This post originally appeared on VICE UK
33⅓ is a series of books dedicated to the most incredible musical albums ever made—one book per album, one author per book. Over the coming months, we'll be running excerpts from their in-depth essays. This week, writer Alex Niven looks at how Oasis's Definitely Maybe voiced the collective hopes and dreams of post-Thatcher Britain. Here's Chapter One:
Nowadays, Oasis are one of those bands who are mostly popularly loved, mostly critically scorned. But in a wayward world, when there is consensus among journalists, critics, and cultural commentators that something is worthy of scorn, this is a sure sign that there is almost certainly something profoundly valuable about it. Cynicism is the patois of the status quo. Positive change doesn't emerge from the critical stereotypes of the present, but from the ruins of the past, from a tiny, neglected detail in something so familiar we have lost sight of its worth: a stray seed fallen by the wayside, an overlooked feature of an everyday routine, a speck of dust in a football stadium. As the philosopher Walter Benjamin once argued, in the utopian future everything will be the same as it is now—just a little bit different. All we have to do is identify the little bit and try to make it grow.
Where are the forgotten details in our recent history that might help us escape from a cynical present in which populism has disappeared from pop music and in which we don't seem to have made any real artistic or social progress since the 1990s? The argument of the following book is that one way of answering this question is to look at the most apparently banal, ordinary, hackneyed phenomenon of the last 20 years. In order to move forward positively again, it seems reasonable to suggest, we should look at the most central, the most visible, the most obvious presences in our popular culture and try to work out how they went so badly wrong. We should look at the events that filled people with belief and made them feel part of a team, at the melodies that buried themselves in our collective consciousness but became so clichéd and commonplace that we began to resent them, at the people who were co-opted and stereotyped in a world of money and selfishness until they became a crass parody of their former selves. One way we should do this, the following book argues, is by looking seriously and at length at the rock band Oasis.
In particular, this book argues, we should look at early Oasis. Over a two-year period, from the release of their debut single "Supersonic" in the spring of 1994 to their gargantuan Knebworth gigs in the summer of 1996, Oasis became more culturally central than any other band in post-war Britain, with the obvious exception of their role models, the Beatles. During this period, pubs, nightclubs, school discos, playgrounds, shopping centers, weddings, offices, high streets, council estates and—perhaps most remarkable of all—football grounds all resounded with the music of a band who, for a brief moment, fostered an unprecedented atmosphere of pop-cultural unity. Oasis were a front-page newspaper story. They made the BBC Six O'Clock News, dominated the airwaves and symbolically sealed the British public's social contract with New Labour when Noel Gallagher was photographed shaking Tony Blair's hand at Downing Street in the summer of 1997. Oasis's populism was of a rare and profound order. Even if most of what they did from 1997 onwards was a travesty of popular art, we ignore the scope and significance of the initial Oasis narrative at our peril.
But how did it all happen, and where did it all go wrong? What stray details about Oasis should we try to recover at all costs?
The answer, of course, must lie mainly with the songs themselves. In fact, pretty much everything we need to know about Oasis is contained on their debut album Definitely Maybe, the songs of which were all composed before the band became famous at all. Writing in Manchester in the years 1991–3, in an environment where socio-economic depression gave rise to a culture of radical hedonism and anti-establishment belligerence, Noel Gallagher composed a series of songs that distilled the spirit of the age far better than, for instance, the more usually celebrated Kurt Cobain, a nihilist capable of writing surpassingly awful lyrics about licking open sores and eating cancer, lyrics that rhymed "mosquito" with "libido" just for the hell of it.
In deliberate contrast to such gothic cod-intellectualism, Noel Gallagher's songs on Definitely Maybe offered a message of affirmation and hope that was couched in a language of remarkable clarity. While the long post-punk era that climaxed with grunge in the early 1990s had celebrated negation and made a virtue out of motifs of death and defeat, Oasis lyrics talked about a wholehearted desire to live and hinted at the possibility that some sort of spectacular victory might be won in the teeth of the 1980s nightmare. Significantly, for Gallagher, the difference between Oasis and a grunge band like Nirvana was explicitly a question of class. There were more similarities between Kurt Cobain's self-proclaimed 'white trash' background and the Manchester working-class upbringing than Gallagher realized. But the opposition was nevertheless deeply felt. As Gallagher would later put it, Cobain 'had everything, and was miserable about it. And we had fuck-all, and I still thought that getting up in the morning was the greatest fucking thing ever, because you didn't know where you'd end up at night.'
This, then, was the first and perhaps the most important message Oasis were trying to communicate. In an era in which deconstructive cynicism was threatening the very existence of a counterculture and the mainstream left, Oasis offered an anomalous vision of radical positivity. And the fact that this was indisputably a working-class vision—one founded in the solidarity and fraternity of working-class lived experience—was crucial. As the band's biographer once put it, Oasis were the sound of "a council estate singing its heart out." In a Britain that had just undergone the most damaging period of social upheaval in a century under the Thatcher government, Noel Gallagher ventriloquized slogans of burning communitarian optimism through the mouth of his brother Liam and the playing of the other Oasis "everymen": Paul McGuigan, Paul Arthurs, and Tony McCarroll. The sheer elemental energy of Gallagher's idealism on record could be breathtaking. In the chorus of the quintessential Oasis anthem "Acquiesce" (1995), for instance, the lyrics promised that a miraculous collective recovery was just around the corner, that anything was possible if only we believed unequivocally in each other. Where else in pre-millennium culture can you find such an unabashed, affirmative use of the word we? Perhaps only Bill Clinton came close to refuting the eighties myth that there was no such thing as society. (See, for example, Clinton's great epigram of 90s liberal unity: "There is no them; there's only us.")
But Oasis were not, or not only, optimists. If they had been, there really would be little to distinguish their project from the hollow euphoria of mid-nineties politics. The second important detail to recover about Oasis is their remarkable ability to communicate an oceanic melancholy even in their most hubristic moments.
"Supersonic," the first single from Definitely Maybe , is often regarded as an epitome of lumpen nonsense poetry, with its doctor/helicopter, Elsa/Alka-Seltzer doggerel rhymes. But listen more closely. As "Supersonic"'s chorus approaches, the swaggering lyrical graffiti makes way for a much more ambiguous voice, a man who lives in the shadows and struggles to get the right words out of his mouth. There are echoes in these lyrics (and in its mournful melody) of the Smiths's "How Soon Is Now?" and this is characteristic of a side of Noel Gallagher's songwriting that is not often talked about. Oasis were among the foremost adaptors of the Manchester–Irish outsider voice last heard in the elegiac eighties compositions of Morrissey and Marr. From the Smiths, Noel Gallagher inherited an obsession with separation, abandonment, and dislocation of the individual. In counterpoint with their message of communal hope, Oasis sang plangently and with Morrissey-esque gloom about loneliness and the desire to escape from a humdrum town where prospects were bleak and the old structures of social unity—job, club, estate, union—were being decimated by a neoliberal project of class annihilation.
Oasis songs proliferate with calls for breakout and departure, but with an accompanying sense that doing so will result in betrayal and the loss of some precious aspect of a core identity. Repeatedly, there are cries that things are sliding away, slipping away, fading away, that something is being thrown away, that time is running out and sadness is about to engulf us even at moments of euphoria and triumph. "Fade Away," one of the band's famously over-brilliant, early B-sides, condenses this theme in a beautiful motto, the gist of which is that our dreams are in a state of decay almost from the moment we are born. Oasis songs are awash with a sense of imminent collapse and disaster. Flood imagery abounds: rain pours down, sinks fill up, the sound of the sea bellows in the background, and individuals are buried under great tides of water and landslides of champagne. Oasis wrote about the overwhelming sadness of late-capitalist experience, of a drowned world in which definition and identity were being washed away by excess and human beings were tumbling headlong into a submarine solitude.
The irony was that Oasis themselves became the disaster. Their second album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? contained many of their greatest hits and some of their most powerful statements (most obviously, the end-of-the-line apotheosis that was "Champagne Supernova"). But almost instantly on coming to power and acclaim, Oasis's whole raison d'être of soulfulness and oppositional team spirit seemed to evaporate.
Many of the songs on Definitely Maybe were written by Gallagher in a British Gas storehouse while he was recovering from a building site injury. Many of the songs on Morning Glory, and almost all of the songs on the dire third album Be Here Now , were written in lavish hotel rooms or on bacchanalian tour buses by a man who quickly embraced the Thatcherite ethos of wealth-worship, even as he made occasional gestures at his socialist roots. Truly, us had become them, and this is pretty much where we remain today. Gallagher is now one of the privileged rock aristocrats he once defined himself against, a soon-to-be-knighted celebrity in the same cultural bracket as Simon Cowell and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
But it is precisely because of this drastic inversion of principles that we need to treat Oasis with profound seriousness. What did Gallagher take with him when he defected to the dark side of the millionaire power brokers? When we dismiss Oasis in favor of cooler, less-compromised 90s bands, what forms of empowerment do we dismiss along with them?
My argument is that the fragments of an answer are dotted all over Definitely Maybe and its singles and B-sides, in the music Oasis created when they were part of an 'us' that dreamed that a better future might emerge from the rubble of a vanishing working-class past. The music of Definitely Maybe is loaded with a pathos that is by turns life-affirming and tragic because it took place at the exact moment the working-class counterculture stepped into a moment of sunshine, right in the instant before it withered in the heat of the late-capitalist noon.
We all know what happened next. We all know what became of a culture-wide desperation to become a rock 'n' roll star and leave behind our workmates and community to chase a dream of libertarian excess in a fantasy realm of sky and sun and stars that shine. But we have forgotten that when Oasis dreamed these dreams, they were living on the ground, in a context where idealism found expression in a fierce need to assert the belief that life is not, ultimately, about self and escapism, but about discovering paradise in the minds of other people. This is the hidden hope in the football stadium, and this peculiar kind of collective yearning is what we have to redeem and recover as we listen to the haunting popular songs on Definitely Maybe .
Follow Alex Niven on Twitter.