Friday 8 July 2011

Oasis "Definitely Maybe" (1994) (Revised Review)

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Oasis “Definitely Maybe” (1994)

Rock ‘n’ Roll Star/Shakermaker/Live Forever/Up In The Sky/Columbia/Supersonic/Bring It On Down/Cigarettes and Alcohol/Digsy’s Dinner/Slide Away/Married With Children

‘We’re gonna live foreverrrrrrrrrrrrr!’

Speaking in August 1994, when Oasis' debut album was a mere fortnight old, Noel was asked what he felt about the impact of 'Definitely Maybe' might be in the future. At the time the record seemed to be doing ok for a band no one had heard of a mere year ago and had made many people’s must-watch lists without coming close to making Oasis a household name. A music historian with one ear on posterity already, he rebuffed the guff bands usually give about being pleased to sell a few copies and maybe buy their nan a bungalow in Brighton one day by stating without hesitation: 'In 20 years time people will buy Definitely Maybe and listen to it for what it was. That's important'. We are now over twenty years on from the album's release and he's right (never argue with Noel, unless you're Liam of course): though this record doesn't automatically win 'greatest album since sliced cheese with all the trimmings' polls nowadays the way it used to, 'Definitely Maybe' is surely the only 1990s album with its reputation still intact all these years on, still revered in a massive way (except perhaps Radiohead's pair of mid-1990s records, which got lucky nicking the lesser known Pink Floyd catalogue instead of the better known Beatles one like Oasis so nobody noticed that). It's hard to believe that this record is a debut: the band’s signature sound is already here, from first song to...well the record gets a bit bonkers towards the end to be honest, with two unlistenable songs out of the last three, but with typical Oasis arrogance Noel claimed later this sequencing was deliberate, that he was panicking about having to follow this record up so wanted a debut that would be ‘near perfect’ he could top later. Noel's songs already connect with the psyche of a generation the way that lesser writers spend decades trying to match (it helped that some of these songs were getting on for a decade old, written when Noel was unemployed or working as a roadie, dreaming of the big time rather than enjoying it,  with 'Definitely Maybe' even more than the other Oasis albums 'about' the life he was leading mixed with the one he wanted to lead and the hope of getting there: 'Maybe' is the band's most hopeful singalong album in a whole - well half - a catalogue of bouncy singalong albums). Liam already sounds like one of the greatest singers unleashed to the world, ready formed with a sneer that sounded like no one else (an amazing transformation from the shy nineteen-year-old obsessed with the more laidback sound of The Stone Roses on the band's early recordings made in 1992/1993). The ever under-rated Bonehead is absolutely central to the guitar sound across the record, the usually under-rated Guigsy plays with an eccentric abandon that just makes so many of these songs and even the long sneered at Tony McCarroll proves to be a reliable, gritty drummer with a nice feel (though Noel has since said that McCarroll barely plays on this album most people disagree and the period live shows - with almost all this album in the band's setlists across their first two years together - proving that he could play it, even if he didn't on the actual record every single time). The band sound focussed and ready-formed, as if they were waiting all their lives to make this record exactly the way it turned out with no compromises – which isn’t quite how it happened. Though the band sound definite and sure in every note on the finished article, this album took a long time to get there, no maybes about it.

This is all such a major change from Oasis’ beginnings as 'Rain', when they were fellow Mancunian copycats of the Stone Roses sound, with a few Beatle reference points thrown in. The demo tapes recorded in 1992/1993 show promise, the way that The Beatles' Decca tapes from January 1962 show promise, but they similarly also show that the band were merely competent rather than special, with a few good ideas rather than lots and many of them derivative. Oasis were, like many a Manchester band in the early 1990s, filling in the hole where many felt The Smiths and after them The Stone Roses should have been – a chance to represent the local working classes in song and what it felt like to be a dispossessed Northerner with no future to speak of to look forward to and a past you wanted to forget. Performed with an emphasis on cute, exaggerated guitar riffs and a laidback sigh that’s very Stone Roses, Oasis feel in this early period like a band who’ve just noticed something about their lives is a bit wrong – the finished product is remarkable for how much they’re straining at the leash trying to put it all right.

The transformation from the band of schoolmates and football friends treating this as a hobby to get them off the streets at night and fill in time before signing on at the dole and an elder brother who had a masterplan for success has been told many times, but people forget quite how quickly the changes happened. As late as 1992 Bonehead is the main writer and Liam is not exactly the focal point, his vocals a sigh not a sneer – Oasis could easily have had a future like this, if not quite the one they ended up with. This all changes as Noel gets more and more ambitious, suddenly aware that the songs he’s been writing solo in his bedsit, on tour with The Inspiral Carpets and sometimes at work sound really really good heard like this. At the time he was writing his first batch (i.e. most of the first fifty songs in this book) he had plans to be a solo act – he just wasn’t ready to spring his ideas on the world yet (for all his brash demeanour and statements to the press Noel is actually quite shy). What changed was that tour with the Inspiral Carpets after a chance meeting at the infamous Stone Roses gig at Speke Island: though Noel never played a note on that tour he met a lot of people and saw firsthand what a group dynamic looked like, borrowing the bits he thought worked as well as dropping the parts he thought didn’t (they were a band Liam will later dismiss as 'designed to play in Heaven with nuns, while I have fun in hell!’) Noel realised that he had a lot more ambition than his new mates – but not even the size that they had and he needed a band. What’s more, Noel had had to take the hard decision to sell his bedsit after leaving to go on tour even though it represented a major life move away from his family home; with no choice other than to move back home he was shocked to find his younger brother had taken up an interest in music while he’d been away and commandeered his record collection; until now Liam and Noel had never been particularly close (Liam was closer to elder brother Paul; Noel wasn’t that close to anyone) but their five-year age gap had shrunk their differences in the years Noel had been away and they recognised in the other someone who had what they wanted: Noel had the songs, Liam had the voice. But both only had the promise of these things and weren’t quite there yet.

Liam hadn’t been in ‘The Rain’ all that long when Noel came back off tour and was still feeling his way into the band. Far from being the focal point, he was the ‘new boy’, added due to his friendship with Guigsy when the band’s original singer Chris Hutton didn’t work out. There’s reason to think, though, that Liam was at first something of a stopgap himself: he was younger than the rest and music was a recent hobby to replace football and general mayhem not the lifeblood it was to the other three. The big difference for Liam seems to have been a drunken night out just before he joined the band where he claims to have come to see the ghost of John Lennon hovering in his bedroom and telling him to buck his ideas up and that he had to finish what The Beatles started. Often dismissed as a typical Oasis tall-tale, it’s a rare tale that Liam has always stuck to always, even when his bandmates laughed at it; though it took a while for Liam to write his songs most of them are haunted by Lennon’s presence far more than Noel (who uses Lennon’s ideas in a scholarly way) and Liam clearly felt some kind of personal connection (he was, after all, given the middle names ‘John Paul’ by his Beatle loving parents and will name his own son Lennon). It should be remembered too that Liam that eight when Lennon was killed; old enough to be caught up in the horror of it all even if music wasn’t yet his biggest drive (if his friends and family agree on anything, its that the young Liam’s biggest passion before music was…Weetabix, his nickname at school after eating large bowls of the stuff. It’s a lucky thing this nickname didn’t catch on the way Bonehead’s did!) However Liam hasn’t fully connected to his inner Lennon yet: the early 1990s were still filled with bands who want to be The Stone Roses, so that’s what he is across 1992 and 1993, a 'Stars In Yer Eyes: Manchester Version' copycat as Ian Brown and the rest of the band sound like every other band of the era, with a similar wash of noise based around some 'fruity' laidback lyrics with only a repetitive 'trance' drum crunch to keep them out of trouble. I'd have been fascinated to know what might have happened had The Stone Roses not broken up so quickly and suddenly (one and a half albums into a promising career): would Oasis have merely tried to soar on their coat-tails? Would the clubs in Manchester ever have taken to them without the vacuum that needed filling and an audience demand for someone to fill their shoes? Would they have found a whole other sound of their own to make even without Noel?

As for the elder Gallagher, he’s struggling to find his niche in the modern music world. Songs are pouring out of him (like rain into a paper cup) but he’s not yet sure what to do with them. For at least five years in his early twenties – possibly more like nine - Noel seems to have spent his time holed up in the room of whatever house he was living in practicing guitar and writing notebooks full of songs. Occasionally he worked (at least [9] ‘Live Forever’ and probably a few other songs was written during a boring dead-end job in the spanners ‘n’ screws department of a giant Manchester warehouse where hardly any customers ever visited anyway), but mostly he signed on at the dole and dreamt of the future away from his exasperating present. Noel was twenty-seven by the point the big time hit for him in 1994  – old enough for many of the bands he admired, like The Small Faces and even the younger Beatles, to have lived through their first career – but he spent that time not just dreaming of the future but putting it to practical use. What fascinates me almost as much as the sheer piles of material Noel piled up (the reason Oasis had so many great B-sides to choose from, with so many songs left spare) is what he had already planned to do with them: his notebooks (which occasionally come up for sale at auctions – it’s a shock he didn’t keep a hold of them himself given how precious they must have been to him as his ‘lifeline’ for escape) are full of re-written track listings, plans for the first three albums he will make with some imaginary band he’s going to meet one day. Though some songs come and go and a whole load have never been recorded by Oasis (with titles including ‘Angel Face’ ‘Being A Blue’ ‘Beret’ ‘Calling All’ ‘Clocking The Watch’ ‘Datura Dream Rebound’ ‘Is That A Fact?’ ‘Lick My Legs’ ‘Lock All The Doors’ ‘Lost Again’ ‘My Friend Says’ ‘Never Allowed’ ‘Paint A Mental Picture’ ‘Pilots’ ‘Red White and Blue’ ‘Riverbank’ ‘Song In A Suitcase’ ‘Take Your Chances’ ‘The Cat In The Hat’ ‘Tracksuit Bottoms’ ‘You Owe Me’ and the very Noel title ‘I Am Always Right!!!’), many future favourites are already here – and in much the same running order they will be on albums one and two (with notes that [60] ‘All Around The World’ was kept back for album three ‘when we can afford some strings!’)  Noel has been planning his future for years – he just doesn’t know who to have that future with yet and when a majority of these songs were being written he could have no idea that these lyrics are going to be sung in a sneer by his kid brother.

The two halves of Oasis came together by chance. The Rain were going nowhere quickly and needed a manager – Liam shouting his mouth off boasted one day that his brother was in the record business and only quietly muttered under his breath that Noel was a roadie with a local band that wasn’t exactly his bandmate’s local favourite. Noel may have only been a roadie but he’d met people and had a better contact book than they did, so Liam should ask him to come pay a visit. Noel was, by most accounts, more impressed with them at first than they were with him – he hated the idea of being a manager but figured he might as well see what his brother was up to. Liam’s voice came as quite a shock – odd as it may sound, Noel had probably never heard him sing (at least post puberty). Suddenly he was struck by what his songs might sound like in their hands so Noel offered them up to the band in his normal mixture of bashful and brashful. The band laughed when he told them he had a song named [7] ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ but were blown away when heard it. The same with [9] Live Forever and [12] Cigarettes and Alcohol. Without ever quite sitting down and saying anything, the whole focus of the band shifted and Oasis now had two guitar players.

Though the media liked to call Oasis an ‘overnight sensation’ (arriving seemingly from nowhere across four singles to having the decade’s biggest selling debut LP) it didn’t seem like that to them. This all happened somewhere around 1991 and it wasn’t until 1993 that things began to break for Oasis – till then the band were still scratching a living and mostly signing on the dole, while Noel was back living at home dreaming of his bedsit. Contrary to what you might think (and the path trajectory of many an AAA band) Oasis were never that big a live draw in their area – far from being the biggest band in Manchester, they were stuck at a place named ‘The Boardwalk’ for their regular gigs, basically an oversized garage rather than a massive arena or even a town hall. For a long time the band went nowhere – the band sent off their demo tape to dozens of people and got some nice replies but no interest; their big break on TV in 1992 came and went, buried in the middle of the night of a twenty-four charitython that nobody out there has a single memory of watching (we only really have the band’s word – and the TV studio – that it happened and no tapes seem to exist).  

However by 1993 it had all come together: you can already hear the seeds of what will be in their first demo recordings, the cackle of [7] 'Rock and Roll Star' and the crunch of [3a] 'Columbia' (re-recorded as closely as possibly for this debut album) especially. Oasis had finally managed to get the odd gig outside Manchester and though nobody paid them much attention at the bottom of the bill they felt they were onto something with a more fluid, adrenalin-fuelled sound. By the time Creation record boss Alan McGee stumbled across the band headlining a gig alongside a support group he'd come to see at King Tut’s Hut in Glasgow (probably Sister Lovers, though whichever act they were became quickly forgotten when Liam sneered his opening line) the slight hesitancy and copycat nature of the band had gone. They were confident, brazen, desperate to make their mark on the Scottish crowd – and completely oblivious at the famous man in their midst who might make their fortune. McGee says that his ears were piqued by the first song, by the second he figured he would ask the band to sign with his label – and by the third ([10] ‘Up In The Sky’) he already had stars in his eyes over world domination. Oasis’ future seemed assured: they’d waited a long time for this, had dozens of releasable songs all ready to roll and now people who believed in them as much as they believed themselves. With singles prepared to draw interest, the plan from the first was to record an album that everyone agreed would blow everything else out of the water and do for the stagnant 1990s rock scene in 1994 what 'Please Please Me' had done for The Beatles in 1963. Everyone involved, including some of the early reviewers who'd picked up on the landmark gigs, felt a tidal wave coming on - if only it could be tamed enough for a record.

However the Cinderella story didn’t quite turn out that way. The last few months of 1993 saw the band ensconced in a studio in Monmouth that proved to be a pricey mistake at £800 a day back in 1994: their producer was Noel's old mate from Inspiral Carpets, Dave Batchelor, who kindly agreed to give an unknown band a hand and it all made sense on paper – he wanted the band to succeed and had the technical knowhow. But he'd recorded Oasis like his own band - clean, melodic and perfect, without any of the crunch or danger of Oasis in the clubs. Everyone is doing much the same that they will on the record, but they’re all spaced out in their tiny boxes without interacting with each other (Liam, who usually sounds as if he’s buried in the sand of the other players, here sounds as if he’s sitting on a Divan chair on top). Though not one line of the song was changed from then to now it was all too pretty, too safe, too tame, a house cat rather than a lion. As yet the sessions have never been fully released, though those who have heard them (and the bits and pieces out on bootleg) agree they missed the 'point' entirely and for all the optimism and 'mad fer it' chants in the papers the band figured they'd blown their one chance already. Though Creation could have turned round and said ‘no more’ (they’d paid a fortune already – and the recording was Oasis’ idea) they believed in the band enough to have another go in Cornwall, with sessions to be produced by Noel himself along with Creation associate Mark Coyle. The band got rid of the soundproofing buffers between the instruments and kept overdubs to a minimum, effectively recording Oasis as if they were playing a live gig. Noel as producer, though, got a bit carried away building up an even more elaborate layer of noise from his guitars with overdub after overdub and the album only really took shape after engineer Owen Morris was hired to 'rescue' the songs and given crate blanche to do what he wanted by taking most of this out and reducing the band back to basics. He additionally added echo to McCarroll’s drums – the moment when the album seemed to spark into life. Despite the artificial nature of the final recordings (with almost every instrument put through some sort of tweaking process) the result didn’t sound fake at all – it sounded real, loud and insistent, the way the band wanted it. Even then the album bombed at first – it was only thanks to a very unusual marketing technique (advertising in dance magazines and football programmes) and word of mouth that the album took off, slowly, across several months.  Somehow that’s fitting – this is a band borne not of record company hype (that all came later) but because of personal identification. Creation’s faith paid off eventually though, with four singles taken from the debut album of unknowns, all of them top forty hits, and the debut record staying in the best-seller lists for years: indeed sales-wise  it's never really fallen that far from the charts in the twenty years since and is firmly within the top ten selling AAA albums (along with the next two albums).

It's a story that will be told again and again across this site/book: Oasis seem to have a habit of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and, very occasionally, defeat from the jaws of victory. Theirs isn't a straightforward story of belief and success, as so many people paint it out to be, but years of waiting while nothing happens, leading to three years of sudden fame wilder than even they had longed for followed by years of waiting all over again for critical acceptance that dies away almost overnight in 1997 (thanks to a slightly dodgy if under-rated third album and remarkably unlucky timing). Oasis are the youngest band on our list, give or take a few months for Belle and Sebastian’s first record, and it’s been fascinating in my lifetime to watch their descent from a band who everyone feared to a band that everyone loved to one that everyone respects to one that everybody now reckons was over-rated. You see, that’s happened with every band on this website to some extent – even The Beatles’ reputation was damaged briefly by punk – but this is perhaps the only time for any of the AAA bands I was actually able to enjoy this phenomenon first hand, instead of hearing talking heads banging on about how the 1960s was ‘different’ or reading books about how ‘special’ it all was but isn’t at all relevant now (some writers really don’t get the timelessness of good music, do they?) and it's been invaluable for understanding how other bands from decades ago went through the same process (though typically Oasis went from hero to zero in an even more extreme way than any other band I can name).

Now that the band members are all in their forties (barring Liam, who turns forty in 2012), it’s already hard to remember what a bright line this band shone on the world around them and how remarkably fully formed they were for a band who’d barely been going long enough to gather a following when their first single came out. Whilst historians in years to come will be getting excited about ‘Britpop’ those of us there in 1994/95 know that it isn’t so much what Oasis did as what they fought against that counts. The charts in the mid-1990s was full of ecstasy-taking dance troups and the remnants of Stock-Aitken-Waterman trash, both respectable in their own fields but hardly on a par with even the 1980s’ leading bands. Rock music was an ugly word – you had to dig back a good fifteen years for the last decent rock song and even then it probably didn’t use real guitars. Rock and roll was seen as something your parents listened to – it took the distance of music fans Oasis and their enthusiasm to make it cool again. And this band were cool: they didn’t do the sort of thing that other groups did at the time. They swore in interviews, they fought amongst themselves, they didn’t smile and they didn’t do what people told them to do and quite a lot of time they were jeopardising their career with stupid stunts that got in the way of the music – but they meant it all (at least until the end of 1996). They weren’t on a career trajectory, they weren’t acting nicely, they weren’t out to sell as many singles possible – they were reflecting real life in a way music hadn’t been for oh so long, not so much a breath of fresh air as a breath of real air after so many years of sanitised artificial oxygen tanks. No wonder the name ‘Oasis’ –the name of a venue picked off an Inspiral Carpets poster Noel sent home to Liam – stuck, because that’s what they were, an Oasis in a desert of mediocrity. Oasis’ willingness to sound like bands of the past with the fire of their contemporaries and go back to writing from their heart instead of their wallets is almost as big a sea change in the charts as The Beatles with ‘Love Me Do’, inspiring those who knew their musical history as well as those over-eager to what it’s future sounded like. The thought that, in the 21st century, they’ve been more or less forgotten and replaced would seem as wrong in 1970 as it would dissing the Rolling Stones in 1964; how could guys so on it and spot-on with every song ever get left behind? 

But then, circumstances change and success is never as conducive to writing as being young and hungry. All of the songs on ‘Definitely Maybe’, around half of ‘Morning Glory’ a third of ‘Be Here Now’ and most of the early band B-sides date from the period when Noel Gallagher was in his early twenties, stuck in a faceless modernised Manchester, stuck on the dole with no real future. As a result, practically all of his first batch of 30 odd songs are all about fame – wanting it, needing it, how he’d enjoy it, what it would mean to those he loves –and hates. Noel’s next batch of 30 songs – that’s ‘Standing On The Shoulders of Giants’ onwards – were written after Oasis’ big breakthrough, when the band wanted for nothing and are too all about fame – how it isn’t what Noel expected, how it brought him nothing but unhappiness, how it meant he couldn’t trust his new friends or many of hid old ones and that instead of an unending utopia being rich and famous merely gave him the means to waste his time and other people’s. There’s a telling moment on the audio commentary for the Oasis promos DVD ‘Time Flies’ when Noel says that he hates hearing other artists moaning about being rich and famous and writing in their lyrics because he knows what it was ‘really like’ to have nothing. Like many a Gallagher comment, you could see this as a little bit hypocritical – Noel even wrote a song with a chorus ‘it’s only the fame that means I’ve forgotten your name’ for [72] after all – but then Noel has done more than most writers to stick to his roots, to the people that inspired him early on and that other millionaires left behind long ago. And after all, Noel’s songs, more than another writer in the history of music, was tailor made for the wannabes and wasted teenagers stuck in a modern world that doesn’t want them there or knows quite what to do with them. ‘Definitely Maybe’ was written against the background of Thatcher’s 1980s of unemployment and dead-end hand-to-mouth jobs, but it also dreams of something more – it has ambition, a desire to prove your worth and be celebrated for what you are that’s highly appealing to kids who kept being told they were worth nothing. It has attack and anger on its side but, different to any of the other Thatcher era bands that came and went, it has a lot more than anger on its side – it also has intense joy. Life is miserable now sure, but think what it’s going to be like when you make it ‘appen! If Oasis, the most real and honest of bands post the 1960s (with music becoming theatre across the 1970s and 1980s) can make it happen then so can you at home. It’s no surprise that Oasis take off just at the time when Thatcher is kicked out of office and when replacement John Major looks weak and easily replicable, the soundtrack of new labour and their chant that ‘things can only get better’; it only goes wrong six months after election night in 1997 when it’s clear that Tony Blair is as bad as all the people he replaced and the optimism of a country has gone again (In this context the sight of Noel G in Blair’s no 10, much criticised by the ‘in’ music scene, isn’t daft or naïve or stupid – it’s as inevitable as The Beatles getting MBEs back in 1964). It’s not the elder Gallagher’s fault that kids even now identify with these songs of desperation and swagger so keenly that they made him a millionaire – and yet you sense that he at least would trade in all his success and go back, in the space of a minute, to when he was writing these great songs and not a single person was listening to them.

‘Definitely Maybe’, from the title down, is a superb balancing act between the anger and depression of the past ten years of being working class Northerners – and the excitement, energy and determination that things can’t ever be like that again. Read this album’s lyric booklet and it could be a very depressing record indeed about being a nobody with nothing: ‘all I need are cigarettes and alcohol’ because there’s no job to go to and no money to spend on again; the moody lines to ‘Shakermaker’ (‘I’d like to be somebody else…’); the doomed romances of ‘Slide Away’ (real) and ‘Married With Children’ (imagined); a world where the only ‘escape’ from an empty life is to be a rock and roll star.  But add in those tunes, that voice and a wall of noise and a power pop chorus that no other writer could compose as well and suddenly this album doesn’t sound humble anymore, it sounds epic. It’s this contradiction that Oasis balance so well for two and a half albums (plus B-sides), as they’re a group who know how hard life is – and still keep coming back for more, dreaming of the day when it’s all over. You can hear this in the band dynamics especially and Oasis clicked into place once Noel realised how different his songs sounded sung by his brother. Much has been written about the differences between the Gallagher brothers – much of it rubbish – but for me the biggest difference is that Noel experienced the hardship’s of a nothing life with part-time work on a building site, a brief stint as a roadie for Inspiral Carpets and a long long time of waiting on the dole; Liam went straight from school (expelled at sixteen after a fight despite being a model pupil till then) to being in a band with almost nothing in between. When Noel sings his songs solo in concert, mainly on an acoustic as he would have done when he wrote them, they sound sad, fed up and sometimes angry; when Liam sings them with that throaty roar and attitude they sound positively arrogant, certain of a bright new future that’s his entitlement. The reason Oasis became the biggest band of the 1990s, the decade that was more or less built round them in media eyes at least, is because no other band had that dynamic pull, that swagger and confidence you wanted to copy, matched against the realities and weary resignation of the songs that recognised how hard it was to think like this. We’ve seen that before on this site, with brothers taking the best out of each other – Dave Davies’ partying rockstar harder edge making Ray Davies’ fragile songs sound much more interesting and Dennis and Carl  adding their own grunt and fragility respectively to brother Brian’s innocent songs. But Oasis are the ultimate band in that sense, working like The Who in the way a slightly more worldly-aware, vulnerable and thoughtful writer like Pete Townshend gives over his songs to someone with power like Roger Daltrey.

What’s interesting too about Noel’s writing is that he rarely, if ever, writes love songs (’Slide Away’ is the one exception – and is largely unique in Noel’s canon so far – while ‘Digsy’s Dinner’ and ‘Married With Children’ are pastiches of other band’s love songs to some extent). The very vast majority of the songs on this album are political ones – not in the Billy Bragg sense of the word perhaps, but how the characters in the songs are being downtrodden, songs that are easily identified with by Oasis’ audience without the need for songs about boyfriends and girlfriends. Everyone in this album needs a break and they get one, not through divine intervention or luck but through hard graft and solid belief in better times. Life is mean? Pretend you’re a rock and roll star and maybe you will be one. Life throwing stuff at you? Bring it on down because you’re hard enough to take it! Death staring you in the face? Well, maybe one day you’re gonna live forever. Nothing to soak the pain? Well you can surely put together enough for a gin and tonic or a ‘white line’ and then you can feel supersonic, if only for a little while. There’s no actual autobiography here (except perhaps the pained ending of a relationship as heard on ‘Slide Away’): instead this is an album of the imagination, that takes the backdrop of what is in black and white and adds the colour of what could be if you dream big enough. This is – generally speaking – deeply unusual for a debut album (which are either pure escapism or pure realism, depending on the band and the times) and even more unusual for such a best-selling landmark album to pull off and this sense of outside scope is a reason why this album is as much of a time capsule as it is (even though soundwise it’s still fairly contemporary).

Even now, when Oasis are possibly the un-coolest they have ever been, critics and temporary fans grudgingly admit to a liking for this album. Noel’s admitted that he’d never get away with some of the things he does on this album now or he’d be laughed out the room – nicking a Stone Roses riff for ‘Supersonic’, nicking the melody to Coca-Cola song ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’ wholesale for ‘Shakermaker’ and adding more Beatles references than even that band’s name-dropping ‘Glass Onion’. But then, back in the early 1990s, who was there to hear these songs but Noel himself, ‘wasting’ time – it just so happened that what he thought, thousands of other people thought too (as well as the Beatles references, I’ve always detected many similarities between early Oasis and early Lindisfarne – their main writer, Alan Hull, too wrote most of his best-known songs while on the dole). Not that Noel’s the only star of the band in this era – Bonehead is a fine guitarist and played a much bigger role in the band than modern-day Oasis scholars give him credit for; on a good day Guigsy is a great bassist, especially here, driving songs on whilst adding his own ideas (though Noel has since said he himself played the bass on the whole album it seems he only played on one track) and Tony McCarroll, while not a great drummer by any means, is still better than Ringo than ever was and a great drummer for Oasis: they need this primitive driving backbeat of sheer pain and anger (plus McCarroll was hired as a laidback Stone Roses drummer remember and needed to learn how to play as emptily and loudly as this, a point people often forget).

It’s Liam, though, who rises most to the occasion here. The makers of this album remember the band’s youngest member staying in the ‘room’ they all got while making this album, keeping out the way during the backing sessions and keeping out the way until making his vocals. After the demo tape Noel might have been worried how cowed his younger brother might be in a real studio with real recording equipment and a clock ticking. But from the first sessions he’s the member of Oasis whose worked out how to do this. Most younger brothers in bands tend to stay in their elder brothers’ shadows and only show their talents later; here Liam is already determined to be the leading personality in this band and his sheer verve and un-stoppability are a key part to why this album works as well as it does. He doesn’t just sing Noel’s words – he lives them, with an ache and agony and longing in his voice he will never find again. He has the perfect roar for rock and roll – he sounds powerful and tough and scary, but he also sounds vulnerable when he needs to (as per his note-perfect delivery of ‘Slide Away’). Other vocalists would have taken the Oasis wall of noise and done the same thing with it every time; instead Liam alternates: sometimes he rides it like a bucking bronco, at other times he drowns in its relentless beat, at other times he tries to fight and comes off worse. The pure sound of Definitely Maybe is a battle between the dark and light sides – Liam’s vocal is what ties this album together as without him it’s just a noise, but those big wide-eyed innocent eyes couples with that knowing cynical sneer is the perfect accompaniment to Noel’s music that does much the same thing. No wonder so many people assume, even now, that Liam wrote at least a few of these songs – he’s so much more here than just an interpreter; he knows exactly where his brother is coming from and why he wrote every line of every song.

Not that ‘definitely maybe’ is perfect. It gets talked about too often for one thing – is it really quite that much better than follow-up record Morning Glory? – and there are two songs that really shouldn’t be there, ‘Married with Children’ and ‘Digsy’s Dinner’ (especially given that they’re both worse than any of the B-sides from this period). ‘Married’ was the first song taped for the album, in Mark Coyle’s living room, with an acoustic sound and a mocking fear of the future that would have been fine for some other release but ends the record on an uneasy note, afraid of growing up in a way the rest of the album isn’t. Digsy’s, meanwhile, is a band injoke pure and simple, given the same attack as the other songs here that just dilutes their power as a result: if Liam can sing about lasagne with such commitment maybe he isn’t really living the other songs too? There’s also a lack of variation that, on the one hand, makes ‘Definitely Maybe’ Oasis’ most consistent record (each song has such a similar feel that these tracks clearly ‘belong’ together and thematically they fit pretty neatly too) and their most difficult record (every other Oasis album has an impressive amount of variety going for it – on this album the only two occasions when they drop their wall of sounds is when Oasis dry up). You can only spend so much time roaring at the unfairness of life and sneering about how great you know you are before things become tiring. The best known songs from this albums, the singles, are also the wrong tracks, surely, with hindsight, at least the early ones: ‘Supersonic’ is clever and cute and ‘Shakermaker’ is weird and trippy, but, quite frankly, it’s ‘Rock n Roll Star’ and ‘Slide Away’ (plus ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Cigs and Alcohol’) that’ll be being hummed well into the future of the human race, whatever that might be. Even so, what’s remarkable is how much ‘Definitely Maybe’ got right from the get-go. The writer already has the songs, the singer has the attitude, the band has the confidence and – at the third time of asking – the band have someone who can shape and mould this album and find all the things this band can do that others can’t. Of course ‘Definitely Maybe’ made the huge colossal impact it did: it cuts through the fake happiness of the era like a knife with a cry of real heartfelt suffering and longing and pride. Listening to this album makes you feel better, however you’re feeling – on a bad day it gives you back the fight you need to see life through; on a great day it makes you feel on top of the world.

A quick word too about the cover. It’s become Alan’s Album Archives policy to discuss how an album’s cover relates either to the times, the band’s mindset or the music. This time, it’s all three. Using Bonehead’s living room as a basic set (the only band member not living at home), the band pose with various weird objects, looking just like the thousands of other working class nobodies with ideas above their station – only theirs has a difference because you just know this band are going places. Liam’s expression in the booklet suggests that this is a man who knows he’s born for greatness and is only passing through the poverty line (even if he’s curiously almost out of shot on the cover proper considering his looks and charisma, play-acting being passed out on the floor). Noel, to coin a phrase, has the whole world in his hands on the rear sleeve, clutching a globe with a thoughtful look as if deciding which bit of it to conquer next. Balanced around the cover are certain objects that either link to the past or are in there to look vaguely futuristic (a large picture of Burt Bacharach, the other early key Noel Gallagher influence and a strange looking pink flamingo. Check out Bonehead’s CD collection too on the back – it’s very hard to read but are those Beatles spines I read?!) The band are clearly rehearsing their album – yet they also have eyes on the outside world via the telly and the world passing outside their window. Hundreds of other rooms in 1994 looked like this and thousands of other people in those rooms had those same ambitions. And the fit with the music – humble and small and moneyless, yet epic and massive and dreaming of bigger things, few other album covers have ever come close to this one for summing up what listening to an album will be like before you even hear the thing. To think that this cover cost less than the blurry town centre shopper of ‘Morning Glory’, the graffiti-loving ‘Don’t Believe The Truth’ and the what-the-hell-is-going-on cover for ‘Be Here Now’, as it’s the perfect Oasis image across the rest of this book!  

From here, it’s downhill all the way as the band get to know their audience and themselves better and mistake what they instinctively know what to do with what they all think they ought to do next. The public pressure, too, will do weird things to Noel’s writing career – backing off from his original plan as things get real, he finds himself shipping most of his next best songs onto B-sides or leaving them in the vaults, then ending up writing epic songs he admits he’s ashamed of now and suffers a writer’s block so large the others have to chip in to help. The band’s audience will, partly thanks to the success of Oasis, forget what the bad old days of the early 1990s ever felt like and switch allegiances to a whole host of ‘new Oasises’ that, however good, fail to capture one iota of the talent on display here and go for the happy escapism not the jugular (Blur, Pulp, Kasabian, Arctic Monkees, god help us even Lady Gaga and Take That). Oasis will be seen as yesterday’s news, too big for what real life is like anymore with video cartoons of men with sausages for legs and songs with helicopter sound effects that last forever. They will forget the band in time and how much Oasis ever really meant to them. But they never really forgot this album, which still lurks in many a collection or is used to entice the public into buying yet another copy, with this album definitely (maybe?) one of the biggest sellers of all time for so many good reasons. For perhaps only the third time in this whole site, I actually agree with the public and the critics too. This is still Oasis’ best album, dripping in venom, sweat, hope, anger and even love. Tonight – and every night – Oasis give us hope that we too will be rock ‘n’ roll stars one day and make it sound as if it’s the greatest possible thing to be in the world.

The Songs:

 [7a] ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ is the perfect opening, as so many fans and critics say it is. It’s the Oasis sound in a microcosm and the purest distillation of their ethos. The band have nothing, we have nothing, we are all suffering but tonight they get up on stage and becomes heroes, looking down on those who put them down and told them they were nothing. This is also the Oasis template incarnate: in the first verse of the first song on the first album, already Noel is reaching out to the audience with his fears (‘there’s no easy way out’) and his panic that he’s trapped, running out of days to make his escape and leave the life he wants to lead; meanwhile the chorus gives release – even Noel, as downtrodden and trapped as he feels, can put a band together and act like a rock and roll star at least once and no one can stop him. Liam doesn’t sing his words, he sneers them, pouring scorn on all the detractors who said he’d never amount to anything, while the band turn some simple chord changes into a song that sounds huge thanks to overdubbings and that famous ‘wall of noise’. In fact, never did the Liam-Noel ethos work better than on this song – Noel’s dreamed of this moment for years but for Liam the dream is happening for him now, with the song on a tightrope rope walk between bitter resentment and arrogance.  I would love to hear a solo Noel demo of this (the only demo that exists features the whole band) because I would imagine it has quite a different feel – given his age of twenty-seven and his many missed and lost opportunities this song was probably written in panic and desperation, Noel saving himself with a bright bouncy chorus as per usual when he gets too down. In Liam’s voice, though, this song becomes a birthright and an entitlement: how dare anyone try and stop him become a rock and roll star! Liam is at his best here as he sneers, pouts and dares people to try and take this one last thing away from him. When Liam sneers ‘it’s just rock and roll!’ at the end of the song Noel was probably referencing the moment The Rolling Stones (perhaps the nearest group around to Oasis in character for all their Beatle and Stone Roses influences and sound) became middle aged and you half expect him to add a ‘but I like it!’ at the end. This song though is not about choice but a way of living and you half expect the world to end when he sings it against a backdrop of Armageddon – when Liam sneers ‘it’s just rock and roll’ with a cynical sneer he clearly doesn’t believe what he’s singing at all. Rock and roll is everything for him and his only way of coping with what the world throws at him, his last chance at making something of himself as an unemployed Northerner in Thatcher’s Britain and his one way of socking it to the system who made him feel as hopeless as this. Part swagger, part howl, the rest of the song is pretty good too but this unexpected finale (switching unexpectedly to the sadder, madder minor key) just ups the ante.

In between we still get some clever verses fill the story in with some witty observations: people dismiss Noel’s dreams and think he’s spending too long wasting his time gazing at stars (in the sky and on his wall) when he should accept that he’s a nobody who has nothing. Then people tell Noel he should ‘feed his head’ and become more literate and intelligent, but he has no time for that – learning, for him, was ‘just a day in bed’ because it’s all there in his brain. Only he can save himself and make him feel special, not any outsider. In reply Noel pleads that ‘in my mind my dreams are real!’ and they’re certainly more real to him than the empty awful no-hope surroundings he sees everyday. A song about having nothing to lose and risking it all anyway, the pay off is that it works not just for the band but for the audience – the dream must have worked for Noel and Liam or we wouldn’t be hearing this coming out of our stereo with the weight of a million screaming voices behind every mass guitar overdub; we all feel like rock and roll stars if we buy into this. It’s worth remembering though that, back in 1994, not many people did want to be a rock and roll star – rock music was at such an all time low that those who were musical wanted to be in a boy or girl pop band with their mates and those that weren’t wanted to be footballers (or footballers’ wives). Most music songs, when they had lyrics about dreaming of being big at all, tended to dream of being rich and measured success in terms of money and status; Oasis though just want to be somebody, to have their five minutes in the spotlight and prove that actually they’re special. But how could rock and roll not be ‘cool’ again after this track? Just simple enough to be hummed by everyone, but intelligent enough to add some snappy lyrics this is a song that’s easy to fall in love with. No wonder Oasis inspired so many people to join bands after this, because who hasn’t dreamt of being rich and famous? Only the rich and famous as it happens and Noel will go on to write several songs damning the sentiments of this song for being naive because of the pressure placed on you to keep coming up with the goods ([72] ‘The Fame’[100] ‘Little By Little’ and [87] ‘Rollin’ Over’ to name just three). The trouble is Oasis sound so good here that it’s impossible not to be enticed by this song’s bright flashing lights. Quite a song for the first track of a debut LP and still one of the best and certainly one of the most important Oasis songs of all.

Ask most casual fans and they’ll tell you they thought ‘Rock ‘n’ Star’ was a single it got played so often across 1994 as the sound of the year. Wrong! Yet as it happens few fans even remember [8a] ‘Shakermaker’ despite it being the band’s all-important second single. To be fair, unlike most fans I do love this song – but it is one of the least catchiest and original songs on the whole album, not least because it nicks its riff wholesale from ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’ (there’s a famous outtake where the band actually sing ‘I’d like to buy the world a coke and keep it company’ as the last verse, with Liam wickedly grinning as he sings it). It is, though, the sort of song no other band would ever dare to release as their second ever single – and a track none of the band were that sure about when Noel first brought it in. Of all the recordings made for this album though it is perhaps the one where the wall of noise benefits it most, turning it from a novelty song about a surreal landscape into a scream of protest at how the world isn’t working properly and only the band know the way out of it. A simple song about eccentrics living in a narrow world that clearly started as a ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ style drug lyric turns, in Liam’s hands into another rock and roll sneer. They don’t know how great life can be but he does – so he invites us to follow him down the rabbit hole and ‘shake along’ with him. After telling us he’d ‘like to be somebody else and not know where I’ve been’ (a line I’ve always taken as another dig at Oasis’ lowly surroundings and those of other people of their generation and income bracket) we are introduced to a whole host of colourful characters who all ‘exist’ (well sort of): Mr Benn is the star of a 1970s animated children’s series about having ‘adventures’ in time and space via a shop depending on which costume he wore (the excitement being that he could pick what character he was – on his own Mr Benn lived a very boring humdrum life); ‘Mr Clean’ is a cartoon strip from ‘The Funday Times’ which during the 1990s was the children’s comic included in ‘The Sunday Times’ in which the title character was secretly a superhero who cared about the environment a lot (strapline: ‘Mr Clean, He’s So Green!’ The cartoonist Tony Husband now does the strip ‘Yobbos’ for Private Eye which is very Oasis-driven, perhaps in revenge!)’ Mr Soft, meanwhile, was both a Paul Weller character who was easily manipulated and – a year or two before this album came out – a squashable mascot for Rowntree’s Softmints and who lived in a land where everything was chewy. Something tells me this song was written by Noel with the telly on and a comic on his lap…Even the title ‘Shakermaker’ (not part of the song’s lyrics) sounds like it’s been taken from a commercial, and that in itself points to a world where people are trying to manipulate you into doing something against your will (by buying their product – or their soundbite). The only person who can see through this dull and drab world is Liam, via Noel, and he urges his to follow him ‘when you kn ow that it’s the right time!’ One can just imagine a young Noel Gallagher, slightly the worse for wear, trying to rest while his subconscious and slightly addled brain writes this song for him – and certainly ‘Shakermaker’ shares more in common with the drug-addled imaginary epics of ‘Be Here Now’ than the reality-filled songs on the rest of this album. As if to underline the looseness of the song, Noel famously added the third verse at the last minute on the way to the recording studio, with the lines about ‘Mr Sifter sold me songs...’ taken from the name of the band’s favourite record shop they passed on their way through Manchester, as if he too is a fictional character. The whole is like a hallucinatory dream, one where the world is not as it seems at all, with only an urgent middle eight offering real emotion here (regret, apparently), as if the narrator’s safe cosy world has just been destroyed by something and caused him to lose control of reality.  As a result many fans don’t know how to take it and treat it as a novelty song; really though it’s the one song on the album that gives an alternative to the drab way of living that isn’t just being part of being in a rock and roll band, pretty much saying that everyone should escape the mundane world by doing drugs (even if it doesn’t quite come out and say exactly that). This is, perhaps, the one song that listeners like me who are used to 1960s albums full of acid flashbacks and long jam sessions and weird lyrics sneaked past the censor can understand better than kids of the 1990s who had never been aware that rock and roll had a history before – it tends to be them who struggle with it. Musically too the tune opens on a squeaky, laidback guitar recalling mid-60s acid trip-inspired music before a sudden rush of drums (Tony McCaroll’s finest moment) and Liam’s insistent vocal takes the song by the throat. Noel’s solo – or solos seeing as there’s about a million guitar parts on this record – is perfect too, staggering across the song in slow motion, proudly strutting but about to fall over at any moment. Either way, ‘Shakermaker’ is an intriguing song, one that might be nonsense or the most profound thing Noel ever wrote and it works rather better in the context of the album than it does as the band’s second single (when nobody really knew who they were just yet). There is, though, a far better mix (to my ears anyway) released on the ‘deluxe’ edition of the album twenty years later with extra shakers and slide guitar; this original version, while still pretty darn good, is a little too distracting.

There’s no such doubt in fans’ minds about [9a] ‘Live Forever’. This is the moment when most fans sat up and listened – indeed, the band say it was the first time they really got how good Oasis could be – and the song remains the best single individual record Oasis ever made, summing up everything they ever stood for within a perfect three minute pop record. No other song captures the desperation of the era better than this one: the need to do better and overcome your surroundings. Though soaked to the bone emotionally as well as physically, aware that he’s probably going to be stuck in this drab city in a drab existence until he dies, Noel is such a naturally upbeat chap that he dreams of a time when he can escape it all and tells us that we are both better than this and that ‘you and I are gonna live forever!’ Noel’s song is, ostensibly, written to a girl and in common with most romantic pop songs it’s about how great their lives could be if they ran away together. ‘Maybe you’re the same as me’ he invites her, ‘we see things they never see!’ But, like most of Noel’s love songs, it’s really about his fans – or at least, the people he sees around him and about how we are all owed this in our lives and we all deserve something better. After a decade where all the ‘real’ music in the 1980s was made by ex-goths and was largely about escapism through death it came as a real shock to hear someone actually wanting to live for eternity and for all its hard-naked realism (the world-weary shrug of that opening drum pattern) this song is gloriously upbeat and fantasist. Written during the peak Thatcher years but recorded and released the year that Major’s replacement government was hanging on by the smallest of threads, this song is a case of accidentally perfect timing: the world needed a breath of fresh air and optimism and youth again (its surely the reason why The Beatles were so big in America so soon after the death of JFK), but the glory of this song is that it’s not empty candyfloss escapism either like the pop records of the day and though gloriously naïve it’s not without realism.

This narrator knows how hard, tough and cruel life can be. At the beginning Noel changes the whole tone of the song with the word ‘maybe…’ (this song is surely how this CD got its very fitting name) and even at the end of the song Liam is singing that he probably won’t live to do all the things he wants to do, but this is ‘not the time to cry’ – it’s the time to grab life by the horns and make of it what you can. Liam first becomes a star on this record (this is one of the few lyrics his brother wrote that he can honestly sing from the heart) and his charismatic performance, caught somewhere between naivety, hope and disbelief, really gets the most out of the song. A stunning Noel solo (perhaps the best guitar break he ever played) then tries to put this into music, floating up to the air as if on a cloud, enthusiastic and desperate to break free of the song’s restrictive chains and for one golden moment it sounds as if its defying gravity and keeping the pull of the real world at bay. It can’t last – once again the end of the song is key, as Liam’s optimism turns to fear and panic (the final ‘gonna live foreverrrrrs’ sound physically painful) and the band start playing in a new, colder key. But for one glorious moment there a million people who have nothing know what it feels like to actually want to wake up the next day and see what it has to bring. If Oasis had never written another song except this one they would still be one of the era’s great bands – it still remains, even this early on in the book, perhaps the greatest song in it, perfectly capturing a generation who wanted more out of life and briefly believed they could have it. It’s no surprise that ‘Live Forever’ continues to live forever after many of Oasis’ records have fallen out of favour – it says so much in such a small and compact way and the only question, really, is why this single only made #10 even with a small advertising budget, because this is one of those songs that was always going to be big no matter who wrote and recorded it. Near perfection. As times go wrong again, Blair becomes a war criminal and 9/11 changes the world outlook for good, Oasis will adapt this song in concert. ‘We’re gonna live forever…but what for?’ Liam will cry. This recording, though, is perfect for its times and may well be the best performance on Oasis’ greatest album as everyone in the room believes in this song and wants it to work. What a shame it didn’t last forever.

[10a] ‘Up In The Sky’ is a different set of influences to the other more Beatley songs on the album. Sex Pistols lyrics set to a swampy Rolling Stones type beat, it’s a pure song of pride and arrogance without the overcoming obstacles theme of most of the album, someone the world doesn’t reckon much on sticking two fingers up at it and saying that, far from looking down your nose at me, I should be looking down my nose at you. One of the few early Oasis songs that comes without any sense of humility or dread and I should by rights hate it as just one long sneer. However as sneers go this is perfect: the chord structure moves quite brilliantly from slow-motion madness to pure adrenalin and for once on this album there’s even a softer, gentler middle eight to offer variation giving the song room to back off again before building up to another climax. Liam, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as the arrogant sod of the title and sounds utterly brilliant here mixing from hard cold stare to mock angelic falsetto – I’ve often wondered if this song was one of the first written by Noel after he heard what Liam could do with his songs that he couldn’t (then again the acoustic version [10b] proves that Noel could have done it his way). The brilliance is that rather than the ‘Big Sky’, the perennial Kinks figure of disdain looking down on everyone underneath him (which as a 1960s nut Noel would surely have heard), this song sneers at everybody who thinks they are ‘higher’ and better than the narrator. For there is no one better than the narrator and the people he knows, turning tables as Liam sneers ‘welcome to my world!’ and shows that, young and hungry as he is, he has nothing to lose. The key line of the song is ‘How does it feel when you start falling?’ but Noel and co have nowhere to fall to being at rock bottom and can never be afraid of someone taking it away from them. Noel’s most adolescent lyric only reaches out with warmth once compared to the rest of the LP and only then in a very sexual clumsy way (‘How does it feel when you’re inside me?’) Note the AAA rhyming scheme (not an Alan’s Album Archives one, but the use of three rhyming words for every verse not the usual two or four) which gives this song a slightly mad and unsettling leer, as if you don’t quite know when the axe is about to fall and we plunge into the chorus. It’s as if Noel, freed from writing for anyone but his mates, is playing with a whole range of styles – even if the characteristic ‘wall of noise’ makes this song sound at one with the other tracks on this record. As if to prove the point, the middle eight even reverts back to ‘Live Forever’s subject matter, where the narrator offers assistance to his loyal fans that he can show them things ‘you have never, seen’ and ‘offer assistance’ when the former heroes end up at rock bottom the way he and his pals are. That’s by far the most interesting part of the song, but even the rest of it is pretty impressive with some clever rhymes (using an AAA rhyming scheme, very fittingly for this site!) that show off just how much Noel Gallagher is getting to grips with this writing lark. Another strong band performance again makes a promising song sound great with Tony McCaroll’s much mocked drumming mind-blowingly perfect for this song as he nails a hard groove and stays there, a quick drum-roll into every chorus the only release on this determined angry song.

[3b] ‘Columbia’ is always ignored when it comes to reviews of this album and that’s a shame because, especially live, it was one of the key Oasis songs of their early days. More hypnotic and trance and less immediate than most Oasis songs, it is nevertheless the variation this album needs about now and is the quiet ‘grower’ on this album, bleeding its way into your skull with every playing. The song’s rough and ragged backbeat is perfect both for Liam’s snarling voice and the band’s wall of noise proving that they can do gentler than normal and the song quickly builds up a head of steam that sounds far more remarkable than the simple chord progression it really is (if only they’d ditched the tambourine though – it’s tinny sound doesn’t belong when set against that maze of guitars). It’s a bit like hearing the same insistent beats of dance music (another key influence on Noel), but better. This is another curio and the one song on the album to retain the band’s original Stone Roses vibe, though Liam’s mocking direct tones are very different to the laidback swirls of his hero Ian Brown. Once again Noel’s narrator again seemingly addresses his public but in a much more emotional and honest way than on the rest of the album. In fact, this is almost a Who type song, with Liam’s swaggering Daltrey voice expressing the concerns of a more fragile Townshend, with lines about suffering during a new experience (presumably a drug or booze-related one – the ‘Columbia’ title suggests the former) and not quite knowing what it’s done to the narrator’s system. The result is confusion, with the song hopping from one chord to another as if trying to make its mind up which key to follow and a swirling sound so big everything inside it resonates so that you lose your bearings. It’s a transformation this trip and Noel isn’t quite sure how to write it down. In other hands this ambiguous song would be turned into a love song, but here the result (and indeed the curious song title, not referred to anywhere) make it sound more like a drug trip. After all the world doesn’t look or sound the same, while a cheeky switch on the fourth repeat changes the line ‘I can’t tell you the way I feel…’ to ‘I can’t sell you the way I feel’. Till now every Oasis song, however weird, has followed the template of slightly downcast verse and power pop chorus but this song does something different – it grows from nothing to a head of steam thanks to the walls of guitars and only features one verse and a much repeated chorus anyway until it explodes at the end in a sea of ‘c’mon c’mon’s and ‘yeah yeah yeahs’ (sounding distinctly less naïve and innocent than their probable source on early Beatles recordings ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’) perfectly summing up this songs’ dichotomy between being afraid of this new experience and embracing the new insight it’s just given its author. Harder to embrace than some of the other songs on the album, ‘Columbia’ is nonetheless another impressive piece of writing performed well by a band still getting used to working in recording studios.

[11a] ‘Supersonic’ was the band’s first single and perfectly sets out the Oasis stall from the first: it sounds menacing and threatening and frustrated, but the tough guy stance merely hides a song about wanting to feel special. It’s another song that takes on a whole new dimension when given to Liam to sing, transformed from a simple song about drinking into a life choice: life is awful but as long as he can afford a gin and tonic he can feel as amazing as anybody alive on the planet. The verses though point to more of the desperation behind the song. ‘I need to be myself’ Liam snarls ‘you can’t be no one else’ – but the only way he can lose his inhibitions is by pouring drinks down his throat. It’s not just him either: there’s another cast of weird characters who are all trapped in their own tiny lives, some of whom sound real and some of whom seem to have walked out of another drug trip (unless they have more waterfalls than I’m aware of in Manchester). For anyone who walked around the streets of any British city in 194 though this song rings true (and to some extent does today): the big issue sellers staving off homelessness by selling magazines in the pouring rain, the drug addict who can only afford tummy settling pills ‘Alka Seltzer’; along with the girl who ‘done it with a doctor on a helicopter’ they’re childish rhymes saying very adult things, as if the grown-up world is all a game like it was in childhood. It’s easy to forget, though, given this song’s high riff quotient and power-pop chorus which musically puts everything right how unsettling some of these images are and how oddly the narrator re-acts to them all. Are we meant to feel sympathy for these characters, pity that life made them turn out this way or pride that at least they’re found their own way to make life work beyond the dullness of the 9-5 job? ‘You need to find a way for what you want to say’ sneers Liam, before yet more lyrics dissing celebrities, laughing at them as he takes their autograph for free. In return he swaps their BMW car for a ride in his imaginary Yellow Submarine any time, because he has the power to think himself out of this trap that even the celebrities are in (and which even Oasis, unforgivably, fall into). The song sounds deceptively simple but in truth it’s all over the place, with a bunch of awkward chords strung together with only Noel’s fuzzbox drenched guitar parts and Liam’s voice to take us through it. Far more experienced vocalists than Liam would have balked at the challenge and yet Liam’s vocals are the best part of this recording, challenging, angry and so charismatic you can’t take your ears off them. Listen out too for the very first notes of this recording – Noel playing the neck of his guitar with a cigarette lighter a la Syd Barrett, giving this song a very psychedelic feel, heightened by the sudden lurches of key changes that yank this song’s riff downwards or upwards, making this song feel like a drug experience all of its own. Impressive indeed, though I can’t say it would have been my choice for a first single out of Noel’s early songs as it’s just a bit too angular and unruly for repeated listening and more than a little hard to follow. Heard live though – as per the version from Glasgow released as a B-side shortly after the album – and this song’s a winner.

[2b] ‘Bring It On Down’ is another of this album’s most under-rated songs and perhaps the most chillingly angry performance on the album. Muffled drumming, whistling guitar feedback and more epic guitar-work set the tone for a song where the narrator again feels trapped. Unlike the other songs on this album there’s no escape from the helplessness and hopelessness he feels and instead of turning his sneer on outsiders Liam turns it on himself. Noel has a ‘sound running round his brain’ that he can’t write down, the day was ‘another blur’ he’s not going to remember the next day and he’s running out of time to make his mark on life, ‘an uninvited guest’ in life who doesn’t truly know how to live it. The closest thing in the song to a chorus features some of the best writing on the album as Liam explodes ‘You’re be outclassed, you’ll be outclassed, but you won’t care – because you’re living fast!’ Unlike some of the other boozy and drug fuelled songs on the album, though, here Liam knows it isn’t a real means of escape: every day lost to getting high is another day wasted when you could have been living life the way it was meant to. No wonder Liam sings a verse from behind a megaphone, but quietened way down in the song’s mix – this is surely his subconscious speaking, a sound buried and trapped under the rubble of layers of booze, represented by the most agonising guitar break on the album where Noel fights with a scream. The riff too is gloriously menacing – it’s slower than most on the album but feels monotonous and relentless, trapping the author in and even the usual Oasis trick of putting another guitar part over the top for colour doesn’t help as this soon gets sucked into the mix to. The heaviest punkiest Oasis sound on the album, once more it’s Tony’s drums that are the star as he smacks great lumps out of his kit and pummels the song on (unusual playing by his standards, he may have been already imagining just what he wanted to do to its composer!)Guigsy’s bass sounds better than on the rest of the album too, working in counterpoint to Noel and Bonehead’s guitars rather than doubling them as before, as if taking side-swipes at them and trying to catch them unawares and sucking them down into a dark black hole. Liam doesn’t sound quite as good as before but that’s probably deliberate because we can’t hear him as well, this being one song where the narrator can’t win and where he’s meant to sound like he’s drowning not surfing. It’s a shame the song doesn’t go somewhere else just for a second as it palls a little across four intense minutes but for a while there in the opening this is the most exciting thing on the record – and by extension the most exciting thing in music since at least the 1970s.

[12a] ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’, the band’s fourth single, is in many ways Oasis’ theme song. Written by Noel while penniless and with no job prospects on offer, this is a song about the depressing thought that there’s nothing to get out of bed for except to get a ‘hit’ of either of the title legal highs. Musically too: the moment when the whole band stop noodling and kick in with fierce unity some twenty-five seconds in is one of the most exciting in music. This is a key song, with an anger and nihilism not heard since punk but in a soundscape much more fitting and almost playful by Oasis standards, with a duo of duelling guitars catching Liam in the middle of a crossfire making it sound like an army, not just one man pogoing about nothing. The song drunkenly lurches its way through another uncomfortable series of chord changes that somehow end up sounding neater than they are, but Noel’s lyric writing is keen and sober, with some spot on diatribes about the state of affairs in the early 1990s for youngsters (shockingly, it’s even worse now in 2011) and the song includes Noel’s other career-best line ‘is it worth the aggravation to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for?’ There’s so much you can say about that line – ridiculing capitalism, ridiculing the benefits system, ridiculing the Government but most of all sighing on behalf of a generation who till then hadn’t really been represented by anybody, fighting over the slim employment pickings left by an elder generation who have experience and contacts. Even the legal highs he buys are wearing off and like the last track he nags himself: why is he wasting time drinking and smoking and wasting his money on highs when he can be out there ‘making it ‘appen?’ Liam’s most famous line in music is when he warns the listener ‘you could wait a lifetime to spend your days in the sun-shee-ine’ but laughs at himself for his naiveté in thinking the sun will ever shine in this miserable grey world and figures he might as well stop worrying and drink himself into a stupor. It’s such an earthy yet poetic way of pointing out the feelings of an entire generation who drink to escape their drab little worlds instead of fighting to make them better – and yet it’s only a short-term fix. Instead Liam lectures his brother – and us – to put down the bottle and start living our lives for something more meaningful, seemingly finding it in this song’s infectious and pretty riff that gains momentum with every pass until by the end it’s become one giant long scream, ambiguous enough to be read either way (while the ‘white line’ is clearly cocaine). This is another strong song for Liam, even if his vocals are ducked a bit in the mix compared to his brother’s guitar-work, with his famous ‘sun-shee-inne’ delivery of the song much mocked at the time but actually a pretty crucial part of the song (this is a song all about not caring what others think of you after all and the sun is such an unknowable, impossible force on this song that it makes sense it ends up a ten syllable word). The riff, by the way, is a steal from T Rex – the Glam band all about surface sheen and cleverness and Oasis’ near polar opposite – but it sounds remarkably different here attached to that vocal and those lyrics. Only the rather weak chorus ‘you gotta you gotta you gotta make it you gotta gotta gotta you gotta fake it’) disappoints. It’s still classy though and says so much in just a few short words and one nagging riff; If ‘Live Forever’ hadn’t come along, this would surely be the key song of the mid-1990s. Listen out for a mistake near the end by the way: one of the guitarists is clearly starting up the riff to the song to go round to the verse melody again, but quickly leavens off when he realises everyone else has gone to the full ending. Oh and trust Oasis to start things with a cough – they sound like they’ve caught something really nasty by the time of ‘Morning Glory’, with coughs on nearly every intro and outro.

So, with all these superb songs on the album, why aren’t we calling this album perfect? Well, tracks 9 and 11 aren’t just poor compared to the rest of this album, they’re poor by Oasis standards full stop and seem to be here deliberately to take the album down a peg or too so Noel feels more hopeful about topping it in the future. [13] ‘Digsy’s Dinner’ would have made a good B-side (by contrast so many period B-sides would have made far better album tracks, being too trivial, too short and too rushed to be a part of ‘Definitely Maybe’. Even so, it’s not as bad as so many people will tell you: the music-hall riff, played with the same attack as the rest of the album, shows a nice healthy sense of send-up and the melody is nicely catchy in a sing-songy McCartney way. Bonehead even gets to pick out a simple piano tune, sounding so out of kilter with the usual wall of noise that you wonder if the microphone has picked up something from the studio next door. The chorus too is a nice burst of fun as Liam returns to the album theme of longing for the future with the line ‘these could be the best days of our lives!’ and Liam sounds as great singing it as he does everything else on the album. However every other line is clearly here for comedy and is deliberately an in-joke: Digsy, by the way, was a real Manchester figure – his real name was Peter Deary and he was a friend of Noel’s who played in the band ‘Smaller Is’ who often worked as Oasis’ warm-up act. Dropping in to see Noel when the rest of the band were busy and he was testing out the drum sound, he got behind the microphone and made up a song about his favourite food (‘Guess what I had for my tea? It was lasagggggne!’) Noel enjoying the trip so much he re-wrote it into a ‘proper’ song about a boy showing off his home cooking skills to a girl and wishing they could live together and do this everyday. In the end he gave it to Liam to sing to make it sound like a parody of the rest of the album – Liam ends up singing ‘lasganyaaaaa’ with the same sneer he does every song laden with meaning on the album (he sounds oddly into this joke actually given that it had nothing to do with him, though it’s the only Oasis song he claims to hate these days and refuses to sing). Then again, maybe it’s a parody of the band who were already Oasis’ biggest rivals, Blur, who often used to do novelty singles about nothing like lasagne (and whose biggest difference is that they were middle-class; if Noel had really wanted a working class dish he’d have had Digsy’s friends all go green for his beans on toast skills!) Digsy, who loved the song when he heard it – and the drinks it bought him down the years - but hated the way it followed him around for the next two decades in every interview, later returned the compliment by writing a ‘sequel’ named ‘Noel’s Nose’. Sadly it’s never been heard, though he ought to give it to Liam for his next CD!

Just when the album is running out of steam, along comes possibly its finest moment (give or take ‘Live Forever’). [14] ‘Slide Away’ drops the front and cockiness of the other songs here to reveal possibly Noel’s most moving song of all about a relationship gone wrong (Noel's romance with a girl named Louise Jones, whose ending reading between the lines was partly the reason he ran off to be with the Inspiral Carpets). Those who laugh at both Noel’s ‘unsubtle’ writing and Liam’s ‘motormouth’ vocals have clearly never heard this track, where all sense of pretence is dropped for a cry from the heart that brings the very best out of Liam. The sentiments of ‘Live Forever’ – and the idea that a couple will be together permanently – is given a rude awakening in this song where a close relationship unravels and the narrator realises with a panic that all his talk of ‘growing old’ with the one he loves amounts to nothing and that the person who understands him more than anyone could be gone out of his life forever without contact. The song starts with her denial of talking of them having a future, the narrator’s partner countering with the line ‘please don’t’. That simple sentiment triggers a whole chain of emotional rollercoasters in the song, the narrator cruelly remembering all the things they shared. That sounds kind of unremarkable in print but here, with a lovely moving tune that never sits still and coming this late on during an album mainly about politics and social status it’s a revelation. Dropping his tough-guy image, Noel (via Liam) gets emotional and pleads with her to stay. The hint is that they became unravelled because life was cruel and they weren’t happy through other things - Noel pleads that they will yet find the sun together and shine it on each other, but this only leads into him repeating the entire song again, going round in circles for once without the directness of the rest of the album. Noel adds a much more gentlemanly and dignified guitar solo than before, desperately trying to latch onto sobriety too late and Liam’s vocal breaks in his desperation to win her back, but it’s too late, she’s walked out the day and is never coming back. The brothers will never work together as closely as this again and Liam does his big brother proud on perhaps his most emotional song. Usually he sounds deeply in control and rides the backing like a surfboard, but here he’s trapped, his voice cracking, as he gets smothered by the sheer overwhelming weight of the backing track. By the end he’s left singing the title over and over while Noel in the distance loses his shit, yelling ‘All I know is can you take me there? Take me back!’ over and over, like the link between ‘Cry Baby Cry’ and ‘Revolution #9’ on the White Album (the pun in the phrase meaning both take me back as a partner and back in time so the narrator can watch what he says). The brothers continue alongside each other for a while, Liam now resigned to fate (as the partner in the song is) while Noel recedes into the distance, still panicking. It’s a remarkably real moment even for this album, perhaps because its so personal on an album that tends to be universal. Just listen, too, for the way Liam’s vocal swoons in the same way as Noel’s guitar part rises, as if the instrument takes over when the song gets too emotional for him to sing about. In fact, it’s a real shame the song doesn’t last for even longer, as another guitar solo (Noel’s?) is just getting going by the song’s end and the track deserves a bigger farewell than just a simple fade (the slow full stop the band give it in concert, usually with squealing feedback, is a far more suitable end). Still, this is highly impressive stuff and one of the greatest Oasis tracks of them all, a perfect recording of a perfect song and proof of just what a range this band had in their early days.

‘Definitely Maybe’ then ends in a rather churlish, supposedly rib-tickling manner. The song title is [15a] ‘Married with Children’ and together with the other songs here about being young and having fun you expect it to be a ‘Live Forever’ type song about being together forever. Actually, though, Noel-Liam spends this song running away as fast as his legs can carry him on a re-write of Who song ‘A Legal Matter’ as he imagines a future stuck with a girl he married young and who he’s learnt to hate, listing all of her faults one by one. The first song recorded for the album, in Mark Coyle’s living room, the band realised they’d got the perfect take straight away and they do, with Liam’s deadpan delivery and Noel’s mock-concerned acoustic guitar spot-on. However it’s a song that should have been saved for a B-side or another album as it contradicts almost every song on this album about life getting better one day and is the first of only a handful of Oasis songs that sneer at a specific person instead of an idea (or the narrator himself). After all, the wife in the song doesn’t sound that bad: she’s proud of her achievements as little as they are and is sarcastic (isn’t that true of the band persona too?) while she’s also ‘not very bright’ and her music’s ‘shite – it keeps me up all night’. That’s hardly divorce level is it? A sort of ‘this is what you have to follow you, children’, it may be Noel – who won’t marry for the first time another three years yet - thanking his lucky stars over losing his girlfriend after all or warning his fans not to settle too soon (twenty-seven is about the age when the first rush of young marriages tend to disintegrate amongst friends – Noel may have been pissed off that the early twenty-somethings in his band hadn’t discovered this and still believed in a utopia. Or maybe he was just in a mean mood that day?) The acoustic setting was well known even then to collectors of the band’s B-sides but at the end of what is quite a noisy album it comes as quite a shock, as if Noel’s dropped the lurid technicolour and hope of his earlier songs and is instead going for film noire realism. In retrospect, Noel’s correct to think that this fairly optimistic period in the mid-90s will too end in chaos and hopelessness, with all dreams dashed (Tony Blair will end up an illegal war mongerer, recessions will hit again in the 21st century and the unions and miners and Irish nationals never quite get what they were promised in the day). But when this album came out, this was the most uncomfortable end Noel could have given us – does that mean everything on this album was a joke as well then and we really can’t grow up to be rich rock and roll stars? Even without the context, this is a pretty glib song which lyrically sounds like a joke (albeit one that no one in the room gets; Liam sings so seriously, far more than he does on the other songs here and Noel’s guitarwork isn’t exactly brimming with laughs) but musically sounds suitably dull and tired. Even yet another middle eight looking back to past days with fondness is the sort that has been heard on ‘Definitely Maybe’ too many times. A damp fizzle to what could have been the closest to perfection to a first record as you can get.

So, on the one hand this album is as much of a time capsule as Sgt Peppers’ floaty imaginative bits were to 1967, ‘Who’s Next’s alarmingly mature and alien soundscape was to 1971 or Dare’s cold and calculated hardness was to 1981. This is the sound of a generation longing for something to take them out of the misery of the unemployment years when you had to be rich to get by and the upper classes wanted to take even the little bit you had left over from you, though you still had your dignity. It’s two fingers raised at the establishment because it’s the only fight you have left and you have nothing to lose anymore after so many years of being weather-beaten down. ‘Definitely Maybe’ is on the one hand the most depressing record in my collection – and yet on another it’s full of dreams of better tomorrows and hope. Until the last song there is always something out there to live for, to grasp for and to long for and if you’re lucky enough you might end up in a band like Oasis and find your way. Down but not defeated, even from its title alone ‘Definitely Maybe’ tries to be honest about the power of dreams and hopes in overcoming a difficult life and says that it doesn’t take much to feel supersonic, if you’re brave enough to let the rat race pass you by and find your own way. It remains Oasis’ greatest triumph – Noel’s greatest songs, Liam’s greatest vocals, the band’s best group performances and stunning engineering that despite all the hassles and problems making this album ends up without a single guitar note out of place. This album sounds big and oppressive and heavy and direct, but it also sounds oddly joyous too.

Given the context, a 1990s with nothing but empty fallow pop and synthesisers and people pretending they were loving life, it just sounded so brave to have real songs about real people again – and so right that these songs were back to being played on guitars. There had been such a gap since the last halfway decent album on our list (Roger Waters’ ‘Amused To Death’ in 1992 – and even that sounds like it could have been recorded at any time) that it’s a relief just to hear popular music getting back on track after deviances down the acid, dance and pop roads (amazingly, as I write, Lady Gaga is at #1 in the album charts with a mix of all these influences – and yet nothing from rock and roll except maybe the attitude). On the other hand, the sentiments and music of this album is near-timeless and many of these songs are still Oasis’ best known and best-loved now. Those trodden down will always find a way of rising up via some bright individual with talent that cannot be denied and in this case it was Noel Gallagher telling it like it was in a way so beautiful that even the band’s detractors could groove to it. Later albums will pit Noel’s cynicism and frustration that fame wasn’t all he wanted against older-sounding songs about freedom and optimism that sounded jaded and tired. Even this album ends on the same cold hard note but, ‘Married With Children’ aside, this is Noel having the most with music and its all written in such an easily identifiable way and using music to bring hope to those who have forgotten it and sun-shee-ine to those trapped in cloudy rainy grey cities the way he was in Manchester. Lyrics are always Oasis’ weakest bag compared to their melodies and performances but here even the words are spot-on, a hymn to a lost generation that had been getting more and more lost by the day but suddenly had a voice. It’s not quite my voice – I was too young even for this band – but it’s a great voice that will, if you pardon the pun, ‘live forever’. Not everything is spot-on, but this album is near enough perfect for me. Definitely Maybe Oasis’ best record? Definitely I’d say.
Other Oasis related reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:

'(What's The Story?) Morning Glory' (1995)

'Be Here Now' (1997)

‘Heathen Chemistry’ (2002)

‘Don’t Believe The Truth’ (2005)

'Dig Out Your Soul' (2008)

'Different Gear, Still Speeding' (Beady Eye) (2011)

'Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds' (2011) 

'Chasing Yesterdays' (Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds) (2015)

Who Built The Moon? (Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds) (2017)

The Best Unreleased Oasis Recordings 1992-2013

Surviving TV Clips 1994-2009:

Compilation/Live/Solo Albums: 1994-2010

Non-Album Songs Part One: 1993-1998

Non-Album Songs Part Two: 2000-2015

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