Thursday, September 6, 2007

[075] Definitely Maybe

Album: Definitely Maybe
Artist: Oasis
Release Date: August 1994
Label: Creation [UK], Epic [US]
Producers: Oasis & Mark Coyle, with Owen Morris and Dave Batchelor

"I live my life for the stars that shine
People say it's just a waste of time
When they said I should feed my head
That to me was just a day in bed
I'll take my car and I drive real far
To where they're not concerned about the way we are
In my mind my dreams are real
Are you concerned about the way I feel
Tonight I'm a Rock 'n' Roll star"
- from "Rock 'n' Roll Star"

At the end of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, the opening track of Oasis’ debut album, while the rest of the band loses itself in noise, Liam Gallagher is seething, “It’s just Rock ‘n’ Roll!” over and over. It’s his brother Noel’s insistent, dismissive answer to a question that hadn’t been asked yet – How does your band explain all the obvious nicked riffs and cribbed melodies? And the answer is spot on; The Beatles and The Stones survived by borrowing liberally from the Blues and early Rock & Roll standards. Besides, does a good T. Rex lick ever go out of style? I don’t think so, though appropriating a Coca-Cola jingle on the hazy “Shakermaker” wasn’t the height of good ideas. Uni-browed Noel and Liam can retroactively build their myth all they want now, but it’s not really clear if they knew exactly what they were getting themselves in to. They might have had a small idea, inviting intrigue by printing iconic black & white photos of themselves lounging about in the liner notes in lieu of a lyric sheet. They just wanted to make some racket and have some fun. Noel has always maintained that in the early 90's, when American grunge was invading the UK, he felt like Rock's bad mood was unnecessary. It's just Rock 'n' Roll, after all. Like The Streets album I talked about yesterday, Definitely Maybe came out at just the right time, when British kids wanted something fresh. What Oasis gave them was a lesson in how to rock in a proletarian way. No matter what the band inhaled or snorted, this was a good old fashion pint-at-the-pub album. You could be blue-collar working class, and still party like a rock star on the weekends, and therein lies the attitude of the so-called "Cool Britannia" movement. Oasis pulled from the best the UK had to offer since the 60's - British Invasion, Glam, Mod, Punk, Indie and Shoegaze - put it in a blender, and got the fastest-selling debut in UK history (a record they held for 12 years, until last year’s record-breaker by the Arctic Monkeys).

Of course, everyone saw the brothers and their haircuts, and wanted to scream ‘New Beatles’, but really, there’s almost no Fab Four influence on Definitely Maybe. The lyrical non sequiturs of “Shakermaker” and "Supersonic" vaguely recall “I Am The Walrus” (a song Oasis took to covering live), there are some "She Loves You" type 'yeah yeah yeahs' buried in "Columbia", and there’s the spirited “Rain” ripoff “Up In The Sky”, but other than that, the sounds are pulled from elsewhere. The most obvious is the up-from-the-gutters anthem “Cigarettes & Alcohol” which is such a T. Rex steal that Marc Bolan wanted to sue, but he’s been dead for years. The exhilarating "Bring It On Down" could be The Stooges, Liam’s sneer is never far from Johnny Rotten, and the lazy swing and deafening clang of the band are pretty similar to My Bloody Valentine covering Exile On Main St. Oasis fell more into line with what The Verve were doing early on, riding out the end of the Shoegaze era, than with the Bowie-aping glam of Suede or the neo-Kinks Indie pop of Pre-Parklife Blur. Oasis just put more volume and muscle on it. "Guigsy" and "Bonehead" were just banging out simple chords turned up to 11 to give Noel room to play around, while Tony McCarroll got to be the Steven Adler of Britpop. In turn, I would like to note that for all the ink that's spilled saying B.R.M.C. sounds like Jesus & Mary Chain, they actually sound like Definitely Maybe more than anything else.

If you have never actually heard Definitely Maybe before (and so therefore, I'm guessing you must be American), the first thing you’ll notice is that it is really fucking loud. This is not something that people in America expect having been exposed to the band by the pop hits of their sophomore album, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. In comparison, the debut sounds like standing next to a jet engine. This is not some literary device or funny simile. The guitars sound like the turbines on a 747, and there is Rock glory in that. Noel knew that his songs were great, and it didn’t matter if "the other three" could play worth a damn; he was prepared to slather them in walls of distortion, letting his relatively clean lead lines slowly snake their way through the songs. His solos are never flashy, always melodic, and always serving the song, in the same way a Jazz horn player will periodically come down from improvisation to revisit the song’s main theme. Liam had to develop his signature sneering bay, otherwise you wouldn’t hear him; he’s made himself completely distinctive by stretching his whining vowels in ridiculous ways; a reoccurring highlight of the album is anytime he spews the suffix ‘tion’ as “sheeeeun”. On the epic ballads “Live Forever” and "Slide Away", his vocal style is the melody and the arrangement all in one; the songs wouldn’t work without it.

Oasis' Definitely Maybe is one of the most iconic British Rock albums of all time for the same reasons as early classics by The Who or the Sex Pistols or The Clash. These songs are simple, and give the listener the impression that if he or she goes and gets a guitar right now, they can be doing this in six months; this is the exact way the Arctic Monkeys did it. I've enjoyed revisiting this album so much, not on an intellectual level, but on a visceral level, and more than any other previous album on the list, I don't want to return it to the shelf and move on to the next entry; I guess that intangible reaction is the secret to the album's success. Music writer John Harris, who helped shape the phenomenon of Britpop through the press, even notes in his 2004 book on the movement that Oasis were "so devoid of finesse and complexity that it came out sounding pretty much unstoppable". But as simple and universal as the songs are, even if "it's just Rock 'n' Roll", it's the delivery of the songs that makes them truly special, and that's why the Gallagher brothers, and specifically Oasis' debut album, have earned a spot on this list.

01. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”
02. “Shakermaker”
03. “Live Forever”
04. “Up In The Sky”
05. “Columbia”
06. “Supersonic”
07. “Bring It On Down”
08. “Cigarettes & Alcohol”
09. “Digsy’s Dinner”
10. “Slide Away”
11. “Married With Children”

"Rock 'n' Roll Star" [video - single edit]

- BONUS: "Supersonic" [video - single edit/US version]
- BONUS: "Live Forever" [video - US version]
- BONUS: "Cigarettes & Alcohol" [video]
- BONUS: "Shakermaker" [video]
- BONUS: "Up In The Sky" [live in Chicago, 1994]
- BONUS: "Slide Away" [live at Wetlands, NYC, October 1994]
Like I said, if it wasn't for the stretched vowels, you'd never hear Liam over the jet engine. This is an incredible video considering that the club was so small, and the main show area in front of Wetlands' stage probably held less than 200 people.
- DOUBLE BONUS: The rest of the 1994 Wetlands set
The whole 14-song show, including the whole album played live, with "Rock 'n' Roll Star" as the opener and closer, plus a cover of "I Am The Walrus" and b-side "Fade Away".

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