depicts an argument in an infuriated marriage. Noel captured several aspects in the dichotomy of working class culture and caged them in epic melodies and instrumentals. The album so easily resonated with its listeners and saw Oasis break on to the scene with a splash.

The key thing about Oasis in 1994 was that they were not chasing a grunge sound that, at its height, the masses of indie bands wanted. Andrew Mueller (journalist for ‘Melody Maker, Uncut’) notes that “Oasis appeared in the middle of all this with a really fundamental subscription to the great virtues of British Rock and Roll.” On the song ‘Supersonic’ Noel said that “We hit the ground running with that one. That song separated us from every single band in the country.” Essentially, Oasis were perfectly suited to become successful in the cultural rising of Britpop.  

‘Definitely Maybe’ is heralded, by some, as Noel’s best work. But it cannot be doubted that ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory’ transformed Oasis into the giants that they became. Many suspected that the second record wouldn’t match the impetus that was thrown up by their debut album; however, when the much anticipated ‘Morning Glory’ came out it in 1995, it crushed any suspicion that Oasis would fade away anytime soon. The band leapt from the indie circuit in to the mainstream. The album was a wall of sound and simply on another scale to their first record. This album included the monumental hits ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Don’t look Back in Anger.’ In Radio X’s recent ‘Best of British since the 1960s’ poll, ‘Wonderwall’ came in at number 1. The album is anthem after anthem with other more subtle but just as poetic tunes like ‘She’s electric.’ It was voted the greatest album since 1980 at the Brits in 2010 and takes a truly significant platform on the Britpop generation.

New Labour

The controversy around Noel attending Tony Blair’s victory party at number 10 was only to be expected. The event invited a number of high profile celebrities who all supported ‘New Labour-the period of history where Labour had seemed to adopt a new identity under Tony Blair. The 1997 ‘landslide’ victory saw the end of 18 years of Tory rule. For many Labour supporters, this new instilled optimism was very tangible, not least for Noel Gallagher. While the band generally remained apolitical, Noel was never scared to share his opinion on the happenings of parliament.
Even as early as when the first album came out, there was already a political tinge to the Oasis ethos. For example, the song ‘Up in the sky’ commented on how many politicians in Thatcher / John Major’s government had next to no clue of what working class life was like.

“Hey you! Wearing the crown
making no sound
I heard you feel down
well that’s too bad
welcome to my world”
-Verse 2 of Up in the sky

The New Labour victory was coupled with the album ‘Be Here Now’ and the band’s popularity among their existing fan base was only consolidated. In the latter years of New Labour, especially after the Iraq war involvement, many people’s expectations were disappointingly subverted. It is important not to stress Oasis’s involvement with New Labour too much, but they did have a shared role in this optimism / excitement.

When asked by the New Statesmen if he regretted his endorsing the Blairite campaign, Noel replied:
Nah, not really. It was a great time in history. The grip of Thatcherism was being smashed. New Labour had been brilliant in opposition. When Tony Blair spoke, his words seemed to speak to people, young people. Call me naive but I felt something – I’m not quite sure what it was, but I felt it all the same. I do regret that picture at No 10 that night, though . . . I can still smell the cheese.”

A Legacy

The cultural significance of Oasis cannot be undermined. The controversy, the conflicts, the message, the drugs and (most importantly) the tunes are what define Oasis and, in a way, what defines the 1990s. The social context that allowed Oasis to come about was incredibly unique to Britain at the time. In my opinion, we won’t see anything like it again; certainly not in my lifetime. That being said, if Oasis released ‘Definitely Maybe’ tomorrow, they would be popular but nowhere near as big as they were. I think that the nature of music, with the less of an emphasis on live shows, the commercial culture of the Radio and the decline of independent labels would never let Oasis in to the charts, despite their excellence. Furthermore, there currently doesn’t seem to be a real cultural upsurge that celebrates a unified identity in Britain. I guess you could argue against this in the case of Grime and how popular that genre has become, but it is not even close to the popularity of Britpop and even still it only really belongs to one demographic. Oasis take a very relevant and important place in the history of British (and world) music. If we have anything from Oasis, we have a collection of poetic, fierce, raw and beautiful tunes.

10 Oasis Songs that I would recommend:
1.      Live Forever - a teenage anthem
2.      Cast no Shadow – very moving, underrated
3.      Moring Glory – a belter
4.      Whatever – an uplifting tune
5.      Roll with it – a stupidly ordinary Rock song, but brilliant
6.      Rockin’ Chair –catchy melodies and pretty poetic
7.      Talk Tonight – a bittersweet love-song
8.      Little By Little – huge stadium sound
9.      Songbird – One of Liam’s, decent

10.  The Masterplan – a melody masterpiece 

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