Oasis' 'Definitely Maybe' at 20: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review
If Blur hadn’t made it big, frontman Damon Albarn would’ve been A-OK. He’s a clever guy from a good family, and one way or another, this handsome, multi-talented Londoner was going to leave his mark on the world. The same is not necessarily true for Noel and Liam Gallagher, the brothers behind Oasis, Blur’s chief rival during the Britpop boom of the mid-‘90s. For these Northern blokes, it was rock ‘n’ roll or back to the building site, and a sense of desperation fuels their best songs.
Oasis was arguably never better than it was on its debut, Definitely Maybe, released 20 years ago this week, on August 30, 1994. In the U.K., the album arrived on the heels of three hit singles and rocketed straight to the top of the charts. In the States, it reached No. 58 on the Billboard 200, setting the stage for the following year’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, a huge, bloody brilliant record that had American grunge fans affecting British accents.
Morning Glory was one for the masses. Definitely Maybe is a different animal. Loud, brash, and completely devoid of the cleverness that had critics buzzing about Blur’s Parklife a few months earlier, it sounds like it was recorded one drunken afternoon in the back of pub. Nothing could be further from the truth. Oasis cut the entire album twice, and both times, they were unsatisfied with the results. The hero of this story is mix master Owen Morris, who re-recorded some of Liam’s vocals, punched up Tony McCarroll’s thudding drums, and stripped away Noel’s layers upon layers of extraneous guitar overdubs.
Morris got a fantastic sound -- the guitars and drums hit like hooligan fists -- but it’s Noel Gallagher’s songs that make Definitely Maybe one of the all-time great opening salvos in rock ‘n’ roll history. Many of them succeed in spite of themselves. Noel is hardly an inventive musician -- “spot the reference” was never a tough game with Oasis -- and as a lyricist, he often manages to be vague and trite at the same time. Other times, he’s something like a generational spokesman. Tunes like “Live Forever” and “Cigarettes and Alcohol” are testaments to his unwieldy genius.
Whether they’re waxing philosophic or talking complete gibberish, Oasis plays these songs with unflinching conviction. Yeah, they steal from their idols -- the Beatles, the Stones, T. Rex, the Sex Pistols, and the Jam -- and yet as they hark back to the classics, they infuse just enough snottiness and anger to avoid sounding like nostalgic gits. They live for the here and now, no matter how lousy things get, and if you feel like having a drink and a laugh and taking a break from the grind, the Gallaghers have an invitation for you: “Shake along with me.”
As the ‘90s wore on, Oasis’ fiercest competition wasn’t with Blur. The challenge was living up to the high standard the group had set for itself on its first two albums. Some might say Morning Glory is the stronger disc, but it’s like arguing for Revolver over Rubber Soul. There’s no wrong answer. Read on to get our track-by-track take on Oasis’ coming-out party -- a rager thatpeople are still talking about.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”: The ambition was there from the start, though Liam isn’t just singing about making loads of money and shagging supermodels. Music represents an escape from the monotony of the city, and if you can make a big glorious noise like this -- check out the cacophony around the 4:00 mark -- you’re at least halfway to a better life.
“Shakermaker”: The Gallaghers may be rip-off artists, but at least they swipe from multiple sources at once. Here, they nick the verse melody from the 1971 Coca-Cola jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” -- a bit of thievery that cost them dearly in court -- and borrow the word “plasticine” from “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” an obvious reference point for this goofy neo-psychedelic pastiche. The characters of “Mr. Clean” and “Mr. Soft,” meanwhile, come from Jam and Cockney Rebel songs. Noel was lucky he only faced one lawsuit. There were grounds for a class action.
“Live Forever”: If “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” is a late-night affirmation -- something to scream at 2 a.m. after a few gin and tonics -- “Live Forever” is the sober early-morning corollary. No one thinks of the Gallaghers as optimists, but here, Liam does a fine job of selling Noel’s “wanna live, don’t wanna die” hopefulness. It’s about young outsiders chasing immortality, and it’s Britpop’s national anthem.
“Up in the Sky”: Whether Liam has a clue what the lyrics are about, he sings each line with the same electricity heard in Noel’s scorching psych-rock guitar riff. Liam’s fired up by the mere idea of saying something profound, and when you’ve got a singer that keen, any old mumbo-jumbo will do.
“Columbia”: Buried in the thick swirl of psychedelic guitars is one of the disc’s most honest lines: “I can’t tell you the way I feel / because the way I feel is oh so new to me.” Rather than try to articulate feelings he doesn’t even understand, Noel pours all of his energy into creating music that makes his confusion sound sexy.
“Supersonic”: “No one’s gonna tell you what I’m on about,” Liam sings, and again, that hardly matters. From the opening drumbeat and moody guitar arpeggio, “Supersonic” is another terrific mix of youthful posturing -- “I need to be myself / I can’t be no one else” -- and pure nonsense. The line about “a girl called Elsa” who’s “into Alka Seltzer” refers to a farting dog, and the whole thing reportedly took 10 minutes to write.
“Bring It On Down”: On the disc’s grungiest track, Liam takes aim at some loathsome “you” that sounds an awful lot like himself: “You’re the outcast / you’re the underclass / but you don’t care because you’re living fast.” Drummer Tony McCarroll gets a lot of gruff for being a rudimentary player, but it’s his bashing that anchors Noel’s wanking and turns this rather tuneless song into something memorable.
“Cigarettes and Alcohol”: You can’t go wrong with a T. Rex groove or lyrics about drugs and booze, and this song has both. It also has something resembling a political message: “Is it worth the aggravation / to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for?” The short answer: no. Crack a can, light a match, bang a gong, get it on.
“Digsy’s Dinner”: If Noel doesn’t woo you with his melodies or his winning personality, there’s always plan C: his totally amazing lasagna. Liam stretches the vowels like they’re strands of mozzarella, and yet despite the playful down-stroked guitar and music-hall piano, “Digsy’s” isn’t as cheesy as it seems. “These could be the best days of our lives,” Liam sings, “But I don’t’ think we’ve been living very wise.” Maybe the domesticity he disses two songs later isn’t such a bad thing.
“Slide Away”: Similar in sound and feel to “Live Forever,” “Slide Away” is the album’s only real love song. It’s more “us against the world” rhetoric, though Noel says more with his soaring guitar licks -- composed on a Les Paul borrowed from Johnny Marr -- than he does with his lyrics.
“Married With Children”: Although “Definitely Maybe” is a distinctly British record, it ends with an acoustic tune inspired by American sitcom heroes Al and Peg Bundy. As Noel told the NME, he was thinking about the travails of cohabitation when “Married With Children” happened to pop on the TV. “It’s another song that anybody could relate to,” he explained, “because if you live with a girlfriend or just a flatmate, there are always pretty things that you hate about them, and the song’s just about pettiness.”