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.
All the noise surrounding Brexit triggered memories of a much healthier expression of cultural pride than that interminable shitshow.
Brett Anderson of Suede correctly labeled “Britpop” a “horrible term.” I would go even further and call it “offensive,” “misleading” and “demeaning.” The connotation of the word “pop” implies light entertainment for the masses, a consumer-friendly form of music manufactured to provide everyday people with simple songs they can whistle on their way to work. While that connotation is true for most music that has made it to the pop charts over the years, there have been at least two periods in popular musical history where artists chose to lead rather than follow, and raised the quality of popular music to an art form while losing little of their appeal to the common folk in the process. The first arose in the mid-60’s when the Beatles, Kinks, Stones and others followed Bob Dylan’s cue and moved beyond boy-girl tunes to explore human and social conditions; the second was the Britpop era in the mid-1990’s.
One notable difference between the two eras is that the golden age of the mid-60’s was a worldwide phenomenon; Britpop was primarily a British experience. Some Britpop bands enjoyed modest popularity in some of the Commonwealth countries and in parts of the European Union that Ms. May is so desperate to leave, but only Oasis made any significant inroads in the United States. Part of the energy fueling Britpop involved the rejection of the grunge music pouring out of the States at the time, but after being flooded with American music, movies and television shows for a few decades, many people in the UK had become, in the words of Joe Strummer, “so bored with the USA.” Britpop artists not only sang primarily of the British cultural experience, but unlike most of their pop forefathers, they sounded like Brits, refusing to Americanize their singing voices. Ethnocentric, self-absorbed Americans had a hard time relating to the stories and the accents, and albums that made it to the top of the charts in the UK failed miserably when crossing the Atlantic: Parklife never charted; Different Class peaked at #34; and The Great Escape died a regrettable death at #150.
It has been said that Ray Davies is the Godfather of Britpop, and there is plenty of evidence to back that up that claim. The American performance ban on The Kinks coincided nicely with Ray Davies’ blossoming as songwriter and astute observer of human activity. Since there was little point in writing songs that appealed to the American market, he focused on life in the mother country. Face to Face, Something Else, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur are all filled with songs about British life and British people. Ironically, those albums were generally ignored in both the UK and the US, but they provided a blueprint for future artists to integrate melodic rock and roll with lyrics featuring a unique blend of pointed satire and expressions of empathy for the poor souls in the queendom. I can hear The Kinks in all the Britpop bands, but most noticeably in Blur and Pulp. Britpop was not a patriotic celebration of all things British, but often an insightful and sometimes discomfiting look at British cultural dysfunction.
The humor and satire certainly helped endear the Britpop bands to the listening public, but they also produced some of the catchiest damned music of any era. Many of the best songs of the era practically demand you to sing along, a feature best demonstrated in live recordings of Oasis, where the fans threaten to drown out the band as they raise their voices in joyful unison. Beneath those catchy melodies are often surprisingly clever variations on musical norms, and similar to the songs on The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, prove much more challenging to play in the comfort of your home than might first appear. Britpop had a lot more musical and lyrical depth than the term would apply.
Britpop also celebrated youth and vitality, a theme best expressed through the works of Supergrass, Oasis and Suede. The celebration was not the rejection of oppressive conformity you hear in “My Generation,” but just about how damned good it feels to be young, hanging out with the gang, staying “young and invincible” with your testosterone flowing like a river in flood stage. The youthful energy of Britpop is quite palpable, but the reference to the male hormone reminds us that Britpop was largely a male phenomenon.
Unless you count The Spice Girls, and I don’t.
All this youthful energy and budding pride came together to allow the media to invent another term to describe the era: Cool Britannia. I’m 90% sure that people who embraced that term never heard the original song by The Bonzos, which in four brief lines ridiculed the idea that the British cognoscenti could impose coolness on a population. I can easily expose the faux nature of Cool Britannia by quoting a single sentence from the Wikipedia article on the subject: “The election of Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1997, seen by some as young, cool and very appealing, was a main driving force in giving Britain a feeling of euphoria and optimism.”
Oh, well. He looked pretty cute in his well-tailored suits. Who could have predicted he would be dumb enough to allow George W. Bush (not exactly the brightest bulb himself) to talk him into helping the Americans launch a crusade?
Conclusion: Cool Britannia was horseshit, but despite its horseshit name, Britpop was the real deal. Over the next few months, I’ll be exploring the music of the era through the following albums (please note that I’ve already reviewed all of Oasis’ studio albums):
- Suede: Suede March 1993
- Blur: Parklife, April 1994
- Supergrass: I Should Coco, May 1995
- Blur: The Great Escape, September 1995
- Pulp: Different Class, October 1995
- Supergrass: In It for the Money, April 1997
- Pulp: This Is Hardcore, March 1998
- Oasis: Familiar to Millions, November 2000
I reserve the right to throw in a few albums from the 60’s and 70’s during the series to keep my Baby Boomer readers happy.