Cigarettes & Alcohol
Format: CD single
File under: Brit-pop
Key track: "Fade Away"
I know, I know. Vinyl Retentive is reserved for those old-timey, black plastic circle thingies, not cold, impersonal compact discs. But since CDs appear to be in greater danger of extinction than vinyl, I feel that a small, one-time deviation from the norm is in order. Actually, I was inspired to write about this particular CD because it was one of 120 discs I almost lost after the torrential rains that drenched the Midwest last week flooded my basement. My collection of Oasis albums and import singles--along with discs by Nirvana, The New Pornographers, Okkervil River, Outkast, Graham Parker, Neil Young, XTC, and Frank Zappa, among others–got soaked, though thankfully they still play all right. (The liner notes, though, are crinkly and in some cases stuck together. I've almost tricked myself into thinking this is a good thing, because it makes them look older and therefore cooler. Yes, I am a geek.)
There's nothing like a would-be natural disaster to get you listening to music you haven't played in years. In the case of Cigarettes & Alcohol, a single that includes the brashest and most shamelessly derivative song from Oasis' epochal 1994 debut Definitely Maybe and three essential B-sides, I've also been reminded that my music collection is essentially a blow-by-blow diary of the last 18 years of my life. Just staring at the cover–cheeky British lads drinking beer and smoking weed with two beautiful girls in a hotel room –forcefully dredges up my 17-year-old self in all of his awkwardly adolescent glory. That's the great/crazy/wonderful/unfortunate thing about music. You can spend 13 years trying to get away from the person you used to be, and then bring him back in an instant just by looking at an album cover that once completely encapsulated everything you thought you wanted out of life.
Not only do I remember desperately wanting my own ragtag team of classic rock bad boys a la The Stones or Zeppelin or the Sex Pistols that I could follow in real time rather than through the pages of my dog-eared copy of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, I all of a sudden feel the exact same way right now as soon as Noel Gallagher fires up his pilfered T. Rex riff and Liam Gallagher talks about doing a white line instead of waiting to spend his days in the sunshine. The song itself has nothing to do with the reality of my life at the time–I was a heavy user of Clearasil, not cigarettes nor alcohol–but "Cigarettes And Alcohol" evokes 1994 with startling, almost uncomfortable clarity. Suddenly I feel less sure of myself, and I'm in constant fear of having an inopportune erection. (At 17, every erection was inopportune.)
Oasis was my favorite band in high school, a period that coincides with the band's 1994-96 peak, both artistically and commercially. No other band so perfectly encapsulates my turbulent coming of age years. I bought Definitely Maybe around the time I got my drivers license, and the record's theme of breaking free and establishing your own identity (or at the very least having a lot of fun before adulthood rears its ugly head) obviously resonated. That record made me an Oasis obsessive, and I duly went about collecting Oasis' import singles. Like Noel Gallagher's boyhood faves The Jam and The Smiths, Oasis regularly put out singles in its early years that were loaded with non-album B-sides that were frequently as good or better than what made it to Definitely Maybe and 1995's What's The Story Morning Glory. Because I didn't have my own car, I'd have to sneak out to the one independent record store in town to buy each new Oasis single after religion class. (My mom was less likely to let me borrow the car if I told her I was going to buy CDs, so I used Jesus as my record-buying beard for years.) By the time of 1997's monumental coke-fueled fiasco Be Here Now, I was a sophomore in college and slowly losing my mind from Fleetwood Mac-like romantic entanglements in my circle of friends. Oasis was at the end of something, and so was I. Exactly what that something was wouldn't be clear for another few years, though I like to think I turned out better than Oasis did.
(I also remember that I bought Be Here Now the same day Princess Diana died, though it might have been around the same day she died. I tried to digest that exceedingly longwinded, thoroughly boring record while watching the news coverage, and the match-up worked surprisingly well. The next time a celebrity dies a fiery, public death, play Be Here Now while watching the news. The synchronicity is freaky. It's like Oasis planned it.)
I took a lot of shit for liking Oasis back in the day. My friends were all into (somewhat fakey) punk rock, and to them Oasis represented everything overblown and disgusting about arrogant arena rockers. "But what about the Johnny Rotten snarl of Liam Gallagher or Noel Gallagher's revved up, incendiary riffage?" I replied, believing the persuasive language of a Rolling Stone record reviewer would sway them. They were unmoved. I also pointed out that the SoCal skater bands they loved, in fact, sucked sweaty balls, but this argument proved even less successful. To them, rock stars were dumb. Bands should be "humble" and "regular people" and "down to earth." Like, NOFX was good, even though their music was fucking terrible, because they didn't claim to be better than The Beatles like Oasis did. "OK, so Oasis is dumb," I'd concede. "But they are transcendently dumb!" Sadly, the Rolling Stone method was even less persuasive the second time around.
Any lingering resentment I have toward punk rock fans surely goes back to my days of defending of Oasis from the stinging critiques of Pennywise lovers. But if I could go back to my high school years–a terrifying thought, no doubt–I'd cut the arguing and just play my friends the Cigarettes & Alcohol single.
Cigarettes & Alcohol is rounded out by Oasis' jammy cover of "I Am The Walrus"--which the band used to extend indefinitely in its club days in order to have the required 30 minutes of material–and two terrific originals, "Listen Up" and "Fade Away." Even more than their first two albums, Cigarettes & Alcohol is the definitive Oasis record, a smashingly straightforward statement of simpleminded hedonism and youthful 'tude (in just 24 filler and bombast-free minutes) that I'm sure my punk-loving friends would have loved if they could have just gotten over themselves for a second.
At the very least, Cigarettes & Alcohol would have helped me debunk the common misconception that Oasis was a Beatles rip-off group. Fact is, Oasis ripped off a lot of other bands, too. Even I Am The Walrus" sounds more like Ride than the Fab Four. But the most ingenious steal is on "Fade Away," one of the great all-time Oasis songs and tied with "Acquiesce" as the band's all-time best B-side. Anyone who loved Wham as much as Oasis quickly recognized that the verse, obscured by a sonic wall built by two guitars, the most primitive drumming this side of Meg White, and loads of piss and vinegar, has the same melody as the bubblegum duo's ersatz Motown redux "Freedom," only Oasis sounds even whiter than Wham.
"Fade Away" sums up Oasis' 14-year career in three and a half minutes. Oasis was dressed in rockist clothing, but it was really a poptamist band. Oasis shunned credibility if it got in the way of a good time. They stole from everybody and got away with it because they did it so entertainingly. They weren't built to last, and yet Oasis' best songs still hit the sweet spot, again and again. "Fade Away" the sound of a fleeting moment from a long time ago that's remained preserved and re-liveable everytime I press play. I'm happy it wasn't washed away.
Availability: Amazon has used copies for as little as 42 cents.