Part 8: 1997: The ballad of Oasis and Radiohead
More Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation?
“It’s the sound of a bunch of guys on coke, in the studio, not giving a fuck.”—Noel Gallagher on Oasis’ Be Here Now, in the documentary Live Forever: The Rise And Fall Of Britpop
“A Nirvana wannabe from hell.”—Mark Kemp in Rolling Stone, on Radiohead’s debut single “Creep,” from the review of OK Computer
You might’ve already noticed this during our journey through the past of ’90s alternative rock, but I’ll state it for the record: I’m not a reliable narrator. I’m drawing on my own memories as much as books and documentaries for information, and my recollections are by far the least reliable sources. It’s impossible for me to say with absolute certainty if Nirvana really meant that much to me back then, or why exactly I liked Throwing Copper so much, or if my friend Marc actually preferred playing Sepultura to Sublime whenever he invited people to smoke weed in his garage in 1996. (Actually, I’d bet several hundred dollars that it was Sepultura, if only because those particular memories seem hazy and foreboding.)
In Christopher Nolan’s 2000 thriller Memento, anterograde amnesiac Leonard Shelby talks about how “memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record.” Shelby is self-aware enough to realize his cognitive limitations, but if you’ve seen the movie, you know he’s not nearly as self-aware as he should be. I’m not either. I didn’t even have the foresight to tattoo my impressions of ’90s rock all over my body for future reference.
With this in mind, I’m now going to share my first memory of hearing Oasis—my favorite band of the mid-’90s, without question—even though I know it couldn’t have possibly happened this way.
It’s September 1993, and I’m in my mother’s pistol-gray Buick Century. I’m 16, and I’ve just been handed my first driver’s license. A feeling of triumph bounds through my body like an overexcited Jack Russell terrier. Is there a more momentous occasion in a young person’s life than being granted control of rapid forward motion, a gift that explodes your world far past the boundaries of your adolescence, provided your mother gives you the keys to the family Buick for the night? I was convinced that my life up to this point had been prologue, and I was finally getting to the main story, with plenty of crazy adventures and foxy love interests ahead of me.
The DMV in my hometown was situated in the same strip mall as The Exclusive Co., the city’s only cool record store, so I decide to reward myself by purchasing a cassette of Oasis’ debut album, Definitely Maybe, a record I had read about but hadn’t yet heard. All I knew about Oasis was that the band was supposed to sound like The Beatles (which turned out not to be true, at least not yet) and carry on like the biggest assholes on the planet (which was right on the money, at least until Limp Bizkit came along). Magazine articles talked about how Oasis had the gall to openly lust for stardom and all the money and blowjobs that came with it, which seemed refreshing after several years of comparably monastic grunge bands. Now that I was a man of means and mobility, I felt like I could get behind this kind of revolutionary hedonism.
I insert the tape in the player, and a few moments later, a wildly swinging guitar solo is tearing out of the Buick’s surprisingly kicking stereo system over a simple, pounding rhythm section. I check the tape case to get the name of the song: “Rock ’N’ Roll Star.” The singer has a flat and whiny voice, but it works for him, because you can tell that he’s being annoying on purpose, and it’s his way of telling the world to stick it up its ass (or “arse,” since these guys are English). The actual words are pure gibberish, although the lyric “when they said I should feed my head, that to me was just a day in bed” might in fact be so abstruse that human comprehension is still centuries away from catching up with it.
The only part that matters to me are the lines right before the chorus, which make me pump the gas pedal far harder than my driving instructor would’ve ever allowed:
I’ll take my car and drive real far
To where they’re not concerned about the way we are
In my mind my dreams are real
Are you concerned about the way I feel
Tonight I’m a rock ’n’ roll star
Here’s the part where I have to call bullshit on myself. Definitely Maybe was actually released almost a full year after I got my license, in August 1994, when it became the fastest-selling debut record in British rock history. This is a fact, and yet my memory of hearing it a year earlier still seems right to me. Sure, it’s probably because I bought Definitely Maybe at that same store by the DMV, and I was driving the same pistol-gray Buick while blasting “Rock ’N’ Roll Star,” making sure to take the long way home so I could also make it through “Shakermaker,” “Live Forever,” and the first half of “Up In The Sky.” But I don’t think I mix up these anecdotes just because they have similar details. Definitely Maybe fits with my first drive because I associate both things with my life starting to not completely suck.
Transcending suckiness is the very essence of Definitely Maybe. Given what Oasis became, “Rock ’N’ Roll Star” might smack of the same old self-aggrandizing chest-thumping that people eventually tired of. But Noel Gallagher was a failed criminal and ex-roadie from Manchester when he wrote “Rock ’N’ Roll Star.” It’s a song about the dream of being famous by a guy seeking the freedom that great wealth has always represented to poor people locked into generations of boredom and decay. I didn’t grow up on the hardscrabble streets of Manchester, where dyslexic Noel struck out as an attempted house burglar at 18 and ended up carrying amps for forgotten Brit-rockers Inspiral Carpets, and his brother Liam eked out the equivalent of $100 a week painting fences after getting kicked out of school at 15 for fighting. But with three years of junior-high-school hell in my rearview mirror, I was all about escaping my past. Oasis had seemingly willed itself into becoming rich and famous. I had a lot to learn from them.
Fortunately, there was a lot more music where Definitely Maybe came from. Every couple of months, a new import single would appear in the Oasis section at the Exclusive Co. Each single would have two or three non-album tracks, and after a while you had a whole new album’s worth of songs that were just as good as anything on Definitely Maybe. And by “just as good” I mean similarly dumb, funny, dumb, thrilling, and dumb. Great Oasis songs were like sharks—no brains, all teeth, and out for blood and naked girls.
Collecting Oasis singles and becoming a B-side connoisseur was an obsession for me. The “Cigarettes & Alcohol” single was a personal favorite, with three essential B-sides—“Listen Up,” “Fade Away,” and an extended psychedelic jam on “I Am The Walrus”—and an iconic cover showing the boys victoriously swigging champagne with a couple of groupies in a hotel room. It was a perfect visual representation of the single’s A-side, a song I appreciate even more now than I’ve lived through my early 20s, a time when I spent many nights staring at myself in barroom mirrors as I drank and smoked myself into oblivion. This is what a classic-rock fixation will get you, kids. All you need are cigarettes and alcohol, along with a misguided desire to live for a night like you’re Keith Richards in the south of France in 1971 (without the heroin, of course). You won’t rock, but you’ll sure look like you do.
I didn’t know anybody who had even heard of Oasis, much less loved them as much as I did, until 1995’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. Noel Gallagher later told Rolling Stone that “the first album is about dreaming of being a pop star in a band,” and that Morning Glory “is about actually being a pop star in a band.” But it was Morning Glory that made him a pop star in the U.S., at the price of turning Oasis into a ballad group in the popular consciousness, thanks to “Wonderwall” and “Don’t Look Back In Anger.” I liked both songs, but they didn’t really represent the Oasis I fell in love with. My favorite song on Morning Glory was “Some Might Say,” a loud and proud T. Rex rip-off in the “Cigarettes & Alcohol” mold with screamingly atrocious lyrics (“The sink is full of fishes, ’cause she’s got dirty dishes on the brain/And my dog's been itchin’, itchin’ in the kitchen once again”) delivered with steely, incontrovertible snottiness.
At this point, being an Oasis fan meant being a full-time defender of the band, since the Gallagher brothers’ “We’re bigger than Jesus standing on John Lennon’s shoulders” act was rapidly alienating the band’s American audience and especially the media, which gleefully reported every obnoxious, bluntly vulgar quote that flowed from their lips. “We like annoying people,” Noel Gallagher told Rolling Stone. “It’s a Manchester thing. It’s a trait. We just like pissing people off.” Later, Oasis guitarist Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs more eloquently reiterated Gallagher’s point by farting directly into writer Chris Mundy’s tape recorder.
In Oasis’ home country, the group hit the pinnacle of its success in August 1996, when it performed two concerts on the grounds of Knebworth House for 250,000 people. (Presumably, that’s not counting the guest list, which included 7,000 people, many of them celebrities.) The shows had all the trappings of a coronation: When Oasis took the stage, Caitlin Moran of The Sunday Times wrote that the band was “greeted by a roar so huge that flocks of birds took to the sky from Knebworth’s old oaks.” By any measure, Noel Gallagher had made the dream of “Rock ’N’ Roll Star” a reality just two years after the release of Definitely Maybe. But Oasis’ peak didn’t last long: Two months later, the band would set about permanently derailing itself as sessions for 1997’s Be Here Now—and the endless party that accompanied it—commenced at Abbey Road Studios in London.
When contemplating Be Here Now, a record that requires a dump-truck unloading a metric ton of cocaine directly into your nostrils in order to sound like a masterpiece, I’m reminded of something Greil Marcus once wrote about Rod Stewart: “If it was necessary to become a great artist in order to get the money to spend and the stars to fuck, well, Rod was willing.” So were Noel and Liam. Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? are important, arguably flawless albums, but they were ultimately just a means to an end. Now that the Gallagher brothers had it all—not the least of which was a one-way ticket out of Manchester—what motivation did they have to ever make a decent record again? They’d won, and battling to merely maintain the victory proved to be a lot less inspiring.
So they fucked around instead. There are countless examples of needless, brainless excess during the Be Here Now sessions. The band was kicked out of Abbey Road after one week for playing too loud. Noel Gallagher overdubbed 30 guitar tracks playing practically the same part on the moronic “My Big Mouth.” He added strings, horns, and choirs to the silly (and expensive) 9-minute “Hey Jude”-style epic “All Around The World.” He invited Johnny Depp to play slide guitar for some reason. The artistic philosophy of Be Here Now boiled down to two words: fookin’ more. It was the inevitable byproduct of self-centered people inhaling substances designed to make them even more egomaniacal.
“I used to go to the studio, and there was so much cocaine getting done at the point,” Alan McGee of Creation Records recounted to John Harris in Britpop!: Cool Britannia And The Spectacular Demise Of English Rock. “[Producer Owen Morris] was out of control, and he was the one in charge of it. The music was just fucking loud.” That’s what is most incredible about Be Here Now: It’s a record made by one of the biggest bands in the world and overseen by a trusted and respected producer, and yet nobody seemed to know what the fuck they were doing. A Rolling Stone story on Be Here Now is telling: Noel Gallagher is talking about his collaboration with The Chemical Brothers on the trippy single “Setting Sun,” and how the experience pushed him to make the drums impossibly loud on his own record. But why? Gallagher doesn’t appear to have a clue. “It’s all about compressors and EQs, stuff I don’t really understand,” Gallagher says. “I just sit in the back drinking, pointing and shouting, ‘It’s not loud enough, turn it up!’”
Even more than the blizzard of coke that blanketed the studio where Be Here Now was being made, it was this overall lack of thought and care that really did the album in. “I’m proud of the songs, but I think me and Owen got a bit lazy in the studio,” Noel Gallagher told Harris. “The production is a bit bland.” Actually, the production is the opposite of bland—it’s a garish wall of sound utterly lacking in character and definition, and it’s made even more unlistenable by Gallagher’s wan songs being stretched past the breaking point. With 12 tracks running at a laughably bloated 72 minutes, Be Here Now is at least twice as long as it should be, with several songs falling below even the standard of Definitely Maybe’s B-sides.
But when Be Here Now was released at the end of August 1997, it was lavished with superlatives, particularly in the U.K., where it was widely hailed as a landmark, solidifying Oasis in the pole position of British rock bands. Anyone that dismisses rock criticism as the empty braying of easily influenced, hype-hungry monkeys will find a lot of support for their cause while reading the initial reviews of Be Here Now. It’s not completely outside the realm of all logic and reason to write nice things about Be Here Now, but it seems like people were reviewing what they were told the album was going to be rather than what it actually was, which is the worst Oasis album in the history of Oasis albums. Even supporters of Be Here Now—and I’ll cop to enjoying a few songs on the record, particularly the hard-charging title track and “It’s Gettin’ Better (Man!!)”—had to concede that it was far from being the defining statement it was supposed to be. By the end of 1997, Be Here Now was well on its way to becoming a punchline, a Britpop version of Heaven’s Gate. As music critic Rob Sheffield later wrote, Be Here Now is now known as “a concept record about how long all the songs were.”
Around the same time that Oasis was snorting away its moment at the center of the British-rock zeitgeist, a group from Oxford that had been playing together since the mid-’80s was quietly at work on its third album, OK Computer. Unlike Oasis, Radiohead approached record-making with the studiousness of committed college students. Four out of the five band members were products of British universities—Thom Yorke attended Exeter, Colin Greenwood went to Cambridge, Ed O’Brien matriculated at Manchester, and Phil Selway studied at Liverpool. On weekends and holidays, they faithfully returned home to Oxford to write and record songs with Jonny Greenwood, who was only 13 when Radiohead played its first shows under the name On A Friday.
As Oasis wiled away days and weeks browbeating poor studio engineers into making Be Here Now even more bombastic, Radiohead recorded basic tracks for OK Computer at St. Catherine’s Court, an opulent country house owned by actress Jane Seymour and located in a tranquil valley near Bath in England. OK Computer came to be heralded for its epic sound and prog-rock leanings, but much of it was actually recorded live with minimal overdubs. Yorke was particularly efficient, often nailing his heart-rending, operatic vocals in one take.
In the wake of OK Computer, which was released a few months before Be Here Now in June ’97, Radiohead looked like Gallant to Oasis’ Goofus. Oasis was in hock to the past, relying on the stature of the British rock heroes they were stealing from to give weight to oversized gestures not even the Gallagher brothers could pretend to be enthusiastic about anymore. Radiohead appeared to be ahead of the curve, forecasting the paranoia, media-driven insanity, and omnipresent sense of impending doom that’s subsequently come to characterize everyday life in the 21st century. Lofty thematic chit-chat aside, OK Computer delivered the goods for a monumental rock record: It sounded miles-deep and ocean-wide, it blew out your brain and re-invigorated your ears, and made lying on your bed with headphones on seem like a profound activity. OK Computer was precisely what Be Here Now wanted to be and wasn’t: the best British rock record of its time.
The standard-bearer torch was not passed willingly or peacefully between the two bands. Oasis and Radiohead have regarded each other with open disgust almost from the beginning of their careers. Back when (What’s The Story) Morning Glory was the rage in England, Yorke used to spit out the occasional piss-taking cover of “Wonderwall” in concert. He considered Oasis “a joke,” and “a bunch of guys who act stupid and write really primitive music.” Noel Gallagher similarly targeted his adversary’s aesthetic weak spots when bashing Radiohead in the press, laughing at what he saw as the band’s class-based pomposity. “No matter how much you sit there twiddling, going, ‘We’re all doomed,’ at the end of the day people will always want to hear you play ‘Creep,’” Gallagher told The Daily Telegraph in 2007. “Get over it."
Intentionally or not, Gallagher was drudging up an oft-overlooked aspect of Radiohead’s legacy with that reference to “Creep,” the band’s first single and a song that, for a couple of years at least, threatened to be the only thing the group would ever be known for. Instead, “Creep” and the album it came from, 1993’s Pablo Honey, have become footnotes in the history of Radiohead, which many fans prefer to begin with the band’s second record, The Bends. While it’s true that The Bends is much better than Pablo Honey, and fits better with the advances made by OK Computer and beyond, forgetting about Pablo Honey means setting aside Radiohead’s status as the most popular and creatively enduring band to come out of grunge.
That’s right, Radiohead started out as a grunge band, or at least a “grunge-inspired” band. Though Radiohead isn’t commonly associated with the term these days, the “G” word pops up regularly in Radiohead record reviews and magazine profiles around the time of Pablo Honey. Part of this could possibly be chalked up to unimaginative music writers over-using a term that was in vogue. But “Creep” and many other songs from Pablo Honey definitely fit the grunge tag, with bass-driven verses building toward cathartic choruses—Pixies were a band favorite—and introspective lyrics identifying with misunderstood outsiders and ironically commenting on the popular and beautiful (or “special,” in the case of “Creep”) people of mainstream society. The success of “Creep” prompted some in the music press to dub Radiohead “Nirvana-lite,” though Pablo Honey also has songs like “Stop Whispering” that follow an example closer to Pearl Jam’s Ten, starting off as quiet, almost folky ballads and gradually escalating to big climaxes driven by Yorke’s dramatic vocals.
In the U.K., “Creep” was a flop; Radio One deemed the song too depressing and refused to play it. The British press was more supportive of groups like Suede, who, as Andrew Smith wrote in The Guardian in 2000, were perceived as “a home-grown rebuke to American grunge,” while Radiohead was seen as kowtowing to it. This will sound like sacrilege to hardcore fans, but Pablo Honey-era Radiohead can be likened to Bush, a fellow British band whose 1994 debut, Sixteen Stone, found favor with American audiences before connecting with British fans, in part because the record was more in line with trends in American rock music.
Unlike Oasis, Blur, and Pulp—bands that asserted their “British-ness” and seemed more concerned with being popular at home than in the U.S.—Radiohead sounded relatively American in the early ’90s. That changed somewhat on 1995’s The Bends, but not enough to impede Radiohead’s progress as one of the few British-rock bands of the era that Americans cared about in increasingly large numbers. Radiohead made the record with John Leckie, a producer known for his work with quintessentially British bands like XTC and The Stone Roses, whose self-titled debut was a primary influence on Britpop.
The Bends is a spacier, more psychedelic record than Pablo Honey, but it still has more than a few discernable traces of the old grunginess. The Bends is an all-time great wallowing record. For a while, it was my go-to music in high school for whenever I went on long walks to brood over girls I liked who didn’t like me back. I’d cue up “High And Dry,” and imagine myself repeating Thom Yorke’s words to all the girls I’d loved before: “The best thing that you’ve ever had”—potentially, anyway—“has gone away.” Sniffle.
It’s a testament to how influential The Bends ended up being on British and American bands that it now sounds like one of Radiohead’s more conventional records. When it was released, The Bends became the first in a long line of “difficult” Radiohead albums, purposely constructed to confound the expectations of those who enjoyed what the band had previously done. On OK Computer, Radiohead didn’t deconstruct The Bends—as it would later do with popular predecessor records whenever it re-entered the studio—so much as use it as a rough draft for achieving a grandly ambitious vision incorporating snatches of David Bowie, George Orwell, Pink Floyd, Stanley Kubrick, Queen, and DJ Shadow. Now aided by producer Nigel Godrich, the engineer on The Bends and Radiohead’s new “unofficial” sixth member, Radiohead expanded on the rich blend of acoustic and electric instrumentation that had distinguished The Bends, subtly incorporating electronics that conveyed OK Computer’s theme of technological dehumanization without detracting from the record’s overall warmth.
OK Computer might’ve had a futurist bent, but at heart it was as traditional as any classic-rock opus. It was an act of actualization by Thom Yorke, who decided when he was 8 that he wanted to be a rock star after seeing Queen guitarist Brian May on television. OK Computer’s stunningly twisty-turny mini-suite, “Paranoid Android,” prompted comparisons to May’s bandmate Freddie Mercury, as a choir of Thom Yorke vocal overdubs echoed with a uniquely spiritual beauty through canyons of guitars and mellotrons.
OK Computer might’ve helped lil’ 8-year-old Thomas Edward Yorke realize his rock-star ambitions, but Radiohead reacted to fame in a very grunge-like way, releasing a caustic anti-media tour documentary, 1998’s Meeting People Is Easy, that managed the strange feat of being simultaneously off-putting and sleep-inducing. But what Radiohead had created in OK Computer had already grown much bigger than the band. The following year, Godrich helped Travis take the OK Computer sound straight to the top of the British charts with The Man Who, a record that also drew on the pint-hoisting ballads of Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? Travis acknowledged the debt by explicitly (and cheekily) referencing “Wonderwall” in the single “Writing To Reach You.”
Travis was among the first bands in a wave of British-rock balladeers that reached its zenith in the ’00s with Coldplay, whose sound can be traced back directly to the most popular albums that Oasis and Radiohead made in the ’90s. Neither parent had much use for their musical progeny: Radiohead violently rebelled against its imitators with Kid A and Amnesiac, while the Gallagher brothers were content to simply mock them in the press—along with Radiohead, of course. “I don’t hate them, I don’t wish they had accidents,” Liam Gallagher told The Guardian in 2008. “I think their fans are boring and ugly and don't look like they're having a good time.”
The pretty, deeply sensitive, and heartfelt balladry of Chris Martin and his peers was born of an unhappy marriage between two very different British rock bands, neither of which mellowed much after the ’90s. Noel Gallagher announced in 2009 that he was quitting Oasis, and while it wasn’t the first time he’d made such an announcement, it could very well be the last. Liam Gallagher, never one to get sentimental about missing his brother, formed a new band called Beady Eye with the other members of Oasis, and will release an album, Different Gear, Still Speeding, in February. Based on the first single “Bring The Light,” it might even be semi-respectable.
As for Radiohead, well, you know all about Radiohead, right? Nobody gets more respect than Radiohead. Others artists look to Thom Yorke for musical guidance, and his band is the gold standard for how to conduct a rock ’n’ roll career with a measure of ethics and dignity. But let’s not allow our memories to pull a fast one on us. Once upon a time, Radiohead only wished it was special.
What Happened Next? I’ll survey the rise of aggressive, testosterone-heavy acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit and how they systematically wiped out what mainstream rock stood for just a few years earlier.