Looking Back on the Early Days of Oasis with the Gallagher Brothers
We spoke to Mat Whitecross about his new Oasis film 'Supersonic', which revives the true legacy of the band – radical hopefulness in the bleak years of post-Thatcherism.
"We were the last, we were the greatest, nothing anybody else does will be as big as Oasis." And so Noel Gallagher ends the new Oasis documentary Supersonic, with exactly the kind of cocksure bravado that made them – for a time – Britain's greatest rock n roll band.
The film follows the early years of Oasis, up to their two gigs at Knebworth in 1996. Over 250,000 people went to those concerts; four percent of the UK population applied for tickets. It was a moment of mass cultural unification that it's hard to imagine now, especially over something as obsolete as a guitar band.
After Knebworth, Oasis' legacy was overshadowed by a string of disappointing albums, shifting lineups and the metamorphosis of Liam and Noel Gallagher into tabloid caricatures. But Supersonic reminds us of the great years: how their songs were anthems of possibility and aspiration; that their music offered a radical hopefulness in an era of Conservative-driven decline after the bleak years of Thatcherism. It was a brief moment in history when, as Noel puts it, "The biggest musical phenomenon was a band from a council estate."
I spoke to the film's director Mat Whitecross – who was part of the team behind the Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy – about how he managed to get the warring Gallagher brothers together, the snobbery around lad rock and what the true legacy of Oasis should be.
You spend any time with them and the shit that comes out of their mouths on a daily basis is unbelievable.
VICE: It feels like, in recent years, Oasis fans have become kind of ghettoised – I was talking about them recently and almost felt I had to come out as a fan. Why do you think that happened?
Mat Whitecross: Music moves on; it's the same in every generation. You can't like the music that your older brother or your dad liked. There was a reaction against lad rock, and music became more sensitive with the Coldplays and the Keanes. But I also think it was the tabloid fixation around Liam and Noel. The more they became caricatured in the press, a lot of their intelligence and the humour was lost. People started feeling like they were just a bunch of lager louts. Which couldn't be further from the truth.
For me, the term lad rock is really just basic class snobbery – were you trying to dispel that?
A little bit. But really, I didn't know what to expect in terms of walking into a room with them. I was so surprised when I first met Liam and Noel. A lot of the arrogance that people perceive, is... well, it's not only confidence, but if someone asked you if you're the best band in the world, you're obviously going to say yes.
Well, a lot of bands now wouldn't.
Ha, yeah it's very true. Now they all come from a position of humility. But I don't want my bands to be too humble. I feel like a bit of swagger and a bit of attitude is missing.
Why did you focus the film on the years leading up to Knebworth?
Every band you can think of, it's the first two or three years that define them. They can go on to become The Rolling Stones or become [terrible pastiche Britpop band] Menswear, but that moment is the prism through which you can really see what they're like. Afterwards – and even Noel and Liam said this – there comes a point where you just become a big band.
Knebworth is such an important moment – it was a dividing line. After that, things weren't the same. We had a whole chunk of footage after Knebworth when they went on this American tour. Liam doesn't show up, Noel has to do the first gig on his own, then they had the MTV awards where Liam spits at the crowd – it really feels deliberately self-sabotaging. That's when the wheels really start to come off. What I wanted was to find a balance – it's supposed to be a kind of celebration, but I also didn't want to whitewash it...
At the end of the film, all the band members say they should have quit after Knebworth. It's actually quite extraordinary.
It's mad, isn't it? Really mad. Particularly because Noel was the first person to say it with us: "Even going in to Knebworth, I knew that it was the beginning of the end." It's so close to the beginning that you think, 'How did you carry on for ten years after that?' But as Liam says, "Fuck, we were young. If someone said, 'Do you want to play on the moon?' I would've done it."
There's a bit in the film when Liam gets bottled on stage and he says, "Trouble just followed us." I saw them in 2000 and it definitely felt like the mood in the crowd had soured and their fans had shifted after Knebworth.
Well it became this bigger thing. In those early gigs, the footage is really sweet. It's all girls in the front, and they're all in love with Liam – they're all trying to touch him and they know all the lyrics. In the later footage you can definitely see the crowd becomes rougher – it's more boozy rock fans getting in fights. That wasn't the band's choice.
How did you manage to get Liam and Noel to agree to do something together? They've not spoken to each other for years.
I still, to this day, do not know. I met Noel first and said, in the nicest possible way, "Look, we can't make this film without the other band members." Liam took a bit of massaging. I get that it was a big deal – they'd been fucked about in the past. Inevitably, all bands have. This wasn't an official film; it wasn't made by them. But they never put any boundaries on us. They wanted it to be about the music, not all about the tabloid stuff, which is exactly what I wanted to do anyway.
You brought them together...
To be honest, a film doesn't really do anything other than maybe remind people of what they've lost. If anything it will allow other people to realise that, because I don't think Noel and Liam have ever been in any doubt of what the impact they had was, and the importance of that.
Do you think you've been responsible for reviving Oasis' legacy?
For me, whether you love their tunes or not, just hearing their stories for two hours is amazing. That honesty and the openness is missing in rock music now. They just don't give a fuck. You spend any time with them and the shit that comes out of their mouths on a daily basis is unbelievable. It's just an incredible ride.
Supersonic is in cinemas from the 7th of October.