Oasis: Last of the Rock’n’Roll Stars

Oasis shot by Steve Double

Oasis shot by Steve Double

Below is a tweet of a video clip of Liam Gallagher from the band Oasis complaining about the indignity of having to make his own cup of tea these days, and how it’s all the fault of music piracy.  It’s the kind of celebrity rant that would ordinarily wind me up to the point of breaking.  It should push so many of my buttons: famous rock star complains about how he can no longer afford minions to make his own tea because no one buys records anymore.  A brattish rant ending with the line about how this is the reason why there are “no real rock and roll stars around”.

But yet, somehow, I can’t help but grin like an idiot all the way through it.  This was always part of the genius of Oasis: you could never be 100% sure whether they were being serious.  Is Liam sincerely voicing his discontent?  Or is the whole thing just a very deadpan joke?  It’s one of the things it’s easy to forget about the Gallagher brothers: they were both deadly-funny, right from their early days, and their humour has always been delivered so straight that it’s hard not to smile at whatever bullshit they were talking about.  An interview with Oasis would always leave me wondering whether they weren’t just, basically, pulling everyone’s leg.

And it is truly difficult to communicate to anyone who wasn’t of ‘pop culture age’ in the mid-1990s how big Oasis were, culturally, in Britain (and England specifically).  The feud they had with Britpop rivals Blur was literally the top news story for a while.  I believe they were, in a strange way, the zenith, and the last, of the British Rock Stars.  In fact, I don’t think any band, including the Beatles, has ever been bigger in England than Oasis were at the start of their careers.  Because they were so in tune with the times, they were so expert at manipulating all the insecurities of the media class who fawned over them so desperately, and they were seen as so universally cool, that no one, however alternative or mainstream, dared criticise them.

They didn’t really… give a much of a shit about music though.  And I’m not eulogizing them here for their musical output.  Which has some great moments (which I’ll come to in a bit) but nothing exceptional enough to stack them up against the Leonard Cohens and the Suzanne Vegas of this world.  Then again, that wasn’t what they were trying to do.  There’s a famous scene in the film My Favorite Year in which Peter O’Toole (playing a thinly veiled impersonation of Errol Flynn) is mortified to learn that he’s about to appear in front of a real audience on live TV, and he exclaims “I’m not an actor! I’m a movie star!”  Well, in the same vein, Oasis weren’t great musicians, and I don’t think they ever intended to be.  They were rock and roll stars.

And that may seem like it’s a backhanded compliment but it’s not.  Their first song, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’, on their first album made it pretty clear what they wanted from their careers, and they achieved that in the extreme.  It’s easy to ask that, if they were in the music business but they weren’t that interested music, what was the point of them?  But the music business at that time wasn’t really looking for great musicians.  It was looking for entertaining, glamorous, witty celebrities who would be prepared to do and say things that would get them in the papers, raise their profiles, build up their fanbases and sell lots of records.  And what separated Noel and Liam from the rest of the pack was that they clearly didn’t need any briefing from PR people about how to do this.  They were the best self-publicists in the business.  They made The Who look like shy floppy-fringed shoegazers.  Whatever help they may have got from their record label, they were clearly running the Oasis show.  And it was all about show.  And even though people like me might normally be dismissive about ‘fashion music’, even we crumble when it’s this darn entertaining.

And now, looking back, I think they do make sense as the last, the logical conclusion, of this phenomenon. To me, that tea-making clip does, weirdly, sum up a major shift in the British music business.  (That Oasis level of stardom does still exist in, say, US hip hop, but even there the business is now very different.)  In the early days of the internet there was much talk in the indie music press about how it would make music more democratic.  I think what they meant was that it would give us all the chance to be rock and roll aristocrats: rolling in money like some Versailles courtier and gleefully pouring scorn on the puny mortals who worshipped us.  What it did instead, as far as I can tell, is sweep aside that aristocracy altogether.  I’m not sure that was the indie press was hoping for.  But it hit bands like Oasis harder than most.  Without the money that came from CD sales, the whole backscratching infrastructure of record labels, record shops, music magazines, publicists and tabloids started to wilt away.

And the world has changed too, in so many ways.  The idea of the rock star who “shuns the boring middle class suburban life” seems so much less relevant in an unstable world where a boring middle class suburban sounds pretty damn attractive to so many people.  Now Cool, once the basic unit of currency for large-scale music business success, has been largely been replaced with Authenticity.  And now a catchy Ed Sheeran-style tune from a heartfelt place is likely to outperform the most carefully hyped and crafted PR campaign.

And I’m quite happy for that Cool Britannia age to have been comprehensively swept aside.  But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun.  In a sense, Liam and Noel Gallagher were like a real-life version of the legendary spoof band Spinal Tap.  And by that I don’t mean they were like Nigel Tufnel and David St Hubbins: the two loveably moronic leads of the band.  I mean that they were like Christopher Guest and Michael McKean: the brilliantly gifted actors who played those two parts.  After you’ve watched them enough times you start to notice them improvising in character.  It’s like the Gallagher brothers were starring in a parody of a rock star lifestyle that they loved but also recognised was stupid.

Having said all this, it would be unfair to suggest that Oasis weren’t good at music.  They just weren’t as good as their fame suggested.  Noel himself is pretty candid about this in his laugh-out-loud commentary of Oasis music videos.  Generally, I found their anthems pretty bland.  The lyrics of ‘Supersonic’ are like the words that songwriters come up with just get the rhythm of the sentence (like Paul McCartney’s ‘Scrambled Eggs’) but plan to completely rewrite later.  I never thought ‘Live Forever’ was a particularly good song.  ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ is fine.  ‘All Around the World’ is generic.  But… we never really believed them with these, did we?  These were anthemic songs for people too cynical to admit they liked anthemic songs.  Which, ironically, was the reason they could never be as big as U2, though that was something they talked about a lot.  They couldn’t create those moments of big connection, because they were always looking at the world behind a glass wall of irony.

But I think it was when they wrote songs about ordinary life that they came up with original and emotionally engaging songs that couldn’t have been created by anyone else.  ‘Married With Children’ is one such song, which to me perfectly captures their spikey, sarcastic appeal.  ‘Half the World Away’ is another.  And having said that their anthemic songs didn’t really work, they did make one of the best anthems in decades.  ‘Wonderwall’ starts like it’s yet another collection of placement lyrics, but then it hits you with “There are many things that I would like to say to you but I don’t know how…”  And I genuinely believe that the reason why so many people fell in love with the band, rather than just admired them, was because of that line.  Because suddenly it doesn’t feel like a bunch of likely lads cobbling together any old bollocks and having a good laugh at everyone’s expense.  Suddenly you feel that you’re getting a glimpse behind the mask.  And it taps into such a common experience, particularly for the English and particularly for men: the inability to express deep emotions, especially affection.  I think it gave their audience the sneaking suspicion that, underneath all the bullying posturing, they might actually be decent blokes after all.

It’s surprisingly frustrating to me trying to write a eulogy about Oasis, because I’m used to being able to google every anecdote or factoid I can remember about a eulogee and find a link to its source within seconds.  But ‘that John Peel article I remember from the Radio Times back in 1995’, or ‘the Noel Gallagher interview on the chart show where I remember him talking about how rock stars should all have chauffeurs’… these never made the transition to digital.  So I might be misremembering all of it.  But one of my stand-out memories of Oasis is a bit of behind the scenes footage during the filming of the video of their song ‘D’You Know What I Mean’: Liam is chatting to a make-up girl perfectly normally, as if they’re old friends, and then he suddenly does a horrified double-take when he realises he’s being filmed.  And the old Liam ‘character’ appears again.

Of course, sometimes I find myself swept along with the hype, and just believe the official Oasis story: that they were and are these cartoon stereotypes who never really had anything to say beyond how great they were.  But when I’m feeling charitable, I would say that there were many things that they managed to say to us, and they did know how.  They just knew how to make it look like they didn’t.