Definitely Maybe Turns 20
Back in April, we marked the 20th anniversary of Britpop with Stereogum’s Britpop Week. We chose the date for a few reasons — the week marked the anniversaries of both Pulp’s His ‘N’ Hers and Blur’s Parklife, Damon Albarn was conveniently releasing his first solo album almost to the day of Parklife‘s 20th birthday, and it fell just after April 11, the day Oasis released their first official single, “Supersonic.” Though “Columbia” had been circulating for some time before that, the band hadn’t yet caught fire. “Supersonic” was the first in a stretch of three singles (followed by “Shakermaker” and “Live Forever”) that drummed up excitement for Oasis’ debut before its August 29, 1994 release. Which, you know, worked, considering Definitely Maybe was the fastest-selling debut album ever in the UK to that point.
There’s a fair argument to be made that we could’ve just as easily done Britpop Week now, around the anniversary of Definitely Maybe, despite how packed and symbolic April was for Britpop. (“Supersonic” was released just six days after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and in a music history sense, there’s a clear delineation between one era and another occurring there, if you’re the sort of American listener who was paying close attention to British music in the mid-’90s.) For many Americans, Oasis — and, specifically, the band’s first two albums — sum up Britpop, partially because Oasis had a much more significant footprint in America than Blur or Pulp or anyone else in the whole mob of British bands with single-word monikers. Years on from the end of Britpop and in the throes of a time where internet media and the rise of mainstream indie were rearranging awareness and perceptions of the legacy of a band like Blur, I was still far more likely to hear someone strumming “Wonderwall” than “This Is A Low” when walking through my college dorm hallways. “Live Forever” and “Supersonic” are still amongst the more immortal and representative singles of the whole era, still the songs more likely to be heard in a public space in America than, say, even “Common People” or even (tangential to Britpop, in this sense) “Song 2.”
Outside of all those particulars, though, and applying the narrative to Britain itself as well as how Britpop figured in here, is the fact that Definitely Maybe was the final shot in the first round of the genre’s peak. As Michael Nelson pointed out in his intro to Britpop Week, the beginnings of Britpop stretch back before 1994, but that was the year where it all came to fruition. Where its frontrunners all released seminal, definitive albums, and where the sound and ethos and times all came together into a movement. In that sense, Definitely Maybe was the capstone on the young, hungry, wildly ambitious first phase of Britpop. It set the stage for the next chapter and the ones after that, the even more stratospheric successes to come and the eventual burnouts alike.
While its stature is monolithic — especially according to the British music media — there’s a part of me that was underwhelmed by Definitely Maybe originally. Like many music fans, I discovered Oasis early in high school, early in the development of my music interests. They’re a perfect band for that — you can use them as a jumping off point for classic rock as well as for various strains of British alternative. They have lyrics that hit you at your core as a teenager, and maybe, uh, don’t do that so much when you’re a bit older. Back then, I found my way in through (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, and I was actually more drawn to the insane, overblown spectacle of Be Here Now than I was to Definitely Maybe, for a time.
Considering that, the thing that’s so interesting — to me, at least — about revisiting Britpop this year and revisiting Definitely Maybe this week, is how much this album surprises me. How much I’ve reconfigured my conceptions of it. There’s a pureness, almost an innocence, to Definitely Maybe that’s striking. Soon after the album’s release, Oasis became a sensation: the tabloids, the massive celebrity, the spats with Blur, and the general reduction of the Gallaghers to caricatures. These guys were always meant to be rockstars, but they weren’t quite yet, for this brief window in their career and development as artists. There’s no other listening experience in Oasis’ canon that’s remotely like Definitely Maybe in tone, because it has all the bluster and bombast of everything they’d craft later, but also a real sense of yearning. Can you imagine someone singing a song like “Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” now? It became a shtick and a punchline, but there’s something so inspiring about returning to a record, and hearing a band that believed so wholly — because they needed to — in the rock and roll dream.
Compared to the dramatic orchestration Oasis would favor on future releases, Definitely Maybe was raw — it’s much more of a straight-up rock record than many of the other classics from the Britpop era, by Oasis or otherwise. There’s a reason Oasis are often considered the pub band of the bunch — there’s a drunken fervor to how their guitars charge forward, how the band swaggered. Part of what I love about Definitely Maybe now is the particular genre strains that would become less prominent as Oasis’ career continued. “Bring It On Down” is straight-up punk, and “Cigarettes And Alcohol” is straight-up glam. (I mean, obviously, on the latter.) The shoegaze elements of Definitely Maybe mean the whole thing has that sort of aqueous vibe you could lose yourself in, but in the case of Oasis, electricity crackled across the surface of the water. The self-assured nature of Oasis at the time gives the whole thing this feeling of being unrefined and youthful while also managing to be an already perfectly crystallized representation of an artist’s vision.
One thing I’d forgotten about Definitely Maybe: It might actually be the band’s druggiest sounding album, an honor I’d previously bestowed upon Be Here Now. Or, at least, it’s druggy in a different way. It’s a wash of cathartic noise, but never confrontational — much of the record is one unerring endorphin rush. While Oasis are easily the bluesier, rawkier Britpop icon, the way that stuff’s deployed here is firmly in traditions of psychedelia. The middle of the album is perhaps the best in this regard — there’s the Stone Roses-esque guitar lopes of “Up In The Sky,” next to the haunting and euphoric “Columbia,” next to the late-night peak drone of “Supersonic.” “Columbia,” in particular, stands out — long my candidate for the most under-appreciated song of Oasis’ early prime, it’s Oasis at their most indebted to shoegaze and Madchester, and it’s Oasis at their most addictive. Even when I’ve gone a year or two without putting on an Oasis album, I get this song stuck in my head, and I have to listen to it two or three or four times in a row. Psychedelia was by no means something Oasis abandoned in the future — you can check anything from the otherworldly air strike guitars of “Morning Glory” to the trippy singles on Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants (the parts of that record that work, if you ask me), to the fried, arid blues-psychedelia of the band’s final album, the late-period gem Dig Out Your Soul. The difference with Definitely Maybe is the drugginess sneaks up on you because it’s also such a consummate pop record, such a consummate rocker. But its aesthetic is simpler and more cohesive than the band’s more expansive later work, which ironically can make it feel like one long bleary-eyed trip.
As Oasis soldiered on well past the expiration of Britpop, they were increasingly dismissed. The Gallagher brothers’ arrogance — though, in my opinion, always entertaining and, I would argue, often performative — came off as increasingly delusional when the songwriting well dried up (to some extent). It became a common refrain to hinge on Noel’s supposed oversized debt to the Beatles, and sure, there’s a good deal of that. But wherever you stand on the band, the people, and their legacy, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that when Definitely Maybe was released, it did sound new. Sure, the DNA is pretty easy to read, but that’s the case with a lot more music than we usually account for, and in any case, it just didn’t matter — Noel could wear his influences on his sleeve, but he was doing something exciting and vital with them, and he was writing unstoppable pop music at what seemed, for a brief and overwhelming time, an unstoppable speed.
What I mean by this is that in hindsight, Oasis are often relegated to being considered something of a karaoke machine for classic rock songs that never existed but sound like they could have, which isn’t totally fair. Particularly in the case of Definitely Maybe. The band’s debut was before the point where they started embracing the Beatles-isms more wholeheartedly — for a comparison point, consider the squall of “Columbia” against the balladry of “Don’t Look Back In Anger.” When Definitely Maybe came out, Oasis had just as much Madchester and Stone Roses and Smiths in their blood as they did the Stones and Beatles. That former list of influences was, by 1994, the dead sound — hell, when Food Records forced Blur into a baggy-aping aesthetic on 1991’s Leisure, they were lambasted as also-rans for a dwindling movement. There were so many ways in which the Gallaghers (or, at least, the British press’ obsession with the Gallaghers) could try our patience in the last two decades, and one of the ultimate results is that there’s a simple fact that has gotten lost in the shuffle of pop history: Definitely Maybe quoted what it did, both recent and not-so-recent to its time, but it also sounded alive, and exciting, and like the beginning of something else entirely. And, of course, it was.
Out of the Britpop greats, I’ll take Blur and Pulp over Oasis any day. But I still have a lot of respect for Oasis, and a record willing to simply rock the way Definitely Maybe does, and if there’s some twinge of nostalgia I feel on the album’s 20th anniversary, it’s for the fact there just aren’t these kinds of rock bands anymore: the kind that play music this way, and not only hope but expect and know that they will be superstars, and that live with all of the comical excess and decadence that come with all the myths they’ve been handed down. It’s easy to look at 1994 Oasis in 2014 and, knowing how it all crashed down, scoff at this, but: Sometimes I yearn to have some more bands like them — bands willing to be badass, willing to be ridiculous, but having enough unimpeachable songs where they absolutely deserve to feel that way. Given, there isn’t really a pop space for that sort of band in the landscape these days, and there may never be again. Which, hey, isn’t necessarily something I’m lamenting — the rock idiom I’ve just sketched out can get real banal and boring, real fast. Still, there’s an exhilarating feeling in revisiting an album like Definitely Maybe, and remembering that the wild-eyed, desperate ambition is palpable. Against most expected odds, Definitely Maybe shocked me when I returned to it. It sounds invigorating in 2014; it sounds foreign in 2014. It’s the sound of a band that knew it could take over the world, and it’s imbued with extra power for the hindsight knowledge that, yeah, they did. It’s the sound of something that happened in my lifetime, and may never happen again.