In spite of everything that Oasis would become on record, on stage, in the tabloids, Definitely Maybe stands above it all
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Nothing ages me faster than a deluxe reissue of a college or high school staple for its so and so anniversary. I understand that, financially, the music industry is not in the same place that it was when I was in high school, so I can understand the desire for the industry to want to milk as much as it can from its consumers. But if I’ve said this once, I’ve said it a thousand times: “I don’t recall this much fuss when The White Album turned 20.” In fact, during my high school years (1985-1989), if the industry was as anniversary crazy as it is today, we would have seen the 20th anniversary of 10 — yes, 10! — Beatles albums.
Just as I managed to get past the onslaught of Nirvana reissues, tributes, and anniversaries that have steadily poured out over the past few years, I am suddenly confronted once again with how old I actually am. In addition to 2014 marking the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s death, this spring and summer also coincides with the 20th anniversary of Oasis’ arrival. Yes, the band that so many (including myself) loved to hate is 20 years old, and as such, the group’s debut album, Definitely Maybe, is being re-released, complete with demos, live versions, lost tracks, and of course, the original album in all its re-mastered glory.
When I say glory, I mean it. I don’t mean to sound facetious or come off as condescending, nor am I trying to pun off the group’s second album. I truly believe that Definitely Maybe is one of the best rock albums, and certainly is among the very best debuts, in the entire genre, even if I think that the majority of the band’s other output was merely so-so. While I will concur that Oasis’ two immediate follow-up albums, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and Be Here Now are both relatively strong albums, and certainly proved far more successful both in album sales and chart appearance, I stand firm in saying that they would never have happened if not for Definitely Maybe. Before Captain Obvious labels get applied, I understand that of course you can’t have a second or third album without a number first. That isn’t what I mean. Rather, the huge hits on Morning Glory (“Don’t Look Back In Anger”, “Wonderwall”, and “Champagne Supernova”) are all retreads of songs first heard on Definitely Maybe; perhaps not literally, but certainly inspirationally. Even Noel Gallagher himself, the band’s principle songwriter and leader said, “I’ve pretty much summed up everything I wanted to say in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’, ‘Live Forever’, and ‘Cigarettes & Alcohol’, after that I’m repeating myself, but in a different way.”
It’s the “different way” that makes all the difference. Oasis didn’t just repeat a successful formula the way Coldplay carbon-copied the achievements of A Rush of Blood to the Head when they made X+Y, nor did they just decide to rework a few chords to “create” a new song a la Nickelback. No, Oasis (well, Noel) managed to take elements from virtually every big, influential UK act that came out of the British Invasion and crafted material that sounded fresh and new, while at the same time connected the listener to a time early in rock’s history. Consider what was popular at the time overseas: baggy/Madchester was fading, rave culture was on the rise, and shoegaze’s second generation was just getting started. To say there was a lack of traditional rock guitar would be an understatement, and one which Oasis sought to correct.
At the time of Oasis’ debut, the two other jewels in Britpop’s crown, Blur and Suede, had been battling back and forth for a couple of years, with neither making much headway in the States; hell, in the U.S., Suede wasn’t even allowed to be called Suede, but had to go by the name London Suede. That would all change with the arrival of Definitely Maybe. It isn’t that Oasis set out to tear down and rebuild the medium. That can’t be done by simply employing successful elements of already established legends and styles, like ripping off T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong” and Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie”, both used quite obviously on Oasis’ fourth single, “Cigarettes and Alcohol”. They just wanted to be the greatest rock band in the world, after the Beatles of course. In the liner notes, perhaps in defense of his use of the New Seekers’ “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” when writing the band’s second single, “Shakermaker”, Noel is quoted rather matter-of-factly as saying, “The Beatles, the greatest band in history, write “Hey Jude” and it’s a cheap-shot melody. Our singles are cheap-shot melodies. Never be afraid of the obvious, because it’s all been done before.”
Despite the fact that they already thought of themselves as “the next Beatles” and made no bones about wanting to be one of the biggest, most successful bands in the world, Definitely Maybe was not a game-changer in making music the way Nevermind was or OK Computer would be. I firmly believe that Blur was the far more creative, technical, and original band of the two (especially after learning from the mistakes of their debut, Leisure), but when it came to making pop music that could find a footing on both sides of the pond, Oasis had it nailed down — for a few reasons.
The first was that in spite of Oasis being a firmly British band (their demo tape was a Union Jack image swirled), they didn’t let that consume them or become an identifying factor for the group, at least not in a way alienating to non-Britons. Oasis used British imagery as part of their schtick, but it didn’t dominate the music. Blur made no qualms about wanting to pursue a distinctly British feel on their albums, and they did so very successfully…in the UK. But like the Jam before them, one of the most important and influential bands post-‘76/’77, their devotion to their homeland would fail to resonate with the Yankees overseas, and as a result would fail to sell records in the numbers they were used to at home.
The second and perhaps main reason was the group’s use of guitars. It may not seem like much, or may seem too obvious to rest a lot of the band’s success on the guitar, but think about when Radiohead first appeared. There was such a lack of guitar-based rock in the UK at the time that the only thing people would talk about was how Radiohead had three guitarists, as if that was completely unheard of (which, at the time, it kind of was).
A third reason for Oasis’ success overseas, both in general and over Blur, could be tied to having to sign to Sony for worldwide distribution due to issues securing an American contract through their label, Creation, who actually had to pay license to Sony to distribute the band in the UK. So, in addition to the creative marketing that the band used at home, they also had the long reach courtesy of Sony. But, as that was out of the band’s actual control, as opposed to their image and music, this might very well be chalked up to being at the right place at the right time.
As implied in the beginning of this piece, 20 years ago also lands us in the middle of grunge and all that is associated with it. And, in the US at the time, grunge (and maybe G-funk) was the only thing that seemed to matter. Oasis’ ability to blend in the elements of psychedelia (both from the ’60s and the updated versions associated with baggy), the swirling haze of dream pop and shoegaze, the melodic tendencies of a dozen other bands, and the crunch of guitar (though certainly not as abrasive as grunge or post-grunge) let Oasis slip nicely into what was happening in both countries. In the UK, kids weaned on Manchester’s continually evolving sounds would feel right at home listening to a track like “Up in the Sky” (a song that, when slowed down, would probably fit nicely on Ride’s Nowhere) just as much as an American kid might gravitate towards the crunchy feedback-laden guitar work in a track like album opener “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”.
(Read: Oasis’ Top 10 Songs)
When Definitely Maybe dropped in August of 1994, it wasn’t out of the blue. Oasis had steadily been releasing singles for a few months prior, beginning with “Supersonic” on April 11, 1994, six days after Cobain’s suicide. Though “Supersonic” was the first official single released by Oasis (and it even charted in the UK Top 40), the group had been passing around a ‘white label’ demo of their track “Columbia” for a few months prior, but with little interest generated. With the deluxe reissue of Definitely Maybe, that white label demo version has been included, as well as an alternate mix of “Columbia”. Not only does it show that the band was on to something, but also how easily the band could have been written off (especially when listening to the third version of the song included on disc three).
Usually I am not a fan of overloaded box sets with all sorts of multiple versions of songs that barely differ, but in this case I actually find it somewhat interesting to go back and hear what Oasis sounded like before they got a proper producer. For the most part, the demos represent a band that had good ideas and were on the right path, but that something was just not quite all the way there. In John Harris’ book Britpop!, Creation Records label head Tim Abbott summed it up perfectly: “[We] had a great sesh, and we listened to it over and over again. And all I could think was, ‘It ain’t got the attack.’ There was no immediacy.” Consider the two versions of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, the album version and the demo. Though it is still filled with swagger, the demo lacks the braggadocio of the finalized product, yet in a weird twist, actually highlights Liam Gallagher’s voice better. I have never been one to idolize Liam or his style. In fact, I think his voice is rather lackluster, minimal in range; and though he has been heralded as a cross between John Lennon and John Lydon, he’s far more nasally than either (and when you consider how Noel stood in successfully for his brother during the group’s Unplugged performance, it almost relegates Liam to desired but not necessary for the band’s success). But listening to Liam on these demos, dare I say that there is a bit of range in his singing? It almost begs the question as to what happened to it in mixing.
The most obvious thing taken away from the demo versions of these songs is that though Noel had the songwriting chops and vision, he was missing the objectivity that comes with an outside producer, in this case Mark Coyle, Dave Batchelor (a friend of Noel’s from his days working with Inspiral Carpets), and Owen Morris, an associate of Johnny Marr and an engineer-turned-producer trained in the ways of Phil Spector and Tony Visconti. It was Morris who would be instrumental in putting the balls on Definitely Maybe. In fact, it would be fair to say that without Morris, there would be no Definitely Maybe; at least not in the way we’ve come to know. One of the first things he did was effectively ego-check Noel when he stripped off all the guitar overdubs that Gallagher had layered over the album’s material, and as John Harris stated, “remoulded [the album] into something positively pile-driving.” Morris would go on to produce the first four Oasis albums.
Think about the band’s third single, a song described by Noel as “the tune that changed everything,” and the first that really woke people up to Oasis’ potential: “Live Forever”. In addition to cutting out part of Noel’s guitar solo to tighten things up and make it sound less like what he described as “Slash from Guns n’ Roses,” Morris excised the demo’s acoustic guitar intro to give the song a bit more weight, and instead had drummer Tony McCarroll play a beat that not only solidifies the song but helps give it a boost in becoming the monumental track it would eventually become known as. It’s almost a twisted irony that McCarroll played a part that almost immediately identifies the song but was later fired from the band by Noel for not having the skills to do the job.
In spite of Noel’s objections to an album having five singles, if one were to include both the white label release of “Columbia” and the US single for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, Oasis plucked six songs out of 11 from their debut album, four of which were released before the album, and three rather successfully. And that certainly does not suggest that the non-singles were not worthy of release. “Slide Away”, the last rocker on the album, and a love song on par with “Wonderwall” but with more “grr” and less “ahh,” was originally slated for release until Noel objected. Easily one of the strongest tracks on the album, it has gone on to become a fan favorite and I can only imagine that it’s amazing live. Every time I hear Liam wail that refrain, I see pyrotechnics going off all around.
In spite of everything that Oasis would become on record, on stage, in the tabloids, Definitely Maybe stands above it all. It came before the drama and the bullshit that fed into the media’s desire for conflict. Be it the interpersonal conflict between the brothers Gallagher or the inter-band conflicts with Blur and others, this album remains unscathed. Yes, the brothers fought prior to and during this album’s creation, release, and tour, but not to the point that it was overwhelming or distracting to the fans. That would come later. As would the “Battle of Britpop,” so labeled by the press when Blur’s label intentionally released their single “Country House” the same day as Oasis was set to release “Roll With It”. (Blur may have won the battle, but Oasis most certainly won the war.) And of course, the press’ obsession with the band’s antics, especially Liam’s, rather than the group’s music, wouldn’t overtake everything for another couple of albums. At the time of Definitely Maybe, there was nothing but hope and promise for Oasis. For a band that set out to take over the world and be the greatest rock and roll group since the Beatles, they were well on their way.
Essential Tracks: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, “Live Forever”, and “Slide Away”
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