THERE'S NOTHING MORE EXHILARATING than the feeling that something great is about to happen. It’s a force that courses, unmanageably, through Oasis’s debut album even today. Forget Britpop, New Labour, and the soap opera the band would become. None of these things exist when Up In The Sky’s yob-psych reaches its zenith of hypnotic churn, or as you approach the climax of Columbia, with Liam Gallagher’s “yeah-yeah-yeah”s peeking cheekily through the supercharged stew of guitars. This is transcendental rock’n’roll music that celebrates the moment, not a moment. But say you were spirited 20 years back to the beginning of 1994, what would you find? Perhaps not everything you’d expect or think you remember: Whigfield and Doop at the top of the UK charts, and Burnage’s finest about to blow their big chance.
1993 had ended pregnant with promise for Oasis. Fervent propaganda on the part of Creation Records and pungent encounters with the press had built expectations. Live, they were proving themselves unlike any other UK group for a decade: heavy guitars, unhurried tempos, and a wildly charismatic frontman whose magnetism seemed in inverse proportion to his on-stage activity.
Definitely Maybe’s idea of fun is more cheap acid at the swing park than champagne supernova.
Recording was another matter. The boxy demo version of Columbia included on Disc 2 of deluxe versions of this reissue package had circulated on white label. But despite Radio 1 support, not everyone was convinced. Even at this stage Oasis were in a state of becoming, a trepidation you hear in the more ‘indie’ Oasis of future Shakermaker B-side Alive, with its saturnine tinge of Dinosaur Jr.
The other, ultimately dominant Oasis strand – the pugnacious rock’n’roll DNA of the Stones, Stooges and Sex Pistols – shone through their strongest demos, but it resisted translation. Sessions at Monnow Valley in early 1994 had majored on tidiness and separation and the band hadn’t thrived. Decamping to Sawmills in Cornwall, this time with Oasis’s live sound man Mark Coyle abetted by Anjali Dutt, had brought better performances, but the mixes were dry, diffident. The version of Columbia on Disc 3 of this set – with a sample of the late Tony Benn recorded off the radio – shows how close they came to ho-hum.
Enter engineer Owen Morris, an associate of Noel mentor Johnny Marr. His achievement – applying tricks studiously gleaned from Phil Spector and Tony Visconti to deepen the rhythm tracks while ladling on loudness and compression – was the making of Definitely Maybe and what emerged from his remix and mastering was somehow simultaneously gritty and epic. Marr listened to the result and was reportedly horrified. “The Smiths would never have been so crude,” noted Morris.
Brash and hairy – qualities unaltered by Ian Cooper’s remaster – The Smiths this wasn’t. Tony McCarroll’s heavy, spartan drumming comes on like Slade’s Don Powell ‘doing’ Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina. Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs’ rhythm guitar is a safety net woven from down-strokes. Like any great rhythm team, they’re the defensive midfielders who allow the flair players to grandstand – which they proceed to do with a combined desperation, arrogance and glee. Noel’s guitars are gloriously, untidily OTT; brother Liam’s vocals attain the blazing Lennon-Lydon meld that 1993 demos of live favourite Fade Away, even Rock’n’Roll Star (both Disc 3, deluxe editions), prove was not always a given.
The sound and the spirit matched the content of Noel’s songs, its affinity with lodestars of working-class defiance like Alan Sillitoe’s Arthur Seaton, who knew all he wanted was a good time: “all the rest is propaganda.” The subsequent typecasting of Oasis music as mindless swagger overlooks this vein of darkly humoured realism. If you don’t delight, even a little bit, at “She done it with a doctor on a helicopter” this record is probably still not for you – but even in the raucous daftness of Supersonic there’s a sour sting, our ’aving-it heroine reduced to “sniffin’ in a tissue, sellin’ the Big Issue”. Definitely Maybe’s idea of fun is more cheap acid at the swing park than champagne supernova.
And though true sub-notes of contemplation are hard to find in Noel’s initial tranche of songs, there’s vulnerability in his solo version of Half The World Away recorded live in a Tokyo hotel room on September 16, 1994, as Oasis madness spiralled in earnest. It’s this expanded edition’s one true unreleased gem – where Noel’s steady, small voice gives the song’s dream of escape a tinge of warning: be careful what you wish for.
What happened next is a matter of record, but still – viewed from mid-1994, with Oasis still a scruffy bunch of indie herberts – madly absurd. First-week sales of Definitely Maybe hit 86,000, making it the fastest-selling debut album in UK chart history (at that point), on the way to 15 million-plus worldwide, while its songs became anthems of Britain’s now-tarnished ’90s bubble. The alignment of cultural and economic trends that allowed Oasis to happen on this scale had not occurred for decades and may never come again, but it required music as undeniable as Definitely Maybe’s to light the blue touchpaper. What followed was less edifying, as Oasis’s brand of rock’n’roll rebellion became less easily distinguishable from lairyness. Liam wasn’t Johnny Rotten. Noel wasn’t Keith Richards. And though you could ask what they had to kick against (open doors, even Number 10’s), you could also note that – however initially strident or belligerent – outsiders who want in are more easily assimilated than those who want out.
Ultimately, when the prize was offered, you can’t blame them for grabbing it. As Arthur Seaton mused in Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, “If you went through life refusing all the bait dangled in front of you, that would be no life at all.” And the fun, while it lasted, was everyone’s.