You needn’t go past track one to get the gist of Definitely Maybe. Of course you’d be crazy not to, but it’s all there on ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’: A trebly wall of sound; Liam Gallagher’s voice – the perfect hybrid of John Lennon and John Lydon; lyrics that mean both nothing and everything; and of course, melody, melody and more melody. By the time you’re at the guitar solo, Liam’s already told you he’s a “rock ‘n’ rock star” five times. Crazy.
It’s true, though, he is a rock ‘n’ roll star’. Even when the group was playing to a handful of people in the pub above their rehearsal space he was one. Still it must have been an absurd scene – an unemployed, unsigned, twenty-something suggesting you ought to think of him in the same terms as Mick Jagger or Roger Daltrey or even John Lennon, when there are as many people on stage as there are in the audience.
Objective thinking would dictate that, at this point, Liam most certainly was not a rock ‘n’ roll star, but then again, what use is objectivity to popular culture? It just gets in the way. Sometimes, if you truly believe something, that’s enough. In this case, it helps if you repeat it a couple times, too. Fake it till you make it, as they say.“it must have been an absurd scene – an unemployed, unsigned, twenty-something suggesting you ought to think of him in the same terms as Mick Jagger or Roger Daltrey or even John Lennon”
‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’s’ combination of optimism, idealism, and mild delusion is a theme that runs throughout Definitely Maybe, from start to finish.
And it’s the reason why the record, which has celebrated its 20th anniversary with a deluxe reissue this year, continues to endear itself to new generations of music fans. Indeed many of Oasis’ most fervent supporters – liking Oasis is akin to barracking for a wildly unpopular football team, you do as much defending as supporting – are about as old as the album in question. For many of them, Definitely Maybe will have been their gateway into a new musical universe.
Almost any piece of writing you will read on the internet about Oasis will mention the band’s influences – from the obvious (The Beatles, The Stone Roses, The Sex Pistols) to the more obscure such as The La’s. In practical terms, Definitely Maybe and its follow up, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, are an accessible introduction to the music Oasis idolised: it’s rock music for people who don’t yet know they like rock music.
Still, Noel Gallagher, who wrote all the songs on Definitely Maybe, is often criticised for his pilfering of history’s most revered riffs and melodies. He’s countered this by saying he’s simply a fan who writes songs in tribute to his favourite artists, though it is true that his penchant for unsolicited borrowing shows no sign of letting up.
If you’re righteous about these things, that excuse probably doesn’t cut it anymore. But, to be fair, Noel was simply writing for his own enjoyment when the songs on Definitely Maybe were penned. And when he joined what was originally his brother Liam’s band, also comprising Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs, Paul McGuigan and Tony McCarroll, they were going nowhere. Then, the fact that their song ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ had exactly the same riff as T.Rex’s ‘Get It On’ was inconsequential, because who was ever going to hear them play it?
These musical ‘references’ are, for want of a better word scattered liberally and unabashedly throughout Definitely Maybe. So much so that to be concerned is to miss the point. Noel has always admitted to similarities when they’re pointed out.
Surely it’s not such a big deal when Liam is singing lines this good: “Is it worth the aggravation/ To find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for?” In fact, that’s another thing about Definitely Maybe.It’s optimistic, but it’s honest, too. It’s that straightforwardness that set Oasis apart from some of their Britpop contemporaries. Unlike, say, Blur’s equally lauded Parklife, which uses characters to make wry, ironic observations, Definitely Maybe simply tells you how it is. And in no uncertain terms.
That naivety and lack of pretension is important, musically, as well as lyrically. If you could say anything about Definitely Maybe, it would be that it never feels forced or overproduced.
The album’s closer, ‘Married With Children’, is an acoustic demo that was recorded in a bedroom. It’s both charming and far removed from the bluster that typifies the rest of the album. Liam’s voice, paired with a quiet instrumental, is bereft of its usual menace while Noel’s lyrics are uncharacteristically puckish, “I hate the way that even though you know you’re wrong you say you’re right/ I hate the books you read and all your friends, your music’s shite it keeps me up all night.”
Regardless of style, in all cases, melody comes first on Definitely Maybe.
The Sex Pistols-aping ‘Bring It On Down’ and the somewhat house music-influenced ‘Columbia’ both feature guitar and vocal hooks at every corner. As does the Revolver-era Beatles homage ‘Up In The Sky’ and ‘Digsy Dinner’, which must be one of the only songs ever released to mention ‘lasagne’ in its chorus.
On the psychedelic pop of ‘Shakermaker’, Liam drawls out Noel’s lyrics – a meaningless stream of consciousness – to a melody stolen from a 70s Coke ad. “Mister Sifter sold me songs, when I was just sixteen/ Now he stops at traffic lights, but only when they’re green”. You get the sense Noel was simply writing on instinct – he went to chords that simply felt right and to rhymes that sounded right.
That’s what he did on the band’s first single, ‘Supersonic’, which was written spur-of-the-moment on the studio floor with words taken from the ‘I Am The Walrus’ school of lyricism. “I know a girl called Elsa, She’s into Alka Seltzer/ She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic train, She made me laugh, I got her autograph, She done it with a doctor on a helicopter,” Liam sneers. Add a guitar hook stolen from George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ and there you have it, an infectious slab of rock ‘n’ roll boogie.
The accusation that is often levelled at Oasis is that they’re too 60s-obsessed.
But that’s not really the case on Definitely Maybe, which is one of those records that is both timeless, and of its time. It doesn’t sound much like The Beatles, or The Kinks, or anyone else British and equally as old.
Sure, there’s distinct echoes of those bands – and plenty of others – in the melodies and guitar licks, but if we’re talking about production, Definitely Maybe plays much different. Unlike say, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the 60s influence is mostly confined to the songwriting on this record. In fact, the guitar sounds are actually more reminiscent of the shoegaze groups that were popular before Britpop swept them out of the UK charts.
The record is also unspeakably loud. Playing rock music loud at high volume is obviously one of the simpler joys in life and Definitely Maybe demands that you indulge.
The reason for its relentlessness is that it was mixed with almost no dynamics whatsoever. The result is both exhausting and exhilarating. Noel’s searing leads cut through Bonehead’s sturdy rhythm guitar (always barre chords) while McCarroll’s punk-style drumming offers an amateurish enthusiasm that was sadly missing from later albums. All the while, Liam’s voice is the true centrepiece, recapturing your attention with each elongated vowel.
And nowhere is Liam’s voice more arresting than on Definitely Maybe’s two ballads. ‘Slide Away’ and ‘Live Forever’ both hint at anthems such as ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ that soon followed and propelled the band into superstardom.
Described by Noel himself as a Neil Young/Smiths hybrid, ‘Slide Away’’s flowing chords changes and squalling guitar lines swirl around Liam’s vulnerable vocal, perhaps the best he ever laid down on tape. ‘Live Forever’, meanwhile, is rendered unstoppable by Liam’s delivery, an impeccable guitar solo, and an infectious melody. Written for Noel’s mum, ‘Live Forever’ carries an “us and them” mentality that underpins many of Oasis’ most affecting songs, particularly as Liam sings, “we’ll see things they’ll never see”.
Ultimately that sentiment was never more present than on Definitely Maybe. It’s no coincidence Oasis never got close to topping their debut.
Moreover, the feeling of being young and invincible – as most succinctly expressed on ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ – is something most of us experience at least once in our lives; and merely wanting to feel that way is something we all know well. Records that can articulate that feeling, not just lyrically, but in the way they sound, will always resonate with future generations. Twenty years on, it’s clear Definitely Maybe is one of those records.