This has been a week of the Beatles and Oasis, two bands linked across the decades. They were the most popular British bands of their respective eras and generations, the Swinging Sixties and Britpop Nineties, putting Britain at the centre of the global airwaves. But while the music business gears up for the last hurrah of the Beatles, with the release of their entire re-mastered back catalogue and a computer game (The Beatles: Rock Band), which aims to extend their appeal to another generation, Oasis came to a bitter end, bowing out not with a bang, but a wearyingly familiar apology. While tens of thousands of fans waited for their heroes to appear on stage as headliners at the Rock En Seine festival in Paris, a message flashed up on the screens: “As a result of an altercation within the band, the Oasis gig has been cancelled.”
“Altercation” barely does justice to the history of attrition, insult, argument and abuse that has characterised the relationship between the two key members of Oasis, brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher. After a 15-year recording career marked by constant internal conflict, during their recent 13- month tour, the brothers have travelled separately, only communicating through insulting interviews, blogs and tweets. With only three more dates to play, they fatally met up in the backstage dressing room half an hour before they were due on stage. Liam was allegedly drunk and not untypically belligerent. Provocative words were exchanged, it quickly got physical, Liam smashed one of Noel’s guitars and Noel decided that he had had enough. He released the following statement: “It’s with some sadness and great relief to tell you that I quit Oasis tonight. People will write and say what they like, but I simply could not go on working with Liam a day longer.”
Liam can be an unpredictable character but that’s part of what makes him such a compelling frontman. The brothers are chalk and cheese, as is often the case with siblings, who grow up occupying different family roles. Noel is the older brother, the sensible, steady one. But for a smart, thoughtful, loyal, surprisingly humble and generally very considerate man, he has never understood or empathised with his younger brother.
He recently characterised Liam as “rude, arrogant, intimidating and lazy. He’s the angriest man you’ll ever meet. He’s like a man with a fork in a world of soup.” Which is very funny. But then you meet Liam, and he’s completely charming and friendly.
I have heard enough stories to know that he can be a handful, that his behaviour can be confrontational and obnoxious around Noel in particular, but it has always seemed to me that what he really wants is his older brother’s love and approval. When that is not forthcoming, he acts up, often outrageously. You can see the same dynamic in many families. But then, most of us don’t have to go on tour with our siblings.
The truth is that the end of Oasis is really no great loss for music. They have been one of the greatest ever British groups, but their moment came and went in the Nineties Britpop boom, and musically they have been treading water ever since. When they exploded on to a moribund scene with their debut album, Definitely Maybe, in 1994, they were a breath of fresh air. They had the insouciant streetwise swagger of a young, working-class gang, oozing self-confidence and entrepreneurial bravado. They arrived in a fractured musical landscape of acid house, techno, hip hop, trip hop and American grunge, and put loud guitars and big, singalong songs right back at the heart of the pop agenda. They inspired a whole generation of bands.
There were elements of Led Zeppelin (the bone-crushing hard rock rhythm section), the Stone Roses (the clubby swagger) and the Sex Pistols (the sneering, power chord attack) in the Oasis formula, but most of all there was the Beatles, the group both the Gallagher brothers revere. It was in the mop-top look of the band, the classic structure of the songs, the flowing melodies and elegant chord sequences. And it was a constant reference in their banter. “If you don’t want to be as big as the Beatles, then its just a hobby,” said Noel. Liam once claimed to be the reincarnation of John Lennon (“I think I was him. He’s me now”), despite being born eight years before Lennon’s death (logic has never been Liam’s strong suit).
Yet, while the musical debt was obvious, a connection emphasised by the kind of hysterical surge in popularity that accompanied both their rises, actually it would be hard to imagine two more different bands. The Beatles were musical revolutionaries, constantly driven to explore new horizons. Oasis were nostalgic reactionaries, their music a throwback to a very narrow and specific template, and they resisted change with Luddite belligerence.
Oasis essentially took the ingredients of Revolver, which was arguably the Beatles at their leanest, sharpest, most succinct and cohesive, and reworked them over and over again, managing just seven albums of diminishing returns in 15 years. They lasted twice as long as the Beatles, made half as much music, and never showed the least interest in progress.
Still, unlike the Beatles, Oasis built a long-lasting live career. I was privileged to see one of their last British gigs, at Wembley Stadium in July. And it was fantastic. Fifteen years of the same old chords and swagger never really affected the public’s love for them. Maybe it was a formula, but it was one that worked, because it was based on the primacy of the song, and the emotion of its delivery. During an encore, Noel came out to perform a solo Don’t Look Back in Anger, but he didn’t even have to sing a word, he just strummed his acoustic guitar while the crowd of 70,000 carried the whole thing, bellowing out every nuance of lyric and melody. It was the biggest choral karaoke session in the world, a moment of community that was astonishing to behold.
It is hard to imagine the world poring over every recorded utterance of Oasis 40 years after the break up, as we continue to do with the Beatles. But we might still be singing their songs.