The Masterplan Turns 20

The Masterplan Turns 20

“The ‘masterplan’ was first mentioned in Noel’s flat,” recalls original Oasis drummer Tony McCarroll in Oasis: The Truth, his memoir. The occasion McCarroll describes took place not long after the band was discovered by Creation Records boss Alan McGee in 1993. He writes that one day before practice he was over at lead guitarist and songwriter Noel Gallagher’s apartment in central Manchester when Gallagher revealed his strategy for world domination: Oasis would have more swagger than the Stone Roses, be wilder than Happy Mondays, and write songs that were at least better than Inspiral Carpets, all while proclaiming themselves to be the best until everyone believed them. It took only a few years for Noel’s scheme to come to fruition, and by late 1998 they were already capping off their commercial peak with an album of B-sides titled to echo their own sense of destiny. That collection, The Masterplan, came out 20 years ago tomorrow, on November 3, 1998.

In 2016, Gallagher sat down with veteran music journalist Keith Cameron to talk about Be Here Now, Oasis’ third album, on the advent of its “Chasing The Sun Edition” reissue. Toward the end of their chat, he calls that time a missed opportunity. “It goes back to … giving all those great songs away as B-sides,” Gallagher confesses. “That is the germ of the problem. You know, to write ‘The Masterplan,’ and ‘Half The World Away,’ ‘Acquiesce,’ ‘(It’s Good) To Be Free’ … everybody in the fucking world said to me about ‘The Masterplan,’ ‘Why are you putting that as a B-side?‘ And I was like, ‘Because they asked me to write a B-side, and that’s what I’ve wrote.‘”

Gallagher goes on to describe what was essentially a problem of songwriting compartmentalization. If it was time to write a B-side, that was the next song up, and if it was time to write an album track, whatever subsequently came out of him would be assigned as such. Gallagher’s own take is that it didn’t occur to him to set aside his weaker material to fill in the less consequential cracks. It might also be possible that in those fame-addled days he just didn’t see much of a difference in the quality of one Oasis song to the next. Either way, this is how Be Here Now ultimately gets its saggy middle and seven minutes of “Magic Pie” while the sweeping chorus of “The Masterplan” is tucked away at the end of the “Wonderwall” single. But is it really possible that Noel didn’t fully realize what he was doing?

A key component of the Oasis legend early on was the tale of a visionary Noel Gallagher dropping in on his brother Liam’s upstart band with a rucksack full of future chart-toppers. The story has always varied depending on who tells it and when. In the August 6, 1994, edition of the NME, Liam Gallagher declared that Oasis could mean just as much as the Beatles, “Because Noel’s written two fuckin’ hundred songs that nobody’s ever heard and [every] one of them is a fuckin’ classic.” The 2004 Definitely Maybe DVD documentary finds Alan McGee speculating about Noel: “I think he had 50 songs when he met me. And he used to lie, and he used to tell me he’d just written one on the train, and I think the guy had been writing for about five years … and he had the first two albums.”

McCarroll, on the other hand, writes that he, guitarist Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs, bassist Paul “Guigsy” McGuigan, and their new vocalist Liam Gallagher were already developing their own vibe before Liam’s older brother was invited to join, bringing along only a couple songs of his own. Whatever the crew sounded like before Noel Gallagher joined, what came across in early numbers like “Must Be The Music,” “See The Sun,” and “I Better Let You Know” — which have been collected on bootlegs like The Lost Tapes and are also easily found on YouTube — was an unremarkable pub rock band with baggy beats. Pretty much exactly what you would expect from a former roadie for the Inspiral Carpets and four other working class lads living in the shadow of the Madchester movement in the early 1990s.

To his credit, Noel himself has since refuted the oft-repeated story that his arrival changed things instantly. Nearly two years would pass between his coming on board and the night McGee decided to stop by King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow, initiating Oasis’ remarkable rise. So McGee’s notion of Gallagher spending years squirreling away a large reserve of tunes before that fateful evening isn’t entirely unfounded.

At some point in the toil of that interim phase, the melodies did start to pour out, and certain songs from this period would be set aside for future records. As old rehearsal footage featured in the Oasis: Supersonic documentary shows, the band had “All Around The World” from Be Here Now pretty much worked out before they even had a record contract. The liner notes to The Masterplan claim that “Going Nowhere,” released in 1997 on the “Stand By Me” single, was written way back around 1990. That would mean it pre-dates the band itself, even though it certainly sounds more mature and detailed than most of Noel’s earliest compositions.

So was Noel Gallagher a mastermind or a man of spontaneous brilliance when the muse visited him or the need arose? There is evidence for both, and the closest thing to the truth is probably somewhere in between. Even if he was more a case of the latter, it is nonetheless tempting to read something more into The Masterplan’s title other than it just being lifted from one of its songs. Around the time of Be Here Now’s release, Noel was putting forth the idea that the first three Oasis albums were a kind of trilogy, after which they would revamp their sound. The Masterplan, though, is the victory lap, the true finale of their Creation years.

Opening up to NME in July of 1997, Gallagher was bullish about new single “D’You Know What I Mean?” but less so about the rest of Be Here Now. “It’s good,” he said, “but the next one’ll be better.” Now, the assumption here is that he’s talking about a hypothetical fourth studio album, but this is a guy who had more mapped out in his head than he let on. Could he have actually been thinking of The Masterplan at that moment? He goes on to describe having between 25 and 30 song ideas in the tank and being set “for the next couple of years,” but also that he had previously gone through a dry spell right after (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? where he didn’t write a new song for half a year.

Toward the end of Getting High: The Adventures Of Oasis, music writer Paolo Hewitt’s 1997 biography of the band, Hewitt drops this in without much in the way of context:

This is what the third Oasis album might have been. The cover portrays them standing on rostrums in tracksuits, their heads are bowed but their right arms are raised high in the sky, giving the two-finger salute. Possible track listing: “Listen Up,” “(It’s Good) To Be Free,” “Take Me Away,” “Headshrinker,” “D’Yer Wanna Be A Spaceman,” “Cloudburst,” “Up In The Sky (Acoustic),” “Half The World Away,” “Fade Away (Original Version),” “Talk Tonight,” “Acquiesce,” “Round Are Way,” “It’s Better People,” “Swamp Song,” “Rockin’ Chair,” and “The Masterplan.”

Title? B-Side Ourselves.

The Masterplan is a big “What if?” hanging over this part of the band’s timeline. Impossible as it is to turn back the clock and talk Noel into better prioritizing his growing songbook, it’s hard not to hear in this compilation the third album that could have been. Collecting recordings from different times and places, it may not play through as cohesively as a regular studio album, but to imagine the possibilities of reworking or rerecording some of its songs, shuffling things around and adding in the best bits of Be Here Now, is to picture a world where faith in the Britpop party may have carried on into the early 2000s.

Oasis’ reputation for putting out better quality B-sides than most bands developed early on and grew with them through the 1990s. The Masterplan reaches as far back as the “Cigarettes & Alcohol” single, their fourth, but the first three are unrepresented. This isn’t much of a loss, as “Take Me Away,” “I Will Believe,” and “Alive” all come across like warm-up exercises to later successes, but it is a shame that “D’Yer Wanna Be A Spaceman?,” from the “Shakermaker” single, was overlooked. On the surface a breezy acoustic affair, the song actually contains one of Noel’s most well-said and genuinely touching lyrics. Concerned not with sorta-psychedelic nonsense or hedonistic escape, “D’Yer Wanna Be A Spaceman?” is about a sit-down between two old friends who grew up and didn’t make it out of their small town, but who still want to connect and keep the dream alive.

It isn’t as much of a loss that “Cloudburst” from the “Live Forever” single was passed over, being something of an overdriven homage to the Stone Roses’ B-side “Standing Here,” though it’s not a bad tune. From there the golden era of Oasis flipsides really begins, and The Masterplan collects every original B-side from “Cigarettes & Alcohol” (including their live cover of the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus”), “Whatever,” and “Some Might Say.” Many people, including McGee, felt strongly that “Acquiesce” from the “Some Might Say” single should have been an A-side. The Heartland-tugging acoustic “It’s Better People” off the “Roll With It” single (Oasis’ offering in their infamous chart battle with Blur) gets skipped over while the more typical “Rockin’ Chair” — which includes the same “It’s all too much for me to take” line as its parent single, which is either thematic consistency or self-cannibalism depending on how you look at it — makes the cut.

No problem there, but then when it comes to the “Wonderwall” single, the buoyant, horn-driven “Round Are Way” is left off while “The Swamp Song” makes it in. This is The Masterplan’s first real mistake. Obviously “The Masterplan” from the same single was included, but if it was a matter of not wanting all three B-sides from the CD, then surely the generic instrumental blues rock jam should have been the one to go. Noel once described “Stay Young” from the “D’You Know What I Mean?” single as “a bit too jolly.” One could speculate that he felt the same about the equally bouncy “Round Are Way,” and so only one was selected when both should have been. It’s easier to understand why the uber-catchy “Step Out” from the “Don’t Look Back In Anger” single was left off, since it owed a little too much to Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).”

The creeping, confusing feeling that Be Here Now gave to many upon repeated listens — that here was a formerly unstoppable anthem machine suddenly running low on gas — wasn’t helped by the B-sides that appeared on its singles. Cringeworthy song titles such as “Angel Child,” “The Fame,” and “Flashbax” gave a bad impression before the CDs began to spin. “(I Got) The Fever” and “My Sister Lover” were decent — and a touch better than Be Here Now filler like the Johnny Depp’ed “Fade In-Out” — but only “Stay Young” and the wistful “Going Nowhere” are represented out of the bunch. In those earliest days of the Internet as we know it, Oasis fans were encouraged to vote online for their favorite songs for The Masterplan. It isn’t clear how much sway the public actually held over the final tracklist, but it’s likely they also would have leaned on the pre-to-post-Morning Glory period.

Ostensibly assembled for the benefit of American and international audiences who didn’t have easy access to exorbitantly priced import singles, The Masterplan was still heralded back in the UK. At the end of 1998, Melody Maker voted it the number one compilation album of the year, ahead of such contenders as a greatest hits from the Charlatans, The Three EPs by the Beta Band, and Super Furry Animals’ Out Spaced. NME marked it as the third best comp that year. The full page ad for The Masterplan that ran in that issue included a quote from Mojo reading, “Your average Oasis B-side … could’ve wiped the floor with the chart opposition on almost any week.” This assertion, much like Oasis’ own claims to being the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, had by that point been repeated so many times that it was common music press wisdom, though the past tense of Mojo’s praise was apt.

For the band and their followers, at least, there was a time when it did feel true. Oasis’ Live By the Sea concert video from early 1995, for instance, took its name from the chorus in “(It’s Good) To Be Free” and included performances of five B-sides and the Definitely Maybe LP bonus track “Sad Song.” There are few albums consisting of only B-sides that can touch The Masterplan. (Before you shout Hatful Of Hollow, Incesticide, or Pisces Iscariot, remember those also feature session tracks, outtakes, and/or singles.) In that decade, only Suede’s Sci-Fi Lullabies, an entire double album released the previous year built purely out of B’s, could top its audacity and quality. Even then, it is mostly the first disc of Sci-Fi Lullabies, the one with all the flipsides written with original guitarist Bernard Butler, that commands the accolades.

Oasis didn’t have to carry on after losing a lead guitarist like Suede once did, but in the midst of making their fourth studio album, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants, they did part ways with their pair of Pauls, leaving only the Gallagher brothers as formative members. Already in the process of altering their sound as promised, they packaged their grammar-impaired new album in the odd choice of a photo of the Empire State Building and an unnecessary new logo which they would slowly backpedal from over subsequent releases in the 2000s. The Masterplan thus became the last refuge of the band’s dreaming, climbing past; Manchester, Britpop, and all. Perhaps that was also part of the plan.

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