Oasis – ‘Definitely Maybe’ Review

Originally published in NME, August 27 1994.

There are those who are convinced that an evil cabal of journalists and record execs routinely invent pop groups and then devise ways of tricking otherwise sensible people into giving them money just for the hell of it; who believe they are being sold a pup here and would like to see Oasis fall flat on their lippy Mancunian arses. They see fights on ferries. They hear rustic language. They narrowly escape serious injury from chairs hurtling through the windows of hotel rooms; hotel rooms booked in the name of a certain Mr. Bonehead, if you please. In short, they smell hype and they think it stinks.

The funny thing is, they may have a point. But such an analysis omits one vital detail from the equation:

Oasis make records, write songs, stick ‘em down on tape and then put them out to stand or fall in posterity’s cruel gaze. And the fact that too much heartfelt emotion, ingenious belief and patent song writing savvy rushes through the debut Oasis album for it to be the work of a bunch of wind-up merchants. They’re too good. And yes, they really do mean it, man.

This much will be self-evident to anyone who’s seen the band live this year. By now, that First Oasis Gig syndrome has been experienced nationwide: an arms folded, eyebrow arched, all-pervasive ‘oh really?-ness’, gradually eclipsed by the realisation that this dammit, is rock as she was meant to be rolled. A shame factor enters because at this late stage, 30 years since The Beatles’ first Number One and nearly 40 since ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, we’re somehow supposed to have evolved from beyond these simple pleasures; the buzz of an electric guitar and a young voice yearning simple truths and uncomplicated desires ought to leave us cold because, by definition, something better must now exist. Oasis prove that this need not be so.

The reason is all too obvious: Noel Gallagher is a pop craftsman in the classic tradition and a master of his trade. Of his generation, probably only Kurt Cobain wielded the manipulative power of melody better, and you can’t imagine Noel having many guilt pangs about whether or not ‘Live Forever’ was just that little bit too perfect. For the same reason that The Stone Roses assuaged suspicions that beneath the star-spangled tunes there was less going on than met the eye, so Oasis lasso the heart in the time-honoured manner. Here are 12 songs- 11 if you’ve thrown away your record player- to hum beyond the grave.

It begins, somewhat inevitably, with ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’, a song about not being a postman that postmen the world over will clutch to their breasts and whistle ‘til horse. Cards are dealt squarely on the table. The first line mentions “living” ones “life” in “the city”, goes on to imply that it’s not a bowl of cherries all the time, but come nightfall there’s only one thing to do. “Toniiiight, I’m a rock ‘n’ roll star”, declaims Liam Gallagher with not the merest hint of irony. He holds this truth to be self-evident and we are in air-guitar heaven come the second verse of an opening track so perfectly realised that the challenge thereafter is simply not to blow it.

One major wobble aside, they don’t. And even then, the cod-mod farrago that is ‘Digsy’s Dinner’ is thrown off with such brass neck that you can only smile and rue the arrogance of youth. Erm, except Noel’s old enough to know better. “I’ll treat you like a queen/I’ll give you strawberries and cream/And then your friends will all go green/For my lasagne”. Right. It’s the one time his tendency for ‘will-this-do?’ nonsense poetry can’t be redeemed by the surrounding heavy racket, yet one resolutely daft moment on a debut that otherwise negotiates the line between divine inspiration and disaster without a flinch isn’t bad going.

It’s their much-vaunted ‘attitude’ that has bolstered Oasis with the confidence to make all this work. The only equivocal thing about ‘Definitely Maybe’ is its title. Everything else seems certainty. So what if all the singles are here? Or that one of them (‘Shakermaker’) breaches the Name That Tune copyright hardline just that bit too brazenly? You don’t get owt for nowt and these same people give us ‘Slide Away’, a completely heart-rending love song which proves that Oasis do possess both the sweetness and tenderness to complement their well-proven hooligan qualities. “I dream of you and all the things you say,” sobs Liam in his least mannered, most unambiguously heartfelt vocal of the album. “I wonder where you are now…”

It’s a touching response to his elder brother’s desolate, sad-eyed melody, something like ‘Zuma’-period Neil Young via Paul Weller’s ‘Foot Of The Mountain’. At such moments even the conspiracy theorists have to qualify their doubts and acknowledge the greatness that lurks somewhere behind those magnificent Gallagher eyebrows (really kids, check ‘em out).

If ‘Slide Away’ is atypical, then so too is ‘Columbia’, the oldest songs on the album and a barbed wire groove monster that prompts the most overt comparisons with illustrious Manc predecessors, though even the Happy Mondays in their pomp would have killed for its certifiable reserves of menace. Again, the thought occurs that if Oasis really cared about what anyone else thought they would have passed on this remnant from their past. But hell, self-consciousness is the enemy of great art, as Bonehead no doubt said at the time.

Said rationale also explains ‘Cigarettes And Alcohol’. Yes, yes, it’s that riff, and it’s just been waiting all this time for the most beautiful boy in Lancashire to walk up to it and scream “It’s a crazy sityooaysheeeunn!!!” down its lug. If we were to split hairs, that the demo version as given away by your caring, sharing NME is superior in that it made absolutely no attempt to tart up the song’s root source, whereas here Noel adds a guitar frill or two. Nothing wrong, just a bit unnecessary.

Yet the essential vindication of ‘Definitely Maybe’ is that one is forced to delve through the small-print to find fault with its gleaming, thrills-aplenty scheme. There really is precious little else amiss, and even in the space of a relatively one-dimensional effort like ‘Up In The Sky’ there are constant reminders of the endless serviceability of that chord change and those fervent, ruthless drums. The butt of many a joke, sure, but deny the brutal effectiveness of one Tony McCarroll at your peril.

So there we are: even the drumming’s heroic. That ‘Definitely Maybe’ has an air of over-familiarity is perhaps unsurprising- especially if Oasis have reinvigorated your faith in the redemptive powers of the in-the-flesh rock ‘n’ roll experience to the extent that you’ve seen them at least a dozen times in the past six months. And even then there’s the virgin treat of the closing ‘Married With Children’, just Noel on guitar and sardonic vocal: “I hate the way that you’re so sarcastic/And you’re not very bright/You think that everything you’ve done’s fantastic/Your music’s shite it keeps me up all night”. Like, smart.

There are those who caution that there’s not enough depth here, that in 18 months’ time no-one will care to listen to ‘Definitely Maybe’, that it won’t endure like the all-time greats it so reveres. This, surely, is not the point. Few other debut albums have captured a band at such a fully-realised aspect, or are capable of scorching the soul with so many jaw-jarringly great pop moments.

Granted, subtlety is not top of the agenda, and including Noel’s solo acoustic and very lovely ‘Sad Song’ on all formats would have upped the tenderness quotient, as well as dispelling the suspicion that its absence on CD and cassette is nothing but a crafty ruse to boost sales, as opposed to a noble gesture of support for the endangered species that is vinyl.

Yet in the grander scheme of things, such quibbling seems unwarranted. With ‘Definitely Maybe’, Oasis have encapsulated the most triumphant feeling. It’s like opening your bedroom curtains one morning and discovering that some f-er’s built the Taj Mahal in your back garden and then filled it with your favourite flavour of Angel Delight. Yeah, that good.

Of course, as Liam Gallagher himself advises in spiralling mantric conclusion to ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’, “It’s just rock ‘n’ roll”. Quite so, young man. That’s all ‘Definitely Maybe’ is. But when this brilliant, it’s enough.

Keith Cameron