Written by: Paul Gleason
Alex Niven’s book on Oasis’ seminal debut album, Definitely Maybe, is a time machine – and I don’t mean in the Doctor Who TARDIS or Back to the Future DeLorean sense.
No, Niven’s book supersonically transports you back to a time in your life when Definitely Maybe (which was released in August of 1994) reinvigorated rock and roll at a time when it all seemed lost. The record seemed like and actually was the rebirth of rock music in a pure, potent, and positive form after the prolonged mourning period that followed the suicide of Kurt Cobain just four months before its release.
One of Niven’s main arguments is that songwriter, lead guitarist, and vocalist Noel Gallagher and his ragtag team of working-class Mancunians wrote, recorded, and released a record of untouchable songs that captured, involved, and represented not only themselves but the people from their economic background. Noel was a working-class Dylan of sorts – the working-class hero that John Lennon, one of his heroes, never actually was – and great Definitely Maybe songs like “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Up in the Sky” stood for a master plan of escape from the dole, Thatcherism, and endless, endless poverty.
When I considered the excessive lifestyles that Noel, lead singer-brother Liam, and whoever else happened to constitute Oasis at any given point in the band’s surprisingly long 16-year history, I found it difficult to remember the thunderbolt of Definitely Maybe. But Niven’s book is a textual time machine – and, as I was reading it, I found myself landed, stranded, the university senior whom I once was defending the album with everything I had.
With “Supersonic,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” “Columbia,” and “Slide Away” lodged in my cranium, I’d argue with friends, who heard both Noel and Liam as being completely derivative of The Beatles. But at that musically unsophisticated point in my life, I could only defend Oasis as a band that was into the same retro 60s’ stuff and shoegaze that was in the air at the time. When I heard Noel’s songs, I, of course, heard The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but I also heard The Stone Roses, The Charlatans, The Verve, Ride, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and, heck, even My Bloody Valentine. Oasis fit right in!
I wish that I had Niven’s book back then. It would have been much easier to make my claims more sophisticated. If I had the book, I would have been able to discuss Noel’s songs as works of art constructed around the idea of sampling. Indeed, Noel was (in 1993-1994, at least) a working-class musician who took the sounds available to him (the bands that I mention above, plus stuff that I wasn’t into yet: The Jam and The Sex Pistols, especially) and made an art that expressed the needs, desires, and the profound sense of longing of a generation of class-oppressed people. I was listening to Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, and Wu-Tang Clan – three sample-heavy hip-hop groups that Niven cites – but I couldn’t make the connection. Now I can.
So Definitely Maybe triumphs on two levels. First, it contains 11 great songs (there’s not a loser in the bunch) with amazing melodies, simple but precise chord changes, and a glorious sense of sonic unity. Second, it has a sense of political urgency about it – that Noel’s tunes are, to quote another working-class musician, a “last chance power drive” towards a fulfilling and free life that always seems attainable but just out of reach.
But, according to Niven, Definitely Maybe remains sort of locked in its time. I say sort of because the Gallagher brothers’ subsequent albums, with the exception perhaps of half of 1995’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? were half-baked at best. Indeed, after all of the brother-on-brother fighting, bad albums, deteriorating lead vocals, and shaky-at-best tunes (Noel didn’t write another classic song after the Morning Glory? period), it’s hard to go back and understand how great Definitely Maybe was when it was first released.
Directly after finishing Niven’s book, I took Noel’s advice in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” got in my car, and drove real far while listening to Definitely Maybe. Niven’s time machine had done its work. The record, with which I hadn’t really bothered in almost 15 years, slammed out of my car speakers – and I was hooked yet again. Noel was again the young, brash, genius songwriter, the leader of a gang of Mancunians, featuring his brother Liam as a sneering and melodic Lennon-Lydon. By the second verse of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” I was enraptured and singing along.