Sunday, February 8, 2009

1. Oasis' Definitely Maybe (1994)

No, this album was not particularly groundbreaking. Its influence, if any, was most likely negative. But for whatever reason, every time I listen to Definitely Maybe, I feel like I can go out and conquer the world. I really don't have a better argument than that. And as the Brothers Gallagher might put it, I don't fookin' need one.

Although Definitely Maybe was Oasis' debut, it was the third record of theirs to reach my ears. On first listen, I was actually a bit disappointed. "All the songs kind of sound the same," I thought. "There's no piano, no orchestration, no anything - it's just a big guitar racket." But over time, particularly at the start of my freshman year in college, the album began growing on me. And growing. And growing.

I've been reported as saying that the bass-drums-guitar rock band is dead. For me, Oasis were the last gasp of the bass-drums-guitar rock band - but what a gasp. I think what saves the music from just falling flat as blustery, overproduced guitar noise is the manner in which they are able to simply groove. Call it the Madchester influence. It is scientifically impossible for me to listen to this album in my room and not immediately attempt to get up and dance. Later rock bands forgot how to groove - including Oasis. But on Definitely Maybe, they created a toe-tapping monolith my friends.

In a related matter, I've also pointed out that recording bass-drums-guitar rock is a delicate task, but I think Oasis pulled it off by not sounding delicate at all. The production quality on Definitely Maybe resembles that of a bootleg, with the mics all misplaced and the console in total disarray. There is no separation whatsoever between any of the instruments; they all bleed together heedlessly. Songs start and stop in the sloppy manner of The While Album or London Calling. I was shocked to learn that the album was actually recorded in several different studios under several different producers, because that usually is a recipe for crap. According to Wikipedia (with snippets from John Harris' Britpop):
Oasis booked Monnow Valley Studios, near Monmouth, at the start of 1994 to record their debut album. Their producer was Dave Batchelor, who Noel Gallagher knew from his days working as a roadie for the Inspiral Carpets. The sessions were unsatisfactory. "It wasn't happening," [Paul] Arthurs recalled. "He was the wrong person for the job . . . We'd play in this great big room, buzzing to be in this studio, playing like we always played. He'd say, 'Come in and have a listen.' And we'd be like, 'That doesn't sound like it sounded in that room. What's that?'. It was thin. Weak. Too clean."
Now, I can't be 100% sure of the source, but I believe I have some bootlegs of these sessions, and if they are what I think they are, then Arthurs is spot-on. The band sounds more like Weezer or Green Day - a fun little pop-punk band. Fortunately, they kept at it:
The sessions at Monnow Valley were costing £800 a day. As the sessions proved increasingly fruitless, the group began to panic. Arthurs said, "Noel was frantically on the phone to the management, going, 'This ain't working.' For it not to be happening was a bit frightening." Batchelor was let go, and Gallagher tried to make use of the music already recorded by taking the tapes to a number of London studios. Tim Abbot of Creation Records said while visiting the band in Chiswick, "McGee, Noel, me and various people had a great sesh, and we listened to it over and over again. And all I could think was, 'It ain't got the attack.' There was no immediacy."

In February the group returned from an ill-fated trip to Amsterdam and set about re-recording the album at Sawmills in Cornwall. This time the sessions were produced by Noel Gallagher and Mark Coyle. The group decided the only way to replicate their live sound on record was to record together without soundproofing between individual instruments. Over the tracks, Gallagher overdubbed numerous guitars. Arthurs said, "That was Noel's favourite trick: get the drums, bass and rhythm guitar down, and then he'd cane it. 'Less is more' didn't really work then."

The results were still deemed unsatisfactory, and there was little chance of another attempt at recording the album. The recordings already made had to be utilised. In desperation, Creation's Marcus Russell contacted engineer-turned-producer Owen Morris. "I just thought, 'They've messed up here,'" Morris recalled after hearing the Sawmills recordings. "I guessed at that stage Noel was completely fucked off. Marcus was like, 'You can do what you like - literally, whatever you want." Among Morris's first tasks was to strip away the layers of guitar overdubs Gallagher had added. Morris completed his final mix of the record on the bank holiday weekend in May. Music journalist John Harris noted, "The miracle was that music that had passed through so many hands sounded so dynamic: the guitar-heavy stew that Morris had inherited had been remoulded into something positively pile-driving."
Yeah, seriously, let's give a hand to Owen Morris, because the final product sounds like the band just cruised into the studio and laid it down in one night and never touched the tapes again until they shipped them off to the plant. "Less is more" was exactly right (as a quick comparison between Definitely Maybe and Be Here Now will prove).

Indeed, from start to finish the album possesses the kind of feral, growling intensity not normally associated with songs so melodic. It's like crossing ABBA with Raw Power. It's funny to realize that when Oasis first appeared on the scene they were considered part of the "alternative/indie" movement. Does Definitely Maybe have more in common with early '90s Creation labelmates My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream than later "housewife rock" icons such as Travis and Coldplay? I think the album lies at some kind of fascinating midway point between mainstream and alternative. Oasis cannily cherry-picked elements from the previous decade's parade of British pop trends (glam, punk, Madchester, shoegazing) and added a touch of the old '60s optimism/innocence, and yet still managed to turn it all into something quite personal.

I think on some level I may be at odds with my American generation here. Where many of my peers see the Gallaghers' romanticism as laughable and presumptuous, I see it as heartfelt and liberating. It might be a class thing. For me, Oasis wasn't about wanting to be the Beatles; it was about wanting to escape. And you'd have to be in a situation from which you'd want to escape in order to understand that sort of drawing power. If you're living a comfortable suburban life and your future is all taken care of, then maybe you wouldn't feel like you had anything to look forward to and so Kurt Cobain's suicidal grumblings would really speak to you. But if you're living in a trailer park and you see a bunch of rich suburban kids wearing tattered jeans as a fashion statement, you might not see Nirvana as your spokesmen (not that Cobain himself was in any way from a comfortable upper-class background himself). To quote a line from the band's second album, "Some might say they don't believe in heaven/Go and tell it to the man who lives in hell." For their part, the Gallaghers grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father in a shitty industrial town. Need I say more?

But if Definitely Maybe was more optimistic than most of the modern rock that surrounded it, neither was it shallow. A lot of people think "happy" pop music should be something like Smash Mouth's "All Star" or "Mambo Number 5" or any other number of assorted radio hits. But Definitely Maybe is filled with longing and menace. Maybe for a lot of people the idea of a bunch of guys saying they wanted to be rock stars was trite or passe, but in the case of Oasis I think such a cliched sentiment took on a new life, because for them it really seemed like the difference between something and nothing. Besides, I don't think it was about being rock stars; it was about wanting to be rock stars. And that could be about wanting to be anything. Just substitute "world-famous author" for "world-famous rock star" and you've pretty much got me.

I might deduct a couple of points for the album sequencing. The lead-off track, "Rock 'N' Roll Star," isn't one of my favorites but it gets by on sound and energy. I think the idea of titling a song "Rock 'N' Roll Star" is kind of stupid. Let's just say I wouldn't have put it at the start of the album myself.

No, the album really kicks into high gear with "Shakermaker," a woozy 12-bar blues concoction that cribs its melody from the New Seeker's "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," which was also famously appropriated by Coca-Cola and used in a 1970 commercial as "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke". I have a live bootleg in which Liam alters the third verse of "Shakermaker" by singing "I'd like to teach the world to sing/In perfect harmony/I'd like to buy you all the coke/To get you off yer tree." I don't think he was talking about the soft drink. The lyrics achieve a kind of anti-brilliance:

I'd like to be somebody else and not know where I've been
I'd like to build myself a house out of plasticine
Shake along with me

I've been driving in my car with my friend Mr. Soft
Mr. Clean and Mr. Bum are living in my loft
Shake along with me

Initially the song just sort of creeps along like it's bored with itself, and seems to amount to no more than a silly if charming throwaway, but then suddenly the chords take a great upward sweep, and Liam proudly proclaims:

I'm sorry but I just don't know
I know you said I told you so
But when you're happy and you're feeling fine
Then you'll know it's the right time
To shake along with me

This is what I call the "immortal" verse, because whenever I hear it I feel like I'm immortal. It's the pure sound of being glad to be alive. I feel like I can go out and lift a semi with my finger. It's like they're saying, "You know, you may not know any of the answers, but you don't need answers to feel great, just go ahead and feel great!" Amen to that. It's like I'm Popeye and I just guzzled a big fat can of spinach.

You see, at this stage in his songwriting career Noel Gallagher possessed an amazing ability to alternate completely ridiculous phrases with shockingly sincere moments of soulful expression. For example, "Supersonic." This song boasts one of rock's most ingratiating openings: a propulsive if generally elemental drum beat, followed by the sound of Noel sliding his hands slowly down the neck of his guitar, like a teasing grind. It's like the world's most beautiful woman slowly running her fingers down your spine...but better. The riff comes in, but the grind keeps on grinding, until it's eliminated after a couple of bars when Liam and the rest of the band enter and overpower it and by that time you're caught helpless in the gaping maw:

I need to be myself
I can't be no one else
I'm feeling supersonic
Give me gin and tonic
You can have it all but how much do you want it?
You make me laugh
Give me your autograph
Can I ride with you in your B.M.W. ?
You can sail with me in my yellow submarine

I love that last line, and not particularly for the rather unsubtle Beatles reference. Rather, it's like a justification of his worth. I picture some rich fat cat executive leaning out of the window just so he can drool on Noel's forehead and bark, "Hey I've got a B.M.W., what the hell have you got kid?" Instead of saying, "Nothing," Noel replies, "Hey man, I've got a colourful imaginary world filled with my new Beatlesque tunes, and that's worth something, isn't it?"

The chorus seems like it's about to trail off into a guitar solo or some other nondescript nonsense, but Noel throws in just a couple of chord changes that don't appear anywhere else in the song, and some magical "ahh" backing vocals, and it's like POW!, "Supersonic" turns right back around with a whole new energy. Maybe any monkey could have done it, or maybe it takes a certain kind of musical instinct to know how to pull off crap like that. Or maybe some combination of both. Whatever, it works. Then the lyrics really take off with some true English poetry that would make Keats and Shelley blush:

You need to be yourself
You can't be no one else
I know a girl called Elsa
She's into Alka Seltzer
She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic train
And she makes me laugh
I got her autograph
She done it with a doctor on a helicopter
She's sniffin' in a tissue
Selling the Big Issue

I detect a faint hint of laughter behind the word "helicopter." It's as if, in the process of singing, at some point Liam began thinking, "This is the best my brother could come up with?" And yet, despite acknowledging the deficiency, he decides, "Fuck it, I'll just pretend like I'm singing 'Brown Sugar' or 'God Save The Queen.' " I love how Noel doubles back on the first verse by re-using the whole "laugh/autograph" trope. Did he just write down the first thing that came into his head after he came back from the toilet? (Also, to clear this up: my brother once explained to me that the Big Issue is a paper homeless people hand out in London in order to make money. Right on!)

The outrageous lyrics continue. "Digsy's Diner" is the only rock and roll song I know of that's about a guy who's trying to convince his girlfriend to come over so that he can cook her lasagna! But not only does he claim that his girlfriend will enjoy his lasagna; apparently her friends will also "go green" for said lasagna as well. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the Spice Girls' "If you wanna be my lover/You gotta get with my friends." Behold:

What a life it would be
If you would come to mine for tea
I'll pick you up at half past three
We'll have lasagna
I'll treat you like a Queen
I'll give you strawberries and cream
And then your friends will all go green
For my lasagna

These could be the best days of our lives
But I don't think we've been living very wise
I said oh no no

I love how while Blur's protagonists on The Great Escape are breaking into a cold sweat when you tell them that these might be the best days of their lives, Oasis' are more like "Well, maybe we're not living quite as wisely as we could be, but damn, man, I'm having a fookin' blast!" They may be hedonistic, but at least they recognize it.

Speaking of hedonism, you know how I said that Definitely Maybe was danceable? "Columbia" is the most intoxicatingly danceable song in the universe. See, this is what I thought the Stone Roses were going to sound like. Boy was I in for a disappointment. Let's also take this moment to give a hand to Tony McCarroll, the soon-to-be-sacked drummer, who on this album at least is a crackling beast and he totally pushes every track over the edge. I have never read a single review of the album that highlighted his contribution but to me it's essential. Just listen to the opening of "Slide Away" and you'll see what I mean. I try to imagine Alan White playing drums on Definitely Maybe and I...I just shudder.

At any rate, the lyrics to "Columbia" say nothing and yet they say everything:

There we were, now here we are
All this confusion, nothings the same to me
There we were, now here we are
All this confusion, nothings the same to me

But I can't tell you the way I feel
Because the way I feel is oh so new to me
No I can't tell you the way I feel
Because the way I feel is oh so new to me

On the chorus, Noel sings the lines in falsetto while Liam sings in a lower register, and to hear the two of them singing "I can't tell you the way I fell/Because the way I feel is oh so new to me" together like that is invigorating. Then there is the fade-out, oh the fade-out! The fade-out is just as long as the actual song. Noel plays around with his guitar overdubs in a manner reminiscent of Hendrix's solo on "All Along The Watchtower," which I once heard someone describe as "like he was passing a series of batons between himself in a relay race." Finally, after a teasingly low series of "come on come on"s, Liam emits the most inspiring "Yeah yeah yeah!" since, well...some group from Liverpool, I can't remember their name. On the greatest, most triumphant day of my life, this is the song I would play.

And while we're still on the topic of hedonism, let's try "Cigarettes and Alcohol" on for size:

Is it my imagination
Or have I finally found something worth living for?
I was looking for some action
But all I found was cigarettes and alcohol

You could wait for a lifetime
To spend your days in the sunshine
You might as well do the white line
Cos when it comes on top . . .

You gotta make it happen!

Now, drinking, smoking, and snorting coke is about as far from my own personal behavior as you could possibly get, and yet why do I love this song so? I suppose I don't take it quite so literally. To me this is song is essentially their way of saying "Live it up and hold nothing back and seize the freaking day." And I am down with that. Really this song just makes me laugh. Also, why would I snort coke if I could simply listen to a song that makes me feel as though I'm snorting coke anyway?

But all that is neither here nor there. Definitely Maybe might merely be a fun guilty pleasure or a clever update of choice British rock and roll stylings without the presence of "Live Forever." Noel was inspired to write it after sitting around one night listening to the Rolling Stones' "Shine A Light" from Exile On Main St. Not a bad place to start. It opens with a hauntingly brief whistle and a husky voice (presumably Noel's) whispering "Ooh yeah." At first the song doesn't sound noticeably different from every other song on the album:

Maybe I don't really want to know
How your garden grows
'Cause I just want to fly

Lately did you ever feel the pain
In the morning rain
As it soaks you to the bone

I used to think the lyrics were "Maybe I don't really want to know/How you got in-growths." Hey, it could have fit, right? But then, hello, what's this? Suddenly it's not your usual "I'm so cool and you're a fool," etc.:

Maybe I just want to fly
I want to live I don't want to die
Maybe I just want to breath
Maybe I just don't believe
Maybe you're the same as me
We see things they'll never see
You and I are gonna live forever

Pretty beautiful stuff from a band that, in Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield's words, "didn't seem like they could count to twenty without eating their shoes." The casual listener might interpret "Live Forever" as a love song, and I suppose it is, in a way, but not quite in the way you might assume. Noel confessed that he wrote it as an ode to his mother. It doesn't get better than that. In some ways I like the second chorus even more:

Maybe I will never be
All the things that I want to be
But now is not the time to cry
Now's the time to find out why
I think you're the same as me
We see things they'll never see
You and I are gonna live forever

After Noel tosses off a solo that sounds like it's straight from the essence of his aching soul, Liam gives the lyrics one more go-around before repeating "We're gonna live forevahh" several times over, after which the chords take an almost menacing, angry turn before fading out in a blaze of crashing drums and screaming guitar runs. The Gallaghers sound like they want to live forever so badly it almost makes them depressed.

Yet depression was not Noel's game. When talking about "Live Forever," he explained:
At the time . . . it was written in the middle of grunge and all that, and I remember Nirvana had a tune called "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die", and I was like..."Well, I'm not fucking having that." As much as I fucking like him and all that shit, I'm not having that. I can't have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die. That's fucking rubbish. Kids don't need to be hearing that nonsense.
I'm glad to see that Noel is so concerned over the state of British youth. But you know what he means. He goes on:
Seems to me that here was a guy who had everything, and was miserable about it. And we had fuck-all, and I still thought that getting up in the morning was the greatest fuckin' thing ever, 'cause you didn't know where you'd end up at night. And we didn't have a pot to piss in, but it was fucking great, man.
So honestly, what's better than that?


Herr Zrbo said...

Haven't got all the way through your monster review, but I think you mean "the White Album".

Little Earl said...

What, you mean you've never heard of the While Album? It was a big hit.

Herr Zrbo said...

That was quite the lengthy review, but for an album to be your #1 I suppose you've gotta have a lot of passion for it.

I'm really not that familiar with the album as a whole, just the singles. I didn't pay much attention to Oasis when they were 'big', but I think I appreciate them now more that I'm older. What are they up to anyways, are they still a working band?

So, it's 2009, maybe it's time to start preparing our "best of 00s" lists. I think I've already got my number one (and it doesn't begin with V!), now I just need to fill in the other 9 slots. If we start now Yoggoth might be done by 2011!