By Manuel Gemperli
Some artists are so big commercially that they could pretty much release anything and it would sell. If Beyonce released a record of her farts right now it would probably still make her millions and be considered a valuable commentary on our culture and society. This is roughly the status Oasis had in England in the mid-90’s. There are many ways to explain just how big they were, but I think the success of the single “Wibbling Rivalry” might do the best job at it. This was before downloading or streaming, you had to physically purchase music. “Wibbling Rivalry” doesn’t even contain music though. It is a recording of an NME journalist interviewing Liam and Noel Gallagher in 1994, right before their commercial breakthrough. Even calling it an interview seems like a stretch. It’s essentially just the two brothers bitching at each other in that infamous way only those two could publicly bitch at each other. The single actually charted in November of 1995. That was shortly after the release of their second studio album that cemented their status as the biggest band in the UK and one of the biggest in the world. A bunch of hooligans writing songs almost as pretty as those The Beatles wrote 30 years earlier.
Grunge reigned supreme in the US in the early 90’s. It was the first generation of rock stars that claimed not to want to be rock stars. Kurt Cobain hated corporate rock. Corporate rock is a word nobody uttered after the 90’s unless they were talking about the 90’s, but it was a meaningful distinction at the time. He didn’t hate rock in general, he was after all making music that belonged to its family tree, but he hated overblown, in his mind meaningless rock that was pushed by the major labels and ruled the airwaves in the 80’s – before he changed everything. It always seemed that he struggled with the idea that he too was becoming what he despised so much. Many grunge stars went out of their way to appear underground, to appear different from the rock star prototype the generations before them created. The commercial success that resulted in a cultural ubiquity that went far beyond music stood in stark contrast to the underdog ethos they were simultaneously trying to uphold. As much as I love a lot of the music from that scene (I was properly obsessed with Nirvana just like any self-respecting teenager should be even though I was too young to experience it firsthand while it was actually happening), the whining about the terrible fate of becoming rock stars always seemed a bit ridiculous to me. As somebody who spent much of his teenage existence dreaming of becoming a rock star, I can attest that it certainly is very easy not to become one. One might think that all you have to do is not to sign a deal with a major label, not to promote your record, not to make a video that MTV could possibly put in its heavy rotation (we’re talking about the 90’s here), not to give interviews, etc. All activities that seem so easy to avoid that I personally didn’t do any of these things even though I would have absolutely loved to. Oasis were different. They never hid their intentions.
Their first album “Definitely Maybe” opens with a song called “Rock ‘N’ Roll Star”. Noel wrote all the of the Oasis songs that mattered - speak the first two albums (and most of what came after as well). He has Liam sing “In my mind my dreams are real… Tonight, I’m a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star”. It was a declaration of intent. They weren’t trying to change the world as whole, they were trying to change their own world. The easiest way to avoid a life of manual labor was music. So was their logic and it actually worked out for them. Most US bands that were trying to make it at the time jumped on the grunge bandwagon, in sound, in style, in subject matter. The bands that would later be labeled Britpop chose a different route. Instead of emulating the sound from Seattle, they deliberately positioned themselves as anti-grunge. Blur was one of the forerunners and they set out to be extra British. A disastrous US tour made them even more mad at America and miss the comforts at their homes in England. While many English rock bands before the Britpop explosion were heavily influenced by American artists to the point of almost sounding more American than English, this new generation was waving the Union Jack proudly. And in a way they were able to at least temporarily reclaim it from the conservative and nationalist end of the political spectrum, turning it into a symbol for this new wave of British self-confidence. Oasis’ music never appeared to be political, but they were happy to ride the wave to the point of becoming closely associated with Tony Blair who vowed to end Thatcherism and was smart enough to use the emergence of Cool Britannia to his advantage. Noel Gallagher seemed all too happy to visit Downing Street for Labour’s victory party in 1997. The picture of him shaking hands with the new Prime Minister became one of the defining images of the era. Imagine Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder sipping on a glass of champagne at one of Bill Clinton’s parties.
Oasis became famous for their antics and for being loudmouths at least as much as for their music. Their feud with Blur was legendary and even though it seems childish in retrospect and the Gallaghers were clearly the instigators I can’t help but side with them completely. Noel and Liam might have been assholes, but they were much more likable than Damon Albarn who always seemed a bit pretentious and tried a bit too hard to come off as a genius artist. Somehow they managed to appear as down-to-earth working class guys and megalomaniacs at the same time. It’s hard to tell who won the war. Albarn went on to become a highly respected musician with countless side projects, reaching great commercial heights while appealing to a whole new generation especially with the Gorillaz in the 2000’s, at a time when Oasis already seemed like old news (before it became accepted to like them again, because nostalgia is a strong force). But the love that Oasis received was and is deeper. “Wonderwall” was the first song from the 90’s that reached one billion streams on Spotify. That was in 2020. It’s just one of the ways to explain its timelessness and cultural penetration. It is on a level only few songs reached. Yeah, Blur had “Song 2”, but it’s mainly known as the “woo-hoo” song and you wonder when anybody last chose to actively listen to it outside of a sports arena.
“Wonderwall” is just one example of an Oasis song that means nothing and everything at the same time. Noel’s lyrics were vague at best, some can be described as flat-out nonsense. Here’s an excerpt from “Some Might Say”, track 7 of “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory”, the same album that contained “Wonderwall” and their second undisputable masterpiece:
The sink is full of fishes
She's got dirty dishes on the brain
And my dog's been itchin'
Itchin' in the kitchen once again
What the fuck?! The thing though is that Liam sings these lines with such conviction, in such a catchy melody that you barely notice the ridiculousness of the words. Noel also knows that 98% of the lyrics don’t matter if you have one or two lines big sounding and hazy enough that people can inject them with their own meaning. “Don’t Look Back In Anger” might be the best song he ever wrote, absolute pop perfection. After England lost their World Cup semifinal in 2018, I saw a video of ten thousands of English supporters – still in the stadium - singing along to the song and it gave me chills just watching it on my couch. It doesn’t matter what any of the other words actually mean, the title-giving line is all that counts. It allows everybody to picture anything they could possibly look back on not in anger and turns it into a heavily emotional song about reminiscing on whatever it is you choose. Who knows what a wonderwall actually is? But also: who cares? Because everybody longs for the one that saves them and everybody has so many things they would like to say but don’t know how. A “Champagne Supernova” is rumored to be a term for a Martini glass full of Champagne with cocaine on the rim (as salt would be on a Margarita - genius), but when Liam sings about it, it is anything you want it to be. It is debatable whether Noel is an exceptional lyricist, but at the very least he is a very, very smart guy.
When they broke up in 2009, I honestly didn’t think too much about it, initially. I assumed it would just be another Gallagher brothers fight like they had a thousand times before and soon afterwards they would be back together. But that didn’t happen. It’s been over a decade now since the Oasis split, but I am (almost) certain they will be back together. Not because they still have so much to say artistically. Not even Liam and Noel are delusional. They pretty much admitted that there is no way they would ever match their first two albums and they seem to be totally ok with it. They wouldn’t even need to release new music if they did reunite. The fact that Liam can sell 160’000 tickets for two nights at Knebworth 28 years after their debut was released, shows that they created something timeless. Let’s face it. Nobody cared about any of Liam’s solo songs in those sets. All that mattered were the Oasis classics and this was the closest you could get to hear them live the way they are supposed to sound. Liam seemed to love every second. He isn’t the kinda guy that pretends to prefer intimate club shows. No, this guy enjoys being a rockstar and my guess is Noel does too. Plus: everybody has a price. My prediction is that one day, they will receive an offer they just won’t be able to resist and they might just currently be making said offer better and better by waiting a bit longer. Like I said, I’m convinced that at least Noel is a very, very smart guy. He knows they were special. Oasis had songs that were pretty enough to appeal to the masses and gritty enough to appeal to those who still believe that rock is supposed to be dirty and dangerous. If The Beatles and The Sex Pistols had a baby, it would have been Oasis.