Thursday, August 20, 2015

Class Authenticity, The Rain In Spain & Sooonshiiiiiiine: On Alex Niven's Oasis' Definitely Maybe 33 1/3 Book

My cat hates it when I read because I'm not paying attention to him.
I feel bashful when I share with people that I like Oasis. One time at work I requested a desk copy from a book distributor of the original Oasis drummer's memoir (Oasis: The Truth: My Life as Oasis's Drummer by Tony McCarroll), and when it arrived, one of my co-workers opened the package and pulled it out and pinching it like it was contaminated underwear, he said, "Should I grab bag this?" I said, "Actually, I requested that book." I had to come clean; I thought I would have intercepted the package but he got to it before I did.

I've on the sly been reading books about Oasis and special Oasis-centered editions of Mojo and Uncut for years, and the only person that knows this is my husband, who makes fun of me. If Oasis ever comes up in conversation, he starts singing the refrain from My Fair Lady "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain," which I agree, does actually does sound like a line that would be in an Oasis song.

Has anybody done a mashup of Oasis and My Fair Lady? Because I can't possibly be the first person to make the connection of the working class Brit elevating their status by way of some sort of performance (a lower class Eliza Doolittle learning/performing the mannerisms of the upper class, the Gallagher brothers elevating their status from working class to British nouveau riche by creating/performing music etc etc etc bla bla bla).

when there's no sooonshiiiiiiine
And that's where Alex Niven's 33 1/3 book about Oasis' first album Definitely Maybe comes in. But I'll get to that in a minute.

My relationship with Oasis is a carryover from a previous boyfriend of many years ago who got me into them. Previous to him, I had always kind of found them boring. However, when someone can act as a tour guide for a band and expose you to the right songs with the right introductory explanation, that's where the appreciation can come in. You would think after the relationship ended I would not want to have listened to a band that my ex was into, but amazingly, the amount of time I had to lay off Oasis was relatively short, and then Oasis was reintegrated into my heavy rotation. And in fact, even though at that point I'd only had the first two Oasis albums and a variety of other B sides, it was actually the boyfriend after him (now my husband), who gifted me the third Oasis album, Be Here Now. That third album is the one that Noel Gallagher told Chuck Klosterman in a 2011 interview on that during the recording "We were taking all the cocaine we could possibly find," which explains its less than stellar success.

Oasis' first two albums (Definitely Maybe and (What's the Story) Morning Glory?) are solid. Although there are a fair number of songs from later Oasis albums that I do like quite a bit, somehow there weren't any Oasis albums that captured the anthemic energy of those two albums. The more recent work made by the Gallagher brothers, independent of each other after the breakup of Oasis, lacks the synergistic awesomeness that happens when they were in a band together.

Sidetone: I saw some hilarious press conference with Noel Gallagher (the elder brother and primary song writer for Oasis) when Oasis broke up. I could have sworn that he described this one event that preceded the breakup of the band. Liam (the younger brother and the one with the iconic Oasis snarly whine that people tend to equate with the band) asked Noel if the Oasis tourbook for the next tour could feature his clothing line Pretty Green. Noel said no, which made Liam so angry he smashed a guitar. His own guitar. This is, of course, hilarious to me.

Independent of each other, the Gallagher brothers pursued their own bands. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds have a few good songs and Liam Gallagher's now defunct band Beady Eye had a few good songs, but both projects were missing the ingredients that the other brother puts in it. Noel's band is missing Liam's Mancunian drawly sneering sass, and Liam's band is missing Noel's songwriting input. At this very moment I'm listening to the High Flying Birds album "Chasing Yesterday" on Spotify and maybe it's because it's 12:42am on a Wednesday, but I'm hardly feeling moved to do air guitar moves. Is that a saxophone? Is that why Liam Tweeted on May 7th of this year, "Just coz you have a SAXAPHONE on your new record and you think your all Pink Floyd LG x"? Because that's about when this album dropped. I should also add that Liam then Tweeted "Everybody knows your just another PRICK in the wall LG x" which in spite of the spelling error, is actually pretty funny.

So, both brothers are aging, estranged from each other beyond just their notorious constant bickering, making music that isn't quite as awesome as they once did when they were together in the 90s, ruling British music with anthemic rock. Something about it is sad to me.

Oasis very much appeals to the part of me that loves anthemic guitar-driven rock music, which I refer to as the Guitar Center part of my personality. I do love me a good anthemic rock song.

Now would be a good time to mention that the ex-boyfriend who got me into Oasis also gave me a bunch of the guitar tablature for Oasis songs that I liked. After much practice I could fake my way through a few of them, but never in a way that wasn't ridiculously embarrassing, accompanied by a lot pausing and me going, "Wait! Wait!" while switching cords. Mostly what I remember though is that Wonder Wall requires a capo (this, because the Oasis Tour Guide boyfriend showed me), that Noel Gallagher writes a lot of music with alternating D and D sus chords, and that Cast No Shadow was sort of easy to play.

After reading Alex Niven's book: Oasis' Definitely Maybe book, from the 33 1/3 series (Bloomsbury), I had half a mind to pull the guitar back out and give some Oasis songs another go (although the aforementioned songs are actually on Morning Glory), but come on. Honestly, NoWaysis. The most that I'm willing to do is listen to Oasis in the car. P.S. Wonder Wall is actually one of the more boring Oasis songs. No wonder everybody thinks Oasis is boring. They're better when they're doing arena rock. Also, NOBODY wants to hear me snarl whine my way through Oasis at karaoke. "But we really want to watch a short Jewess from northshore Chicago perform Rock'n'Roll Star at the American Legion Hall" said ABSOLUTELY NO ONE.

That is, except for my husband. He did tell me that he thought my Cigarettes and Alcohol rendition was pretty rocking. So I guess that's a thing. I did get a karaoke disc with a bunch of Oasis songs but it's shitty and low quality, and the lyric graphics are all janky and get jumbled on the screen. Boooooo.

So as a semi-closeted Oasis fan, I enjoyed Niven's book. For one, he defends accusations of Oasis making simple and derivative music, and the difference between pastiche and plagiarism (and how depending on the musician's class, the same act can unfairly be considered one or the other), and how class plays into the Oasis narrative. I found the book to be thoughtful and worded so articulately that if there was anybody sitting next to me I would have read them the passages I was putting stars next to.

In the foreward Niven writes, "It was also important to me to try to show that even the most simplest-seeming pop music can contain multitudes of meaning." I couldn't agree more. We all know that as an audience member, the meaning we derive from a song may not actually be in the songwriter's intent. Sometimes meaning can be derived from considering the song through a lens unintended by the writer and performer. We might use a historical lens, a sociological lens, or a critical lens used by those who consider pop an artform worthy of intellectual digestion. I've always thought that no matter what the topic, there is always something intelligent to be said about it. It may require some processing, or if it's about some work of art what you come up with may not be compatible with what the creator intended, or it may even be cynical and snarky, but the potential is there for thoughtfulness on any topic. Hence, any pop song "can contain multitudes of meaning," as Niven writes.

I also loved Niven's point defending Oasis' musical output as being a creatively successful work that is more than just simplistic stealing on page 25:

"When middle-class musicians resort to appropriation and collage it is often applauded as 'allusion' or 'pastiche', when working-class musicians do it they are dismissed as plagiarists, or prosecuted as outright thieves. The notion - still popular in some quarters - that Oasis were chancers who rose above their station by stealing other bands' creative property is patronizing and ultimately untenable. Whatever can be said about their musical conservatism in later years, on Definitely Maybe, Oasis's appropriation of the past was just as valid, and just as creatively successful, as the sample tapestries on Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions."


At the beginning of the book, Niven included a lengthy Dostoevsky quote from The Brothers Karamazov, about being rejected by the unforgiving world, but then watering the earth with one's tears that then bring forth fruit. It's making art from one's grief. It's a fitting quote for the story of a band confined by the limits of their membership to dead end working class, but making art inspired by dreams of escaping their station, which Niven posits is a large part of the Oasis narrative.

I love the image of the Gallagher brothers (and the rest of the band) against the world that looks down on them (even though everyone knows they never really got along). So the idea of the band being years past the prime of their success of the first two albums (not to mention broken up) creates a weirdly poetic wistfulness in me, especially considering I wasn't even all that into them until after their first two albums had already peaked. And before you jump in and go "Well maybe you're being wistful for the relationship with the Oasis tour guide boyfriend" I feel it important to say that I was really unhappy in that relationship because it was a really unhappy time in my life.

What I want to say is that the wistfulness comes from the part of my personality that gets really caught up in other people's narratives, especially performers' story arcs, like for example Britney's rise and fall and rise again (but as her current Zombney the Undead state where she's been replaced by an automaton, managed by other people).

But the truth is that I think the wistfulness comes from the part of my psyche that fears the decay of getting old, past one's prime, sick, or even worse, what happens when all your dreams come true and then you're not left with anything to look forward to (which is why I think some celebrities turn to religion in their "YES BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!!" moments). The Gallagher brothers and their fellow Oasisians are hardly decaying and I'm happier as I get older, but it's probably true that there's my fear of death in there somewhere. Queue up the Andrew Lloyd Webber music to accompany the one-time glamour feline singing about her days in the sun, unsuccessfully copying dance moves of the younger cats, but alone and frail, unable to capture the magic of the Ball. And so on.

Niven writes about Oasis that they were confined as "losers in a failing city" then escaped their economic and social status by becoming rock stars. He describes it excellently on page 18:

"In 'Rock'n'Roll Star', Noel Gallagher's alternative plan was to get a car and drive it as far as he could away from Manchester, a plan that was ambitious given that he had no money and had never learned to drive."

Ah yes, even part of the class you might not even have the background to exist within it once your there. How very Eliza Doolittle.

A band is on top of the world, then they get bloated and it all falls apart. I will always be pulled into the rock and roll narrative. After all, the rise and fall is the greatest story ever told. Of course it's better if the narrative denouements out with a rise again, but the climb back to the top is often pretty artificial. We all age, we all die, or at least we all have to live in the real world where it isn't always the high of being on top again: grocery shopping, daily living, paying bills, trimming your toenails -- life is not just one big montage of being on top all the time. Sometimes it's boring.

All this is to say that the real problem with the rock and roll narrative is that often it's a rise and fall that may or may not have a rise again, but if it does have a rise again, the rise never recaptures the magic and vitality of the first initial rise. This makes sense to me. For one, everyone loves an origin story and sequels are never as good as the origin stories, the Oasis origin story being one of a working class band becoming extremely successful such that for Brits, being a soccer hooligan became cool, (as opposed to the art school snobbiness of a band like Blur, the sort of anti-Oasis). But more to the point, the narrative does not account for people getting older or ending the band. Nobody wants to watch rock stars age.

Niven sums it up best on page 20:

"After Oasis really became famous, after they finally, decisively escaped from Manchester, the strength of their idea that pop music can allow anybody to achieve empowerment in a moment of liberation would be undermined by the boring reality of their status as lofty celebrities. When you are actually a rock star, singing about the fact to crowds of thousands every night is not a statement of idealism. It's a description of a daily work routine."

Ah, the bloating. It's as if to say their narrative went from underdog to the overweight dog of the status quo. In the documentary Live Forever: The Rise and Fall of Brit Pop, Louise Wener, former lead singer of the Britpop band Sleeper, talks about Noel getting invited to Downing Street to see Tony Blair. She said of Noel's visit how "Everything he was about, he used to not "belong" to anybody, and then suddenly he did, he was right in their pocket, and in that very instant, he was neutered, like someone had just come in with a knife and cut his bullocks off."

If there was the Oasis biopic (there seemed to be some discussion around 2011, but it seemed like it never really panned out), that visit would be the moment where it's clear the band went from being the band that united the classes, their music played ubiquitously in bars, discos, weddings, just, everywhere in Britain with anthemic "We're in this togetherness," to a sort of resented and resentful cynical parody of themselves. "Cynicism is the patois of the status quo," Niven writes on the first page of his book, as if to remind us that the rock and roll rise and fall ends in the band leaving youthful earnest rebellion behind and turning to jaded cynicism.

I loved Niven's discussion of Britpop. In this quote, he's referring the the song Shakermaker, which ripped off part of the I'd Like to Buy a World a Coke jingle, which well, Coke is pretty much a symbol of consumerism. Oasis was considered to be the more sort of authentic, less middle class alterna contemporaries Blur, Suede and Elastica. I enjoy the overview laid out so articulately here, with a little help from critic Jon Savage as well, on page 27:

page 27. Thanks, Google Books!
The sentiment about Britpop being composed of ill-informed bougie bands singing about working class is the classic "You're a suburban poseur, why are you complaining about gentrification in your city block?!" argument. I don't know if it's really warranted because I'm sure it's more complicated than that. And to be fair, I do like Blur, Suede and Elastica. But I do like the quote's overview of the different bands within Britpop and what they each tended to symbolize, the implication being that Oasis represented an authentic honest working class while wanting to be the upper class, while many other bands in Britpop merely wanted to criticize the middle and upper class, attempting to identify with the lower class.

I never thought I would say this but I think I just wrote a piece on how the career trajectory of Oasis symbolizes death. This wasn't quite what I envisioned in discussing a band that appeals to my interest in anthemic rock which is usually celebratory, but I suppose any story with a linear arc only goes in a single direction, forwards, and nothing lasts forever. Well, as long as you don't have to listen to me play any of these songs on the guitar it'll be fine.

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