Cards on the table; I’m not one of life’s Oasis fans. In the past I’ve called the Gallaghers a “fifth-rate Rutles tribute act” – in print, should you wish to check the files – and it’s an not opinion I’m inclined to revise.
That said, writing mean, dismissive things about band aesthetic (as well as the subsequent Beady Eye / High Flying Birds material) is not exactly a challenge, and in the interests of at least pretending to appear objective, I didn’t want to pen a hatchet job. Plenty of folk value Definitely Maybe. Some of these people I actually know. They walk straight of back, and aren’t in the habit of dribbling uncontrollably in public, even if I wouldn’t trust them to operate heavy machinery.
Which suggests that there must be something going for this LP. An appealing colloquialism, perhaps. Or context; the understanding that whilst the swagger and shtick grew tired and stale and uninteresting extremely quickly – say around the time of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? if not earlier – twenty-one years ago (aye; Definitely Maybe is that old), there was something fresh and invigorating to the Oasis sound. There wasn’t, of course – otherwise the Rutles observation wouldn’t stand – but if I keep peddling that old line, objectivity is going to kick me in the shins.
For this is a record born because five ordinary lads from the North – or four ordinary lads and an Inspiral Carpets roadie, if you wish to get particular – had something to say, and no amount of bourgeois sneering from me is going to move us along from this.
In fact, you could argue that’s there are all sorts of parallels to The Stooges’ eponymous debut. Very different propositions in most important respects, yet both albums are brash, shooting for the primal rather than the cerebral, and both are attempts to commodify the ambient momentum they were generating when they signed on the dotted line and started piquing hacks’ interest.
Of course, the music press fell over themselves to decorate Definitely Maybe in hyperbole, promoting the album way above the level of its own ability, and turning off snobs such as myself in the process. I dug out the NME review from the time, penned by the (usually) dependable Keith Cameron, who amongst other things wrote that:
There are those who caution that there’s not enough depth here, that in 18 months’ time no-one will care to listen to Definitely Maybe, that it won’t endure like the all-time greats it so reveres. This, surely, is not the point. Few other debut albums have captured a band at such a fully-realised aspect, or are capable of scorching the soul with so many jaw-jarringly great pop moments.
And as for the summation:
With Definitely Maybe, Oasis have encapsulated the most triumphant feeling. It’s like opening your bedroom curtains one morning and discovering that some f-er’s (sic) built the Taj Mahal in your back garden and then filled it with your favourite flavour of Angel Delight. Yeah, that good.
How quaint to see the NME censoring the word “fucker” (I’m also far from certain about that Taj Mahal / Angel Delight simile, but we’ll leave that for another day). What strikes me most about these words are that Cameron’s hedging his bets a wee bit, but even so, the “few other debut albums…” sentence is a tell. For I didn’t experience any scorching of soul when listening to this back in 1994, let alone now, with two decades plus of indifference added to the wash.
I wanted to talk to Keith Cameron about this. To chew over related themes over a nice bottle of malbec and as many debut albums as it took to jaw-jar the great pop. Except that he was otherwise engaged when my invitation arrived (busy on the Mojo magazine editorial team, as events transpired), so I was forced to make my own puppet Keith Cameron out of scraps lying about the house in order to continue the conversation…
Puppet Keith: “Your problem is that you’re old; you’re not designed to appreciate Definitely Maybe. You’re not going to grasp the immediacy of ‘Live Forever’ because your thought patterns are far too soupy. And besides, I’m sure you once enjoyed a King Crimson LP”.
LGM: “Yes…well. That pop music concerns itself with the cut and thrust of being alive isn’t in doubt. It’s not designed to deal with fleshier, existential matters, because today is today is tomorrow is a fuzzy and ill-defined notion that we’ll deal with when we get there.”
Puppet Keith: “And being alive is exactly the context Definitely Maybe upholds.”
LGM: “Or, that’s exactly the context it would like us to believe it upholds. For beneath Liam’s elongated vowels and scally attitude, and away from any excitement that here was something new, vital, and capable of repositioning the vogue, we’re left with a chain of songs of brutal conventionality, indicative of an older brother who – with tracks he’d penned whilst lumping guitar amps burning a hole in his pocket – swooped down to provide the rest of the band with that back-room-of-the-pub brand of chutzpah.”
Puppet Keith: “So you’re saying that critics and record-buying public alike were hoodwinked by the debut Oasis album?”
LGM: “Hoodwinked is possibly too strong a word. After all, it’s in the interests of the music press to generate buzz; underwhelming statement doesn’t have a habit of flying off the newsstand. But on a wider level – perhaps there’s an argument that Oasis were serendipitous. That there was a public appetite for something – anything that wasn’t grunge in inclination – and it was the timing of Definitely Maybe’s arrival rather than its content that had it shift so many units.”
Puppet Keith: “You’re dead inside. I’m off for some Angel Delight.”
Okay; time to leave these fools to it; there’s an album to revisit. One that endured a challenging passage, the results of the original sessions deemed lifeless and unrepresentative, attempt #2 having to be salvaged from gratuitous layers of overdub in post production. One result of this is a fuggy imbalance between intent and effect, apparent on how opener ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ arrives with nostrils flared (albeit less in the fashion of a Newmarket thoroughbred as a donkey on Blackpool Beach).
In fact, the production on the entire LP is unsympathetic, emphasising the bland similarities between each track rather than promoting textural contrast. “Which one are we on?” I was heard muttering as ‘Up In The Sky’ became ‘Columbia’ (but the puppet had gone). There is a loose ten second section near the beginning of ‘Shakermaker’ when things threaten to grow interesting, but then the vocal kicks in, the rhythm section starts to plod, and once again we’re reminded of all those lazy (yet highly pertinent) criticisms of the back cat. Dull-headed lyrics delivered with that faux-profound whine. Chord progression in cod-clever patterns. Guitar hooks exactly where you’d expect to find them, right down to their precise dimensions.
When taken in isolation, none of these aspects are automatically bad things. They only become a problem when pre-programmed into the material; a relentless course typified by ‘Supersonic’ (which despite all evidence to the contrary, is not a Neil Innes parody). ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ is lousy enough – the manner in which it’s lashed to its tapering hook does not spread hope amongst earth’s children – but of all the tracks on offer here, it’s ‘Supersonic’ that stands testament to an almost obsequious level of smug. A smugness that grew only worse on subsequent albums, but as I won’t be reviewing those any time soon…
Elsewhere, and I did eventually get hold of Keith Cameron…
… a comment that’s either sincere or sarcastic, and I’m no longer capable of telling the two apart. All I know is, five years prior to Definitely Maybe, and another Manchester band released a similarly hyped debut. And listening to The Stone Roses – which itself has more than its fair share of demons – followed immediately by the Oasis album, it’s as if the latter represents an evolutionary step backwards.