It's evident that Oasis, one of the most popular British rock acts of the 1990s, will always have a place in music history. But it's how their career is chronicled that's puzzling.
I was recently reminded of this while watching the 2016 documentary, “Oasis: Supersonic,” which tells the story of the band as guitarist/songwriter Noel Gallagher would like it to be told.
The film documents a band which emerged from working-class roots in Manchester, going from basement jammers to underground sensation to up-and-comers to the most popular band in their home country, over the course of about three years.
The meteoric rise of Oasis was led by brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher. (Rhythm guitar Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs was a distant third in media attention and is also interviewed throughout the documentary. Bassist Paul McGuigan and drummers Tony McCarroll and Alan White were largely relegated to the role of background characters.) That rise was helped by two albums still regarded as stone-cold classics: 1994’s “Definitely Maybe” and 1995’s “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”
The band achieved some popularity in the United States. “Wonderwall” is considered a staple of '90s popular music, while a few other singles retain popularity on alternative rock radio. But it was in their homeland that Oasis became an institution, culminating with a two-night stint at Knebworth House in 1996 in which the Britpop superstars played before 250,000 fans.
“Oasis: Supersonic” is named after the band’s first single, the song which I accidentally discovered one night on YouTube, which led to me delving deeper into the discography of a band that eventually became my personal all-time favorite. The film opens with the guitar intro of “Columbia,” my personal favorite Oasis song. And it closes with iconic imagery in the band’s history -- the soaring guitar solo in “Champagne Supernova,” as played at a concert which over 4% of the entire population of the UK applied to attend.
And yet, while “Oasis: Supersonic,” which is from the same excellent producers as "Amy" and "Senna," is an undeniably well-made chronicling of the band’s rise and peak, the film feels incomplete.
It is a documentary that depicts a stage of a band, which is fine. But Oasis continued for over thirteen years after their second concert at Knebworth, the final event specifically referenced in “Oasis: Supersonic.” They released five more studio albums, and by my count, only one song from any of those albums is played as background music in the documentary. By contrast, at least two 1994-1996 B-sides, which were not even regarded highly enough to crack the band’s B-side compilation “The Masterplan,” made the film.
And these five albums, while not reaching the popularity of their first two, were good albums.
“Be Here Now” was dismissed upon its 1997 release as bloated, and 2000’s “Standing on the Shoulder of Giants” followed a similar pattern. But each album has exceptional moments, while showing a band willing to step into darker territory and explore a style which differed from the recipe which brought them fame and fortune.
2002’s “Heathen Chemistry” was hit-or-miss, but ushered the band in a more democratic direction. Noel acquiesced more songwriting duty to Liam, as well as Gem Archer and Andy Bell. And 2005’s “Don’t Believe the Truth” and 2008’s “Dig Out Your Soul” were widely hailed as true returns to form, which, in my controversial opinion, are superior albums top-to-bottom to “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”
But Oasis was a band obsessed with the 1960s. They were famously obsessed with the Beatles, a band which broke up before any of its members had turned 30, and a band whose legacy has grown thanks in no small part to the fact that they never had a true decline period. They were the biggest band in the world, and then they stopped being a band. And had the history of Oasis ended in 1996 at Knebworth, this would have applied to Oasis as well.
I have no idea if this would have enhanced Oasis’s legacy, but it shouldn’t have, because they made really good music post-peak. Their pseudo-attempts at art rock may have been contemporaneously overshadowed by Radiohead and their back-to-basics years may have been overshadowed by Arctic Monkeys, but they were nevertheless a productive band which remained a relevant part of the British popular music scene. They just weren’t the band, which is what they clearly wanted to be.
Although the Beatles are the most famous Oasis influence (with the exception of a few songs, I don’t think the two bands sound all that similar, but mass media certainly disagrees with me on this), several other artists cherished by the band did continue beyond their twenties. While Mick Jagger famously claimed he’d “rather be dead than sing "Satisfaction" when [he’s] 45,” the Rolling Stones frontman has now sung the classic hit while having two children 45 or older. The Who guitarist Pete Townshend wrote in “My Generation” the immortal line, “I hope I die before I get old.” He is now 71.
People get older, which rock and roll was never designed to accommodate. It was a music of youthful rebellion, a style which older generations not only disliked, but could not comprehend.
But rock and roll is over sixty years old. If you were fifteen when “Rocket 88,” often claimed to be the first rock and roll song, was released, you are now 81 years old. Rock and roll was replaced by hip-hop long ago as the genre of youth, and even hip-hop is now in its fifth generation and should probably be regarded as a cultural touchstone rather than a generational one. Rock definitely should be.
Bands classified as “alternative rock” (a term applied so liberally that it has lost most of its meaning) have an even harder time aging. Acts like U2 are often ridiculed for having the audacity to continue, even as they make music which compares favorably to most music that isn’t “The Joshua Tree.” Meanwhile, bands such as The Smiths or Nirvana are revered for their short shelf lives.
When The Smiths broke up, frontman Morrissey had just turned 28. Guitarist Johnny Marr was 23. Famously, when Kurt Cobain died, he was just 27.
Oasis didn’t immediately bow out. (This was a band whose first top-ten hit was titled “Live Forever," after all.) They kept going until 2009, after which Noel formed his own band while Liam Gallagher launched Beady Eye, a band which has since disbanded with the help of former Oasis band members. And these splinter bands, fronted by men in their 40s, made good music, just as they had in their twenties. But they didn’t fit the antiquated image of rock and roll which, absurdly, is still demanded by fans.
I am as confident that, if they are physically able to do so, Liam and Noel Gallagher will re-form Oasis again as I am that the Sun will rise tomorrow. They may hate each other, but they also really like money. And a reunion tour will probably include a mid-90s heavy, if not exclusive, set list. Because while, as demonstrated in “Oasis: Supersonic,” this is a band which idolizes a live-fast-die-young archetype developed by 1960s youth culture. It is a band which actually adhered to the “you and I are gonna live forever” ethos, about which they first sang 23 years ago, and in doing so, has made a lot of people very, very happy.
And this (not going out on top) is what Oasis’s legacy should be.