Oasis: Just How Rubbish Were They?

Over in the Daily Mail today I have a go at Oasis, the popular beat combo which has just split up. (Or so Noel Gallagher says, and since he’s the only one in the band who can write songs, that’ll be it till he changes his mind for the lucrative reunion tour).

To be honest, I probably don’t loathe Oasis quite as much as I make out in that article. When you’re writing polemic there isn’t much room for nuance like – “Well if someone put on Champagne Supernova right now I’d probably feel a pleasant nostalgic twinge for my lost youth” – which is more or less what I really think about Oasis: I’d never ever put on one of their records myself, but if someone else did I wouldn’t necessarily feel an intense urge to kill him.

But I very much stand by my main point which is that Oasis were derivative and overrated. Their second album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory remains the third bestselling album (after The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper and Queen’s Greatest Hits) in British pop history. Does anyone out there seriously still thinks it deserves a place even in the top 50? Personally, I wouldn’t even put it in my top 100.

It’s not that I don’t like Liam’s son-of-Lennon vocals (and I also like, incidentally, that way he had of placing his mic way too high so that he had to keep craning his neck upwards like a Gerenuk feeding on an acacia tree); and I do agree that a lot of Noel Gallagher’s compositions are very catchy. But there’s a reason for the last bit and it’s very simple: they all sound quite a bit like songs you already know; most of them written by the Beatles.

You might argue that originality is a much overrated virtue in pop, given that from Led Zeppelin borrowing from the blues and every heavy rock band ever borrowing from Led Zeppelin pop has always fed on itself. But to me a truly great band is one that disguises or alters the sound of its influences to the point where you no longer go: “Ohmygod, that is SUCH a rip off.” My true greats would definitely include Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, The Smiths, New Order, Kraftwerk and the Pet Shop Boys. They wouldn’t include Oasis.

So how did Oasis ever get to be quite so massive. Well hype, quotability and attitude clearly had a lot to do with it. But by far the most interesting theory on this is in a new book on the history of recorded sound (which I highly recommend: trainspotterish but lively and compulsively readable) by US journalist Greg Milner, called Perfecting Sound Forever.

Oasis’s career, he argues, coincided with the Nineties trend in studio recording techniques for “loudness” at all costs. By “loudness”, he means music which has been heavily “compressed” in the studio – removing most of the loud/soft dynamic range and instead making it sound like the kind of muddy wall of noise which comes across well in a crowded pub. It’s actually a form of musical brainwashing: stuff recorded like this is designed to lodge in the brain and achieve massive and overwhelming cultural domination. Which Oasis did most effectively.

But the effect this had on pop music generally was disastrous. As one muso purist – a Vermont studio engineer called Chris Johnson – has tried to demonstrate scientifically by comparing the most “culturally significant” albums of all time, the music we really like (as opposed to the stuff that is bombarded at us relentlessly till we succumb) is the stuff which has the greatest dynamic range . The top ones on Johnson’s list – led by the Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 and Led Zeppelin IV – are the ones with the biggest contrast between really loud and really soft. Oasis took us down a wrong alley. On the back of their success, every major label wanted to imitate that big, sludgy sound, in much the same way publishing companies try to replicate Dan Brown novels. Good commerce, maybe; but dreadful art.

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Oasis Are Vulgar, Over-Hyped, Under-Talented and the Face of Yob Britain

Summer is nearly over and so too are our holidays. But joyously and unexpectedly, one final chink of bright sunshine has appeared on the horizon to drive away our back-to-school blues: Oasis, the most overrated band in the history of British music, have finally done the decent thing and split.

This isn’t just another desperate publicity stunt designed to boost what little interest there is left in their ailing brand. At least let’s hope not.

This time, according to the band’s chief songwriter, Noel Gallagher, it’s official and it’s permanent.

Prime Minister Tony Blair held a reception at No.10 Downing Street among the guests at the party were Oasis star Noel Gallagher

Fool Britannia: Prime Minister Tony Blair meets new celebrity friend Noel Gallagher at 10 Downing Street in 1997

‘It’s with some sadness and great relief I have to tell you that I quit Oasis tonight. People will write and say what they like, but I simply could not go on working with Liam a day longer,’ he announced in a heartfelt statement on Friday, with which many of us could identify. Well, the ‘great relief’ part, at any rate.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum, the Romans said. Only say good things about the dead. But in the case of the late and unlamented Oasis, I’m afraid I find it almost impossible. Bad enough that their music was so ludicrously over-hyped and often shockingly derivative; far worse though, were the values Oasis represented.

A vulgar, meretricious phenomenon which owed far more to marketing and spin than genuine talent, led by two feuding egotists with barely an original idea in their bones but with a rare skill at artful repackaging, Oasis were the perfect musical counterpart to the New Labour project.

In Downing Street, we had Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; on the pop stage, the battling Gallagher brothers Liam and Noel; both pairs the very embodiment of style over substance.

Noel Gallagher of Oasis

Quit: Noel Gallagher left Oasis because he can’t work ‘a day longer’ with his brother Liam

What’s remarkable is just how long it took the world to rumble them. I remember in 1994, during that first rush of Oasis hype, feeling rather like the boy in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Was I really the only music journalist in the world, I wondered, who had noticed how murky and bombastic and dull these supposed Great White Hopes of British rock sounded on their first album?

The album was called Definitely Maybe and was biked to me by their publicist with the breathless promise that these lairy Mancunians, recently signed by Alan McGee to his achingly hip Creation Records, were ‘hotter than a hot thing on a hot day.’

‘Hmm,’ I thought after my initial disappointment. ‘Maybe they’ll sound better live.’ So I made a point of catching their first appearance at a major festival, when they played a late afternoon slot on the second stage at Glastonbury.

MANY people who weren’t actually there said that this event was history in the making. As someone who was there, I can assure you it was the mother of all anticlimaxes. But save for the small gaggle of in-the-know hipsters dancing enthusiastically at the front, the audience was so underwhelmed by Oasis’s sludgy, lacklustre performance that it didn’t even bother to get up off the grass.

Sure Oasis grew a lot more professional. I’ve no doubt that there were moments when their gigs  –  fuelled by the tension between the Gallagher brothers  – could be truly electrifying.

Nor would I ever suggest that they weren’t capable of the odd toetapping tune. Though I’m still not at all convinced by that busker’s perennial Wonderwall  –  a dirgey, (very) poor man’s Let It Be, if you ask me  –  there were definitely occasions in the late Nineties where you’d hear a song like Champagne Supernova come on the radio and you’d think: ‘This is all right.’

But the main reason you would think: ‘This is all right’, unfortunately, is that it sounded so comfortingly familiar. Liam Gallagher’s sneering, back-of-the-throat vocal delivery was  –  as he was never ashamed to admit  –  a homage to John Lennon’s.

Oasis band members Liam Gallagher, Alan White, Gem Archer and Andy Bellleave their Hotel and go to the Airport

The band: Liam Gallagher, Alan White, Gem Archer and Andy Bellleave head to the airport. They were due to play at the Paris’ Rock Festival in Seine but pulled out last minute

The lush string arrangements were exactly the sort of thing George Martin had devised 30 years earlier for The Beatles. And when Noel wasn’t being inspired by the back catalogue of Lennon and McCartney for his melodies, he was looking to a host of lesser artistes instead.

Among the more obvious influences identified by author John Harris on Oasis’s second album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory were Gary Glitter’s Hello, Hello I’m Back Again and the theme tune to the Seventies children’s programme You And Me.

Another mooted song sounded so similar to Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” it had to be removed shortly before release under threat of legal action.

The standard artistic counter is that ‘talent borrows, genius steals’. Maybe so. And perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered nearly so much if Oasis had been treated merely as a rather upmarket Beatles tribute act with a Manchester flavour and a comical tendency for the two main players to break out in fights mid-set.

What’s so galling, however, is that for most of their career they were taken so much more seriously than that. They won multiple Brit Awards; their records were slavered over by critics with five-star reviews; (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? remains the third biggest-selling album in UK chart history after Queen’s Greatest Hits and The Beatles’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Looking back at Oasis from our post-credit-crunch perspective, it’s hard not to pose the same question one asks so often about the New Labour era: How on earth did so many of us manage to get so royally taken in?

Like the collected works of Damien Hirst, like cheap city breaks every other weekend by easyJet, like wanton-consumption of champagne and cocaine (as ‘normal as having a cup of tea’ Noel famously claimed), Oasis belong to an age where the whole world seemed to have lost all perspective and judgment.

One in which it didn’t even matter whether you were any good at what you did, just so long as you had sufficient front and attitude  –  ie swore a lot, walked with a swagger and repeatedly told everyone how fab you were  –  that was all you needed to carry you through.

(to read more, click here)

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