On the Crest of a Wave

Alex Niven, Definitely Maybe

Bloomsbury, 144pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781623566760

reviewed by David Stubbs

Oasis were central to the Nineties not just as one of its most popular groups, among the top two or three immediately cited when the word Britpop is invoked, but also to the decade as experienced in the UK. They feel like a group whose success was willed into being by a generation of mainstream music lovers who, post-rave, had fallen in love with communalism again. The diversity and fragmentation that punk and post-punk had engendered during the 1980s and beyond left people feeling confused, alienated by the welter of unfamiliar names and new styles with which they were bombarded by the weekly music press, even Top Of The Pops. Couldn’t it be like the Sixties again, when it was basically just The Beatles, The Stones and The Kinks, groups 'we' were all into, so were all our mates, big white guitar music setting its youthful male face confidently towards the future? Nothing against synths, nothing against ethnic minorities, nothing against women but all those sub-cultures, sub-categories, all that eclecticism and experimentation ... blokes, guitars, that’s the essential rock’n’roll experience when it comes down to it, isn’t it?

This unspoken but deep-seated desire for togetherness on a large scale, all of us singing along to big tunes we all knew in a field first found expression in the remarkable and sudden success of The Stone Roses, who started life as an indie, even Goth-tinged band but on the strength of their debut album, and its opening plea 'I Wanna Be Adored', found themselves the subject of an adulation that seemed out of proportion to the group’s merits, though merit they certainly had. It was unnerving to see in what numbers people gathered to see the group, this one group on Spike Island, the four young men themselves barely audible or visible to many who were there. But what mattered was to be there, then.

The Roses were perhaps unnerved and unready for the responsibility of this newly founded kingship, this massive centrality. They sat out the next four years, though this was primarily due to disputes with their former record company Silvertone, arising in part from their having succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations. By the time they re-emerged with their second album, The Second Coming in late 1994, another group of gobby Mancunians had slipped onto the throne in their stead. Oasis’s debut album Definitely Maybe, released the same year, sold 86,000 in its first week. It was as if it didn’t matter who occupied this giant space, as long as they were big, white, rocky and suitably edgy and caustic. The Roses missed their chance to capitalise. Too bad. Okay, Oasis. You’ll do just fine.

By 1996, at which point Oasis were at their zenith, it felt like there was a concerted replication to replicate the year 1966 in all its white heat. Oasis palling around with Tony Blair, a year away from election mirrored Wilson and The Beatles. Euro 96, hosted in England sought to emulate the success of the 1966 World Cup at the same site, Wembley Stadium. The appropriation of the Union Flag for fashionable attire was ironic à la the Carnaby Street modish Sixties, but also at another level sincere - a cocky assertion of British culture over the American variety. Chris Evans was the new Simon Dee, and so on and so forth. This was the sanguine crest of a decade in which the twin illusion of eternal world peace and increased personal prosperity made the Nineties feel like the most untroubled times in living memory. Oasis were riding this crest, bad boys made good, sorted and mad for it, whatever 'it' was. The wheel of indie rock had come full circle. Oasis were the anti-Joy Division, on the other side of the sun from all that morbid angst, alienation and despair.

All if this is a somewhat aerial view of Oasis and the place they took in the cultural scheme of things, how quickly they seized the enormous space that opened up for them in the collective craving for a retro-fit. However, why Oasis? Were they really just any old Joes as this analysis seems to imply?

Alex Niven’s excellent study of Definitely Maybe shares the idea that Oasis went into a steep decline early in their career and came to represent everything that was wrong about Britpop in its hubristic complacency. However, with Oasis having become a slightly lazy byword for the eventually overwhelming onset of new white rock conservatism, whose bequest is the drearily après-garde likes of The Arctic Monkeys, Niven makes the vital point that at their beginnings, Oasis represented something which at the time felt blazing, exciting, angry and intoxicating and necessary as a positive counter to the needless, indulgent despondency of Nirvana - no more so on their debut album, which even an overall non-fan of the group like myself recognises was and remains a great recording, one which burned a new cigarette hole in the fabric of its day.

The 33 1/3 series is a unique opportunity for writers to take a single album, examine it in greater depth, place it in a much wider cultural context and take advantage of the hindsight unavailable to music critics forced to make sense of an album at the time of its release, before it’s had time to take its place in the world. It’s set a very high standard which Niven more than meets here, offering a smorgasbord for thought for Oasis scholars and watchers. He leaves no song unturned, subjecting each to the sort of breakdown and appreciative analysis they’ve rarely enjoyed, his scrutiny yielding fresh insights. 'Live Forever,' he concludes, showed how Oasis resolved to find a way out of rock’s default state of nihilistic despair, to discover a 'hope borne out of hopelessness', in which the poor are liberated because they see, feel and experience life in a way the rich never could.

Niven makes a strong case that Noel and Liam’s class origins were crucial to their identity, content, attitude and creative energy. Their best work was made before Britpop ever existed, when they hadn’t a pot to piss in. He emphatically rebuffs John Harris’s claim in The Last Party, his study of Britpop, that the Oasis lads enjoyed a rather less deprived upbringing than they made out and that Burnage, their home district, was practically suburban. On the contrary, The Gallaghers were of solidly working class stock and this was one of the reasons for their disdain for Cobain, whose success only seemed to make him mopier. 'Cobain had everything and was miserable about it and we had fuck all,' Gallagher would say. 'And I still thought getting up in the morning was the greatest thing ever, because you didn’t know where you’d end up at night.' This stark contrast in temperament, as well as privilege, was one of the most significant motors of Oasis’s early success, though it offers a clue to their eventual artistic failure.

Niven contrasts the 'gothic cod-intellectualism' of grunge with Definitely Maybe’s 'message of affirmation and hope ... couched in a language of remarkable clarity.' He cites sometimes overlooked songs like 'Acquiesce' also, which indeed have about them a swirling, toxic incandescence which promised a great deal more than the drear, Caucasian caution with which Oasis would later become associated, feel very much of a piece with the neo-psychedelic, epiphanic indie sound that swirled over the early '90s, only to be displaced by the self-satisfied, bright blue skies of Britpop.

However, whereas a lot of the bands associated with this movement - the 'shoegazing' wing, for instance - had a fey, enervated, heavy-eyelidded and middle class air about them, Oasis were a complex emotional brew of resentment, hedonism, socialism and misanthropy, ultimately a need to find escape of some sort, as most vividly expressed in Noel’s words and Liam’s broad, scathing tones on 'Rock’n’Roll Star'. Often, Noel’s own, rather less cosy side was overlooked. 'Half A World Away' has become widely known and loved as the theme to the BBC sitcom The Royle Family, but, observes Niven, its overtly warm, McCartney-esque tones belie a lyric riven with self-disgust, a desire for escape that has mutated into a desire to be buried in a hole.

Niven sees less of a parallel with The Beatles, more with The Sex Pistols, particularly the broadsword of Lydon’s scalding, sardonic vocals, perhaps channeling some of the lairiness of his Irish ancestry. There’s something of that in the fighting Gallagher spirit also. He draws parallels with the way groups like The Beastie Boys and Public Enemy tore up the roots of black music in their hip-hop sampling and the way Oasis appropriated in their songs, often bordering on plagiarism, a great tradition that included Neil Young, Slade, The Jam, Burt Bacharach, the New Seekers even. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that; I always saw those references as a series of signs that Oasis were here to set rock music back on the grey, orthodox, white-lined main road of traditionalism but then, that might be my jaundice at work. It’s refreshing and provoking, rather than dismaying, to have that assumption challenged, in a book whose purpose it is to rehabilitate a group in whom confidence was eventually lost - even Noel, in unguarded moments, would say that his career has been one of diminishing returns.

Ultimately, as Niven agrees, Oasis did fall short, precisely when they conquered the world. Once detached from their Manchester origins, the 'stony rubbish' to use Eliot’s phrase as appropriated from The Wasteland, once overcome by success, they become detached from their creative wellsprings. 'The genius of early Oasis lay in their ability ... to render the sound of a people with virtually nothing working out a way of seizing power by demanding people pay attention to the forceful skills they did possess.' However, when Oasis gained something, found themselves rolling in the millions, unlike other British artists from The Beatles and the Stones to Bowie, they lacked the craft, guile, vision and poise to kick on and expand musically. They’d said and done it all with the first album, their best and only shot. They had nothing more to say, merely bobbed on like a battleship dead in the water, around which the vast retro-flotilla of Britpop coalesced, in all their reluctance to move on and face the future.

Once, however, Oasis did feel absolutely vital, a force of nature. Niven themes his chapters to reflect this; 'Earth', 'Water', 'Fire' and 'Air' - the 'Water' chapter in particular is pertinent about the predominant liquid motif that abounded in Nineties pop culture. This reflecting the grand, aspirational vagueness of Oasis but also the fact that at their best they were not dull, retro, conservative but absolutely elemental. I’d recommend this book to anyone but the person I’d recommend it to above all is Noel Gallagher. Could it be that the volcanic genius he once possessed is not all spent and erupted, not extinct but merely dormant? That like Bowie, he might have one last major lucid statement in him yet?
David Stubbs is a journalist and author whose books include The Prince Charles Letters and Fear Of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen. His most recent book is Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany.