I feel nothing but affection for the Oasis of 1993-1997. It was refreshing, at the time, to hear songs of gentle hope and fortitude that spoke to any small town/inner city/rural/suburban striver trying to brush off day-to-day indignities and discouragements, and to snatch at the belief that there was something better there for the taking. All the band’s best moments were suffused with an optimistic energy; no oh-so-clever and postmodern ironic asides; no-one hauling you back down into the mire of reduced expectation. Talk of plagiarism and Beatles-worship was irrelevant compared to the warmth that came from big, brash guitar pop that could be sung lustily by any crowd of strangers.
Like three-quarters of a million Brits, I had headed out in early July ‘97 to pick up the first single, ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’, loved it and hotly anticipated the album to come. August rolled round, however, and the album barely dented my consciousness. The two singles to follow were lacklustre packages compared to the anthemic A-sides and B-side gems Oasis had, without fail, crammed onto previous singles. The new reissue of Be Here Now offers almost twenty years distance; divorced from the portentious moment of its release, does it fare any fare better?
To be fair, much of the negative weight dragging on Be Here Now was nothing to do with the songs. The commercial and critical centre of the music industry, and of youth culture, had shifted: hip hop dominated in the U.S., while electronic dance music and its derivatives took power in the U.K. Guitars weren’t dead but Oasis looked like golden oldies compared to Radiohead’s OK Computer. The band had moved out of the music press and become fodder for daily newspapers. Ubiquity – and regular shots of them being fawned over by models, stars and politicians – robbed them of their rebel vibe. Now they were part of the establishment and revelling in it: what seemed defiant swagger when stood outside the champagne tent looking in, became the boorishness of the wealthy and entitled when they were pissing out of it.
The near-universal reverence shown to the band by the media, their management, the record companies, wore out its welcome with the album becoming a coronation ceremony rather than a music release. Partly through their own actions, partly because it’s the default setting of tabloid news, the band were an over-reported soap opera played out across a torrent of column inches. In many respects, unless every listener had spontaneously combusted in its aftermath, there was no way Be Here Now could answer the diverse hopes placed upon it. People wanted all the best bits of the previous albums, but better; but they also wanted something new. Oasis weren’t meant to ‘fuck with the formula’, but it had to sound like the best British album in a decade. It may have been an insurmountable challenge but, sat here in 2016, it doesn’t excuse an album that, while not terrible, is decisively average and audibly flawed.
At root, the problem with Be Here Now lay at the very heart of the band’s existence. From day one, Oasis had been clear: they wanted to be big stars more than they wanted to be creative artists. Be Here Now was the sound of lottery winners discovering all the money in the world couldn’t satisfy them once they’d been robbed of the daily battles that gave them a reason to fight. It was a testament to every person who has ever believed ‘If I just met that person/wrote that book/got that job/moved to that place…Life would be perfect.’ But, while in Hollywood the end credits roll and that moment of happiness never ends, in real life each person wakes up the next day and has to find new meaning to hold back the inevitable stagnation. Be Here Now caught Noel Gallagher at the moment where his wildest dreams had come true – and he had no idea how to fill the hole it left behind.
The appeal of Oasis had been the exhortations to never let the bastards grind you down; the right for have-nots to dream of, and to grab at, whatever happiness could be hoped for. The heart of the band’s hits had been a flood of self-belief offered unselfishly to anyone in need of a pick-me-up. “In my mind, my dreams are real”; “You and I, we’re gonna live forever”; “You can have it all but how much do you want it?”; “Together we’ll fly”; “Some might say we will find a brighter day.” Criticisms of Noel Gallagher’s lack of sophistication – though true – were both elitist and ignored that none of these sentiments sounded trite from guys who seemed to be shouting the words they honestly told themselves in the mirror every dreary morning before go-nowhere work.
Lyrically, their previous albums had consisted of a mass of positivity leavened by just one or two darker urges. Be Here Now flipped the equation entirely. Song after song slid by filled with troubled foreboding while the stiff-upper-lipped faith that tomorrow could be better had been replaced by insecurity and uncertainty. Be Here Now’s warmest plea – ‘Stand By Me’ – begins “Made a meal and threw it up on Sunday” then demands endurance of bad weather, hidden secrets and desire to leave for no better reason than “Nobody knows the way it’s gonna be.” The supposedly light-hearted throwaway ‘The Girl In The Dirty Shirt’ offers no helping hand to a friend other than forgetfulness and “To me it doesn’t matter if your hopes and dreams are shattered…” Elsewhere, instead of hope, the album could only shrug “I feel a little down today and I ain’t got much to say” – “Maybe the dreams that we dream are gone.”
As well as hope, stardom deprived Noel Gallagher of his ability to personify the daily dreaming of the everyman. Who was going to sing about “The girl who wears a dirty shirt?”, “I’ve got my magic pie” or “Into my big mouth, you could fly a plane”? Wanting something ‘better’ had felt universal while his new songs were entirely introverted and self-reverential observations: no one could sing-along and feel these words related to their life. A few years earlier, writing as a man seizing his last chance to get up and out of where he was, the elder Gallagher brother had been peerless. Even minor songs like ‘D’yer Wanna Be a Spaceman’, ‘Married With Children’, ‘Half The World Away’, ‘Round Our Way’ or ‘Talk Tonight’ had formed semi-affectionate kitchen-sink vignettes of a world familiar to his listeners. Now all the millionaire could hurl down from on high was mush-mouthed emptiness reflecting his absence of fresh ambitions. The cliched image of a Rolls Royce in a swimming pool on the album artwork said it all.
Still, at points the darker turn was invigorating: ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’ felt like a heavyweight expansion of the basic template. ‘Don’t Go Away’ and ‘Stand By Me’ exposed an appealing vulnerability that might have harnessed the same universal and cross-generational appeal Oasis had unleashed on ‘Wonderwall.’ ‘I Hope, I Think, I Know’ aims at, and mostly hits, that positive swagger the band had mastered. What really undermines the album isn’t just weakness in the lyrics, it’s the music itself.
Oasis were no strangers to heavily amplified sound – it’s part of what lent muscle to songs like ‘Hello’ or ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’. On Be Here Now, however, a lot of the music appears to have been recorded over the whirr of an air-conditioning unit: the sound degenerating into a turgid blancmange of barely distinguishable ingredients. On Deep Purple’s Live In Japan album Ian Gillan invented a cliché by asking, “Could we have everything louder than everything else?” Oasis clearly took the words as a best practice. On almost every song the guitar, drums, bass, vocals swamp one another – at which point the band ladle on the samples, multi-tracks, organs, orchestras to smother any chance a song might be listenable. They somehow forgot that their wildest moments had always been dominated by a powerful melody, riff or vocal line presented with sufficient clarity that anyone could hum or sing it.
The title track – bar its kooky but uninteresting drum machine intro/interlude – is a rigidly one-dimensional chug drowning Liam Gallagher’s vocals; ‘Fade In-Out’ attempts a guitar solo that goes entirely missing beneath the relentless sludge of rhythm; the up-tempo ‘It’s Getting Better (Man!!!)’ – at root a decent enough song – has been converted into the audio-equivalent of someone screaming in your face for seven minutes while hurling drawers of cutlery downstairs. On quite a few songs, apparently unwilling to par anything back, the only change of dynamic left to exploit is to give the volume nob a twist. It doesn’t help that Liam Gallagher, when actually audible, isn’t always in the best of voice – his full-blooded and characterful tone often appears horribly thin against this boisterously over-stuffed backing. On Be Here Now he’s a hard-to-hear man, singing about nothing, on songs where the chorus goes missing.
Intent matters in music: if Oasis had released their own Metal Machine Music they would have been vilified – while, sidestepping expectations and being appreciated for their guts; if Oasis had been aiming for a more abrasive sound to remove the albatross of past success – like Nirvana’s In Utero – they would have won respect, if not love. Be Here Now, unfortunately, was Oasis attempting to stay on top, to stay pop. A try-hard air, straining for intensity, infects the whole album. The samples on ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’, the sound effects n’ boogie outro to ‘Magic Pie’, the crap drum machine intro to ‘Be Here Now’ – the listener is repeatedly being hit over the head with the band’s feigned casualness, an attempt at tossed-off carefree quirkiness, which only serves to emphasise the album’s aimless ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach and the band’s unwillingness to commit whole-heartedly to experimentation.
The absence of true purpose fuelled a further critical difficulty: length. Oasis had never been about two minute songs but Definitely Maybe had still smashed out 11 songs in 52 minutes; What’s The Story Morning Glory? managed 12 songs (albeit with two sub-one minute interludes) in 50 minutes. Be Here Now’s 11 songs (and one ‘reprise’) ground themselves into the dirt over 71 flabby minutes. On What’s The Story Morning Glory? the seven-and-a-half minutes of ‘Champagne Supernova’ formed an epic closing contrast to the album’s otherwise concise statements while even the sharp-eyed and focused Definitely Maybe had stretched to a couple of six minute songs. On Be Here Now only two songs made it home under five minutes while four smashed the seven minute mark. The album slopped out an extra 20 minutes, compared to its predecessors, on a collection of tracks that had far less to impart than ever before.
The frustrating element is that Oasis had already shown on ‘Champagne Supernova’ that they could sustain a mood and emotion while growing a song in interesting ways; they’d also demonstrated effective use of an orchestra on the glorious ‘Whatever’. Here, the band added strings to a clutch of songs but buried them so deep all that can be heard is a tuneless screech or background warble. ‘All Around The World’, supposedly the album’s centrepiece, provides a summary of every crippling weakness afflicting Be Here Now. It was meant to be the album’s triumphal fanfare but how could it be on such an imbalanced record where it jostles for significance amid so many overlong extravaganzas? Length didn’t have to mean pop-death: ‘Bat Out Of Hell’, ‘Hey Jude’ or ‘November Rain’ had shown the ingredients needed to create a bombastic victory – ambitious range, a tale to tell, a suite of significantly varied musical moods and modes. Oasis failed because they simply hammered out an undistinguished monotone while the lyrics – after a promising first verse – degenerated into mindlessly repetitive doggerel. Whereas what the song needed was drama and fresh twists, all the band could think to do was to make an obvious key change, to slap the volume up to eleven, or to deaden everything even further by layering on yet more brass, more guitars, more strings, even a sodding mouth organ.
The inlay booklet juxtaposes two quotations from Noel Gallagher: “I don’t really sit and write B-sides, I just write songs in my spare time” and, on the same page, “This is when we were like ‘Oh fuck, gotta write some B-sides.’” It’s the voice of a man who no longer dreamed of music. Gallagher deserves huge respect for how clearly, across two decades-worth of interviews, he has acknowledged his own declining work rate and quality. In the early years he had flipped a middle finger to the expectations of his employers – skiving off to write songs before quitting altogether and going on the dole. By deciding to become a star he brushed off the scoffed low expectations held by teachers, family, community – he defiantly set his own direction and wrote his intentions boldly across three albums’ worth of songs and B-sides. By 1997, with that well of material near dry, having everything he had ever thought he wanted, success stripped him bare. Crowned a contender for greatest songwriter of his generation, the expectation was he would make an inspired new record. Perhaps it showed consistency that all he could do was prove everyone wrong again.