In the Britpop series I celebrated Pulp’s Different Class as the greatest of all Britpop creations, then turned around and trashed the shit out of This Is Hardcore, giving it the ignominious distinction of “the album that destroyed Britpop.”
I’m such a treacherous bitch.
Still, I didn’t want to leave readers with the impression that I believed Jarvis Cocker had only that one shining moment before the sudden flip from no-name indie band leader to U. K. superstardom threw him off his game. Even the greats can have an off day, and I’m happy to report that Mr. Cocker recovered from the dual onslaught of too much coke and too much fame and returned to form on Pulp’s farewell album, We Love Life.
Pulp had already made one attempt to record the album, but creative differences and interpersonal noise resulted in a less-than-satisfying result. Island then brought in Scott Walker, whose deep musical knowledge, decades of recording experience on both sides of the glass and broadly idiosyncratic musical tastes made him the perfect choice to produce an album for an idiosyncratic band determined to blur the lines between pop and art. Walker had good material to work with—the collaboratively-written music was fundamentally solid and Cocker’s lyrics demonstrated his typically sharp insight into socio-cultural and sexual-relational dynamics—but the band needed discipline, focus and fresh ideas to make the music come alive. With assistance from longtime production partner Peter Walsh, Walker met all those needs, resulting in a deeply engaging album that gets better with every spin.
The muscular introduction to “Weeds” communicates confidence and intent, telling the listener that Pulp is back with a vengeance. Acoustic and electric guitar form a compelling drone pattern intensified by the introduction of thick bass and expansive drums, establishing a memorable motif in twelve seconds flat. The brevity of the introduction is designed to highlight the importance and urgency of the opening verse, where Jarvis Cocker concisely and powerfully exposes the danger of xenophobic tendencies that would come to the fore fifteen years later in the form of Brexit:
We came across the North Sea with our carriers on our knees
Wound up in some holding camp somewhere outside Leeds
Because we do not care to fight, my friends – we are the weeds
Because we got no homes they call us smelly refugees
“Because we got no homes they call us smelly refugees” is beautifully concrete language describing the stunning lack of empathy for people who lost their homes and livelihoods through no fault of their own, an emptiness now openly encouraged by politicians spouting nationalist, racist nonsense. The feeling expressed here is one of repulsion, but Cocker understood that expressions of repulsion are often a way for people to disguise an underlying attraction to the people or activity being demonized. Once the immigrant weeds get past the paperwork, they wind up in “communities” where they learn to survive by exploiting the “moral weaknesses” of the consumer majority overwhelmingly tempted by the sinful delights of sex, booze and drugs :
This cut-price dairy produce that turns our bones to dust
You want some entertainment?
Go on, shove it up me – if you must
Make believe you’re so turned on by planting trees & shrubs
But you come round to visit us when you fancy booze ‘n’ drugs
We are weeds, vegetation, dense undergrowth
Thru’ cracks in the pavement: there weeds will grow – the places you don’t go.
The transition from verse/chorus to the extended fade is very well-executed, with the underlying drone and rhythm powering forward movement and the background vocals provided by The Swingle Singers ensuring contrast and continuity. The closing message from the weeds—“We’d like to get you out of your mind/For a little time: for all time”—tells us that the weeds can tolerate members of the ruling class when they drop pretense and (to borrow a phrase from a song that appears later on the album) “admit that you’re a fuck-up like the rest of us.” Cocker delivers the pleas for “a little time, for all time” in a voice that gradually loses steam, capturing the exhaustion of people victimized by pretense and oppression. Hey! We’re all human here! Who died and made you King of the Earth? Why the fuck do we have to play these absurd and draining games with each other?
We leave those questions unanswered for now, hoping for more illumination in “Weeds II (The Origin of the Species),” which grows organically from the opening song’s fade. Here the tempo is taken down a couple of notches while a simple background of bass, drums, wah-wah guitar and synthesized ambiance form a backdrop for a Jarvis Cocker narrative, “a story of cultivation, exploitation, civilization.” While he claims “this is the true story of the weeds,” the narrative content adopts the perspective of the ruling class, who have always had a vested interest in defining “the truth.”
A charming naïveté, a very short flowering season;
No sooner has the first blooming begun than decay sets in.
Bring your camera, take photos of live on the margins.
Offer money in exchange for sex and then get a taxi home . . .
Growing wild, then harvested in their prime and passed around at dinner parties.
Care for some weed?
So natural, so wild, so unrefined and someone’s going to make a fortune one day
If ony they can market this stuff right>
Come on: do your dance.
Come on: do your funny little dance.
Germination. Plantation. Exploitation. Civilization.
The exploitation of the lower classes is essential to the ruling class definition of “civilization.” Recent headlines about human trafficking, modern-day slavery and the sexual exploitation of minors isn’t news, folks—this shit has been going on for years, shielded from discovery by a tight network of wealthy people who have the juice to protect other wealthy people and the financial resources to ensure that paid underlings keep things under wraps. While Cocker’s concept of social hierarchy bears some resemblance to the pigs-dogs-sheep structure of Roger Waters, he imbues the sheep (the weeds) with greater awareness of the exploitation and the wherewithal to do something about it—as he did is “Mis-Shapes” (“We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of and that’s our minds”) and “Common People” (“Like a dog lying in the corner/They will bite you and never warn you”). Roger Waters thinks we’re doomed; Cocker thinks we have a shot if we can ever get our shit together and unite in common cause.
The most disturbing song on the album is “The Night That Minnie Timperley Died,” a story about the rape and murder of an innocent teenage girl whose naïve worldview is captured in the opening lines:
“There’s a light that shines on everything & everyone.
And it shines so bright – brighter even than the sun”.
That’s what Minnie thinks as she walks to meet her brother,
Who is nearly two years older, on a Saturday night.
The brother is not the culprit; that dishonor belongs to “an older guy . . . paunchy, but dangerous” who offers Minnie a ride to the dance where her brother is DJ-ing. The murder is thankfully not described in gory detail, but as the brother laments the loss of his dear sister, he tries to get his head around the tragedy by adding, “And he only did what he did ’cause you looked like one of his kids.” That is one sick fuck, and while I’m a staunch defender of the right of the artist to choose his subject matter, I really wish Cocker hadn’t gone there. Musically, the song isn’t half-bad, displaying a different form of muscularity in the duet of distorted and acoustic guitar backed by amped-up bass from Steve Mackey . . . but yeah, I wish Cocker hadn’t gone there. I’m tired of toxic male entitlement stories.
“Trees” was part of a double A-side single with “Sunrise” (I would have preferred it paired with “Weeds”), the orchestral ostinato lifted from (er, sampled from) a piece called “Tell Her You Love Her” that was part of a soundtrack for the 60’s film Otley, described by the late Gene Siskel as “so boring it could put Sominex out of business.” The similarities end right there: through the fascinating process of creative transformation, Jarvis Cocker turned that long-forgotten ostinato into the unifying theme of one helluva song.
“Trees” introduces the second major theme of We Love Life: failed relationships. The milieu for this particular failure is a damp forest in autumn, the beauty of the leaves forming a deeply ironic contrast to the underlying processes of death and decay. After triggering his masculine hormones through the murder of a magpie, the narrator decides to put it to his female companion right there in the forest,
I took an air-rifle, shot a magpie to the ground
And it died without a sound.
Your skin so pale against the fallen autumn leaves
And no one saw us but the trees.
I can’t help but comment that if this guy even suggested that I lay down in a pile of moldy, rotten leaves so he could relieve the tension in his johnson, I would have picked up that air rifle and rendered his member as dead as that magpie. The layered images of death (her pale skin, the autumn leaves) portend the inevitable death of the relationship, for while the girl apparently submitted to the man’s wishes, the experience must have been less-than-satisfying:
Yeah, the trees, those useless trees produce the air that I am breathing.
Yeah, the trees, those useless trees; they never said that you were leaving.
Unable to face his own inadequacies, the man oddly shifts blame from the broad to the trees, calling them out for their failure to grow in straight lines, robbing him of his fantasy of relational permanence:
I carved your name with a heart just up above
Now swollen, distorted, unrecognisable; like our love.
The smell of leaf mould & the sweetness of decay
Are the incense at the funeral procession here today.
Though at this point, the guy seems like a total loser, Cocker inspires us to feel some sympathy for his wretched state through a change in vocal tone on the bridge that expresses naïve innocence as opposed to stubborn ignorance:
You try to shape the world to what you want the world to be.
Carving your name a thousand times won’t bring you back to me.
Oh no, no, I might as well go and tell it to the trees.
We’ve all been that poor dumb bastard, and if we’re lucky enough, we grow up and out of it.
“Trees” features exceptionally strong forward movement, much like “Weeds.” Mackey and drummer Nick Banks provide understated but effective rhythmic drive that melds well with the ostinato and the “tree noises” developed by Scott Walker. I have to add that the arrangements on We Love Life are excellent throughout, and it feels like the band has more presence than usual—and Pulp was a very good band.
Our second sampled-from-a-movie piece comes in the form of “Wickerman,” allegedly borrowed from the now obscure “Willow’s Song” from the now obscure British horror film The Wicker Man. Unlike the sampling that resulted in “Trees,” the similarities are harder to identify, but I have to confess I broke off my study of the piece because I couldn’t stand another second of Britt Ekland’s airy-fairy vocal.
I’ll never understand the 60’s fetish with doe-eyed girls.
“Wickerman” is the longest track on the album, a narrative poem in three parts set to three slightly different musical themes played in a sub-normal tempo. The song is a combination of reminiscence and fantasy, set in Cocker’s old stomping grounds of Sheffield. Given that the place names (the street nicknamed The Wicker; The Leadmill, a club where Pulp performed in the 80’s; the Broom Hall historic house) will likely have little meaning to listeners outside of South Yorkshire, “Wickerman” appears to demand a great deal from the listener, but the poetry makes it worth the trip. A little preparation and background information might help fill in some of the gaps:
- First, find Pulp: A Film About Life Death and Supermarkets on your favorite streaming site. It’s a documentary about Pulp’s final concert in Sheffield at the end of their 2012 reunion tour that also features views of the cityscape as well as interviews with band members and some of the curiously delightful inhabitants of Sheffield.
- The dominant motif of the song is the river, which presents something of a puzzle because Sheffield has five rivers (or one river and four tributaries, according to some geographers) and Cocker doesn’t tell us which river he’s talking about. He does give us a clue in the line “Yeah, a river flows underneath this city,” which, combined with a bit of online geographical sleuthing, leads me to conclude that the river in question is the Sheaf, the river that gave Sheffield its name. The Sheaf was indeed routed underground in the late 19th century, and a BBC article on Sheffield’s hidden rivers mentioned that “The culverts carrying the Sheaf and Porter Brook through the city are usually only accessed by urban explorers in illicit trips.” That is so Jarvis Cocker.
The poetry integrates the flow of a relationship with the flow of the river, the transitory with the seemingly permanent. After an evening at the Leadmill, Jarvis escorts his girl to a place behind the station where the “river runs through a concrete channel,” the water tainted by centuries of industrialization. As they move on, the river flows through “dirty brickwork conduits” beneath an old confectionery factory “leaving an antiquated sweet-shop smell & caverns of nougat & caramel,” continuing on “beneath pudgy fifteen-year olds addicted to coffee whitener, courting couples naked on old upholstery,” past the place where they first met, where Jarvis discovers that the “child’s toy horse ride that played such a ridiculously tragic tune” continues to operate, “but none of the kids seemed interested in riding on it.” They stop at a cafe, where Jarvis has a transformative experience:
And the cafe was still there too
The same press-in plastic letters on the price list & scuffed formica-top tables.
I sat as close as possible to the seat where I’d met you that autumn afternoon.
And then, after what seemed like hours of thinking about it
I finally took your face in my hands and I kissed you for the first time
And a feeling like electricity flowed through my whole body.
And I immediately knew that I’d entered a completely different world.
And all the time, in the background, the sound of that ridiculously heartbreaking child’s ride outside.
The river eventually reaches the other end of town “underneath an old railway viaduct.” The transitory nature of relationships is punctuated by the line, “I went there with you once – except you were somebody else.” That line would leave one to believe that the female lead is not a specific girl but an amalgamation of amorous experiences, or perhaps a muse of sorts. Jarvis then waxes lyrical about the possibilities that lie beyond their furthest point of exploration, then takes a sudden turn from the fantastic into something more concrete: his own experience of life in Sheffield:
I used to live just by the river, in a dis-used factory just off the Wicker
The river flowed by day after day
“One day” I thought, “One day I will follow it” but that day never came
I moved away and lost track but tonight I am thinking about making my way back.
I may find you there & float on wherever the river may take me.
The ambivalence and ambiguity of the story beautifully captures the tug-of-war that often characterizes our feelings about the place we call home. There is always the drive to want something different, something better, something exciting, but the pull of vivid memories, familiar sights and scents and experiences that shaped our lives form a powerful counterreaction. Perhaps the title indicates that no matter where his artistic journey takes him, Cocker acknowledges that he will always be a Wickerman at heart.
Speaking of ambivalence, the opening lines of “I Love Life” offer a more noncommital view of life’s wonders than those expressed by the tragically optimistic Minnie Timperley:
Here comes your bedtime story:
Mum & Dad have sentenced you to life.
Jarvis sings those lines in the gentle, reassuring voice of a parent attempting to lull a child to sleep, while Mark Webber’s descending counterpoint riffs support the tone of reassurance—a tone that shifts to slight mockery as Jarvis explains what it takes to stay alive:
Don’t think twice; it’s the only reason I’m alive.
I feel alright as long as I don’t forget to breathe.
Breathe in, breathe in, breathe out.
Jarvis explained this unusual level of attention to an autonomous process thusly: “The idea of that song is someone trying to regain control of their life, and it’s not all that easy sometimes.” As the narrator later describes the flow of life as “Another day, another major disaster,” the reminder to breathe and the repetition of “I love my life, I love my life” sound more like those useless self-help affirmations than a sincere embrace. The flip from soft music to heavy, rough and dark in the fade (cued by a marvelously understated Webber-crafted transition) gives Jarvis permission to act like a man unhinged, desperate to make sense of it all. In the end, we never know if the guy loves life, wants to love life or wants others to believe that he loves life to avoid unpleasantness . . . and that ambivalence is the point of the song.
“Birds in Your Garden” is a ridiculously delightful tune about “a love affair that I had in a period when I wasn’t really all that together. I thought that I’d fucked the relationship up because I was fucked up. It was the start of me feeling I had to get a bit more natural.” While Cocker may have been referring to one specific relational failure, awkwardness seemed to be his calling card in his formative years. In Pulp: A Film About Life Death and Supermarkets, he talks about the period in his teens when he worked at the local market hawking fish and how after work he would soak his hands in bleach for ten minutes trying to get rid of the smell before bungling his way through the jungle (it didn’t work). Introverts often need a crutch to take things to the next level, and in this piece, Jarvis imagines the birds of birds-and-bees fame offering their unlimited support:
“Take her now. Don’t be scared, it’s alright.
Oh, come on, touch her inside.
It’s a crime against nature – she’s been waiting all night.
Come on, hold her, and kiss her and tell her you care
If you wait ’til tomorrow she’ll no longer be there.
Come on & give it to her. You know it’s now or never.”
Yeah, the birds in your garden have all started singing this
Set to equally corny, dramatic-romantic music in the style of the early Walker Brothers, “Birds in Your Garden” falls somewhere between camp and tragi-comic, a weirdly charming experience.
“Bob Lind” has nothing to do with the 60’s folksinger whose “Elusive Butterfly” is one of my least favorite songs of all time. Jarvis rather liked the piece, and named the song after Lind because “something about the song made me think of him.” You won’t find similarities in either the musical structure or the lyrics, but the song does feature the density of “Elusive Butterfly”, with oodles of words pushing up against the boundaries and the music rambling along on the busy side with classic 60’s plucked arpeggios. Essentially, the song is the doppelgänger of “Birds in Your Garden” where Cocker engages in self-immolation about what a fuck-up he is when it comes to the dance that hopefully results in getting laid:
The recreational pursuits that made you shine have worn you thin.
And it’s oh so fine getting out of your mind as long as you can find your way back in.
You want someone to screw your brains out
I’d say they’re running out of time and they’d only go and cut themselves on the daggers of your mind.
This is your future.
This is the sentence you must serve ’til you admit that you’re a fuck-up like the rest of us.
Interesting that part of the reason he’s a fuck-up had to do with his embrace of drug culture, where getting as fucked-up or even more fucked-up in comparison to one’s peers establishes your cred. Those “recreational pursuits” do indeed wear thin, both in terms of that totally unsexy emaciation and the shallowness that comes from a half-dead brain. I only wish he’d learned this lesson before recording This Is Hardcore.
“Bad Cover Version” was the lead single, and deservedly so. Candida Doyle’s fluid melody is delivered in the style of the dramatic renderings of the “brother groups” (Righteous and Walker), complete with soulfully angelic female backing singers, integrating the concept of a bad cover version into the music itself. While the song is remembered largely for the list of bad cover versions in the fade, the brilliance of the song is found long before that litany of substandard sequels. In the very first verse, Jarvis a.) exchanges his wimpy relational persona for a guy with some balls and b.) subtly echoing his legitimate claim to share initials with Jesus Christ in “Dishes” from This Is Hardcore, he dismisses the savior as someone not up to par in comparison to what he has to offer:
The word’s on the street; you’ve found someone new
If he looks nothing like me
I’m so happy for you
I heard an old girlfriend
Has turned to the church
She’s trying to replace me
But it’ll never work
“A bad cover version of love is not the real thing” he opines, likening the rebound experience to the “bikini-clad girl on the front who invited you in.” Perhaps it’s our fetish with familiarity that drives us to seek bad cover versions, and the film industry has capitalized on that weakness to produce dozens of dreadful remakes and sequels that rarely come close to the real thing. Whatever the drive, the bad cover version is an inspired metaphor beautifully suited to the experience of modern relationships.
When we get to the fade, Jarvis makes sure we get the point by listing a series of “sad imitations that got it so wrong.” The talking version of Tom and Jerry. The Stones since the eighties (my favorite). The last days of South Fork. The television version of The Planet of the Apes. Generic cornflakes. The most awkward reference is to one of Scott Walker’s least successful efforts:
. . . in the end section of the song there’s a list of inferior things, but unfortunately in this litany I included Scott Walker’s fifth solo LP, ‘Til the Band Comes In. Because that record’s always mystified me, because it starts off with original material, and it’s pretty good, and then suddenly on the second side he just does six cover versions, and it’s like he just kind of gets sick of the whole thing and just gives up halfway through the record. So I’ve always found it a very strange album for that.
I wish he’d added “90% of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career” and the Clash album Cut the Crap, but I think Jarvis won the day. Inadvertently, he also created a great drinking game! It starts when the first player selects a great contribution or contributor in any field (arts, science, music, politics, whatever). The rest of the players compete with each other to come up with the perfect bad cover version, then the whole team votes on whose response was the most painfully perfect match. The winner downs a shot of whatever you have handy! I played it with the extended family during my recent escape to Ireland, and we had a great time. I haven’t been that drunk since I was seventeen!
p. s. The video, filled with celebrity look-alikes, is an absolute hoot.
Though the theme of relational issues continues in “Roadkill,” the mood turns melancholy with an extended introduction featuring two acoustic guitars playing slow arpeggios in separate channels over distant background music supplied by Philip Sheppard on five-string cello with occasional shimmery cymbal highlights and ambient fills. Jarvis approaches the vocal as if he’s talking to himself as he calls up images of his ex, “the things I don’t see anymore.” The mood is disturbed at the start of the third verse when Jarvis encounters a traffic jam caused by a dead deer in the road and the volume rises to reflect the irritating stress that accompanies such a moment. Once the road is clear, the music returns to the painful stillness that accentuates the sense of loss and the utter helplessness that accompanies the death of a cherished relationship. “Roadkill” may not be on anyone’s list of favorite Pulp songs, but its design and delivery are exceptional.
Counterintuitively, We Love Life ends with a song called “Sunrise.” I don’t think much of the song itself, as I think the theme of wasting the night away to greet the dawn had already been captured to perfection in “Bar Italia,” but I will give Jarvis due credit for the opening couplet:
I used to hate the sun because it shone on everything I’d done.
Made me feel that all that I had done was overfill the ashtray of my life.
The core song is actually quite brief—two verses sung to an uninspired melody—and most of the five minutes and fifty-seven seconds is filled with an extended uptempo passage featuring ripping guitar and “choir engineering.” There could have only been one purpose for such an appendage—to make sure Pulp could generate some crowd excitement during live performances and transform that energy into an encore. It’s sort of a “meh” album closer, and I wish they’d found a way to close with a reprise of “Weeds,” as the socio-cultural theme virtually disappears a quarter of the way through the album. Placing the relational issues in the larger context would have strengthened both themes.
Nonetheless, We Love Life itself was a strong closer for Pulp, a clear reminder of just how special they were. One of the most interesting interviews in Pulp: A Film About Life Death and Supermarkets featured a Sheffield resident who talked about Blur and Pulp and said she preferred the latter. When asked why, she said, “More melodic . . . and better words, actually . . . it makes you think . . . and I like music that makes you think.”
Pulp reaffirmed the notion that pop music can in fact rise to the level of art, and in a world dominated by auto-tuned, formulaic crapola with lyrics that rarely rise above the infantile, at a time when we desperately need intelligent, melodic music to help us make sense of a world that appears to be crumbling before our eyes, music that inspires you to sing along and makes you think at the same time would be a welcome change of pace.
Everyone should miss Pulp.
If you traveled to various corners of the world, played word association with its far-flung inhabitants and said, “Britpop,” the majority would respond “Oasis.” You might get some competition from Blur and others on the continent or in Japan, but Oasis is the Britpop representative best-known in the USA, and the USA has nuclear-level marketing reach.
Note that the word “nuclear” was carefully chosen and is intended to convey all its meanings.
I’ve already reviewed all their studio albums, but I couldn’t do a Britpop series justice without including Oasis. Luckily, I had their concert album in my back pocket, where they cover nearly all their hits from the Britpop era.
My review of Familiar to Millions is somewhat colored by my experience: I have seen Oasis live four times in my brief existence:
- June 19, 1997, Oakland Coliseum, Oakland, California: I loathe outdoor stadium concerts and despised the Be Here Now album, but they were in town, I could get there on BART, I’d never seen them, so what the fuck. The sound wasn’t great and the thing I remember most was Liam wearing white tennis shoes that were terribly unsexy.
- August 6, 2000, Arlene Schnitzler Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon: A wealthy dermatologist I was dating took me for my nineteenth birthday. He really went all out—we flew first class, had Dom Perignon waiting for us at the Benson Hotel and sat in second-row seats for Oasis. I returned the favor with a couple of thank-you fucks, dated him for another couple of months but ended it before he could give me a Tiffany engagement ring for Christmas. Nice guy, good-looking, shallow as a rain puddle, entire identity wrapped around his wealth and status. As for Oasis, they put on a great performance despite the weak material from Standing on the Shoulder of Giants—the set list on this live album is pretty close to what I heard that night, minus the crowd size and energy of Wembley. At this stage in their career, Oasis was no longer considered a top-tier band in the States, and were generally booked for venues in the 3000 to 5000 seat range. I liked that.
- September 9, 2005, Everett Events Center, Everett, Washington: This was a flight on my own dime and worth every penny—this was the Don’t Believe the Truth concert and I consider that album to be their masterpiece. They were on fire from the get-go and never let up, with the presence of Zak Starkey on drums infinitely improving the band’s tightness and punch. The venue was hardly top-tier and I remember Noel asking the crowd, “We were told we’d be playing Seattle—where the fuck is this place?”
- August 26, 2008, WaMu Theatre, Seattle: This took place after I moved to Seattle. The venue sucked—it felt more like a school cafeteria than a theatre. Oasis management seriously fucked up on this one—the band prepared a setlist heavy on songs from Dig Out Your Soul and the geniuses who set up the tour scheduled several concerts before the album was released! Though I was hearing several of the songs for the first time, “Shock of the Lightning” left quite an impression.
I also saw Beady Eye at the Showbox in Seattle on November 30, 2011. I recall that a member of the audience almost lost his member after slapping me in the ass and that it took Liam about six songs to find the right key. Despite the presence of three Oasis alumni, Beady Eye did not play a single Oasis number, but their first album was energetic enough to make for a relatively satisfying experience.
Oasis has been called a working-class band, and they certainly lived up to that label in concert. Oasis concerts feature very little in the way of pyrotechnics and nothing in the way of choreography—they pretty much just fucking play. Liam’s singing stance rarely varies: he puts his hands behind his back, twists his torso a bit, leans forward into the mike and sings. Noel is usually stage left with his guitars at the ready. The only “additional entertainment” is found in the song introductions, which fall into three categories: perfunctory, unintelligible or insulting (the insults are directed at random people in the audience). They rarely invite crowd participation because they usually don’t need to—the crowd at an Oasis concert consider themselves one of the largest choruses ever assembled, and they join in from the get-go.
Familiar to Millions primarily consists from the performances at Wembley on June 21, 2000, with some vocal overdubs inserted from other concerts in spots where Liam fucked up the lyrics. He always fucked up the second verse of “Acquiesce,” insisting on the documentary DVD for Don’t Believe the Truth that he’d never heard that verse in his life, in defiance of recorded evidence to the contrary. I don’t think anyone has found the Rosetta Stone that holds the key to Liam’s brain; I’ve always thought of him as intuitive-emotional and rather “childlike,” with all the blessings and curses associated with that adjective. When he’s in the mood, though, he’s one of the best rock vocalists on record, and for most of Familiar to Millions, he’s in the mood.
His brother told The Daily Telegraph, “I like to think I keep it real. Liam keeps it surreal, and somewhere between the two we get on all right.” Noel’s feet are generally more firmly attached to terra firma, but he also has the tendency to say whatever is on his mind and you can go fuck yourself if you’ve got a problem with that, mate. He is eminently quotable, the master of the sound bite with bite, oscillating between self-deprecation and self-promotion. He has described his guitar-playing at “average at fucking best,” but sends modesty on holiday with observations like, “Look. I was a superhero in the ’90s. I said so at the time. McCartney, Weller, Townshend, Richards, my first album’s better than all their first albums. Even they’d admit that.” Putting aside his arrogance and aggressive defensiveness (adjectives that apply equally to both brothers), Noel Gallagher managed to write some of the greatest songs of the era and never wavered in his commitment to the sadly dying art of guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll.
People who don’t care for Oasis tell me it has more to do with the Gallagher Brothers being assholes than the music; some people won’t even listen to Oasis because of the assholity factor. Having struggled through a love-hate relationship with Oasis for twenty-odd years, I can appreciate those feelings, but what frustrates me is not so much their boorishness but their bipolar tendencies. That is not a clinical diagnosis, but an observation of a pattern of good boy/bad boy behavior present throughout their history—a pattern demonstrated on this particular album. The Wembley concert was part of the tour to promote the album Standing on the Shoulder of Giants—an album title that acknowledges the band’s debt to The Beatles and the other great British bands of the 60’s. Then again, who but Oasis would give their live album a title like Familiar to Millions? Even if it’s true, why the fuck do you want to go there?
Sigh. Enough psychologizing. All I know is this: whenever I’ve seen Oasis live, I forget all about that crap and sing along at the top of my lungs with everybody else.
Let’s get on with it! One last note: in addition to the album, you can get a DVD with the entire gig and various “special features.” The sound on the DVD isn’t as good as the CD or the vinyl (which Discogs currently priced at $397.33), but the review includes references to what’s happening on stage when I think it’s helpful.
A tape of “Fucking in the Bushes” would become the standard call to arms opening Oasis concerts, the pounding drums and ripping guitar a signal to those off taking a piss that they’ve got three minutes to get their asses back to where the action is. During the intro, the cameras pans the crowd, a rather scrawny looking bunch obviously thrilled to see their heroes. Displaying a complete lack of attention to the finer points of fashion, Liam struts on stage wearing hippie-style shades and a blue denim jacket over a hoodie while Noel appears in what looks like a thick brown shirt pulled from the back of his closet over a pinkish top. Liam warms up the crowd with typical ramblings, saying something about a “shithole” and “Hello, Manchester.” With everyone in place, Alan White dutifully plays the drum intro to “Go Let It Out,” the lead single from the album. Liam betrays his excitement through his off-kilter breathing rhythm, but the crowd of around 80,000 people don’t notice because they’re already singing at the tops of their lungs. When the bass is called on to join in, the audience goes nuts, as they should—Andy Bell is a hundred times the bass player Guigsy was. The highlight of the performance is when Liam sings the line, “Ordinary people that are like you and me,” pointing to self then audience to emphasize common roots. Second new band member Gem Archer joins in the fun by delivering the first guitar solo, handing it over to Noel on his Gibson Les Paul for the second passage. Although it’s far from my favorite Oasis song, “Go Let It Out” gets the job done, leaving the crowd in the early stages of ecstasy.
Noel switches to the Rickenbacker for the second track on the Standing album, the drone song, “Who Feels Love,” supported by non-member Zeben Jameson on synthesizer. I mentioned in my review of that album that the studio version is a pale imitation of the live version, and listening to this album confirms what I heard in Portland. Bass whore that I am, I thrill to the deep, filling sound of Andy Bell’s bass in the same way I thrill to the deep, filling feeling of a hard one stretching my vaginal walls. Oasis would become masters of the drone song as demonstrated on Dig Out Your Soul and their surprisingly strong cover of “Within You, Without You,” and in this context it serves to get the rhythm section in sync and ready to rock.
Our first trip down memory lane begins when Liam announces “Supersonic.” The crowd immediately begins to move their butts along with the opening drum beat, breaking out into an ecstatic cry of pleasure when Noel delivers the arpeggiated intro. EVERYONE is singing the quirky lyrics at the top of their lungs, as if they’ve been holding back the orgasm for just the right moment. The band immediately launches into “Shakermaker,” a song I’ve always loathed, but I have to admit they play it very well here, rocking hard enough to make me temporarily forget that the song is based on a fucking Coke commercial.
Right on cue, Liam fucks up the lyrics to “Acquiesce,” but fortunately his part is relegated to the verses while his brother sings the far more important chorus. You can hear the difference in the crowd vocals—the sing-along isn’t quite as strong as it was on the previous two songs, but when Noel steps up to the mike and delivers his lines in an exceptionally clear voice, the accompanying chorus rises to a new dynamic peak:
Because we need each other
We believe in one another
I know we’re gonna discover
What’s sleeping in our soul
Noel literally saves the day here, leaving the crowd in a state of post-orgasmic delight.
Liam heads off for a smoke and a piss while Noel takes the lead on the Stevie Wonder imitation song, “Step Out.” While I appreciate the way he and Gem kick ass on the guitar parts, I always get distracted in the chorus, which is a musical duplication of “Uptight.” Liam finds his way back to the stage for the third song from Standing, the meh piece “Gas Panic.” Unlike me, the crowd seems to enjoy itself, but this is the part of the concert where I follow Liam’s example and head to the wings for physiological relief. I return to the sound of Noel telling a guy in the audience, “If she starts getting out of line, slap her,” followed by an energetic rendition of “Roll With It.” Neither Noel’s sentiments nor the song bring a smile to my face, but I get over it when I see a woman with exposed DD-cup bubs displaying her assets while perched on the shoulders of strapping young lad. There had been some unintelligible stage banter about tits earlier in the program, perhaps inspiring the young lady to liberate her fabulous knockers from bondage and share them with the world—and for that, we can all be grateful.
“Stand By Me” gets the crowd back in focus, with the slowly spinning hypnotic lights serving to soften and sweeten the accompanying vocals. Liam gives one of his best performances of the night, and as the camera zooms in, you can see the sweat on his neck and lengthy mane. Noel slaps a capo on the second fret (funny, I always thought it was supposed to be the third fret) for “Wonderwall,” with the audience response meter hitting the red zone. I think the response here has to do with their love of the song itself and nothing to do with Liam’s rather sloppy delivery. The song is so iconic that it could stand the mangling, but really, Liam should have risen to the moment and treated this song with due respect.
Once again, Noel rescues his brother with a long low-string tease on the Les Paul that ends when he climbs atop the monitors and delivers the equally iconic opening riff to “Cigarettes and Alcohol.” Apparently panicked that his brother has taken him out of the limelight, Liam responds to the challenge with a strong and playful vocal accompanied by his energetic tambourine, earning himself full forgiveness. I respond enthusiastically to the editorial aside he inserts after “But all I found is cigarettes and alcohol,” where, with unusually precise diction he observes, “Which isn’t a bad thing!” “Fuck yeah!” I respond in unladylike fashion. The crowd sings with guilt-free delight to a great performance of one of the great rock songs of all time.
Noel introduces the next song by visually demonstrating the size of his johnson by holding his outstretched hands far beyond his shoulders, dedicating the piece to “everyone with a little dick.” That might seem like a rather crass way to introduce one of the most beautiful and enduring works of the Britpop era, but there you have it. Once Jameson enters with the instantly-recognized piano introduction to “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” the audience responds in a unified voice tempered with affection and get themselves ready for their greatest performance of the night.
While Noel is in exceptionally fine voice, your attention is immediately drawn to the responding intensity of the collective vocals from the audience. What’s truly stunning is that they’re not just singing at the top of their lungs but varying their dynamics with each line, lowering and raising their voices in all the right places. They start out strong on the opening lines, back off during the pre-chorus transition, then take deep, justifiable pleasure in belting out one of the great belt-out lines of all time—“You ain’t ever going to burn my heart out.” What happens next is absolutely magical—Noel, sensing that the crowd’s got this one, drops out of the picture entirely and lets the audience take the entire chorus. Stimulated by the sounds of their collective voices, they raise their volume even higher to indicate their acceptance of the challenge. It is a thrilling moment that never fails to bring tears to my eyes, as does the stop-time closing passage where the audience solos on the coda (“Don’t look back in anger/Don’t look back in anger/I heard you say”), then Noel repeats the coda to light guitar accompaniment. While the applause rolls across the stadium, he ends the song gently on that sweet line, “At least not today.” Even for the brash and often bombastic Noel Gallagher, that kind of validation for songwriter and song had to be a deeply satisfying experience.
Nothing can possibly top that collective performance, but Liam gives it a shot with “Live Forever,” one of Oasis’ contributions to the youth movement sub-theme of Britpop. The song is well-played and Liam is excellent voice, but I’m still feeling the after-effects of “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and can’t process it. Liam has already initiated the bullshit ritual associated with encores by announcing “Live Forever” as “the last song,” but I think the ruse would have been more effective had the band walked off after “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and left the audience begging frantically and sincerely for more.
As it is, Oasis doesn’t take the audience to higher levels of excitement during the three-song encore, making it something of a disappointment. The cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” was an odd choice that inspired only obligatory applause. Liam’s rendition of “Champagne Supernova” is excellent, but it’s a song designed to evoke nostalgic regret rather than raise one’s spirits. The concert ends with the first song on their first album, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” where Oasis leaves it all on the stage in one last solid rock ‘n’ roll thrust before strolling off the stage.
For reasons both unknown and incomprehensible, the album compilers added an 18th track from a concert that took place on the other side of the world (in Florida, of all places) two months before Wembley—their cover of “Helter Skelter.” What the fuck, people? Not only does this unattached appendage interfere with the experience of closure we all want to feel at the end of a concert, but the Oasis version of “Helter Skelter” certainly isn’t going to make anyone forget about Paul McCartney’s last foray into manic rock.
Familiar to Millions came out a few years after the Britpop obituaries started coming out, so one has to wonder if the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd to the old favorites was a manifestation of nostalgia, a word defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” While that may have been operating on some level for some people, I don’t think nostalgia had much to do with the audience response. I’ve noticed that songs that bring up memories of my wayward teens are clearly period pieces with no enduring value whatsoever, rather like the colorful iMacs and retro fashions of the mid-to-late 90’s. I ran this theory by my parents, and both agreed that listening to the Beatles, Kinks or Stones doesn’t trigger any longing for black lights, granny glasses or sit-ins, but hearing one-hit wonders like Barry McGuire and the Strawberry Alarm Clock does.
No, the people singing the hosannas you hear on Familiar to Millions aren’t indulging in sweet memories of exuberant youth, but expressing deep appreciation for great songs that inspire full-throated listener accompaniment. That’s as true for Oasis as it is for Pulp, Blur, Supergrass, Suede and other Britpop artists who rose above the era’s hype to create compelling music that will live forever.