by Lucas Fagen
The opening notes on Oasis’s just-reissued debut, Definitely Maybe, have less to do with nostalgia or Anglophilia than total, obsessive, fist-pumping energy. Although the grand intro lick at the beginning sounds vaguely bluesy-traditionalist, after twelve seconds the drums kick in and "Rock n’ Roll Star" roars to life. Jeering malcontent Liam Gallagher proclaims himself a rock & roll star, twice bellowing the same verse/chorus, before calculating mastermind Noel Gallagher starts to solo along on guitar. Then they fade out as Liam repeatedly shouts, "It’s just rock and roll." Wait a second -- isn’t that a Rolling Stones lyric? Don’t they know the song goes, "It’s only rock and roll?" Wasn’t this band supposed to be paying tribute to the Beatles? Nevertheless, it sure is rock & roll. Charging out of the speakers with dynamic intensity and effortless propulsion, it’s a massive wall of riffage, a surging, pounding, electric blare whose sheer scale could knock down the Royal Albert Hall. From the guitar effects to the vibrancy in the drums, "Rock n’ Roll Star" sounds huge. Newcomers to Oasis expecting all the songs to sound like their greatest hit, the more subdued "Wonderwall", will be quite surprised when they put the record on.
Definitely Maybe was released in 1994, that great and historic Year of the Pigfucker. Variously marketed as Beatles revival, a band to finally represent the Manchester working class, and an alternative to the hardcore grunge rock that was just then conquering both the airwaves and the counterculture, Oasis seemed like just the thing to a U.K. music press suddenly enamored with good old U.K. pop verities. When compared to an American indie scene that fetishized amateurism, romanticized and mythologized and wallowed in angsty misery, and seemed addicted to the sound of smashing a guitar over someone’s face, their Britishness signified. But unlike Suede, whose fashionable androgyny never really caught on west of the Atlantic, or Blur, who were both more suburban and more bohemian, Oasis deliberately pursued an international and specifically American audience their fellow Britpop compatriots were too insular for. They sounded more like Bowie than the Beatles, more like Suede than either, and more radio-friendly than all three, explicitly commercializing the jangly Johnny Marr/Bernard Butler style with louder and more aggressive guitar overdubs, heavier drums, bigger and bolder gestures. There’s a certain lightness and clarity to Oasis that came partially with their embrace of coherent songform and partially with how committed they were to the catchy melody, but they could also pack extraordinary amounts of punchy drive into a song, and although quite a few of their fellow Britpop compatriots claimed songwriting chops equal to Noel Gallagher’s, not even the exemplary Suede could ever marshal such a fabulous arena-jangle sound. The only thing British about Oasis per se was Liam Gallagher’s snarling accent. Musically, they could have come from America, Australia, wherever.
Nevertheless, the best way to explain Definitely Maybe and its equally fine 1995 followup (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? is with a dichotomy familiar to Britcrit: the distinction between rock and pop, i.e. between expression and product. Traditionally, Oasis are considered the most rock-identified of the ‘90s Britpoppers, especially when compared to art-school posers like Blur, and they were certainly the most working-class. Indeed, their swanky guitar theatrics stomped and thundered over that reliable straight-ahead four-four beat, they gave the world some of the most gloriously cheesy solos in existence, and Noel Gallagher had a striking gift for the bleeding-heart ballad -- they really rocked out, as some might say. There was nothing pop about Liam Gallagher’s blistering sneer, the petulant outpouring of an angry young troublemaker who stretches out his dipthongs in sheer gleeful defiance. But the commercial ambition behind their musical conception also guaranteed a level of expert craft that early-’90s American grunge bands would hold in contempt, and they topped the charts due as much to having perfected arena-rock convention as anything they actually had to say. That’s not to avow they had nothing to say: they were masters of the touching love song, they often indulged in allusive symbolic-philosophical contemplation, and left-wing English journalist Alex Niven has beguilingly argued that the power behind their giant hook barrage was the musical expression of a communitarian populism very much a reaction against the Thatcher regime. But their basic content is shallow -- whiny Britboys letting their adenoids bleed all over a set of glammy anthems more vulnerable than they initially admit. On the other hand, formally, by which I mean musically, it’s magnificent -- big, fiery guitar riffs ringing out every which way, hummable tunes that you can sing along to, skillfully arranged slices of organized verse-chorus-verse. Whatever their sincerity led one to believe, Oasis were proudly, feistily, exuberantly, paradigmatically a pop band, and they commanded all the virtues of the best product.
When the band first started out, Noel Gallagher was writing more great songs than he knew what to do with, and the rather expensive but also worthwhile three-disc 20th anniversary Definitely Maybe: Chasing the Sun Edition adds the usual surplus of collectorama: fuzzy demos, raucous concert tapes, a live cover of "I Am the Walrus" that I find particularly amusing even though it goes on for eight minutes, and the true prize, a number of wonderful standalone singles and B-sides from 1994, like the definitive, string-embellished "Whatever" and the brooding "Listen Up." But it’s the original album that you need to hear: more gripping and surprising than you’ll believe, it remains completely sui generis even after years of defining countless lesser bands both sides of the Atlantic. Beyond the tremendous opening rush of "Rock n’ Roll Star" itself, they prove themselves equally capable of brashly surreal fantasies ("Supersonic"), plain evocations of working-class Manchester ("Cigarettes & Alcohol"), and grand existential statements ("Live Forever" above all). For all its expressive proclamations and indelible melodies, however, Definitely Maybe rockets into the air first and foremost as a guitar album, a single extended blast of soaring electric majesty. From beginning to end, the powerhouses just keep coming, and that reliable forthright four-four beat never lets up. Contextualized and brought into focus by the tight parameters of pop songcraft, they need no concept or content -- on the strength of the riffs and the originality of the sound alone, they crunch, they slam, they glow, they buzz, they jangle, they drive forward with remarkably self-assured swagger. By the time they reach the climactic "Slide Away", their biggest, brightest, most powerful and moving and blustering anthem, they’ve rocked so hard and so compelling for so long they’ll have blazed their hooks into your brain, where said hooks will chime and growl and explode and repeat themselves for days, weeks, months.
Although they certainly flirted with the categories, Oasis were neither the secondhand Beatlemaniacs nor the Quintessentially British Band the U.K. press portrayed them as -- just a fine enough pop band to inspire such high levels of hype, turning a collection of killer riffs into a message of hope and vitality and excitement like countless others before them. What rock & roll stars they were.