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LitMonkey Special Review: “Oasis’ Definitely Maybe” by Alex Niven

June 10, 2014

The phenomenon of bands doing anniversary shows, where they play entire albums start to finish 10, 20, 25, or 40 years after the albums release, is not new but it seems to have reached an all-time high in 2014. Part of this is probably the nostalgia machine doing what it does best – getting the teens of yesterday to spend money today, and the teens of today wistful for a time they just barely missed – but I also believe that it’s because 1994 is one of the all-time greatest calendar years that music has ever seen. Nathan Rabin, contributing to the semi-regular A.V. Club series “My Favorite Music Year” agrees, writing about how “back when I was 18 [in 1994], music seemed to matter in a way it didn’t before and hasn’t since.” I am two years younger than Rabin, but I agree with every word he says when he writes:

Maybe it was the pummeling intensity of adolescence and the way it makes everything, even the very trivial, seem like a matter of life and death. Or maybe it was just that we had so little money, so few resources, and such meager access to music, especially new music, that we treasured each cassette in a way that would be imaginable today. At 18, the idea that one day I would have a little portable computer that could hold 10,000 songs at a time would have blown my mind.

It’s not just those of us who reached their critical musical age in 1994 who feel this way though. Buzzfeed asked the question at the very end of 2013 – “Was 1994 actually the best year for music ever?” (Their answer: “Probably, yeah”) – and then went on to post a list of 36 albums that turn 20 this year. This being Buzzfeed, not all that they cite are all time greats (Ace of Base!), but, in a year when a record breaking eight alt-rock albums topped Billboard, I think it’s safe to say that 1994 was – at least for rock music fans – one of the greatest years of all time.[1] I look back at 1994 today and the bands that come to mind as representative of the era all put out monumental albums that year. I can’t even imagine records of this magnitude and lasting importance all coming out in the same year nowadays: Weezer, Weezer (Blue Album); Beck, Mellow Gold; Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral; Nirvana, MTV Unplugged In New York;Soundgarden, Superunknown; Pearl Jam, Vitalogy; Green Day, Dookie; Stone Temple Pilots, Purple; Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary; Hole, Live Through This; Liz Phair, Whip Smart; R.E.M., Monster; Ween, Chocolate and Cheese.

A few of those albums would make my “desert island” list, but if I’m being honest I’d have to admit that if you’d asked me sometime in early in 1995 to make my year-end list, none of those would have been on top as my favorite album of 1994. My favorite album actually came from a different corner of the world, musically and geographically– Britpop. Standing atop all of the alt-rock albums listed above, not to mention other classic 1994 Britpop albums from Blur (Parklife) and Suede (Dog Man Star) was Oasis’ debut album, Definitely Maybe. The legacy of Definitely Maybe has been tarnished beyond repair by the mess that Oasis has left in its wake in the 20 years since. Ask someone about that album now and they will either tell you that (1) it was a good but not great album[2], or (2) Oasis is terrible other than a few songs (which probably come from their second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?).[3] The people in category (2) are late music adopters. They aren’t wrong that (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? has a few really good songs on it, but those people aren’t the ones who would have been listening to a new UK band’s revolutionary debut album, nor are they the ones likely reading any books in the 33-1/3 series. 33-1/3 readers are early adopters of new music and trends, careful and critical listeners, and often knowledgeable music historians – in a phrase, music nerds. And yet I suspect nearly all of these music aficionados would fall into category (1), describing Definitely Maybe as a good but not great album, failing to realize that in 1994 NME made it its Album of the Year. Even someone like me – who lived and breathed Oasis in late 1994-early 1995, who thought “Live Forever” was the single greatest song ever written, who was one of the first in the U.S. to see Oasis live when they played somewhere in New York City in ’94[4] – sometimes fails to remember how special this album was, like here, when I ranked it 8th (below Pearl Jam’s Ten) in my list of my favorite debut albums of all time (where the debut album is also the artist’s best album).

That’s all a really long introduction to Alex Niven’s 33-1/3 book, Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. Niven’s book contains answers to all of the questions you may be asking after reading that introduction: Is Definitely Maybe really a great album? What sets it apart from other Britpop and other rock or pop albums from the era (like those on the list above)? Why do we denigrate this album based on everything that Oasis did in its aftermath? And how did a band that was the biggest thing to come out of the UK since the Beatles produce nothing but sh*t after 1995, even though they (somewhat) stuck together, released many more albums and never once changed their sound?

Niven deftly answers each of these questions while examining Definitely Maybe both as a complete product and on a song-by-song basis. Lyrically, sonically, socio-politically, emotionally, Definitely Maybe has everything that makes up a great album. Niven details how Noel Gallagher’s seemingly simple lyrics (sung by his brother Liam) stand alone as representative of the feeling of the time, a strange mixture of hopelessness and optimism, a sense that the odds were stacked against you and you’d probably lose, but maybe, just maybe …. He shows how Definitely Maybe is not a collection of singles but thematic, with recurring references to the four elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Those elements, which are almost spiritual in nature, are set against the base aspects of real life that the bandmates and their brethren face every day – lives full of cigarettes and alcohol, gin and tonic, even Mr. Clean and Alka Seltzer. Noel is prone to a lyric like this, from the classic “Supersonic”:

Can I ride with you in your BMW?
You can sail with me in my yellow submarine

But that throwaway line (which no one ever forgets) is just an appetizer to get to the meat, the chorus, the brilliant section that is this:

‘Cause my friend said he’d take you home
He sits in a corner all alone
He lives under a waterfall
Nobody can see him
Nobody can ever hear him call

I’d never really thought about how terrific Oasis’ lyrics generally are, having more or less bought into conventional wisdom (as noted by Niven, quoting Q Magazine critic David Cavanagh) that Noel’s lyrics “scan; they fill a hole; end of story. They say nothing much about anything.” Niven will grant you that about “the nonsense rhymes of ‘Supersonic’” but he doesn’t end the analysis there:

The vast majority of pop lyrics are nonsensical, trite and embarrassingly basic. … Definitely Maybe is a great album – a great lyrical album – in part because it disregards pseudo-literary language and narrative vignettes in favour of the socio-political slogan and the instantaneous fragment. As working-class artists, Oasis succeeded in saying urgent, articulate things about British culture, but they used very different means of expression from the art-school vocabulary and sub-Philip Larkin sixth-form poetry of contemporaries like Suede and Blur. Though they have the potential to be just as meaningful, pop lyrics are not poetry. To dismiss Oasis’s lyric writing as sub-standard is, at best, to misread the true nature of pop, and, at worst, to be guilty of the sort of unconscious class prejudice that cloaks an aversion to working-class art beneath criticisms of grammar and accusations of intellectual weakness.

Niven spends the next two pages dissecting the chorus to “Supersonic”, discussing its rise from a high F# to a lower one, a comparison of their sound to the Smiths, a nod to the guitar riff near the end of the chorus, and finally the lyrics, hearkening again to an element (water) juxtaposed against the harshness of the situation (being alone and unseen, unheard).

This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as Niven proving, definitively, that Definitely Maybe is better than you remember it. That it’s great. As mentioned earlier, he looks at the album from all angles – sonically (Liam’s voice, the complex yet punk-style instrumentation, the sheer loudness of it), sociopolitically (post-Thatcher, pre-Blair UK), and emotionally (broken, but not beyond repair).

Meanwhile, what sets it apart from other Britpop and other rock or pop albums from the era? Definitely Maybe was the album that bridged different aspects of the musical landscape in the early-mid ‘90s like no other. At the time of Definitely Maybe, Oasis was worthy of being unironically called the “Sex Beatles”, a reference to their being a cross between the Fab Four and the Sex Pistols; is there another band that could bridge those two famous and infamous groups? Niven illustrates the ways in which Definitely Maybe is actually a mixture of grunge (specifically Nirvana’s Nevermind) and shoegaze (especially My Bloody Valentine and Verve). And while the early-‘90s bands were bleak (Niven calls Kurt Cobain a “nihilist capable of writing surpassingly awful lyrics about licking open sores and eating cancer”) and the post-’95 bands were all sunshine and semi-charmed lives (none more so than Oasis themselves), Niven points out over and over again through examination of both the lyrics and the music that Definitely Maybe is a constant battle of hope against hopelessness, the rare album that is both bleak and hopeful at once, much like 1994 was overall. For example, Niven explains, “Perhaps Oasis’s greatest single achievement, ‘Live Forever’ is a song that embodies nineties feelings of limitlessness and generality in a way that is both musically thrilling and philosophically moving. Definitely Maybe might be an album that often sounds oceanic, but ‘Live Forever’ takes oceanic feeling and fashions a profoundly meaningful message out of it.” This is what 1994 was in a nutshell –limitlessness and generality. It’s hard to communicate both feelings at once, but, as Niven shows, Definitely Maybe – and especially Live Forever – does just that. Neither the Blur “Life” trilogy or any grunge or alternative album that came before or after captures that quite as well.

Assuming he’s convinced you that Definitely Maybe is, in fact, great, then why do we denigrate this album based on everything that Oasis did in its aftermath? If “[o]ver 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 band in post-war Britain, with the obvious exception of their role models, The Beatles”, why do we so easily forget that any of this ever happened? Naturally, one tends to lump all of an artists work together, and later failures inevitably affect our memory of early successes to some degree. But not typically to the extent that it has with Oasis. The closest comparison I can come up with is the Strokes – after a game-changing debut album that was considered the rebirth of guitar rock and the New York City music scene, their next two albums were generally considered uneven and their two post-hiatus albums were mostly critically panned (though I stand by my soft spot for Angles). Nevertheless, no one questions or misremembers the greatness of Is This It?

Unfortunately, this is an area where the author could have gone a little deeper, rather than simply stating over and over what we all already know – everything that Oasis did post-Morning Glory is just plain awful, a “travesty of popular art” as he puts it. If you read between the lines though, you can infer from Niven why we treat Definitely Maybe differently than, say, Is This It? The problem is that on its surface, Definitely Maybe sounds a lot like later Oasis music. A prime example of this is the lead track, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”. Niven writes:

Even more impressive is [Liam’s] searing, abrasive vocal, which manages to distil both the fierce idealism of Oasis’s ambitions and the pain of the environment that had engendered that idealism in the first place. On the words of critic Tom Ewing, Liam Gallagher’s early vocals wear ‘a tear in the fabric of pop.’ In later years, Liam’s absurdly elongated diphthongs would become a cliché. But the way he sings about ‘sun-shee-yine’ here – like a word slicing though a lake – brings out the wild hopefulness of what the band were trying to achieve.

To the untrained ear, after Definitely Maybe nothing changed. In reality, they became a parody of themselves. Liam could forever sing about “sun-shee-yine,” but it worked in 1994 in a way it never would again. That’s because you can sing about dreaming of being a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star before you become one, but not after you become the biggest band in the world. “When it was written, Oasis were not rock ‘n’ roll stars but losers in a failing city. Take Manchester out of the equation and it becomes an empty song, a song that Liam Gallagher would continue to sing some for 15 years after he actually became a rock ‘n’ roll star.” Seen in that light, Definitely Maybe no longer sounds hopeful, idealistic or revolutionary. It sounds bloated. Because the music is similar-sounding, and Oasis has come to stand for something in 2014 that it didn’t in 1994, it’s hard to remember that Definitely Maybe onceactually had meaning.

How did Oasis get from there to here? By all accounts – including Niven’s – the answer is Noel Gallagher. In 1991, Noel was the last member of the original five-man band to be added to Oasis, “but it was only after the addition of [Noel] that the band became a serious project. After watching Oasis play their first gig in August of that year, Noel agreed to join the band, and soon became lead guitarist, principal songwriter and ostensible leader.” There can be no debate about this – the brilliance and determination of Noel Gallagher made Oasis great. But in the beginning, if Noel wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star he had to do the dirty work, fighting his way from the ground up, which meant relying on the limited means at his disposal, including his band-mates. Niven explains when talking about “Shakermaker”, a song that succeeds because it is “the sound of apparent no-hopers suddenly discovering that they can create a magic formula out of limited means and rudimentary materials”:

This core of primitivism was the secret of Oasis’s early sound. Before string sections and prog-rock instrumentals became a stock feature of Noel Gallagher’s arrangements, Oasis derived a maximum of power from a bare minimum of musical elements. Without the massed financial backing he would acquire in later years, which meant that Oasis effectively became a band of session musicians, of Definitely Maybe Gallagher was forced to rely on the skills of the people around him – Bonehead’s [guitarist Paul Arthur] concrete barre chords, Guigsy’s [bassist Paul McGuigan] root-note bass parts, his brother’s rapturous punk howl.

Not unexpectedly, the rush of immediate success and money got to Noel’s head. Niven doesn’t talk at all about the many tabloid escapades of the brothers of the notorious rivalry between the two. He notes that that’s been covered elsewhere, everywhere. Anyway, boys being lads doesn’t necessarily limit their musical potential. But money (and the politics of being rich) did destroy Oasis. Noel quickly forgot what enabled him to make Oasis great, first firing drummer Tony McCarroll in 1995, the “hero” of Definitely Maybe according to Niven. Replacing McCarroll with session musician Alan White “was a serious misjudgment of what made Oasis such a worthwhile proposition in the first place. McCarroll’s drumming on Definitely Maybe is rudimentary, but then so too, in the best possible sense, is the songwriting, and so are the arrangements. … After McCarroll’s sacking, Oasis’s sound would lose this rhythmic backbone and become increasingly shapeless and over-refined. More importantly, McCarroll’s departure from Oasis marked the moment that they effectively ceased to be a Manchester band. ” Niven goes on to explain how being rich, and the social status that came with it, destroyed Oasis’ “orientation”, such that they became a hollow, bloated, stadium-rock band. Where once they were a quintessential anti-Thatcher outfit (even if they came after her reign), they had become a band famous for their association with right-winger Tony Blair. In 1999 Bonehead and Guigsy left Oasis as well, leaving the Gallagher brothers to put out albums that sounded like – but weren’t quite – Oasis albums. Expensive facsimiles of Definitely Maybe.

I’ve often said that the goal of a 33-1/3 book is to get the reader to enjoy and appreciate the album more after reading the book. Niven agrees, as from the first paragraph he makes clear that this is what he set out to do. By this measure, Oasis’ Definitely Maybe (the book) is a wild success. Unlike other entries in the series, this isn’t a case of finding new meaning in the album; this is a case of re-discovering what we once loved. If I have one quibble it’s in Niven’s failure to go beyond Definitely Maybe in just a little more detail. We don’t learn much about the history of the five men who comprised the original lineup (especially “everymen” Bonehead, Guigsy and McCarroll), nor is there enough talk about how things spiraled out of control. To be fair, the before and after are both touched upon, but I think a full chapter could have been devoted to each. That may not be the explicit purpose of a 33-1/3, but the best ones (e.g., Pixies Doolittle by Ben Sisario) manage to accomplish this without leaving anything on the table regarding the album itself. Still, Definitely Maybe is a great addition to the 33-1/3 canon.

————————————————

 

[1] It was a great year for non-alt-rock music as well: Beastie Boys, Ill Communication; The Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die; Nas, Illmatic; Portishead, Dummy; Blur, Parklife; Suede, Dog Man Star; Guided by Voices, Bee Thousand.

[2] The most overrated album of 1994?

[3] I’m talking strictly about people in the U.S. In an NME.com poll taken in 2006 Definitely Maybe was voted the best album of all time, two Beatles albums, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Revolver, coming in second and third.

[4] I can’t remember where it was though I think it was Hammerstein Ballroom. I know that by the time of their 1995 show at Roseland I was priced out.

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  1. LitMonkey – July 2014 | 2bitmonkey

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