Over in the Daily Mail today I have a go at Oasis, the popular beat combo which has just split up. (Or so Noel Gallagher says, and since he’s the only one in the band who can write songs, that’ll be it till he changes his mind for the lucrative reunion tour).
To be honest, I probably don’t loathe Oasis quite as much as I make out in that article. When you’re writing polemic there isn’t much room for nuance like – “Well if someone put on Champagne Supernova right now I’d probably feel a pleasant nostalgic twinge for my lost youth” – which is more or less what I really think about Oasis: I’d never ever put on one of their records myself, but if someone else did I wouldn’t necessarily feel an intense urge to kill him.
But I very much stand by my main point which is that Oasis were derivative and overrated. Their second album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory remains the third bestselling album (after The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper and Queen’s Greatest Hits) in British pop history. Does anyone out there seriously still thinks it deserves a place even in the top 50? Personally, I wouldn’t even put it in my top 100.
It’s not that I don’t like Liam’s son-of-Lennon vocals (and I also like, incidentally, that way he had of placing his mic way too high so that he had to keep craning his neck upwards like a Gerenuk feeding on an acacia tree); and I do agree that a lot of Noel Gallagher’s compositions are very catchy. But there’s a reason for the last bit and it’s very simple: they all sound quite a bit like songs you already know, most of them written by the Beatles.
You might argue that originality is a much overrated virtue in pop, given that from Led Zeppelin borrowing from the blues and every heavy rock band ever borrowing from Led Zeppelin pop has always fed on itself. But to me a truly great band is one that disguises or alters the sound of its influences to the point where you no longer go: “Ohmygod, that is SUCH a rip off.” My true greats would definitely include Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, The Smiths, New Order, Kraftwerk and the Pet Shop Boys. They wouldn’t include Oasis.
So how did Oasis ever get to be quite so massive. Well hype, quotability and attitude clearly had a lot to do with it. But by far the most interesting theory on this is in a new book on the history of recorded sound (which I highly recommend: trainspotterish but lively and compulsively readable) by US journalist Greg Milner, called Perfecting Sound Forever.
Oasis’s career, he argues, coincided with the Nineties trend in studio recording techniques for “loudness” at all costs. By “loudness”, he means music which has been heavily “compressed” in the studio – removing most of the loud/soft dynamic range and instead making it sound like the kind of muddy wall of noise which comes across well in a crowded pub. It’s actually a form of musical brainwashing: stuff recorded like this is designed to lodge in the brain and achieve massive and overwhelming cultural domination. Which Oasis did most effectively.
But the effect this had on pop music generally was disastrous. As one muso purist – a Vermont studio engineer called Chris Johnson – has tried to demonstrate scientifically by comparing the most “culturally significant” albums of all time, the music we really like (as opposed to the stuff that is bombarded at us relentlessly till we succumb) is the stuff which has the greatest dynamic range . The top ones on Johnson’s list – led by the Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 and Led Zeppelin IV – are the ones with the biggest contrast between really loud and really soft. Oasis took us down a wrong alley. On the back of their success, every major label wanted to imitate that big, sludgy sound, in much the same way publishing companies try to replicate Dan Brown novels. Good commerce, maybe; but dreadful art.