Music

The album that killed Britpop

Oasis’s drug-fueled disaster, Be Here Now, ran a booming genre straight into the ground.

Ask any music enthusiast what the defining movement of 90s music is, and the two responses you’re most likely to get is either gangsta rap or alternative rock. And that is absolutely warranted. The turn of the decade left the heavy metal and hair metal of old aside, giving ground for hip hop and alternative rock to take center stage. The 1991 Nirvana album Nevermind, featuring Smells Like Teen Spirit skyrocketed them to mainstream success and they became the leader of the alternative movement. It would soon be followed by names such as Foo Fighters, Green Day, Marylin Manson, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and R.E.M. Hip hop, on the other hand, was predominantly gangsta rap, using Dr. Dre’s 1992 hit album The Chronic as the defining ethos. Rap, and in general hip hop, enjoyed an explosion of popularity with icons such as Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G, Ice Cube, Ice-T, A Tribe Called Quest, and Eminem becoming household names. So in the midst of Snoop Dogg’s g-funk sound and Kurt Cobain’s guitar riffs, what could stand to oppose this surge of popularity?

The UK’s answer: Oasis.

With two albums in a row, they would blaze the trail for Britpop to become more than a local curio. Alongside bands such as Blur, Suede and Pulp, Oasis would almost follow the footsteps of The Beatles and The Human League and lead a third British invasion into the US. And then, with one disaster of an album, they reversed years of progress, turning the genre back into a relic of the 90s.

Oasis, the Rock ‘N’ Roll Star(s)

Oasis formed in Manchester in 1991, featuring Paul Arthurs on rhythm guitar, Paul McGuigan on bass, Tony McCarroll on drums, Liam Gallagher on lead vocals and his brother, Noel Gallagher on lead guitar and occasional lead vocals. The band dynamic was heavily centered around the Gallagher brothers, with Noel being the band’s songwriter and Liam the lead singer. Briefly after the band’s inception, they released the two albums that would define the band, their genre and their status: Definitely Maybe (1994) and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995). The two albums were both critical and commercial successes. One might be a fluke, but two? That was legendary.

The two albums were often regarded as key milestones of Britpop as a genre. Britpop is the UK’s answer to the American grunge: the British genre was close to home, with imagery and lyrics that connected with British working class and youth, whereas grunge was often regarded by Britpop bands as irrelevant and having nothing to say about their life. That element of familiarity and simplicity was one of the main appeals of Noel’s writing: his lyrics are simple and easy to relate, yet they have always seemed vague and poetically grandiose, as seen from the chorus of Live Forever: Maybe I just wanna fly/ Wanna live, I don’t wanna die/ Maybe I just wanna breathe/ Maybe I just don’t believe/ Maybe you’re the same as me/ We’ll see things they’ll never see/ You and I are gonna live forever.

But lyrics alone are not what set Oasis apart from the genre’s other practitioners. For starters, Oasis’ albums are always mixed to be loud, often with harsh overdriven guitar dubs and very fast-paced, aggressive drums, as seen in Supersonic and Rock ‘n’ Roll Star. That, combined with Liam’s nasally voice, gave the band a unique sound. However, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? shows that the band are not dependent on loud mixing choices to hide their flaws, as the album’s softer sound allows Noel’s lyrics to have more impact. Furthermore, the Gallagher brothers themselves garnered quite a following. Their rivalry and hatred of each other often filled newspapers and tabloids. They were likely the last band that truly embraced the rock and roll lifestyle: getting into fights and arguments, drugs and alcohol in excess and overall being arrogant rock stars. That popularity would propel Oasis into legends that would take the world by storm, fill stadiums and conquer America. As an example of how large that popularity was, their record label once released a single (Wibbling Rivalry) that was just audio of Noel and Liam having a violent argument during an interview.

And it charted.

With so many factors in their favour, surely Oasis would become the king of the 90s. And so they went back to their recording studio and recorded a third studio album. That would surely be a smash hit and enshrine them in the history of culture. They were surely untouchable. Right?

“The sound of a bunch of guys, on coke, in the studio, not giving a fuck.”- Noel

Be Here Now - Oasis | D'You Know What I Mean? My Big Mouth M… | Flickr
Be Here Now cover (source: Flickr)

Be Here Now debuted in 1997 to mild critical reception: Rolling Stone gave the album 4 out of 5 stars, describing it as “a great pop band with a long memory”, Spin declared Be Here Now “another quality Oasis record” and Entertainment Weekly hailed Liam’s singing as “earnest”, praising Noel’s lyrical skills at length. On top of that, the album had four top selling singles out of the album. Yet this is the grave of Britpop. This is where the genre would die for good. So what went wrong?

The first clue can be found by looking at the track list: the crushing length. 72 minutes was long for 1990s standards, but the problem worsens when each individual song is considered. Every song is over 4 minutes long, with about half of them being longer than 6 minutes. Any song of that length must either have really good lyrics, or contain good hooks to draw the audience’s attention and keep the boredom away.

That leads us directly to the second reason: the sound mixing is incredibly abrasive and glaringly loud. An example of this is the single “D’ You Know What I Mean, which is filled with overdriven guitar layers, helicopter and crowd noises, and a string section that drowns out all other instruments. This resulted in the drums needing to be mixed way louder to even be heard, Liam’s vocals being practically lost under the mess, and the bass barely even existing. 

The obnoxious sound mixing choice almost stands as a cover up for the fact that the songs’ structure and lyrics are just plain awful. The songs rely almost entirely on repeating the chorus ad nauseum just to fill out the length, with no memorable hooks or riffs. The lyrics have many problems as well: “D’ You Know What I Mean” contains a chorus that is about nothing: All my people right here, right now/ D’you know what I mean? Yeah, yeah. “Stand By Me” is very cheesy, with an uninspiring chorus that lasted far longer than it should have: Stand by me, nobody knows the way it’s gonna be x12. “Don’t Go Away,” by far the best song of the album, has lyrics that felt too simple and too clear in comparison to the band’s ethos: So don’t go away/ Say what you say/ Say that you’ll stay/ Forever and a day/ In the time of my life/ ‘Cause I need more time/ Yes, I need more time/ Just to make things right. Noel himself even commented on the lacklustre quality of the songs: “I know how much effort I put into it. It wasn’t that much.”

The album’s multiple flaws seem to be predictable just by looking at Oasis at the time of recording. First of all, the band and their manager were all high out of their minds on cocaine. Secondly, Liam and Noel’s constant infighting caused Noel to briefly leave the band and then rejoin later, and, to quote Noel: “instead of going, ‘Right, we should just go our separate ways for a year or two,’ we decided like idiots to go straight into the studio.” Thirdly, Noel’s writing became aimless and lost its British working class root, instead the superstardom lifestyle robbed Oasis of their everyday man charm, leaving behind a husk of a drugged-out, collapsing band.

All this culminated in the worst song of “Be Here Now,” “All Around the World.This monstrosity of a song contains all the previous flaws: including the reprise, it’s a 12-minute tedious torture of sound and noise, with the lyrics being plain boring and the plain nothing burger of a chorus repeated to the point of annoyance. But this song is worse than all the previous ones for one reason: this is Noel’s attempt to be The Beatles.

It’s no secret that Noel’s songwriting has been inspired heavily by The Beatles. Multiple song names were used as lyrics (“Let It Be,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Helter Skelter,” “Fool on the Hill,” and “I Feel Fine” all appear in this album’s lyrics) and the production of the tracks tried to emulate the dense parts of “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “A Day in the Life” by layering sounds over each other, to little success. Even “Be Here Now” is taken from a George Harrison song of the same name and a John Lennon quote about rock and roll: “Some people will do anything rather than be here now.”

With that in mind, “All Around the World” is clearly trying to be “Hey Jude” or “All You Need Is Love,” a heartfelt stadium anthem where fans can sing along. One slight problem though: while John Lennon and Paul McCartney can sell the sentiments with their voices alone, Liam and his nasally voice absolutely cannot. The sound of an arrogant, drugged out rock star trying to sing about platitude and sincerity sounded more like a sarcastic whine that goes on for 9½ minutes. And they tried to sell that platitude incredibly hard: strings, french horns, trumpets, more guitar dubs, ‘na na na’s, key changes, more sound, more everything. It all added up to be a 12-minute session of pure torture and summed up everything that is wrong with the album: the sound of a bunch of coked out, jaded and bickering rock stars too high to make a good decision, instead churning out an unlistenable experience of an album.

Aftermath

As years passed, that initial positive reception of 1997 faded, leaving all the flaws as a sour aftertaste that, over the years, only tanked the album’s reception even more. Pitchfork described it as “bloated and indulgent” and “one of the most agonizing listening experiences in pop music.”

The album isn’t without its redeeming points. I appreciate the somewhat intriguing arrogance in “My Big Mouth” and “Don’t Go Away,” the latter of which is by far the best track of the album. It didn’t suffer from the deafening sound mixing or the meaningless lyrics that plagues other tracks. There is still a trace of the world-conquering Oasis in there.

In fact, that might have been the problem: the album was made by Oasis, giving it too high of an expectation. They just released two of the greatest albums of rock history, and therefore, anything less than utter perfection as a follow-up would be a failure just by logic. The Gallaghers tried to be louder and grander than the last, but they simply didn’t have any original ideas to back it up, and it backfired severely.

The album title almost sounds like a warning: be here now, because we’ll be gone forever. And they did. Oasis themselves spiralled into a period of drought, too busy with drugs and alcohol to make a good record. Liam and Noel’s hatred of each other only intensified, with occasions of Noel quitting tours halfway due to blown up arguments. They never released anything that captured the audience like their first two albums again. Instead, after multiple line-up changes and another argument just before a tour in Paris in 2009, Noel quit the band for good, and Liam reformed Oasis into Beady Eye. Whether you want to believe that Liam smashed Noel’s guitar, vice versa, or both, that guitar smash would, in turn, smash Oasis’ cultural relevance. Their hits would slowly fade into obscurity, with Wonderwall the only piece of the band still present in modern cultural history.

As for Britpop, while the movement didn’t exactly die with Be Here Now, many have pointed to the album as the turning point. By then the big Britpop groups (Blur, Suede, Pulp) had all departed the genre. Oasis was supposed to lead the movement to new heights, so when Be Here Now disastrously flopped, people simply lost interest in the genre. Britpop limped on forward, but it never reached that height again.

With Rolling Stone’s release of its top 500 albums, putting Morning Glory at 157th place and many calls for Definitely Maybe to be featured as well, we might be able to go through a nostalgia trip of the good Oasis again. May they be remembered for being the world beating, America conquering, arrogant rock band and for better music than All Around the World.

Image credit: Flickr

1 comment on “The album that killed Britpop

  1. Pingback: My capabilities throughout my work in New Media Lab – Diaries Blog

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