Before brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher established themselves as veritable lords of loutish behavior — or possibly in the process of doing so — they headed up a near miraculous rock ’n’ roll reformation as the songwriting chops, and voice, respectively, of Oasis.
Say the name Oasis these days and you think of brawling brothers, drunken hooliganism, and two guys who used to tell anyone who’d listen that they were in the best rock band on the planet. That rock band would later be known for bloated albums which caused some otherwise fine efforts — 2002’s “Heathen Chemistry,” for instance — to be overlooked.
But there was a time, from 1994 to ’95, when Oasis were nearly everything they said they were, and capable of dropping an all-time great record on you.
They did so twice: with their sophomore effort “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” from ’95, and their debut, “Definitely Maybe” from the previous year, now marking its 20th anniversary with this expanded three-disc set.
Oasis is one of those classic love ’em or hate ’em type bands, but that has more to do with the brothers’ outsize public personas. Leave that aside and listen to the music and what you hear is legitimately timeless stuff, which has far more power and panache than you’re likely to remember.
Grunge was the thing in ’94, and if you were going to rock, you were also going to mope, when all of a sudden here came this anti-whinging set that was — and this was both dead cool and dead clever — louder than anything the grunge movement had seen, and absolutely joyous, the sound of bedsits, pub nights, a dearth of funds, and dodgy mates rumbled out into the world as a kind of triumphalism rock had never known. Not that this was any kind of Care Bears shtick: This was the joy of laying on, of someone else saying “You can’t,” and responding with a “Why on earth not?”
“Definitely Maybe” producer Owen Morris premiered a technique called “brick walling” on the album, which means, essentially, bust out the earplugs, you namby-pamby types. Cascades of lead guitars, sped-up glam-rock riffs, and Whac-A-Mole drumming set the context for Noel Gallagher’s songs, which he had been stockpiling. If anything, the sound is even beefier on this release, as if a thin layer of varnish has been removed; and should you need to get yourself up and at it on a dreary morning, “Supersonic,” with its clutch of ebulliently absurd lyrics, is a virtual vim dispenser.
Those lyrics — a mix of “Woolly Bully”-style doggerel and soused shorthand — possess a rare sonic quality. And while he’ll never be mistaken for Dylan — although, sacrilege, in his best songs, he was right there with the man — Noel Gallagher likewise understood the occasional value of sound over sense in the words of a song.
But then there was brother Liam, perhaps the quintessential yob, but a guy who could flat out sing — if not at the level of John Lennon as his brother, who hated him, claimed — then at least not far behind.
“Live Forever” is the stone cold all-time jukebox classic from the record, and one of the best British singles, right up there with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “My Generation,” “Waterloo Sunset,” and “Anarchy in the UK.” But “Slide Away” is the record’s defining musical moment, and if you
ever wanted to know how well Liam Gallagher could sing, this is the track to play.
The melismas are outrageous, the required breath control formidable, the mix of power and subtlety almost paradoxical. Some music feels like it lives in your speakers, shouting itself out into your life for a bit. “Slide Away,” meanwhile, emerges to infuse the space
you inhabit, a companion having taken up residence in your life.
We also have bonus cuts galore here. A live performance of “I Am the Walrus” doubles as an effective takedown — and rebooting — of the seemingly uncoverable Beatles’ version, and an in-person record store version of “Live Forever,” will make you think, yeah, it’s the artists who really do get to outlive us all, souls tucked away in songs like this.
It’s easy for all of the riffage and swagger to listen to “Definitely Maybe” once and slag it off as more of a sonic representation of an attitude than a self-contained musical statement. But there is some big boy writing throughout: the bemused plangency of “Married With Children” with a guitar tone that must have taken an age to get; the measured pacing of “Columbia,” its rhythm feeling tidal in its push and pull; the “warning-shot-across-the-bow” opening chords of “Rock and Roll Star.”
That opener was tantamount to Oasis’s declaration of independence from everything that had come before, and so far as opening chords go, the ones that kick-start “Definitely Maybe” are every bit as identifiable as our triad introductions to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and the Who’s “Tommy.”
Some years later, at a gig in front of a football stadium full of people, Noel Gallagher introduced the song only to have brother Liam reintroduce it a few seconds after.
“I already said that,” Noel offers.
“Yeah,” Liam responds. “But I [ expletive] meant it.”
This, then, is the sound of really meaning it, and cheers forever to that.
Colin Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.