To look at the last few albums, you’d be forgiven for assuming that I’d more or less lost interest in what was new and popular; I was happily exploring the byways of grown-up pop music, and assumed that those heady days of breathlessly scanning the new releases in my local records shops for the latest sensation were behind me.
And you’d be right up to a point. I think that the mid-nineties marked the point where I was most likely to have moved on like generations before me, and to have devoted my time to exploring back catalogues and different genres rather than keeping my finger on the pulse of what was new and exciting.
I’ll admit there was a part of me which wondered if we hadn’t squeezed the last drops out of pop and rock music; if we weren’t already overdue another revolution and something different for the next generation to feast on while us old-timers tutted and shook our heads before going back to our treasured Deep Purple albums.
I still bought new albums, but not – as a rule – ones which were going to reach the top of the album charts, or get reviews in the mainstream media or make the national news. Not until I went to watch England play Bulgaria at Wembley on a bitterly cold March evening in 1996, anyway.
For a few years, Tic Tac was the official mint of the England Football Team (apparently, only one gender played football in those days), and while it wasn’t the most successful sponsorship deal ever, what with England failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, it did mean that our sales department (of which I was, nominally at least, still a member) regularly took clients to see games. The glamour games (England played Brazil during this period, for example) were over-subscribed, whereas the ones against the likes of Bulgaria tended to be passed along to the likes of me, to give me a break from compiling month-end statistics, or whatever else it was I was supposed to be doing in those days.
I’d like to tell you it was a tremendous game with end-to-end action, but it wasn’t. In front of a barely quarter-full Wembley, England plodded to a 1-0 win which none of the players looked like they could be bothered with.
Those of us looking on didn’t even have the chance to run about and keep warm, although those of us in the sponsor seats did at least get some reasonable food and drink beforehand.
I remember very little to nothing of the game, but I remember half time.
I was, of course, aware of Oasis. And Blur, and the whole ‘Britpop wars’ thing which had surrounded their in-no-way-contrived simultaneous album and single releases. By March of 1996, I doubt there were many people in that Wembley crowd who weren’t fully aware of the new Oasis album and the five singles which had been released from it already, but the whole thing had almost passed me by; I thought (probably correctly) that it was squarely aimed at younger people than me, and while I could hum along to ‘Wonderwall’ if pushed, I hadn’t really given Oasis much thought beyond a vague awareness that the Blur songs seemed more my kind of thing.
But at half time that evening, whoever was in charge of the music at Wembley played the new(ish) single Don’t Look Back in Anger. And everyone sang along.
It was an astonishing thing, because half-time music at football matches generally doesn’t do much more than raise an occasional eyebrow. The DJ will rotate through seven or eight recent chart hits, breaking them up with announcements and birthday wishes to people whose parents have written in, and there’s usually no acknowledgement from anyone of the music which is being played.
But here was this song – not announced, just put on and greeted with the loudest roar of the evening, then a full-throated, word-perfect singalong. It was a moment etched in my memory, firstly for how unusual it was, but secondly because I suddenly heard an Oasis song in context – these were not songs to be pored over and listened to thoughtfully; these were raucous singalong anthems of a kind which seemed to have gone out of fashion the last time Slade got a single into the charts.
In context, it seemed, Oasis songs were magnificent, irresistible things which could get a crowd of cold, bored football fans on their feet and singing along. Even ones like me who hadn’t paid much attention to them before, but suddenly understood what was going on.
The song got an encore as we trooped out of Wembley at the end of the evening, and got an equally lusty choral accompaniment from a crowd who had barely mustered polite applause to mark the end of the game.
At lunchtime the next day, I walked along to Strawberry Fields Records in Rickmansworth and bought myself a copy of the album. I still don’t know if that made me an Oasis fan or not, and I have never quite shaken the feeling that this album wasn’t really intended for the enjoyment of someone as old as me, but I do know that for the first time since I was having my head turned and my brain scrambled by every new album which came out in 1978, I could see and hear the same thing happening to a new generation, and the really interesting thing was that I didn’t feel excluded from it, because –
Well, let’s listen and find out why, shall we?
If you come to the album having heard Wonderwall, then the opening is naggingly familiar, and you reach over and turn it up just in time for the actual start of Hello to leap out at you with a defiant statement of intent – this is going to be the kind of album where you don’t really get to take a breath, and will find yourself singing along long before you’ve worked out what the words are. It thunders along, reminding you of several 1970s things before explicitly referencing Gary Glitter and causing you to remember where you heard this before.
Not to belabour the point, but Roll With It also drinks deeply from the well of mid-1970s pop music. I remember remarking at the time of the battle with Blur’s Country House (it really happened, and really was reported on the evening news) that this was basically a Status Quo song, albeit with the kind of attitude which Quo never mustered – Liam Gallagher wasn’t, and still isn’t, the most technically accomplished of singers but he could deliver a song in a way which brooked no argument.
Wonderwall is timeless and glorious; there’s a brief sense that things might be calming down a touch before the voice, all barely controlled plosives and urgency, howls its defiant joy at the sheer fact that this song exists. It’s not possible to just hear a song like Wonderwall; you experience it, and if you’re not singing along by the end, there’s something seriously wrong. No amount of ham-fisted cover versions can dilute its power, and when it is covered sensitively – I remember an episode of a TV show where a young cast member plays it at the funeral of a classmate – it has a quiet, devastating power. They may never have written a better song, but very few people have.
As if that wasn’t enough, it collapses straight into Don’t Look Back in Anger, which makes the late-period Beatles influences explicit, and out-anthems its predecessor. I’ve just explained that no Oasis song tops Wonderwall, but this comes as close as it’s possible to do, and while it doesn’t carry the emotional heft, it makes up for that in the way it just keeps building the chorus to the point where it sounds wrong not to have tens of thousands of people singing along. I don’t know if Noel deliberately set out to write an anthem, but I heard it sung like one, and that moment has stayed with me for 26 years now and counting.
Inevitably, Hey Now! doesn’t reach the heights of what has gone before it. It’s not the song’s fault; it’s full of singalong moments, and the band sound as if they’re having a fantastic time, but while the previous two songs leave you wanting more, this one outstays its welcome and even drags a little by the end. They can’t all be indelible classics, you know.
The first of the untitled instrumentals (I think they only acquired the Swamp Song title later) fades in, intrigues you with it’s apparent disconnect from what else is going on (I can’t be the only one to hear Canned Heat in there, can I?) and fades out again in favour of the eye-opening riff at the beginning of Some Might Say, which is a straightforward rock song, but delivered with the whole Oasis arsenal, leaving you with the sense that you’ve heard something much more than the sum of its parts.
It’s perhaps the apposite point to observe that this is one of the first albums to obviously employ the ‘everything louder than everything else’ method of mixing and mastering, which came to be known as the ‘loudness wars’. Many albums suffer from this compression which was designed to cut through background noise, but this one – I think – probably benefits from it. Strip songs like Some Might Say back, and they would definitely lose something, although listening to it now on noise-cancelling headphones makes the deficiencies obvious.
Cast No Shadow does have some space to breathe, and reminds you that in spite of Noel Gallagher’s reputation for writing lyrics which are all surface, there are plenty of songs like this which actually have more to say than first appears. The arrangement stands out and lends it an almost laid-back air which allows you to poke around in the various strands – I’m noticing for the first time in a while just how expressive Noel’s bass playing is. It’s somewhat underrated, is Cast No Shadow.
I’ve mentioned before how I was trying to teach myself any number of songs on guitar around this time, and when I came to try She’s Electric, I remember thinking it wasn’t one I’d particularly noticed. Then I tried to play along, and became unreasonably obsessed with it. It’s not particularly tricky or clever, and it’s not one of the great lyrics, but there’s something about the way it takes a simple melody and pulls at it until it reveals something bigger than itself inside – the middle eight is simple, understated but irresistible, full of the joys of being young in the way so few songs manage without sounding deliberate and arch. It’s the sound of a band who heard all the early Beatles albums, and thought they wanted to sound like that – the same energy and enthusiasm for what they do.
Morning Glory, on the other hand, is full of all the other stuff; everything which came after the first flush of enthusiasm wore off. Doom-laden and swampy in its mix, and pretty nihilistic in its lyric, it takes the energy of the whole album and shows you it through the filter of all the substances needed to make it sound as fresh and optimistic as it does. It’s yet another anthem, but a cynical and harsh one. I’m still singing along, though.
There’s another quick burst of the swamp, although this one with more sound effects, and much less melody, before Champagne Supernova cuts through it and brings us back to earth with the only possible way this album could end. It’s a ballad, although a fairly fast-paced one; it’s calmer than what’s come before it, but not much calmer, and if we’re going out, we’re going out singing and playing air gutar while pretending that the words mean something.
It’s not a particularly complex or clever song, but the way it’s played and arranged, with just the faintest hint of Hey Jude in the background make it timeless and one of those closing tracks which just make you want to go back to the beginning and start again.
(What’s The Story) Morning Glory? is one of those albums which brook no argument; it’s rightly considered a classic, and genuinely has no weak moments. It turned my head in a way it hadn’t been turned for many years, and it did so by taking all the things I knew and loved about rock music and mixing them up in a way I genuinely hadn’t heard before. It’s not groundbreaking; it’s not a new kind of music; it’s not even especially challenging or outrageous. But it is truly spectacular, and listening to it now with nearly 60 years behind me, it still does the same thing to me as it did the first time I heard it; the thing which great albums do – it made me stop, pay attention, and join in – whether by singing along or air-drumming those fills, or wishing I could remember the chord sequence so I could play along.
There’s been a lot of hype and noise around Oasis; there always was. But it’s the music which matters.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Definitely Maybe is a spectacular debut; I still prefer this one, but it’s close. The full Oasis sound isn’t quite there on the earlier album, but maybe the real Oasis sound is. The others don’t match up to this, but Be Here Now isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be, and the later albums all have something to recommend them. They never managed another full album of unskippable tracks, though.
Compilations to consider?
First up, get hold of a copy of The Masterplan. It’s a compilation of B-sides, but it dwarfs some of the later albums; it’s the only place to hear songs like Acquiesce, Half the World Away, Whatever, and The Masterplan. Then there’s Stop the Clocks, which is as comprehensive a retrospective as you could want.
If you want a live show from around this time, the recently released Knebworth 1996 will be right up your street. Otherwise, Familiar to Millions should do the trick.
Both Liam and Noel continue to have successful solo careers, although it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that they need each other to really reach the heights their early career scaled – not that a reunion seems on the cards any time soon. The lengthy documentary film Supersonic looks at this early period in some depth, and is worth a look. And I’m going to say it – Oasis music never sounded as good as Half the World Away as the theme song to the brilliant sitcom The Royle Family – if you really want to understand why this music works the way it does, you should pop in and spend time with Jim, Barbara and their family…