“It was 20 years ago today…”
It feels like you could say that pretty much every week for something seismic related to Oasis at the moment. Today’s anniversary is genuinely noteworthy though – it’s exactly two decades since Liam, Noel, Bonehead, Guigsy, Alan White and about 40 brass and orchestra players stormed Maine Road, the then-home of Manchester (City) football.
Those two gigs were important. They came at a crucial time in Oasis history, landing before Knebworth had been announced but after the release of ‘What’s The Story (Morning Glory)?’, after ‘Roll With It’ vs ‘Country House’ and after ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and ‘Wonderwall’ had done their thing in the charts. The band were in a curious, fleeting position: teetering on the edge of being a bona fide cultural phenomenon, yet still with something to prove.
In retrospect the shows marked the last moments Oasis could truly be considered a band ‘of the people’, rather than a band ‘for the people’. On a more basic level they were the first time the band had ever headlined a stadium and, thanks to a snappily released VHS documenting the event (the ‘There And Then’ live video hit shelves within half a year), the first time kids who couldn’t get into the gigs had a chance to see what all the fuss was about. I’d wager that a lot of successful post-Oasis British rock musicians’ first ‘gig’ was that live footage.
Here, with fresh input from rhythm guitarist Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs and Oasis sleeve designer Brian Cannon, are five reasons why those gigs ruled:
1). Noel’s guitar
Probably the most famous instrument in British music since Macca’s Hohner bass, Noel’s Union Jack Epiphone Sheraton was played for the first time at Maine Road. It’s become the epitome of what Britpop was all about – unabashed pomposity married to traditionalist grandeur. Apparently, according to Bonehead, it was a gift from Noel’s then-girlfriend, Meg Matthews. “She got a guy in London who did up guitars to spray a Union Jack on it. I remember he pulled it out and I was like, ‘Whoa…’. It’s pretty iconic now. Instantly recognisable. You stick a picture of a Union Jack Epiphone on any wall and say, ‘Name that guy’ and it’s ‘Noel Gallagher’ every time, isn’t it?”
2). The way the band walk on
Oasis weren’t alone in the 90s when it came to having gallons of onstage confidence. From Cobain being wheeled out at Reading Festival to a frightfully youthful-looking Damon and Graham laid bare at Finsbury Park, to Fatboy Slim and The Prodigy’s chest-beating heroics, to The Spice Girls, to Bjork, Nick Cave and Radiohead re-defining the word intense, the entire decade felt brash and OTT when it came to how spectacular gigs could be.
This was in huge contrast to the inhibited shoegazing scene that preceded grunge, and few walk-ons in rock have ever been as self-assured – as cocky – as Oasis’ second night at Maine Road. Everything about it was forceful, from the drama of the chopper sounds being played at full blast over the PA (surely a sly nod to the gang culture that still existed on the streets around the stadium and in Moss Side at that point), to the way Noel strides onstage: arms outstretched, dead-eyed, face purposely screwed up yet blatantly trying hard not to break into a massive smile. Even his jacket became iconic at that gig. It was made by Penfield and, helped along by ‘There And Then’, it pretty much re-defined what the word ‘cagoule’ meant for people under 30. I’m not kidding here: that jacket is still being ripped off today and, sensing its influence, Penfield re-issued a carbon copy of it as part of their 40th anniversary campaign last year. Vogue paid tribute in an article entitled ‘How Noel Gallagher Made the Nerdy Trainspotter Anorak a Streetwear Classic’, by writing that the guitarist’s attire at the gigs “became an instant hit with city-dwellers across the globe”. You can credit him, it continues, “with elevating the anorak from trainspotting mundanity to the realm of streetwear cool”.
3). Live Forever
Back to the music. What with them being new to the whole stadium-conquering game, the best Oasis could muster in terms of Guns N’ Roses-style onstage pyrotechnics were a few fireworks at the end of the show. Or, perhaps that’s they way they wanted to play it – subtle, letting the songs and the players do ALL the talking. Today, the TV screens dotted around them look remarkably tiny, while drummer Alan White’s riser almost looks like it’s being held up by cardboard boxes. But there’s one singular moment where it all comes together, elevating Oasis to the big guns league, where they remained ever since.
It comes during ‘Live Forever’, when a range of huge photos appear on the backdrop, dwarfing the band onstage. Elvis, Hendrix, Sid Vicious, Steve Marriott, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye and finally, as the last throes of the chorus are belted out by Noel, the face of John Lennon. The entire audience roars, and the message is as clear as the song title. “Even Liam didn’t know it was going to happen, that’s why he looks amazed when he turns round and sees Lennon,” says Brian Cannon, who came up with the idea. For something so simple, it’s still remarkably touching. Rarely employed by Oasis since, Noel did bring it out of retirement at his Glasgow gig a few days a go, paying tribute to Prince in similar fashion.
4). The Liam kidnap rumours
Such was Manchester’s reputation back then that rumours began to fly that rival gangs were set to use Maine Road as a battleground, while another myth supposed that someone was trying to kidnap Liam at the gigs. Bonehead: “There were real threats. I keep reading it was Maine Road, but I think we got the same scenario when we did G-Mex too [on the ‘Be Here Now’ tour]. I can definitely remember we had extra security in. You always have security knocking about, but we had security with Doberman’s and Rottweiler dogs. We were like, ‘What the fuck?!’ and someone said ‘Yeah, there was a serious threat that they were gonna kidnap Liam, so – extra security.’”
5). That photo
Jill Furmanovsky took the picture of Noel, arms outstretched, surveying the crowd. Talking about the gigs in her ‘Was There Then’ book, he reflected: “I was trying to take it all in, watching everybody go, and it was a weird thing because the lights were all on and it was dark outside. It looked like a big front room, except there were 42,000 people in it. Maine Road was where we all used to go as kids. So I was standing there, trying to make sure I never forgot this moment. And now I can’t remember a fucking thing about it, and yet I stood there for an hour and a half…”
Sleeve designer Brian Cannon has clearer memories of the gigs: “The Maine Road shows were of massive importance to Oasis. From second they walked onstage the first night it was blatantly obvious they were a genuinely huge rock’n’roll phenomenon. Add to that the fact the gigs were of equal importance to the fans, to whom the whole spectacle vindicated their love of Oasis – it meant an all round winner for everyone. I’ve seen them play live over 70 times and whilst I loved the early small shows – they were something else – the Maine Road gigs were far and away the best of the ‘big’ outings.”
Meanwhile, here’s a new Q&A with Bonehead on the shows:
NME: What are your memories of Maine Road?
Bonehead: “We all had security guards, big limousines for the gig. All the band were based in London, so they all got put up at a big hotel just outside Manchester, but I just chose to stay at home. I remember driving down to the soundcheck in my car – ‘I’ll just pop down!’ To put it into context, it was just a rapid ascent. Can you imagine when we started out we were playing to no people at the Duchess Of York in Leeds, and then only two years later we’re doing Man City’s football ground? It seemed like an overnight thing. Incredible.”
NME: You’re not pictured on the ticket – is that because you’re a United fan?
B: “Absolutely. But that’s not to say I didn’t spend a lot of my childhood at Maine Road. I was brought up a couple of miles away, I used to walk to the ground with the lads I knew. I spent a lot of time I my young years in the Kippax end watching City play with my mates, even though I was a United fan. So to play that gig, I was really familiar with it all, inside. And from the houses that surrounded it – from the stage we could actually see gaps in the stadium and you could see terraced houses and windows. It was really familiar.”
NME: Did it feel like a homecoming?
B: “There was a massive sense of that, yeah. We weren’t just coming back to play the Manchester Indoor Arena, we were coming back to play Maine Road. We’d all spent years of our childhood there. It was the crowd who made it, for me. Maine Road is when I really got a feel of what we were about, and what we meant to people. The way the crowd reacted to every song that we played. The place was bouncing.”
NME: You encored with Slade’s ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’, which you debuted live for the first time, and also played backed with an orchestra and brass section. That’s putting in a lot of effort…
B: “I don’t think we were gonna walk off there and say ‘That’s it!’. We probably would have played all night if we could! As for the brass, we could have just played it on our own, and we would have pulled it off, but we wanted to make it the best. We really did – Maine Road meant something.”