It was like a siren.
A wailing, swooping guitar line underpinned by a throbbing bass and a hail of feedback that insisted you turn up the volume and pay full attention. Whatever was in your CD rack, it screamed, was about to be old news. Collapsing into a full-bore, hand-clapping, glam-rock riff, with a sneering, self-congratulatory vocal, the opening bars of ‘Rock’n’Roll Star’ set the tone for 52 minutes of glorious noise that marked the biggest, brashest debut album in British music history.
Few albums have been as instantly transformative as Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. It exploded just as British rock was being smothered by introverted intellectuals who preferred sounds to songs – think Slowdive, Ride, early Verve – and a US scene still coming to terms with the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain the previous April. It took a cacophony of 11 songs by a group of 60s and 70s revivalists from Manchester, with melodies lifted from The Beatles and T-Rex and hair inspired by Lego, to remind everyone that rock’n’roll could still be leery, cocky and dripping with attitude. That it could, and should, be something to celebrate.
Oasis began life in 1991 as a four-piece called Rain, with Paul McGuigan on bass, Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs on guitar, Tony McCarroll on drums and Chris Hutton on vocals. They gigged around local venues to modest effect until they found a more magnetic singer, a 20-year-old with a nasal growl called Liam Gallagher. Having rebranded themselves in honour of a neighbourhood leisure centre, they then added the newcomer’s older brother Noel, who had experience of touring the US with The Inspiral Carpets, an armful of songs and even more ambition. The elder Gallagher helped to refine the sound and with a series of gigs and a demo tape, the band caught the ear of Alan McGee, who signed them to his influential Creation label in the summer of 1993.
The birth of their debut album, though, would have to wait another year. After two separate recording sessions, the material was still an unsatisfactory sludge of layered guitars that label boss Tim Abbott said “ain’t got the attack”.
With Noel panicking and Creation running out of money – a persistent problem for a company that delivered critical acclaim more readily than chart success – they drafted in producer Owen Morris, who’d last worked with Electronic, a radio-friendly pop act made up of Bernard Sumner (New Order), Johnny Marr (The Smiths) and Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys). “I was shaking my head,” says McGee. “Why are we getting a guy who makes electronic pop music to mix a rock’n’roll record? But the first mix comes back and it is a wall of sound. And suddenly it is what they are. It is Oasis. That was the formula.”
Singles and success
The sessions were a combination of re-recording Liam’s increasingly confident vocals and reassembling Noel’s guitar takes. In April 1994, the punchier mixes resulted in a first single, ‘Supersonic’, which garnered sufficient airplay to reach 31 in the UK charts. ‘Shakermaker’ followed, as did ‘Live Forever’, the band’s first top 10 single. Three weeks later, on August 29, 1994, Definitely Maybe was released and despite a modest marketing budget – advertising in football programmes was one way they reached their desired audience – the prevailing wind enabled it to sell 86,000 copies in its first week, helping it to debut at number one in Britain. As a sign of the musical climate they were entering, it deposed The Three Tenors in Concert 1994 from the top spot.
“Oasis have encapsulated the most triumphant feeling,” gushed Keith Cameron at the conclusion of his 1,400-word review in NME, the influential weekly that in those days still had the power to make or break a band. “It’s like opening your bedroom curtains one morning and discovering that some f***er’s built the Taj Mahal in your back garden and then filled it with your favourite flavour of Angel Delight. Yeah, that good.”
Such adolescent enthusiasm helped propel Oasis through the rest of the decade, from the multi-million selling (What’s the Story) Morning Glory and its innumerable pub anthems – ‘Wonderwall’, ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ – to a series of similar, if less remarkable follow-ups. Sadly, their song-writing edge was blunted by tabloid bust-ups, drugs and any number of divorces, and a permanent split in 2009 was more of a merciful relief than a source of regret.
As their debut continues to prove, it’s hard to recreate the immediacy and urgency of youth. “In 20 years’ time people will buy Definitely Maybe and listen to it for what it was,” said Noel Gallagher in August 1994. “That’s what is important.”
*Defintiely Maybe was the UK’s fastest selling debut LP of all time
*It has sold 1.9 million copies in the UK
*It was voted the greatest British album of all time by readers of Q magazine
*‘Live Forever’ was a response to the depressing lyrics in US grunge
*Its 20th Anniversary reissue reached No.5 on the UK charts