Modern Life Is Rubbish would have appeared in my Britpop series if it hadn’t been for that damned skinhead controversy. From Wikipedia:
Modern Life Is Rubbish was released in May 1993. The announcement of the album’s release included a press photo which featured Blur, dressed in a mix of mod and skinhead attire, posing alongside a mastiff with the words “British Image 1” spraypainted behind them. At the time, such imagery was viewed as nationalistic and racially insensitive by the British music press; to quieten concerns, Blur released the “British Image 2” photo, which was “a camp restaging of a pre-war aristocratic tea party”.
I would have had to waste a lot of blog space explaining my way through that crap, diverting attention from the overall narrative. It was a dumb thing for Blur to do, given their already questionable standing with the British press, who had dismissed them as “bogus trend-hoppers” trying to latch on to the dying Madchester scene. It was a really dumb thing to do because they were also £60,000 in debt, had completely bombed in an extensive tour of the United States and were on notice from their record company that they had to produce something of commercial value pretty darned quick or find themselves out on their collective arses.
There is an old saying, “Great music conquers every ill.” Actually, there is no such saying: I just made it up. Nonetheless, the adage certainly applies to Blur because Modern Life Is Rubbish is so good that it saved their careers and turned skeptical listeners into happy campers. The turn towards socially-conscious, British-centric music in the tradition of Ray Davies and Paul Weller suited their talents, and the stylistic change from Madchester to solid rock played to their musical strengths. Though somewhat compromised by record company demands and a few questionable choices, Modern Life Is Rubbish is a vibrant, cheeky, ass-kicking experience.
If only they’d consulted me on track order, the album could have been so much better. Wait a sec . . . let me count . . . oops . . . I was only eleven years old when the album was released, so I guess I wouldn’t have been much help with the layout and probably would have developed a crush on Alex James. Hereby amended: If I could use Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine to transport me back to early 1993, I would have told the band that they were about to make a big track-ordering mistake but that the problem could be fixed in a jiffy: move the opening track to the end and all the other tracks up one notch.
“For Tomorrow” is essentially an okay song damaged by serious over-production. It didn’t exist when Blur submitted their work to Food Records owner David Balfe, a truly villainous presence in this story. He rejected the album, told them they were committing artistic suicide and demanded more singles. Poor Damon Albarn had to give up his Christmas Eve to please his master and came up with “For Tomorrow.” Though written under protest, the song isn’t half bad, a more-than-competent slice of London life. The last two verses are not only very well-written but also gave the album its title:
Jim stops and gets out the car,
Goes to a house in Emperor’s Gate,
Through the door and to his room,
Then he puts the TV on,
Turns it off and makes some tea,
Says “Modern life, well, it’s rubbish”
I’m holding on for tomorrow,
Then Susan comes into the room,
She’s a naughty girl with a lovely smile,
Says let’s take a drive to Primrose Hill,
It’s windy there and the view’s so nice,
London ice can freeze your toes
Like anyone I suppose
I’m holding on for tomorrow . . .
All very well and good, but the melody is strained, the la-la-la-la’s that form the chorus nothing more than placeholders and . . . whoever made the decision to add strings to the arrangement deserves life imprisonment with no chance of parole. The music doesn’t fit particularly well with the other songs on the album, but . . . if you make it the closer, it takes the role of the song that tells you where Blur is headed next (a notion initially applied by Thom Yorke to Radiohead albums). Dump the strings, stick it in the back and the emergence of the album title at this late juncture beautifully summarizes all that has come before. The title itself demands such placement.
Such a move places “Advert” in the opening slot, a song that makes a clean and decisive break with the shoegaze-Madchester sound of their first album, Leisure. The patched-in voice of an American announcer proclaiming “Food processors are great!” fits perfectly with the theme contained in the album title and what follows is not the meandering sound of their maiden release but a band seriously intent on kicking ass. After a cheerful introductory build, Graham Coxon arrives with a series of slashing power chords, leading the band in a memory-erasing all-out bash. As Damon Albarn waits in the wings, you wonder how they’re going to connect such delightfully rough music to food processors, but when Damon arrives on stage in the guise of a bloke waiting for the next Underground train, it all becomes crystal clear:
It’s six o’clock on the dot and I’m halfway home
I feel foul-mouthed as I stand and wait for the underground
And a nervous disposition doesn’t agree with this
I need something to remind me that there’s something else
You need a holiday somewhere in the sun
With all the people who are waiting
There never seems to be one
Say something, say something else
Say something, say something else
The chord change from the A-G pattern to Bm-F#-A-G in the chorus is absolutely thrilling, with Albarn lowering his pitch to intensify the effect. It’s logical to assume that “you need a holiday somewhere in the sun” comes from an advert posted in the station, the empty something to remind the man of “something else,” an assumption confirmed later in the song. As is so often true in modern life, advertising is equally likely to produce revulsion instead of the intended effect to entice the viewer into pissing away their money. Our man in the subway is wise to the con, and knows that the failure of an ad to address one “need” ironically creates another “need” for which advertising has a ready-made solution (of course):
Advertisements are here for rapid persuasion
If you stare too long you lose your appetite
A nervous disposition doesn’t agree with this
You need fast relief from aches and stomach pains
Our hero tries to get the ads out of his head by counting away the time, but the ad has planted a small voice in his brain to remind him of the holiday, this time attached to a “special offer!” By this time, we can all empathize with his aching desire for the ads to “Say something else!” “Advert” is a great opener that deserved the top slot, and when I listen to the album on my nano, I change the track order on iTunes to put the world right.
The disastrous U. S. tour did have the positive effect of getting Damon Albarn hooked on Ray Davies, and the album features some rock-oriented character sketches similar to what you’d find on a Golden Period Kinks album. The first is “Colin Zeal,” which opens with a rolling bass run from Alex James that prefaces a simple Dm-Am chord progression attached to a latin-tinged beat. The rhythm is then overlaid with a Graham Coxon solo featuring disciplined use of the wah-wah pedal. Damon Albarn’s vocal is delivered in a flat, matter-of-fact tone as he describes a man obsessed with fitting in:
Colin Zeal knows the value of mass appeal
He’s a pedestrian walker, he’s a civil talker
He’s an affable man with a plausible plan
Keeps his eye on the news, keeps his future in hand
A brief caesura marked by the phrase “And then he . . .” leads us into the chorus, where key and tempo changes herald the significance of what Colin considers his most important achievement:
Looks at his watch, he’s on time yet again
Looks at his watch, he’s on time yet again
He’s pleased with himself, he’s pleased with himself
He’s so pleased with himself, ah ha
I die laughing every time, and I love the way Blur shifts seamlessly from latin to rock in verse and chorus.
The title of “Pressure on Julian” gives one hope of another witty character sketch, but alas, it’s a bad inside joke involving Julian Cope, the lead singer of The Teardrop Explodes. Cope’s musical collaborator during their heyday was none other than David Balfe, and apparently Damon Albarn liked to insert references to Julian because it “drove him bananas.” The sophomoric motivation wastes an interesting piece of music, with Coxon’s guitar sounding like a malfunctioning siren and Alex James thumping away with all his might.
“Star Shaped” takes us back to the existential challenges of modern humanity with a character who is hoping for a future as an “unconscious man” where he can revel in the feeling of being unnecessary, fully interchangeable with another organic unit. The voices in his head (manifested in trailing responses sung in falsetto) encourage him to follow this hopeless course of action by telling the bloke he’s “star-shaped,” i.e., has the right DNA to make a real splash in the world (likely echoes of corporate bullshit). This is a pretty accurate representation of the psychological state of many in the workforce, who know in their hearts that climbing the corporate ladder is a completely meaningless effort and that “starring” in such a role both requires and results in an unconscious state where learned behavior conquers native intelligence. Musically, the song is marked by dramatic and demanding chord shifts in different keys, so if you’re looking to increase your chord change speed and improve your fretboard dexterity, look up the tabs online and have at it. But before you go there, listen to one of the loveliest oboe solos on record, courtesy of the well-traveled, multi-instrumentalist Ms. Kate St. John.
While the routine of modern life can be soul-draining, it also has the advantage of comfortable and comforting predictability. This is the slant taken in the song “Blue Jeans,” a more melancholy look at the issue of psychological survival. The opening drum pattern from Dave Rowntree foreshadows a Phil Spector-like arrangement with its deep thumps and echoes, but the song turns out to be one of the gentler songs on the record, marked by a not-quite mid-tempo rhythm with smoothly syncopated punctuation, morose-sounding keyboards, imbalanced lines in the verses, and a gorgeous melodic line supported by plethora of tasteful chord changes. The narrator is a shy and awkward sort, the kind of guy you never notice at the open-air markets or anywhere else for that matter. He admirably takes pleasure in the small blessings of the humdrum:
Air cushioned soles
I bought them on the Portobello Road on a Saturday
I stop and stare awhile
A common pastime when conversation goes astray
And don’t think I’m walking out of this
She don’t mind
Whatever I say, whatever I say
I don’t really want to change a thing
I want to stay this way forever
An uplifting note of triumph comes from an organ at a higher pitch between verses, a sort of ironic validation of the man’s choices. The second verse indicates he’s fully aware of the risks of banality, just like the “unconscious man” in “Star Shaped”:
Blue, blue jeans I wear them every day
There’s no particular reason to change
My thoughts are getting banal,
I can’t help it but I won’t pull out hair another day
By this point in the song, the arrangement has taken on more texture with Graham Coxon’s guitar moving to the fore, but remarkably, the melancholy mood isn’t compromised but intensified. A quick, rising riff from Coxon cues the song’s bridge, a slight variation from the main theme that seamlessly blends with the chorus:
You know it will be with you
And don’t give up on me yet
Don’t think I’m walking out of this
She don’t mind
Whatever I say, whatever I say . . .
That passage makes me want to reach out and hug the guy and make all his insecurities go away. While Blur is certainly accomplished at the skeptical-cynical perspective on life, let us not forget that they could activate empathy as well, with often beautiful results.
Next up are two of the singles from the album. “Chemical World” was another track commissioned by the record company masters, this time the American contingent. The power chords are grunge but the dominant beat is positively bouncy and un-grunge-like. Graham Coxon has a good time with some sweet filler riffs and fulfilling the lead role in the call-and-response vocals with Albarn. It’s a solid rocker that was understandably chosen as one of the singles, but the lyrics fall short of conveying a meaning that comes anywhere near impactful. Tacked on to the end is an “Intermission” that is best described by the phrase “boys will be boys.”
“Sunday Sunday” falls somewhere between a thumping rocker and a tune played by the town band perched in the gazebo on the village square; with a little imagination and a downward adjustment in power, the song would fit quite nicely into Village Green Preservation Society. Keeping with the theme of routine, the song describes the narcotic effects of the typical Sunday meal and the traditional boring activities of walks in the park and Sunday night bingo. Everyone in this song falls asleep from an overdose of food or old age, but Blur is a good enough band to keep the listener awake, ramping up the tempo midway through the song for a little boost. I would have chosen “Advert” or “Blue Jeans” over “Sunday Sunday” for the single release, but the song definitely fits in with Blur’s desire to produce British-centric music.
“Oily Water” was singled out by critics for echoing Blur’s short-lived shoegaze era, but I’ll just say right now that I love the sound of those chords, shimmering in so much vibrato that they seem out of sync with conventional notions of time. Albarn sings through a filter similar to the one used by John Lennon on “Tomorrow Never Knows” to mimic the sound of “the Dalai Lama singing from a mountaintop.” The lyrics aren’t half as memorable, though, and the arrangement gets too dark and heavy for the content.
The working title for the album was Britain Versus America, a message in itself but more colorfully explained by Alex James: “It was fucking scary how American everything’s becoming . . . so the whole thing was a fucking big two fingers up to America.” When I was old enough to pick up on the anti-Americanism I experienced when traveling to Europe to see the relatives, I remember feeling hurt (I think I was about twelve) and demanded an explanation from my mother (most of the shit came from the French, not the Irish). She responded by giving me a thorough history lesson, but when she was finished, my dad summed it up in a more pithy manner.
“Most Americans are alright, but we have more than our fair share of assholes who make the rest of us look bad.”
Blur avoided direct commentary on the American scene, and since they all left the States with a bad taste in their mouths, that was probably a good idea. What we get instead is “Miss America,” a song spare on lyrics but full of musical imagery that gets the point across. The exceptionally relaxed music consists of little more than acoustic guitar and claves and sounds like it was recorded in an echo chamber, the perfect environment for an intellectually-challenged beauty who goes through life with people constantly telling her how wonderful she is. She begins the song sitting in the shower “plucking hours from the sky,” makes a phone call, wishes people well with infinite sweetness and politely engages in empty conversation with well-wishers (“Here is here and I am here, where are you?”). There really isn’t much more, which I believe is the point. Miss America is a symbol of a culture that is all surface, no substance and anything but genuine.
Blur now shifts to overdrive with three solid rockers in a row. “Villa Rosie” doesn’t exist in the real world, and the unusual chord structure suggests that if it were a real-life watering hole, you’d find it somewhere far off the beaten path. The lyrics aren’t much help in describing the ambiance or the clientele, leading me to believe this was another inside joke among the band members, similar to “Pressure on Julian.” The guitar work is definitely on the exuberant side, and the “woo-hoos” add to the playfulness of the piece.
“Coping” is the strongest of the three, combining hard rock drive fueled by the combination of electric and acoustic guitar hammering out the chords. The lyrics are coherent and interesting, covering the fuck-it level ennui later explored in the context of suburban life in “Tracy Jacks.” We’ll start our psychoanalysis of the song with the definition of “coping mechanisms” from goodtherapy.org:
Coping mechanisms are the strategies people often use in the face of stress and/or trauma to help manage painful or difficult emotions. Coping mechanisms can help people adjust to stressful events while helping them maintain their emotional well-being.
With modern life designed to produce more stressors than most humans can handle, coping mechanisms are seen as valuable tools to help us get through the day . . . but pay careful attention to the underlying assumption. Coping mechanisms are necessary because human beings are unable or unwilling to fix the problems that lead us to booze, drugs, cigarettes, medication, meditation or a million other temporary fixes. “Coping” calls that assumption into question:
It’s a sorry state you’re getting in
The same excuse is wearing thin
There’s no self control left in me
What was not will never will be
And I’m too tired to care about it
Can’t you see this in my face, my face
When I feel this strange can I go through this again?
When I feel this strange can I go through this again?
(…Or am I just coping?)
The high heat of the smoking guitars is somewhat offset by wild synthesizer runs, adding a bit of wackiness to the piece. I would have preferred a Coxon solo in the instrumental break, but the synthesizer does have the advantage of adding to the feeling of mental instability that runs through the lyrics.
“Turn It Up” has a palpable resemblance to the more melodic Oasis songs, and from a musical perspective, it’s one of the best pop-rock tracks Blur ever did. But the lyrics . . . what the fuck?
Kazoo, kazoo you are mine, kazoo kazoo every time
Turn it up, turn it off, turn it in (x2)
Anyway you choose, anyway you choose at all
Some days you get too much, some days it all gets too much
Kazoo, kazoo you are mine, why do you turn your back on me?
Turn it up, turn it off, turn it in (x4)
Anyway you choose, anyway you choose at all
Some days you do too much, some days it all gets too much
Kazoo, kazoo you are mine, kazoo kazoo every time
Turn it up, turn it off, turn it in (x4)
Seriously, boys, the melody and chord structure deserved a far better fate than this.
My final piece of evidence in favor of changing the track order to place “For Tomorrow” at the end is the actual album closer, “Resigned.” The music is dull, dull, dull, the lyrics say nothing much and the track goes on and on and on long after the two short verses fade into memory. Once the song finally gives up the ghost, Blur inserts a “Commercial Break” where the boys take out all their testosterone on their unsuspecting instruments. Yes, boys will be boys, but I suppose they deserved some release after all they’d gone through to make this record.
Damon Albarn’s retrospective view on the creation of Modern Life Is Rubbish is a valuable lesson in motivation: “Suede and America fuelled my desire to prove to everyone that Blur were worth it. There was nothing more important in my life.” The dumb ass sentiments featured on Successory products won’t supply a hundredth of the motivation of a threat to one’s existence or identity. Though I think he was too hard on Brett Anderson (and that his views were skewed by personal noise), Suede and America provided the foils he and the band needed to up their game. What’s wonderful about Modern Life Is Rubbish is the way Blur responded to that threat—not by getting serious, but by getting playful.
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.