Berkeley Community Theater
Saturday, April 8th, 2000
Like being stranded in a desert, with nothing to drink but spit…
I’d seen Oasis live once before, in January 1998, at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, a venue easily twice the size of the Berkeley Community Theater. It was in the midst of the disaster that was the Be Here Now CD and tour. Inflated egos, bloated bodies. A stage set out of Spinal Tap. Songs that whined, “I don’t fucking care what you want—I’m gonna go on for hours.” In short, basic rock-and-roll behavior. A good time was had by all. Really.
I was pretty disappointed, then, by a recent Oasis show in support of their latest CD, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants. Upon much reflection, I believe have arrived at the single defining reason: It was all so SAFE.
Granted, everything has to be choreographed in order to keep lead singer and head hooligan Liam Gallagher to task. But Oasis is one of the few contemporary groups capable of delivering a true live set, a set that doesn’t just replicate what’s pressed in plastic and played on the radio. Whatever you think of his songwriting skills, Noel Gallagher is, at the very least, a competent guitarist with excellent taste in the riffs he lifts. The two new popstars-for-hire, Gem Archer (formerly of Heavy Stereo) and Andy Bell (of Ride and Hurricane #1), are brilliant additions, in that they can actually play their instruments, interact with their bandmates on equal footing, and occasionally look out at the crowd. (Gem also likes to sing along to his favorite Oasis tunes, an endearing trait that marks him as enthusiastic fan and musician.) Even Liam’s voice is in top condition, allegedly due to his forsaking of drink. (Right.) But when it’s all note-perfect and performed as if the audience were a bank of Top of the Pops TV cameras, it lacks a certain…well, liveliness.
And then there are Liam’s “contributions”: Spitting on the ground. Spitting on the audience. Chewing gum. Spitting chewed gum on the audience. It’s all less rock-and-roll madman than schoolyard bully these days. I’ve never been a fan of Liam anyway. I’d certainly never go out of my way to defend his nasal delivery or sneering mug. That he has a proper job at all is proof of his older brother’s honor.
No, Oasis means Noel to me. The music, the lyrics, and the Masterplan are all his, and his alone. Yes, that music can be so derivative as to inspire drinking games (e.g., “Find the ‘Borrowed’ Bits”). The bulk of those lyrics are rife with throwaway references to Beatles songs and labored rhymes. And that plan? Well, it appears to have been lost beneath the trainers of rushing fans sometime in 1996, when sales of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? officially exceeded even God’s best guess.
But I do admire the elder Gallagher’s freestyle technique. He speaks his mind on such controversial subjects as legalizing drugs and removing the British Royal Family from power. He rarely apologizes for expressing his opinion. He makes a point of experimenting musically, collaborating with The Chemical Brothers on techno tunes, playing drums or bass in side projects, and, in response to the dissolution of Oasis’ UK record label, Creation, founding his own, Big Brother.
Even if none of the above paragraph were true, I’d find grounds to worship at Noel Gallagher’s feet. Why? For the glimpses he’s given of what’s to come. To date, the mass popularity of Oasis has traded largely on loud hit singles and loads of news-worthy personality. But in the band’s quieter moments, there emerges a quality worth exploring: On stripped-down b-sides such as “Talk Tonight,” “Going Nowhere,” and “Half the World Away” (all three performed by Noel exclusively). In Noel’s solo acoustic set on the Be Here Now tour (sadly missed in the new millennium). In his vocal on “Helter Skelter” for the band’s current encore.
In these instances, I hear more than rock-and-roll business-as-usual. I hear someone telling me something about himself. It doesn’t matter if what he’s singing are exact truths—the emotions are genuine. He’s enjoying what he’s doing. He’s inviting people into his personal experience. (What better way for Noel to explain what the Beatles mean to him than by telling people from inside a Beatles song?). It’s more than mere audience identification, as with the anthemic hopelessness of “Cigarettes & Alcohol” or the meaningless, if upbeat, sing-along of “Roll With It.” It’s more akin to the hook of “Wonderwall”: creating a space in which people feel comfortable because it’s familiar or interesting, then telling them a damn good story, whether through words, or notes, or both. In fact, this is why (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? works for me as a whole. When I listen to the CD, from “Hello” through “Champagne Supernova,” I hear vintage England 1995, pure and simple. A moment frozen in time.
Admittedly, this is an immense burden to place on a band—a sort of transcendence seldom achieved in-studio, let alone onstage, in front of a foreign crowd. And it almost never happens by design. It’s organic and chemical and not to be bought. But Oasis had been so close for me once before. I expected Noel to take the next step forward. Instead, he was standing still.