Wayne's Words

Oasis’ Remastered Masterpiece: What’s the Story?

Issue 125

There is a Saturday Night Live sketch from 1996 in which then Prime Minister John Major (Mike Myers) partakes in the traditional 15 minutes of questions in the House of Commons. He has policy differences with many of the members but one, Michael Shersby (Will Ferrell), is a particular thorn. M.P. Shersby has a singular obsession: Britain’s most popular band, Oasis.

The speaker, Betty Boothroyd (Molly Shannon) reprimands him, in the official transcript of the episode reprinted here:

“Mr. Shersby!! You’ve been warned seven times this month to stop bringing up Oasis!”

Shersby: “But is not Oasis the greatest British band since the Beatles? Can we not vote on this?!”

Emphatically not. But later, Shersby gets another turn at a question for the Prime Minister:

“What steps has the Prime Minister…taken to prevent Liam Gallagher from leaving?

            John Major: Uh…yes. what exactly is the right gentleman talking about, and who is Liam Gallagher?!

            Michael Shersby: He is the lead singer of Oasis! And if he leaves, it will be bloody awful!  [ the crowd grows rowdy again ]

            John Major: Sit down! sit down! Ghastly man, sit down!”

Some perplexed American viewers might have commiserated with the Prime Minister. Who, indeed, is Liam Gallagher? And as one of SNL‘s most peculiar skits, and Will Ferrell’s most obscure characters, we’d ask: Why would anyone watching care so much about Oasis? They certainly had their fans in the United States, but singer Liam and songwriter/guitarist Noel Gallagher were leaders of the band that was the greatest phenomenon in British pop since the Beatles.

The absurdity of the skit underlined the distinctive ways with which the Manchester band was viewed on either side of the pond. In England, the mid-1990s were the peak of Britpop, the charts and airwaves dominated by Oasis, as well as Blur, Pulp, and Suede. They sang with proud local accents about their own local and national concerns.

Having dropped out of music in 1994 to write about food for a few years, I never had to deal with Oasis or their Britpop brethren. I recall a lot of sarcasm from my fellow US critics, who found the whole scene irrelevant or derivative: grunge and gangsta rap rocked their world, not to mention Alanis Morissette, whose Jagged Little Pill was also released in 1995. And the British press was obsessed with the war between the Gallagher brothers, who may still be estranged. If you didn’t know their music, you knew they hated each other. Nothing new to see here: Sibling rivalry runs through rock history, from the Everly Brothers, to the Kinks, to the Blasters.

The 25th anniversary reissue in October of the quintessential second Oasis album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (WTSMG) (reissued by Big Brother Recordings Ltd.) seemed like an opportunity to meet the band on its own terms. And it’s a really enjoyable ride: the hits just keep on coming.

But you can’t begin without acknowledging the numbers: the album had a short run in the United States and peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard albums chart in February 1996. By contrast, WTSMG was No 1 for 10 weeks on the UK Official Chart, and remained on that chart for 463 weeks, which if I’ve entered the numbers in my calculator correctly, is just shy of nine years.

Obviously, Oasis did a few things right in their quick, but lasting, ascent. They considered rock and roll the essential food group, but had their hearts broken too many times by promises of earlier movements to change the world. Their manifesto, if there was one, might be summed up by what Noel Gallagher said in a package of prepared press quotes.

“As a kid, you always believed the Sex Pistols were going to conquer the world and kill everybody in the process. Bands like The Clash just petered out. Punk rock was supposed to be the revolution but what did it do? F*ck all. The Manchester thing [dance and rock of Joy Division, the Smiths, New Order, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays] was going to be the greatest movement on earth but it was f*ck all. When we started we decided we weren’t going to do anything for anybody, we just thought we’d leave a bunch of great songs.” And that they did.

The 1994 debut album Definitely Maybe was an immediate UK hit, a smartly derivative distillation of the British rock foundation (Beatles/Stones/Kinks/Who). But the second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? was their studio masterpiece, going deeper into rock Britannia and landing everywhere from Revolver in its production sounds to the glam stomp of Slade, which gets a shout-out with the bonus track of Oasis covering “Cum On Feel the Noize.”

Every song is good, half a dozen are great, and two, both mid-tempo, “Wonderwall” and “Champagne Supernova,” belong on the playlist with “Hey Jude,” “A Day in the Life,” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” I mention the Procol Harum song because it was the surprise answer to a 2009 BBC 2 survey: what is the most played song in (UK) public places for the last 75 years? Surely these two Oasis songs are closing ground on Procol’s monument.

 

The Beatles effect is tattooed on every available piece of skin on Morning Glory. Why deny it when you can revel in it? When Liam’s natural singing Mancunian voice would make him an ideal leader for a John Lennon cover band? The song “Morning Glory,” addressed to a drug user “chained to the mirror and the razor blade,” calls for them to wake up: “Walking to the sound of my favorite tune, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ what it doesn’t know too soon.” (The quotations and capitalization are mine, but the reference to the song on Revolver, this album’s ground zero of Beatlebrainia, seems obvious.)

And Beatles connections are intentional, as a song called “Wishing Stone” became “Wonderwall” after Noel listened to Wonderwall Music, George Harrison’s soundtrack to a 1968 British movie that became the first Beatles solo record and the first LP on their Apple label.

“Wonderwall” is a little more self-consciously arty than other Oasis hits: It’s like the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” its DNA reconfigured to be part of the pop core curriculum rather than an outlier. Salient point: many Oasis concerts ended with “I Am the Walrus.”

Some of the songs on Morning Glory, though brilliant in their pop craft, are too long. “Hey Now!,” a rocker easy to underestimate, goes on for nearly six minutes, when three and a half would have had fiercer impact. “Cast No Shadow,” which begins with a sweet acoustic guitar riff and lovely backing vocals that could pace it as part of the Abbey Road side two medley, could have its maximum effect if two minutes were trimmed.

“Champagne Supernova,” by contrast, is the fastest seven and a half minutes in pop music. It engages immediately, you can make of it what you want. Think literally of shaking up a jeroboam of champagne, then popping cork: Boom! A champagne supernova! I can understand why teens in mid-1990s Britain were drawn to the song forever: The refrain, “Where were you when we were getting high?” is not really a question. It’s more like, we were all getting stoned together, and what were you doing when this song kicked into your head permanently? I’m sure that British teen, 25 years later, remembers the way it altered their brain chemistry the first time they heard the song, the way I remember the first time I really heard “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (on a faint radio in my house) or “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (getting on a bus with friends). It’s instant nostalgia. The build is subtle but steady, taking you from “She Loves You” through “Walrus” through “Stairway to Heaven,” before you got tired of it. It’s essential Britishness is emphatically rendered by guest guitarist Paul Weller, a cult figure in America but Rock God in the UK.

“Don’t Look Back in Anger” is one of the most resilient Oasis songs. It became a reassuring cultural touchstone after the bombing of Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester in 2017. It’s hard to think of this song without noting the 1956 John Osborne play Look Back in Anger, which adrenalized British culture in the 1950s, and launched a creative movement of writers and artists known as the “angry young men,” roughly parallel to the Beat movement in the United States. (There is also a David Bowie song called “Look Back in Anger.”) The piano chords that open the song echo the beginning of “Imagine,” and the performance and lyric of the best solo record that John Lennon never made. “I’m gonna start a revolution from my bed,” Gallagher sings, a reference to Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous “bed-in” for peace at a hotel in Toronto.

The original Morning Glory album had 12 songs, opening with the cheery and obvious “Hello,” which borrows, with writer credit, from Gary Glitter and Mike Leander’s “Hello, Hello, I’m Back Again.” Slade’s “Cum On Feel the Noize” is a bonus track, Beatle-bop condensed into soccer chants transmuted into hard bubbleglam.

Two of the 12 songs on the original release were brief rocking instrumental interludes, known as “The Swamp Song” (excerpts one and two). The remastered CD has 40 songs; readers should be aware that the original masters were compressed for ultimate loudness, part of the competition between Oasis and Blur; consider your audio preferences, as copies of the new disc were not available for review, and my ears are unreliable witnesses. But among the 40 tracks here are a number of B-sides, an alternate mix or two, and live performances from concerts in Earl’s Court, Knebworth, and the Roskilde festival in Denmark in 1995. Their version of “I Am the Walrus” is not here, but it exists so palpably in the undertow that you can roll your own.

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