10 November, 2014Issue 26.3MusicPolitics & SocietyThe Arts

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The Elephant in the Room

Harry Stopes

Definitely Maybe
Alex Niven
Definitely Maybe (33 1/3)
Bloomsbury, 2014
£8.99
144 pages
ISBN: 9781623564230

Alex Niven opens Definitely Maybe, his book about Oasis’ debut album and the culture that made it, by saying that the band was “mostly popularly loved, mostly critically scorned.” That’s a fair assessment (though a lot of non-critics hate them too), but it’s not the end of the story, as Niven makes clear. In the mid-1990s Oasis were massive. They were front page news, the most potent symbols of a popular mood that seemed to promise not just the rejection of Thatcherism but its electoral annihilation. You couldn’t get away from them, even if you wanted to. (I didn’t, at the time). Their significance must be greater than that opening aphorism would imply.

In his last book, Folk Opposition (Zero Books, 2011), Niven argued that the contemporary left has largely abandoned any effort to speak to, or for, a mass of people sharing a common culture. At the same time, while some parts of postwar popular culture were always created in a semi-commercial context (television, for instance), now even more popular practices like music and football have been transformed by the neo-liberal project. In response to this shift the left has not articulated any sort of resistance rooted in mass identity—the “folk opposition” for which Niven would wish—but has instead retreated into a kind of Fabianism, detached from, and rather scornful of, popular culture. If the left is to find any kind of mass appeal it needs to start by reclaiming populism from the far right.

Such a project would necessarily entail taking popular culture seriously; in his examination of Oasis, Niven shows how this might work. He sets out to find, in “the most apparently banal, ordinary, hackneyed phenomenon of the last 20 years”, some previously missed clues that might explain why “populism has disappeared from pop music” and why “we don’t seem to have made any real artistic or social progress since the 1990s.” In a sense then, though he never says so explicitly, this book can be thought of as a sequel to his last.

Niven sticks close to the songs, mostly discussing the tracks in the order in which they appear on the album. There are digressions though, especially to the B-sides, and the book is divided into four sections titled ‘Earth’, ‘Water’, ‘Fire’ and ‘Air’. Niven uses this loose structure to group his thoughts about the wider political and social context from which Oasis emerged. ‘Earth’ is a discussion of the bands’ roots, both geographical and musical; ‘Water’ refers to the context of the 1990s, when Oasis rode a wave of optimism to wealth and fame; ‘Fire’ examines the anger that infused their music, particularly in this first album; ‘Air’ is broadly about politics.

Given his determination to rescue the band from critical derision, Niven is often on the defensive. Some of this comes over too strongly, detracting from his broader claims about the group’s significance. In the course of a discussion of Oasis’ borrowings from other musicians Niven makes a comparison with early hip hop and the practice of sampling. It’s fair to say that “Oasis’ appropriation of the past was just as valid” as Public Enemy’s, but it’s a stretch to suppose that it was equally successful artistically. We can agree that Oasis were not straightforward plagiarists, without regarding as plausible the claim that their form of cut and paste was as interesting as Public Enemy’s, or its end product as novel.

Niven is on much firmer ground defending Oasis’ lyrics. For a start, he points out, most pop and rock lyrics are basic, internally inconsistent, and even nonsensical. Where popular music lyrics succeed they usually do so as fragments, arresting couplets that function as slogans or, in Niven’s phrase, “verbal graffiti”. Accompanied by the music, lines like “we see things they’ll never see” are more than capable of carrying the song along with them. The point isn’t that Noel Gallagher’s lyrics were as good as Morrissey’s, or even Jarvis Cocker’s, it’s that they weren’t unusually bad. (They’re arguably better, for instance, than those of Kurt Cobain, often regarded as a tortured genius.)

Although the “sampling” analogy is misguided, Niven is good when he examines the musical influences from which the group assembled their styles. While many are inclined to dismiss them as a facsimile of the Beatles, Niven convincingly shows how the band also drew from shoegaze, grunge, acid-house, and punk. Before they later became a derivative cliché of themselves, Niven argues, Oasis produced a music that was vital and contemporary, a clear product of the early 90s. (The only omission in Niven’s list of influences, I feel, is Irish traditional music: the Gallagher’s father, Tommy, was an occasional DJ in South Manchester’s Irish clubs, and Noel’s solos often use the pentatonic scale popular in folk*.)

For all the laddishness that Oasis projected, there’s a strong escapist tone to their music and lyrics. Escape is a recurring theme, and though it’s portrayed as impossible in ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ (which Niven compares to the exhortation in Trainspotting not to “choose life”), it is defiantly and definitively promised in ‘Live Forever’. In many ways Oasis inherited the vague unspecific euphoria of rave, filtered it through a football crowd, and produced a kind of “lad psychedelia”.

Ultimately though, Niven’s argument comes down to politics. Here, as he concedes, the elephant in the room is Tony Blair. Many versions of the story of the 1990s assume an obvious parallel between Blair and Oasis, with Britpop as the state-music of New Labour. Niven denies much of this, pointing out that the band was formed, Definitely Maybe written and recorded, and their first single released, before Blair even became leader of the Labour party. There’s certainly an argument for 1995 as a watershed for both Oasis and the Labour party. But even if Oasis’ euphoric fellow-feeling had a political edge—Niven quotes Gallagher ascribing an explicitly anti-establishment meaning to ‘Up in the Sky’—it was sufficiently unspecific and stripped of content to render it useable to a charlatan fraud like Blair.

Niven wants us to see Oasis as representing not only a lost past, burned out and pensioned off by 1996, but also as the clue to a possible future, to be excavated from the ruins of that first burst of Mancunian-Irish energy. From the present vantage point such an excavation of the late 80s and early 90s is more urgent than ever. While New Labour might have seemed to promise a more optimistic, open, social-democratic Britain, that moment now appears as merely a brief slowdown in a three (going on four) decade-long project of neoliberalism, powered by the financial services industry and justified by an increasing hatred of the poorest and weakest. Niven sees it is vital that we examine the time between the second summer of love and the Criminal Justice Bill for clues as to what went wrong. Even if he is too kind about their music, Niven is right to identify Oasis as the most culturally central, and in that sense the most important, voice of the period.

* Incidentally, how many great ‘English’ musicians have in fact come from Irish roots? John Lydon, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, John Lennon, to name just a few.

Harry Stopes grew up in Manchester in the 1990s. He is a PhD student in the History department at University College London.