Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’ Turns 25
Just a few months after Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, Oasis released its debut album, Definitely Maybe, and offered up a no-holds-barred slice of good, old-fashioned rock & roll that changed the face of music almost immediately.
“People always go on and on about the past being this magical, wonderful thing, but that early period really does seem like the last golden period for music,” Noel Gallagher, the former leader of Oasis, says of the earliest days of his band.
The Oasis formula — adding a large dash of the Sex Pistols and T. Rex to the obvious Beatles/Stones/Kinks influences that most British bands wear as a badge of honor — created a turbo-charged sound that’s as urgent today as it was in 1994. But the album had a difficult birth.
Demoed and recorded multiple times over the course of 1993 and 1994 at no less than two major recording studios — and under the tutelage of two producers — Definitely Maybe is a lesson in perseverance and artistic self-assuredness, even as it stands as one of the last great moments from a bygone era in the music business.
According to Oasis’ original drummer, Tony McCarroll, English rock band the Real People initially invited the band in 1992 to record a demo at the group’s Liverpool studio as bait for the record companies. And the demo worked; Alan McGee of Creation Records signed Oasis soon after, sending them back to the Real People to record what was going to be their first single, “Bring it on Down.”
“For whatever reason, it wasn’t coming together,” McCarroll recalls. “I was doing a sound check with the bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, over and over, and the doors kicked open, and Noel said, ‘Keep that going, keep that going.’ That night he wrote ‘Supersonic.’”
The band went on to tussle with the likes of Dave Batchelor, who’d worked with legendary groups like the Kinks, but their styles didn’t mesh. “He had us all separated, when we were used to being in a small rehearsal space, looking in each other’s eyes,” McCarroll says.
“It’s just wasn’t sounding right,” agrees Oasis founder and guitarist Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs. “So we had to have a rethink.” The band then decamped to Sawmills Studio down in Cornwall, England, to work with producer Mark Coyle, the man responsible for their live sound. He recorded the band together, in the same room — and the result was electric.
Noel Gallagher was also on a serious songwriting roll. McCarroll and Bonehead recall that he was writing at a furious pace, with each song seemingly better than the last. “At first a lot of them were just long jams that turned into songs,” McCarroll says. “But there were fully formed songs, too. And they were all amazing.”
“I’ve said this before, but the day he brought in ‘Live Forever,’ I didn’t believe he’d written it,” Bonehead recalls. “I was sure it was some obscure ‘60s B-side. It was just so good, and fully formed. But he just kept churning them out, one after the other, and they were all priceless.”
For his part, Gallagher recalls those early days fondly. “You’re only in that position once,” he says. “You’ve had your whole life to get to that point, and the only expectation people have is that you’re going to have a good time and maybe make a single. But by the time I’d written ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ and ‘Supersonic,’ I did feel a bit unstoppable.”
Oasis had cut its teeth on gigs to small, rowdy crowds on the relatively quiet early ‘90s Northern England music scene, honing their individual skills, and working the kinks out of Gallagher’s already formidable songs. But without a great front man, they would have been nothing, says Bonehead. For that, he turned to Noel’s brother, Liam.
“Even when we were teenagers, and he was passing us by on the football pitch, Liam had the swagger and look,” Bonehead says. “It almost didn’t matter what he sounded like, because he was just born a front man.”
“I have fond memories, because that’s when we started out, when you don’t know which way it’s going to go, even though you think you’re the balls,” Liam Gallagher recalls. “You don’t know how people are going to take you. And then it takes off! So those are fond memories.”
By the spring of 1994, when Oasis made its first rumblings on the U.K. music scene, guitar bands seemed to be becoming a thing of the past. The Smiths and the Stone Roses had both called it a day, Cobain had killed himself, and Primal Scream was struggling to replicate their landmark achievement, 1991’s Screamadelica. Oasis stepped into that breach with big plans.
“I could tell right away that they weren’t aiming to be some little-known indie band,” says Gary Crowley, the legendary UK DJ. “They had tunes and charisma, sure, but they were really funny and enjoying themselves at a time when most other bands seemed to hate being interviewed. Noel wanted them to be the biggest band in the world.”
“It was bubbling under,” McGee recalls. “The culture needed Oasis.”
By August, when Definitely Maybe hit record store shelves, Oasis, with their great songs, charismatic front man and loud, bold sound, marked a shift in what even casual music fans were listening to.
“They quickly became ‘my band,’” recalls James Corcoran, the host of the Oasis Podcast. “I changed my haircut, and would model the way I looked and dressed on Liam and Noel. It truly became a phenomenon throughout the country, well into 1995 and then 1996, when they were absolutely everywhere.”
That remarkable rise — from grubby Manchester little-knowns to playing to hundreds of thousands — is chronicled in the recent documentary Supersonic. But it all started with the band’s debut album, which changed the landscape of rock & roll, marked the return of guitar bands to the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and, as all great records do, still sounds as fresh as the day it was released.
It’s a legacy that Liam Gallagher says he still sees every night when he steps on a stage. “I’m blown away by it, that there’s a whole new generation out there, man, definitely yearning for a bit of that reality.”
Jeff Slate is a New York City-based songwriter and journalist. His writing can be found in the Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Rolling Stone, among others. He tweets at @jeffslate.
(Photo Credit: Michel Linssen/Redferns)
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