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.
Originally written January 2013, revised April 2016.
I think I’ve mentioned that I have mixed feelings about Morning Glory. The great songs on the album are mindblowing masterpieces; the other songs are pretty much filler material. I wish they’d taken some of the B-sides that wound up on Masterplan and replaced songs like “Hello” and “She’s Electric” with “Acquiesce” and “Talk Tonight,” for example.
That said, I have to qualify my qualification. The songs that comprise the filler material are much, much, much better live. I never cared much for “Roll with It” until I heard them do it onstage, and now when I listen to Morning Glory I can bring up that memory and enjoy the song.
The truth is that Oasis was a great live band, a quality that has never really been captured on any of the live recordings available to the listening public. The reason why they were a great live band is because it was all about the music instead of the silly histrionics, gimmicks and special effects that dominate live concerts today. Oasis pretty much just fucking played, and man, could they fucking play!
And as Liam often mumbled, “We got the foo-kin’ songs, man.” And what really made those songs special is that they made you want to sing along with the band. Oasis concerts were always sing-a-longs, with everyone in the stadium or the hall belting out the lyrics along with Liam or Noel. Normally, I find such audience exuberance annoying because I want to hear the band, but in the case of Oasis, the excitement and all-out passion from the crowd was spine-tingling . . . and shit, I couldn’t help singing along, too! Morning Glory and Definitely Maybe are full of songs that are simply a gas to sing at full-throated volume.
The opener to Morning Glory is not one of those songs. “Hello” is an odd song in any case, but to open an album with it was a silly idea. If they’d opened it with “Acquiesce,” there would be no doubt about Morning Glory’s place in history. With the opening passage foreshadowing the title track, “Acquiesce” would have been a perfect fit. Instead, it wound up as a B-side of one of the many versions of the “Some Might Say” single, creating the best single since Hey Jude/Revolution. Oh, well.
“Roll with It” comes next, a rather pedestrian piece of music as well . . . then finally we get into the masterworks. “Wonderwall” remains a truly beautiful piece of music, with strings and acoustic guitar (album) or without (live). At one time or another, we’ve all been looking for someone to save us from our self-generated confusion; we temporarily fall into black holes and we just can’t seem to get our heads out of our asses. We know we’re failing, we know we’re out of touch, but that consciousness is useless unless someone can get through to us:
And all the roads we have to walk are winding
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding
There are many things that I would
Like to say to you
But I don’t know how
You’re gonna be the one that saves me
I’m really glad they decided Liam’s voice was best for this song, for while Noel has a pretty good set of vocal cords, Liam ‘s voice is more expressive and full of attitude. The attitude is important in “Wonderwall,” for Liam gives us the impression that the display of vulnerability described in the lyrics is something that had been bottled up for a long time.
Amazingly, “Wonderwall” is followed by a second masterpiece and my personal favorite, “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” This song is often presented as evidence that Oasis’ music was “derivative,” a definition attributed to Paul McCartney in an interview he did for Le Figaro—with “derivative” meaning “a cheap knock-off of Beatle music.”
“Bullshit!” say I. When I hear Oasis, I don’t hear much that sounds like Beatle music. For one, harmony is comparatively rare with Oasis but omnipresent on Beatle tracks. Second, Oasis rocked harder than The Beatles and their overall sound is heavier. The Beatles certainly influenced Oasis, in terms of song structure and the importance of melody in pop-rock, but it’s much more accurate to say that Noel and Liam drew inspiration from The Beatles rather than try to copy them. To me, Oasis reinvigorated the tradition of great British rock of combining strong rhythms with strong melodies . . . something that McCartney lost touch with during his namby-pamby post-Beatles phase.
But let’s move on from the ungrateful Sir Paul and back to “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” From the opening “Imagine”-influenced piano chords to the sweet, sweet guitar solo near the end, you know you are hearing one of the best songs ever written, whatever the influence. The melody flows so naturally through this song that it always leaves me breathless in admiration; the words oscillate between sadness (“So Sally can wait/She knows it’s too late as she’s walking on by”) and defiance (“You ain’t ever gonna burn my heart out”); and Noel delivers a vocal that rivals Liam at his best.
After this, we get to catch our breath with two fillers, “Hey Now” and the background noise of “The Swamp Song-Excerpt 1” before we get to the hard rock gem of the album, “Some Might Say.”
GodDAMN I love that guitar duet! Delivering one of the best opening riffs in rock over a background of sustained distortion, Noel fingers every bit of heat out of that Epiphone and makes us forget about Tony McCarroll’s rather pedestrian drumming (Alan White did the rest of the album, and he was no Zak Starkey either). The words alternate between the strange (“The sink is full of fishes”) to the endlessly quotable:
Some might say they don’t believe in heaven
Go and tell it to the man who lives in hell
Some might say, you get what you’ve been given
If you don’t get yours, I won’t get mine as well
This is one of my favorite Noel Gallagher verses. The first couplet urges us not to get hung up on the religious connotation of the words “heaven” and “hell,” but instead view “heaven” as “hope” for the person whose life is a living hell. And I love the common fucking sense of the last line—common sense that completely escapes my American friends. I often quote that last line when my American friends ask me, “Why are you a socialist?” a riposte often followed by a confused, uncomfortable silence.
Then it’s back to the filler material, with “Cast No Shadow” and “She’s Electric,” okay songs that really belongs on Masterplan. Once again, Liam comes to the rescue with his fabulous vocal on “Morning Glory.” Whether “morning glory” refers to that gorgeous and very convenient hard cock that men awake to or is just a phrase that floated into Noel’s brain, this is a song that Liam sings with power and attitude. It’s strong on the album, but even better in a packed stadium, where there are no limits on how his voice can travel.
After a reprise of “The Swamp Song,” we hear the gentle waves that introduce “Champagne Supernova,” the album’s epic closer. As is apparent throughout Morning Glory, Noel’s wrote a good chunk of the lyrics while out of it, so we have scraps of references to Beatle songs, unusual imagery and illogical lines like, “Slowly walking down the hall/Faster than a cannonball.” What’s remarkable about the lyrics is that they still work on an intuitive-attitudinal level; it’s as if part of the theme is the experience of rock star success that became the band’s reality a few seconds after Definitely Maybe ripped into the listening public’s consciousness. Noel’s observation in Rolling Stone rings true in that context: “What’s the Story is about actually being a pop star in a band.” And that experience usually includes a whole lot of stimulants.
Wake up the dawn and ask her why
A dreamer dreams she never dies
Wipe that tear away now from your eye
Slowly walking down the hall
Faster than a cannonball
Where were you while we were getting high?
Someday you will find me
Caught beneath the landslide
In a champagne supernova in the sky
Liam gives us a restrained, detached vocal that captures the mood of the post-crash reflective experience. In his delivery, “Champagne Supernova” captures another of the strengths of Morning Glory—the details aren’t as important as the feel, the attitude, the experience. I may not care for half the tunes on this album, but the whole is both unique and captivating—and you couldn’t have come up with a better ending than “Champagne Supernova.”
The excesses of the period finally caught up with the band in the follow-up album, Be Here Now, an album that excited me when I first heard it but is one I rarely play now. The best way I can describe that album is it sounds like a bunch of guys pretending to be Oasis and not pulling it off. Looking backwards, it seems that Morning Glory was an early peak that led to a pretty dramatic crash from which Oasis recovered very slowly with the generally sub-par works Standing on the Shoulder of Giants and Heathen Chemistry. Fortunately for us, they made a remarkable recovery with the one of the best albums ever made, Don’t Believe the Truth and followed it up with a great piece of work in Dig Out Your Soul before bowing out of the scene.
But they left us some great and memorable music, including Morning Glory. It might be uneven, but to borrow a phrase, it has the foo-kin’ songs, man.