Be Here Now Turns 20

Be Here Now Turns 20

Be Here Now was the beginning of the end for Oasis. You know the story: Going into 1997, the Gallagher brothers were larger than life, unstoppable. In their native England, they were critically respected and massively successful commercially, having become the rock ‘n’ roll stars they once sang about becoming, but also becoming tabloid-fodder fixtures in the center of the era’s pop mainstream. They talked a big game, but they could back it up with the combination of Liam’s aura as a frontman — which was some unholy synthesis of force-of-nature vocals, laconic cool, and (then-amusing) boorishness — and Noel’s seemingly endless well of ingenious songwriting turns. Be Here Now didn’t just expose fallibility within Oasis — it veered right into it. The band was never quite the same, and their legacy was on its way to being cemented as an uneven one: generation-defining masterpieces in the beginning, followed by a jagged trail of oversized egos, streaks of mediocrity, and latter-day work that was surprisingly strong without being able to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle moments of their Britpop youth.

??There was an uncontrollable, feverish anticipation ahead of Be Here Now, the likes of which scan as almost entirely illegible in today’s world. People lining up to the buy the album on release day, a label aggressively trying to control the album’s rollout but with actual power. It was something of a foregone conclusion that the successor to 1995’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? would, naturally, be another brilliant record continuing to define the times. Contrary to the reputation it’s accrued over the years, Be Here Now was initially, and briefly, met with hyperbolic praise. Backlash followed; there are anecdotes of record-store used bins supposedly filling up with quickly abandoned copies of the album.

In the two decades since, Noel has spent all sorts of time dissecting what went wrong. He’s spent time disowning the album outright, or saying they shouldn’t have made an album at all at that juncture, owning up to it being a work primarily inspired by cocaine abuse and runaway egos, or acknowledging that there could’ve been a record in there, if it could be reined in. At one point, there was some talk of re-editing the whole thing for a reissue, but Noel only got as far as opener “D’You Know What I Mean?” before giving up and/or losing interest.

Be Here Now was part of a larger moment in Britpop. After the genre’s heady peak in 1994 and 1995, when its principal artists all released the defining albums of the era, the late ’90s found the whole thing wavering as these same principal artists released albums that signaled Britpop’s depleted comedown. They took various forms, but the final ’90s releases from the major players were all big albums in some form — even Blur and Pulp, who made some of their weirder, darker, and most insular music during this era with albums like Blur, This Is Hardcore, and 13, were making long, sprawling works. Ancillary figures like the Verve and Spiritualized released albums like Urban Hymns and Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, albums overflowing with ideas.

Tonally, though, there’s something about Be Here Now that makes it a signature album of the times. Bloated and maximalist to a cartoonish degree, it was like the party that was so over-the-top that it almost necessitated the bleary-eyed companions provided by Spiritualized and Pulp and Blur. It’s the kind of album that highlights the end of an era because it essentially embodies the question “How can we possibly keep going on like this?” 

Since its release, Be Here Now’s reputation has basically been that it’s an abject disaster. The reasons are well-catalogued at this point. Its blatant excess, the coked-out power trip of it all. It was one thing for Noel to brazenly storm out with Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory? when he had the arsenal of hooks to back it up. In comparison, many moments on Be Here Now feel overwrought in their hugeness but also vacuous and limp. The band sounds tired, even as they try to stampede through one of those albums that could only be made by people with too much money and too many resources (primarily of a chemical sort). Sometimes these moments in artist’s career can result in masterpieces, too, or at least flawed albums shot through with fractured brilliance that can earn them a cult status. But there’s a reason Oasis sound tired on Be Here Now — the bigness they’re trying to wield mostly settles into a murk, an overdriven flood of too much information fitting for the times but not in the most creatively productive way.??

The ways in which Be Here Now is overwrought are obvious. Every song is too long, sometimes excruciatingly so, sounding almost like a young band who simply doesn’t know how to end a song rather than someone who just thinks their shit is so good it needs to go on that long. The amount of random sounds and overdubs is ludicrous, pointless since it rarely adds anything, and sometimes detrimental given the added weight bogs down songs that should be able to move and impact more. It’s insane that a song like “Magic Pie” goes on for almost seven minutes when, stupid name aside, it could’ve had an effectively dramatic payoff in half that time. It’s insane that straightforward, hooky rock songs like “My Big Mouth” and “I Hope, I Think, I Know” seem to be fighting against themselves to keep up their pace, like ships that have taken on too much water. It’s insane that the final stretch of Be Here Now plays like Oasis is figuring out how to conclude the album, right there in real time, letting “All Around The World” drag on interminably, then switching gears to a rocker with “It’s Getting’ Better (Man!!)” and then — because why the hell not?! — going back to “All Around The World” for two more minutes. If everything had been edited just a little bit, it could’ve been as climactic a finale as the band intended, even with “All Around The World” barreling headlong into cloying Beatles-ripoff mode.??

And that gets at a subtler and more damaging shift Oasis underwent with Be Here Now, one that lasted through much of the rest of their career. When Noel first arrived on the scene, he was as indebted to the Smiths and Stones Roses as he was to the Beatles and Stones; he talked about how much he loved the Las and Love’s Forever Changes. But as moments like “All Around The World” evidenced, Oasis had become too enamored with the idea of themselves being in that classic rock pantheon.

Sure, Noel had jacked T. Rex riffs (among other things) in the past, but that fell under the old “genius steals” trope. Now, it felt like pastiche, between shamelessly Beatlesesque melodies and the overwhelming fixation on classic rock reference points littering the album. “Be Here Now” is a George Harrison song. Liam sings, “Sing a song for me/ One from Let It Be” on that same track. The Rolls Royce in the pool on Be Here Now’s cover references tales of the Who’s Keith Moon and his penchant for crashing expensive cars into pools. And the stacked Dylan/Beatles quotes in “D’You Know What I Mean?” (“The blood on the tracks, and they must be mine/ The fool on the hill, and I feel fine”) are embarrassing, the kind of wordplay a teenager might write upon first discovering those classic albums. Liam actually says “helter skelter” on “Fade In-Out,” another Beatles track that Oasis also covered. You know, in case you’ve missed the point.

Between that and their aging out — or, at least, Liam’s — into a caricature of what they once were, Be Here Now began the process of Oasis going from a vital young group to an establishment acting out ideas of the past. It was a quick process, with the band never really coming back entirely from the backlash against Be Here Now, their first two albums looming over everything they did in the future.

The thing that’s a shame about all this is that Be Here Now isn’t as bad as all that stuff would suggest. Amongst the tangled mess of it all, there are some real gems. “D’You Know What I Mean?” is representative of the album in many ways — the aforementioned lyrics, random sounds for no exact reasons (though the Morse code thing sounds kinda cool), and a mythologized amount of guitar tracks, supposedly numbering in the dozens. But it’s also a moment where Oasis running wild worked, a towering and enveloping opener ranking well amongst their history of strong openers.

“Fade In-Out” is a pretty uncharacteristic Oasis song — it sounds like a hallucinogenic experience in the American West — but the journey is worth it when the song crests into its most intense moments. (Plus, Johnny Depp plays slide on it, and this was back when Depp was still cool, so there’s a great bit of ’90s lore baked into the song.) The title track is a grungey sing-song overload, but it’s also infectious. If you can get past some of the inane lyrics — which, if you’ve gotten this far with Oasis, you probably can — it’s one of the most enjoyable songs on the album. There’s also the basic fact that Be Here Now is still a ’90s Oasis album, and even though it’s loaded up with all sorts of craziness, it’s still in that songwriting vein. That alone makes it better and more enduring than some of what’s come later. 

Nevertheless, the high points and counter-narratives you can locate in Be Here Now were not enough to save the band from a fall from grace. They of course remained popular throughout their remaining years, and an Oasis reunion would no doubt be a big, headline-every-festival deal with many millions of dollars behind it. But the prevailing story, the established Oasis legacy for the moment, is that this was their Icarus moment. They got way too carried away, then crash-landed into a kind of holding pattern. Many fans write off anything that came after Be Here Now, which is unfortunate — there is worthwhile music from each of their albums, and they particularly rebounded in their latter years with 2005’s Don’t Believe The Truth and 2008’s Dig Out Your Soul. The ironic part is that those last two releases were more creative and legitimate interpretations of the classic rock canon than Be Here Now could have ever been. ??

Perhaps that’s because Be Here Now is also inherently a creature of the ’90s. Not only the turning point for Oasis or a warning sign of Britpop’s impending collapse, it’s also a blown-out rock album arriving at the end of decades of rock’s pop dominance. Of course, it’s not self-aware in that capacity. These were the halcyon days of the ’90s. Post-Cold War, pre-9/11, pre-recession. Bands like Oasis were raking in money from CD sales. There were resources, there was the newest cutting-edge technology.

This isn’t unique to music, either. Be Here Now is like the Star Wars prequels of classic rock. Sure, it might seem like a good idea to revisit the things that were great in decades past, now with new technology and new cultural movements with which to filter and play with it. That first Star Wars prequel — arriving two years after Be Here Now — is emblematic of an era of big-budget movies full of ill-advised CGI madness because it was the first time they could do that. In the same way, Be Here Now sounds like a big-budget flop, too, its overstuffed recording the equivalent of a movie laden with unnecessary special effects that don’t age well. It’s the sound of “because we can” not “because we should.” ??

When you add all that up, this is why Be Here Now sounds like a kind of last bellowing gasp of some idea of classic rock stardom. But it’s rooted specifically in the excess of the ’90s. The ’70s are full of double albums both deluded and radiant, they are full of albums with dramatic, expensive, drug-fueled origin stories that seem like pure fiction today. Yet there doesn’t feel as if there’s a direct precedent, in reality, for things like Be Here Now or other monuments of the ’90s where nobody was around to tell an artist they couldn’t or shouldn’t do something — whether that something resulted in rewarding works of respectable ambition (say, Smashing Pumpkins’ best albums) or whether it resulted in something like Be Here Now. This is the kids acting out a (maybe imagined?) cliché in rock’s final dominant hour. It’s fitting that Noel injected Be Here Now with so many classic rock references: The whole thing is like a final postmodern echo of some idea of the big, ambitious classic rock album, dressed up with contemporary bells and whistles that mostly amounted to clouding noise. ??

Here’s where Be Here Now, and Oasis in general, get consigned to layers of the past. The album was already portraying some received idea of classic rock excess. Twenty years later, it’s hard to imagine a respected and beloved band putting out albums anything like this — a not-insignificant reason being that the industry and the cultural landscape wouldn’t really allow for it on a practical level. Today’s rock bands, even the big ones, aren’t monolithic like Oasis were. Yet while means and atmosphere are factors, there’s also the issue of disposition. Can you imagine a rock band thinking and acting like Oasis today and being taken seriously? Can you imagine a rock band thinking they had the clout to burn, to the extent that they could even get to a point like Be Here Now? Overall, things are probably better in an era where rock artists are a little savvier, aware of the follies and pitfalls of their forebears. At the same time, there’s something transportative about a rock record like Be Here Now, something so over the top, so deranged and grandiose. It feels as if it only could have existed in that moment, in the late ’90s, making it a fascinating relic not just for the end of the Britpop era or Oasis, but for the pop decline of rock music as a whole.

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