On thousands of occasions since the release of Oasis’ first album, commentators have suggested that the beauty, the danger and the absolute brilliance of it has never been repeated. It has become almost passé to suggest that Definitely Maybe is the best that Oasis ever produced, indeed it has become a cliché in music itself for erstwhile fans to claim preferring an artist’s “earlier stuff” but now, over a year after the demise of the band, and just weeks from the first release by Oasis spin-off Beady Eye, it seems like the perfect place to start the series of Retro Review.
The album, Definitely Maybe is ingrained in British consciousness, like The Stone Roses , as a career defining tour de force; the album, intensely awaited (it became the fastest selling debut album of all time in the UK on its 1994 release) and retrospectively revered is simply 11 – 13 if you have the Japenese version, 12 if you have the vinyl version – supreme examples of British music rooted, so clearly, in The Beatles, The Jam and The Who.
The album opens with Rock ‘n’ Roll Star , a five minute riot of a slow burner where lead singer, a 22 year old Liam Gallagher, gets to live his dreams of superstardom. There are no hints at that point to suggest this is a debut album and that Oasis are just warming up, this feels like Oasis are already the biggest band in the world; as an opener to an LP career the track is a mission statement that demands the undivided attention of the listener. The title, Rock ‘n’ Roll Star , sets you up for a cheesy glam rock number but by the time you have gotten to the end of the it you have forgotten whatever else you may be doing and Oasis have got you just where they want you.
Over a recording career of 14 years, Oasis suffered mainly unflattering comparisons with The Beatles. Mostly it was of their own doing as a lot of the material subsequent to their debut release was part tribute, part homage (and no small part pastiche) to their heroes. Some of the criticism and comparisons, however, was lazy journalism, the type that also saw Oasis compared with The Smiths and The Happy Mondays just because they were famous bands from Manchester. On Definitely Maybe , Oasis show a range of styles almost entirely absent from the rest of their career with the playful melodies of Up In The Sky and Digsy’s Dinner , the lyrical postcard home of Shakermaker (see also the early b-side Fade Away) and the beautiful anti-love letter Married With Children . The easy transition from one style to another is reminiscent of The Beatles and, if the songs themselves don’t always hold up in comparison, bear in mind that one man wrote Definitely Maybe single handed while The Beatles output was written by four.
Oasis were a band hyped out of all proportion before their first record, leading of course to massive sales, which was partly due to the buzz surrounding their live performances. On the face, Oasis were five men who stood on the stage, hardly moving, while racing through their set-list before disappearing, not a word spoken in between. This is a fallacy borne of those that had not experienced Oasis first hand and had therefore never experienced the unmoving, unnerving power, like a Mike Tyson stare, of those early ‘performances’. The closest you can get to a live Oasis performance on this LP is Bring It On Down . Over the years this track, more than any other on the album, has been criminally underplayed by fair-weather fans but at the same time has been held up by others as an example of the best of early Oasis. At just over four minutes long, Bring It On Down has the form and length of a pop song but the snarling delivery of not only the vocal but the guitar, bass and drums, gives you Oasis, live in your stereo.
There are four songs on Definitely Maybe that Oasis played right until the very end; Live Forever, first single Supersonic, Slide Away and Cigarettes & Alcohol. It is these songs that define the Oasis sound, one that lead guitarist and songwriter Noel Gallagher would always dream of escaping (see his work with The Chemical Brothers and the soundtrack of The X-Files); a sound that can only really be described as ‘Stadium Anthems’ (the trick was repeated time and again but most successfully on their second album with Wonderwall, Don’t Look Back In Anger, and Champagne Supernova). They are great songs bursting with an energy that belies their relatively slow pace and in the context of the album serve to raise Oasis high above their contemporaries and competitors.
At the time, Definitely Maybe, was seen as an aperitif to whet your appetite for things to come; the band spoke often of The Beatles and, when put side to side with Please Please Me, their first release was rammed with promise. But it was that promise that was to become a burden. Two further releases followed in the next three years; the mega selling, stadium filling (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, itself a pale imitation of its predecessor and the bloated, unwieldy disappointment of Be Here Now.
It has been pointed out, rightly, many times before that debut albums are the result of years of song writing and development and so are honed to supersonic perfection, and that trying to write subsequent albums while touring and promoting can see any artist filling out a catalogue of ennui. This proved to be the case for Oasis as over the years they tried, unsuccessfully, to recreate the verve and wonder of this first release, eventually becoming themselves an Oasis tribute band.
If you have never heard this album, or have never heard anything by Oasis and you are looking for a couple of pointers, listen out for Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, Supersonic, Digsy’s Dinner and Married With Children. This is a very, very good LP, make no mistake but I believe that these four songs showcase both the charm and the power of early Oasis.
What of the extra tracks on the Japanese version? Sad Song is beautiful and gives Noel the opportunity to break the hearts of listeners, an opportunity that he grabs with laconic enthusiasm. The second extra track, Cloudburst was a b-side in the UK and, good as it is, is another example of Noel’s magpie like approach to music. Whether it is stealing a melody from a Coca Cola advert (Shakermaker), a T-Rex song (Cigarettes & Alcohol) or, as in this case, a Stone Roses number, Gallagher Snr. has often found himself unable to resist lifting sounds he likes almost verbatim and reproducing them under his own name.
Definitely Maybe is wonderful; it is exciting, loud, beautiful and optimistic. Oasis could never live up to the promise on show in this record, but few ever can when the promise is this great.
Review Summary: Founded by the legendarily smug Gallagher brothers, Oasis was one of the key bands at the epicenter of the Britpop craze that swept over Europe in the early 90’s. Definitely Maybe was their debut album, and remains a fan favorite despite its arrogance.
“Rock and Roll Star,” shows us just how arrogant and flamboyantly brilliant the Gallagher brothers really are. The guitars are loud, the drums are ferocious, and the egos are enormous. Noel Gallagher, doing his best rendition of a Sid Vicious-Paul McCartney hybrid voice, is already screeching out lyrics about how he is a star before anyone outside of a Manchester pub even heard of the band. The song is a loud, gaudy, obnoxious tribute to excess and underachievement, and, yet, Noel Gallagher still manages to sneak in some lyrics touting his unrecognized genius and how he is destined for greater things.
And, yet, they’re only getting warmed up.
Liam takes up vocal duties in “Shakermaker”. Hearing Liam churning out drug-addled lyrics in a rough Manchester accent is strangely endearing even though it sounds like he’s reading a nursery rhyme on acid. The song itself is a sweet little drunken lullaby backed up by a steadily swaying guitar and bass riff that makes it meant to be sung as a drinking song.
The album gets serious with “Live Forever.” European fans cite this song as one of the greatest rock songs ever written, and it’s easy to understand why. Noel’s talent as a songwriter shines through here. He manages to write lyrics about alienation, love, youth, and disillusionment that actually come off as honest. The chorus is the best: “Maybe you’re the same as me/We see things they’ll never see/You and I are gonna live forever.” It’s a chorus that became an unofficial manifesto of the Britpop movement, a movement that ran contrary to the negative attitude of the Grunge phenomenon that was sweeping America at the time. Ultimately, it’s why Britpop never made a huge dent in the U.S. market.
“Columbia” borrows a lot from the shoegaze sound of the time. Noel most likely took some inspiration from Ride since the sound in “Columbia” is strikingly akin to the soupy, heavily layered sound of Oasis’ British contemporaries. “Supersonic” makes a nice follow-up and comes off as a stripped down version of its predecessor. By now, Noel has shed all seriousness and his lyrics reflect a how little words really matter to him as long as there was a good rhythm guitar to carry them. The whole thing could really be written off as a coke fantasy considering some of the absurd drug references involved: “I know a girl called Elsa/She’s into alka-seltzer/She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic plane…” Ugggh…
“Bring it on Down” is the album’s hidden gem, a guitar throwdown that every pub crawler and soccer hooligan should be proud to call “their song”. The whole thing is basically a raucous shout-out to the thrill of the Manchester nightlife, but that’s all it has to be. “Cigarettes and Alcohol” is the underachiever’s anthem and a champion’s the blue collar life of the young and unemployed, a drinking song for the ages. It’s safe to assume that this is the only song on the album Noel wrote based off of real life experience.
When the album is finally over, it feels like the end of a story. Looking back, the tracks could be connected to form a tale of a stereotypical rock star who lived fast and ended up back in the real world with responsibilities like everyone else. His days of partying and boozing are now long behind him. I don’t think that Noel intended for this to be, but it’s interesting to think he made an unintentional concept album. It’s a thought made all the sweeter when one listens to the chorus of the final track, “Married With Children,” and imagines the supposed hero as a tired family man going through all the pains of married life: “Your music’s ***e/It keeps me up all night, up all night”
The only real pitfall this album falls into is a lack of any real content. Noel seems perfectly content to hack up old riffs from bands like the Buzzcocks and pass them off as original, most of his lyrics sound like a collection of drunk nursery rhymes. After the album was released, the band was even sued by Coca Cola for ripping off their theme “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” for the song “Shakermaker.” In later interviews, Noel admitted to writing the lyrics for some songs in the car on the way to the studio before recording. But, you could easily turn that sort of behavior on its head and compare Noel to a dj chopping up beats to make something fresh.
Definitely Maybe is a beautiful mess.
Thank God I’m listening to this now, eight years after its original release, and am in no way corroborated by either hype or anti-hype. “The new Beatles”, one half of the world called ’em; the other half heard them being called that and called them brainless miserable hogdicks instead.
Poor guys. Definitely Maybe is, of course, their less Beatlesque album of all. In fact, what it does sound like is overproduced Cheap Trick: heavy, grinding, never changing power-pop driven by crunchy three-or-four-chord guitar melodies, one song after another. The “classic” influence is there, of course; where a band like Weezer tried to sound like a Fifties’ ensemble reborn in the Nineties, Oasis set their sights on the Sixties, and Noel Gallagher does take his songwriting lessons from Paul McCartney rather than Buddy Holly, but then again, what pop songwriter doesn’t? In a way, everybody but the most vicious industrial bands can be compared to the Beatles, you know.
My take on Oasis’ debut is simple: Noel has talent, want it or not. He is a more-than-just-competent guitarist – he can play, which immediately separates the band from gazillions of MTV imitators (actually, he’s not even afraid of playing a lengthy guitar solo onstage, which is very atypical of Nineties’ bands). And he is more than just a competent songwriter; he really knows how to pen a somewhat solid, emotionally active melody, or at least, how to steal one (the usual reference to ‘Cigarettes And Alcohol’ as merely a re-write of T. Rex’s ‘Get It On’). And that younger alcoholic brother of his, Liam, sure has a decent pair of pipes, which served as a prototype for many a pseudo-alternative wheezy whiner afterwards.
The big problem: the guys have no arranging talent whatsoever. The first ten songs are more monotonous in their sequence than any given AC/DC album: two or three distorted guitars piled on top of each other, bass, drums, and vocals. ‘Sall. This is a formula that might work for classic punk or grunge, but this is neither; this is essentially a pop album. Pop melodies aren’t supposed to sound like hard rock melodies. You can’t just rely on having an acoustic guitar play the rhythm in one speaker and an electric guitar play a similar riff in the other one. You gotta have, you know, maybe pianos, maybe different guitar tones, maybe special effects, maybe something to diversify the procedure. Otherwise, not only does the album start really bleeding on the ears after a while, the melodies themselves just simply drown in the overall monotonousness. No wonder so many people just refuse to see anything in Definitely Maybe – I can easily understand them.
That said, the songs here all have something to offer, and I won’t be denying that. Some of them certainly don’t deserve the hard rock treatment; others probably do; but almost every one either has a big massive hook or at least a small minor one tucked away in a corner. And besides, let’s not forget that when Oasis were doing their debut album, they weren’t huge spoiled multi-millionnaire rock stars as of yet; thus, DM is more sincere, less pretentious, and simply more “primal” than any further record of theirs. That’s an asset.
‘Rock’n’Roll Star’ opens the album with a big bangin’ kick, and its ‘toniiiiiiight – I’m a rock’n’roll star!’ chorus is certainly captivating. You could say it’s glam rock a la David Bowie revived for the Nineties, couldn’t you? The lyrics, alternating between the gloss and the beauty of it all and the ironic depictions of the life it involves (kinda prophetic for Oasis themselves), would certainly suggest these allusions. ‘Shakermaker’ is nothing to be particularly proud upon (the dull lumpy arrangement kills off the song’s potential), but I sure won’t deny the ecstatic capacities of the “ballad” ‘Live Forever’ (I put “ballad” in quotes because it’s usually called that, but actually there are no ballads on this album except for the final track – it’s just that the emotional response to the song should be “gentler” than to the rest), with a vocal melody to die for (and even a classy falsetto twist in the right spot). Even Oasis enemies usually have to acknowledge the song’s power, you know.
From then on, it’s take it or leave it. What do you take, kind sir? I would take ‘Up In The Sky’ if only for its oh-so-tasty-Britpop middle eight; ‘Supersonic’, if only for its menacing, oh-so-dark-it’s-almost-grungy chorus; ‘Cigarettes And Alcohol’, if only because it’s one of the funniest headbanging takes on barroom rock I’ve heard from the Nineties (heck, it was even covered by Rod Stewart, and the guy sure knows a thing or two about barroom rock!); and either ‘Columbia’ or ‘Slide Away’, depending on whether I’m more in the mood for the excellent guitar solo on the first one or for the anthemic coda on the second one. Oh, and ‘Digsy’s Dinner’ is unmemorable, but fun – dig the guys doing Kinksy music-hall with the same jarring guitars.
Only the last track, ‘Married With Children’, offers a final relief from the sludgy production, with a basic melody that’s purely acoustic; the song itself is nothing to worry about, though. The rest of the album, I’m sadly reiterating it, is structured in the way that if you just tune in to five or ten seconds in the middle of any song, it will all sound exactly the same to you, more so than on an ambient Brian Eno album. Which is, of course, why the Sixties rule and the Nineties suck, you know. But ‘Live Forever’ still redeems the record. Definitely. Maybe.