“This is history, this is history,” barked a swaggering Noel Gallagher, to a sea of deafening cheers. “Right here, right now. This is history.” And Knebworth really was. This was the pinnacle of Oasis‘ career: 250,000 mad-for-it fans packed into the Hertfordshire park over two hot summer days at the height of Britpop.
Never again would Liam, Noel, Bonehead, Guigsy and Alan White scale such supernova heights. For a fan attending the second day of these super-gigs, it really was one of those “I was there” moments. Unbelievably, it’s now 25 years to the day (August 10) since the lads’ first night at Knebworth – and there’s a new documentary, Oasis Knebworth 1996, due for release in November.
Oasis’ double header at Maine Road months earlier was arguably a better gig but Knebworth felt like an era defining event. It was so colossal it was ridiculous. Even guitarist Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs admitted that the band should have quit following their huge outdoor shows, knowing that it really couldn’t get any better than this.
The support bands also had their own stories to tell, particularly The Charlatans who tragically lost their keyboard player Rob Collins in a car accident just three weeks before their Knebworth slot. It could have ended the band but instead it turned out to be one of the defining sets of their career. “We brought people down to their knees, down to tears!,” Tim Burgess told NME, a decade after the gigs. “I think if we’d played badly that would have been the end of the band, but we didn’t. It was a pivotal moment in The Charlatans story.”
Prodigy main man Liam Howlett described his own experience of playing in front of 250,000 people as a “big fucking rave”, adding: “Knebworth was just beautiful, loads of people were on Es everywhere and stuff. It was an event never to be repeated, it was a moment in time.”
And then of course there was Oasis’ performance itself. By the time they came on there was a sea of people stretching back for what seemed like miles, which forced many – including myself – to watch parts of the show through a pair of binoculars. You could hear their squalling guitars and Liam’s snarling vocals, alright, but unless you were down the front, seeing the whites of Oasis’ eyes was reserved for the very few.
Noel and Liam turned up with their chests pumped right out, ready to make a statement of rock’n’roll intent. Having the balls to kick off their set with a bulldozing rendition of ‘Columbia’ instead of one of their big-hitting stadium anthems was a bold and brilliant move which every die-hard Oasis fan embraced with open arms. Only ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’ would have topped it. But sadly it never even made the final cut.
From there on in, it was a non-stop party as Oasis rolled out both hits (‘Roll With It’, ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’, ‘Wonderwall’, ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’), and massively underrated B-sides (the anthemic ‘Acquiesce’, Noel’s majestic ‘Masterplan’). They road tested forthcoming ‘Be Here Now’ tracks ‘My Big Mouth’ and ‘It’s Gettin’ Better (Man!!)’. But they really didn’t compare to the jukebox quality of those ‘Morning Glory’ hits, which had been on repeat in pubs throughout the land for months.
While Oasis were at their pinnacle, The Stone Roses were on the verge of implosion. They’d already lost John Squire who, for two nights only, stepped up alongside Noel to bring Knebworth to a fitting finale with a rousing rendition of ‘Champagne Supernova’. Manics bassist Nicky Wire summed the team-up perfectly when he told NME: “The moment for me was when John Squire came on and played ‘Champagne Supernova’. That moment did seem like a coming together of the great Mancunian mafia.”
Seven years later, Robbie Williams allegedly sent Noel a pair of tap dancing shoes with a message boasting: “Dear Mr N Gallagher, you said two nights at Knebworth is history. Well, I guess three is just greedy. Yours, Rob.” The “fat dancer” may have sold out three nights at the giant country pile, but I bet no-one remembers that triple header as fondly as those of us who saw Oasis in the summer of ’96.
‘The Swamp Song’
‘Some Might Say’
‘Roll With It’
‘Round Are Way’
‘Cigarettes & Alcohol’
‘Cast No Shadow’
‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’
‘My Big Mouth’
‘It’s Gettin’ Better (Man!!)’
‘I Am the Walrus’
– An earlier version of this article was published in 2016