Oasis Retrospective 1991-1995: Please don’t put your life in the hands of a rock and roll band

Oasis-1994

Here’s a fun game: Name the greatest one-year “peak powers” for any band or artist — considering quantity of production, quality of production, and overall transcendence.

At the top of the list is probably whichever mid-‘60s Beatle year you prefer (1965, thanks – or 1966 if I can take the singles recorded in ’65 but released in ’66; and I obviously wouldn’t begrudge choices of 1967 or ‘68).

(Note: This is a legitimate thought exercise I am interested in engaging in. Please share your responses in the comments.)

But you don’t have to go too far down the list to reach Oasis’s 1994 and 1995.

In other words, it is my opinion that Oasis was not only the greatest band in the world those two years, but they were about as great as ANY rock band has ever been those two years.

So everything I say here is focused mostly on those two years and not the fifteen year hangover that followed as the band lost its juice then struggled mightily to get it back.

The Gallaghers as kids

The Gallaghers as kids

Oasis formed in 1991 when Liam Gallagher and some of his buddies performed at a nightclub in Manchester. Liam brought his brother, Noel, along. Noel thought it was a pretty bad show, but he had a bunch of written songs and nobody willing to play them, so he asked the band – which had recently changed its name from The Rain to Oasis – if he could join the band as their lead guitarist and songwriter.

Immediately, Oasis began forming an identity that revolved around the Gallagher brothers’ clashing styles. Noel could write a hell of a song. From the start (PARTICULARLY at the start) he had an uncanny ear for pop hooks.

He also “stole like an artist,” repurposing famous bits of music, occasionally whole tunes. He always made it sound right and correct, though, as if all great melodies must at some point pass through Noel Gallagher’s pen.

But the real rock star of the group was Liam. Liam is not a particularly skillful singer from a technical perspective. His range is pretty small. But he has a strength and swagger to his vocal chords, a presence that’s magnetic. He snarls and bites.

oasis-liam

Liam Gallagher

On top of this brotherly chemistry was plenty of band chemistry. Oasis slathered their songs in huge rock instrumentation: Fuzzy guitars (with Noel contributing crack solos), booming drums, rumbling bass. They didn’t exactly put it together in a discrete, artful way, but their intuition of the crescendo and catharsis and ROYALTY of rock and roll is what set them apart from their peers and what makes their best music infinitely listenable.

I’m not exactly an expert on British music of the 1980s, but my impression is that a lot of it is bullshit. It’s mopey and smarmy and idiosyncratic. What I love about Oasis is that they have no patience for any of this. Rock and roll to them is what it was to James Brown and to Mick Jagger and to Jimi Hendrix. They are 100% Elvis and 0% Bob Dylan.

"Stop crying your heart out!" - Noel

“Stop crying your heart out!” – Noel

From their early tracks, you can hear that Oasis studied bands that came two generations before them, not one generation. It sounds immediately like classic rock, but filtered through life in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They’re difficult to place a genre: I’ve always hated calling them “Britpop” (the scene they’re usually associated with) because they lack the snappy grooviness I associate with that moniker. “Alternative” seems wrong, too, as the Gallaghers don’t have a counter-culture bone in their bodies. “Pop rock” is too gentle, and “power pop” only captures about half of it.

The genre label that most makes sense to me is simply “rock and roll.” Perhaps I’m romanticizing the band too much, but the way they drown their tunes in bluster and lyrics about living forever sounds more like Bo Diddley than The Stone Roses or REM to me.

The worst overall thing you can say about Oasis’s peak is that they couldn’t be bothered to write good lyrics for most of their songs, caring more about the sound of words than the meaning of them. When the tunes are good, though, it doesn’t seem to matter: I care far more about the awesome guitar climax of “Champagne Supernova” than the fact that it contains the idiotic lyric “Slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball.”

In 1993, two years after forming, the band had an impressive live set that won the ears of the owner of a recording studio. He invited them to try a live show in Scotland as an audition. The band spent the next few days emptying their bank accounts and begging friends to lend them money so they could afford a van rental.

Liam circa 93

Liam circa 93

But when the band got to the concert hall, their name had been left off the set list. Though nobody’s quite clear at this point exactly how it happened, Oasis either snuck in, bullied the bouncer, or smooth-talked someone into giving them a half hour to perform. The band got on stage and blew the pants off the joint. Less than a week later, Oasis had a record deal.

The band went to work, blasting jams and abusing substances like true rock stars. Still, the stuff that trickled out was great. Despite small printings and a low-profile label, early pressings of singles earned significant radio airplay.

And when Definitely Maybe dropped in 1994, it surpassed everyone’s wildest expectations, earning rave reviews and setting debut sellout records.

oasis-definitely-maybeIt’s not hard to hear why: Definitely Maybe is rock and roll of the giddiest order. The production is beefy and overpowering, almost recklessly so, and the songs are fantastic.

The album bursts out of the gate with hyperintensity and an obvious statement: “Tonight, I’m a rock and roll star.” Searing and orgasmic, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” is one of the best lead-off tracks you’ll hear, setting the tone and stealing your attention from the start.

But the pace doesn’t relent. Moments after “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” ends, we’re treated to the thick and wonderful guitar stew of “Shakermaker,” which cops the hook from “I’d like to the teach the world to sing”.

And so the album continues as a series of tracks good enough that they could lead off Greatest Hits discs of lesser bands, yet feel completely effortless and intuitive for Oasis.

Two other absolute favorites are “Cigarettes & Alcohol,” which is driven by the band’s best riff, and “Slide Away,” the closest song here to a love song — unless you count “Digsy’s Dinner,” which no one ever seems to do. (I could listen to “Digsy’s Dinner” every day and never get tired of it.)

But the obvious highlight of the album — and Oasis’s career, if you ask me — is “Live Forever.” Everything about it is perfect: From the romanticism in the lyrics, to Noel’s aching guitar solos, to even the song’s title. My favorite moment of the song has to be the last chorus, when Liam switches from falsetto to his regular snarl. That’s the sound of a band creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, because — from “Live Forever” onwards — Oasis would live forever in rock’s annals.

Whenever I rank my all-time favorite albums, Definitely Maybe usually ends up as #3 or #4, and never below #5. “Live Forever” never places below #10 on my list of favorite songs, either.

Noel and fellow British star Robbie Williams in 1995 (BBC)

Noel and fellow British star Robbie Williams in 1995 (BBC)

Oasis didn’t wait long to hit the studios — in fact, they constantly recorded between shows, piling B-sides on top of the singles. The B-sides were almost always great, sometimes just as good as the singles. And occasionally — as with “Acquiesce” attached to the single of “Some Might Say” — the non-singles blew the headlining tracks out of the water.

Less than a year after Definitely Maybe, Oasis hit the studios to record a new album in what would become their most historic recording sessions. Noel brought a slate of songs that, at their peak, matched or surpassed most of Definitely Maybe.

But Liam and Noel began to fight at a level beyond their normal quarreling. Noel wanted to provide vocals for his three favorite compositions of the album, “Wonderwall,” “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” and “Champagne Supernova,” while Liam — the band’s dedicated vocalist — refused to yield singing responsibilities for “his” band.

They reached a compromise, with Liam singing “Wonderwall” and Noel singing “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” which had notes too high for Liam. (And each vocal part is so perfect, it’s hard to imagine either song sung by the other.)

But when it came time to record “Champagne Supernova,” they couldn’t come to an agreement. Liam tried, but had trouble with the higher notes, and Noel was derisive. (Liam stormed out and went to the pub, bringing some of his pubmates back to heckle Noel as he recorded the vocals for “Anger.”) In the end, Liam pulled the part off.

oasis-morning-gloryThe release of the band’s second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, was troublesome. The band was hastily sued for the song “Step Out,” which bears more than a passing resemblance to Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Eveything’s Alright).” Future printings would exclude the track.

And the reviews were tepid.Critics did not take well to the bloated album length, the ponderous power ballads, and the stupid lyrics.

Fans didn’t mind at all, though, as the album was a certified smash, even crossing over to American radio. Of the album’s ten songs, six were released as singles.

I find that Morning Glory has three of the band’s absolute best songs, but that the quality dips pretty quickly after that. The tracks are longer than they should be (literally every song except the three mentioned would be significantly improved if the band had edited out a minute). The melodies of Morning Glory are generally not quite as intoxicating as those on Definitely Maybe.

Still, this it’s hard to complete a listen of Morning Glory and not be bowled over at the band’s power. From “Hello,” the hooky opener, to “Champagne Supernova,” the cathartic hurricane that closes it, Morning Glory is charged and compelling, even in its more waterlogged moments.

But the reason that I most often spin Morning Glory is for those three gems. In my order of preference:

The video for "Champagne Supernova" is one of the most 90s things there is

The video for “Champagne Supernova” is one of the most 90s things there is

“Champagne Supernova” is the album’s worst abuser of “brickwall” mastering to make the song sound LOUD. But that’s a large reason the song works… It builds like a firestorm, rising until you think the band has hit maximum intensity, and then rising just a little bit more. Its seven minutes feel earned. The way the song fades into the distance during its final minute is the perfect way to end an album.

“Don’t Look Back in Anger” has one of the band’s most soaring choruses. This was the world’s introduction to Noel’s singing, and he delivers a stunner, lifting the high notes to the stratosphere. Perfect melody, perfect guitarwork, perfect vocals, perfect song.

"Maybe you're gonna be the one that saves me"

“Maybe you’re gonna be the one that saves me”

But the best song on the album — and the band’s enduring legacy — is of course “Wonderwall,” the band’s most tender moment and (along with “Live Forever”) Liam Gallagher’s entry into the pantheon of rock vocal performances. It’s quiet for an Oasis song, but reveals an expressiveness that is usually drowned out by power chords.

They’re hardly the only highlights; “Cast No Shadow” has a great Liam-Noel harmonizing chorus, “Some Might Say” has a decent guitar groove, and “Hello” is the most danceable Oasis song.

There are also some striking weak points to the album that are easy to forget when you’re lost in “Wonderwall.” “She’s Electric” tries twice as hard as “Digsy’s Dinner” but is less than half as effective. Listen to the album’s whole fifty minutes and the bloat wears on you: The dumb filler tracks, the overlong intro to “Morning Glory,” and the listless “Hey Now” start to seem quite troublesome.

This problem of musical bloating is a harbinger for what would do the band in: Indulgence and complacency. This self-entitled attitude resulted in crap-covered, more-is-more gems that could have used some trimming and reining in.

READ PART 2 OF THIS ARTICLE: Oasis Retrospective 1996-2009

In 2010, the Brit Awards (British equivalent to Grammies) would select Morning Glory as the best British album of the previous 30 years.

In 2010, the Brit Awards (British equivalent to Grammies) would select Morning Glory as the best British album of the previous 30 years. Liam threw the microphone into the stands and was subsequently called a “knobhead” by the award show host. Oh, England.

Dan S.

Dan is the editor of Earn This. He co-founded the site in 2009.

2 thoughts on “Oasis Retrospective 1991-1995: Please don’t put your life in the hands of a rock and roll band

  1. I always loved Rolling Stone’s description of them: “The lager-swilling Manchester louts in Oasis probably couldn’t have counted to 20 without eating their shoes, but damn, they knew how to shake up a song.”

    The first two albums are great, and yes, there’s no description for them other than “rock” or “rock and roll.” Blur was Britpop.

    But I’m highly offended at the lack of mention of “Roll With It” off MG. Might be my favorite song on the album. I’m not sure I have 5 better songs for putting me in a good mood, and the “kiss the girl” part just sounds fantastic.

    • “Roll With It” is okay by me. It’s not as much of a home run for me as it is for you, but I don’t have anything ill to say about it.

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