Recommended Reading: ‘Definitely Maybe’ by Alex Niven

17933884I just finished the 33 1/3 volume on Oasis’ debut album Definitely Maybe by Alex Niven, and I’m adequately floored. With all due respect to many talented authors in the series, including my buddy Mike Fournier (who wrote the volume on the actual best album ever made), this may have been the best installment I’ve read so far. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t expecting to agree so frequently with someone who took the time to write a book about Oasis, save for some occasional (admittedly understandable) remarks about Blur and an uncool dig at “Digsy’s Dinner.” Like many of the books in the series, it’s a breeze of a read, so I’m not going to withhold ‘spoilers.’ It really helped this Yank bloke understand just why Oasis shot to super-stardom in the time and place that they did, making their working-class sensibilities intelligible through analyses of their compositions coupled with appropriately scathing takes on the aftereffects of Thatcherism. I’ll share one of my favorite passages here, in which Niven contextualizes the socialist building blocks of Oasis’ music:

Oasis took the detritus that surrounded them in the dole culture of eighties’ and nineties’ Manchester and cemented it together to create one of the most accomplished works of archaeological summary in pop history, a work that ranged widely over rock influences in a way that seemed effortless.

… The socio-economic conditions of the period gave rise to a climate of scarcity, resourcefulness and heritage-mining in post-industrial Western urban areas. Without money and access to higher education and metropolitan taste-making culture, it is extremely difficult to make the leaps of innovation that are deemed to be progressive by the music industry establishment

… When society becomes hostile, when access to novel mainstream developments is difficult, it becomes practicable to draw on any resources that are to hand – classic records, borrowed riffs, recycled materials of all kinds. In periods of economic downturn, a kind of folk culture develops that values ingenuity with heritage over conspicuous innovation. This culture of grassroots classicism was very much Oasis’ home terrain in the early nineties.

Niven also shines a light on the overlooked (sloppy) genius of Tony McCarroll, the band’s original drummer who they sacked after recording “Some Might Say” (which just so happens to be the best song on (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?). I vaguely remember Kurt Loder mentioning his name on one of those post-“Wonderwall” MTV News features on Oasis back in 1996 where they gave the Gallagher brothers subtitles for the US audience. The book ends on a somewhat sad yet incredibly educational note about success and class politics. I look forward to incorporating Niven’s lessons into my Britpop unit (yes, you read that correctly) this semester for GEOG 371: Exploring Europe.

Here’s a video of vintage Oasis (with McCarroll) on MTV in 1994 performing what’s probably my favorite song of theirs, the first four minutes of “Rock n’ Roll Star.” The way that Liam Gallagher sneers “I live my life in the city, and there’s no easy way out” as the opening line of Oasis’ debut-opening track makes me think about Paul Westerberg yelling “Raised in the city, runnin’ around” as the opening line of the Replacements’ first demo tape. There’s probably some connection there that I’ll wake up and draw out at 4 AM one of these nights. Anyway, enjoy.

 

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Musical Geography 101: Blur – “This is a Low”

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

… but it won’t hurt you. Those of you who know me know I cherish any opportunity to talk about Blur, one of my favourite [sic] bands and perhaps the best British guitar-pop singles group since the Kinks (or at least the Jam, who you’ll be reading about shortly). Of course, most Americans know Blur for “Song 2,” a ready-made anthem for sports arenas which began as a gentle jab at the Pixies and what the band viewed as simplistic American indie rock (though they undoubtedly love the Pixies, Guided by Voices, Pavement, and other quintessentially American bands they synthesized into their revitalized sound after the cocaine-drenched yet still wonderful 1995 album The Great Escape). Many Americans, particularly those tuned into MTV in 1994 while Britpop was thriving overseas, remember Blur’s magnum opus, Parklife. While the group themselves were hardly in awe of English culture, they did abscond and treat it not unlike Al Bundy treated Peg. It was a pain in their arse, but it was still what raised them and privileged them to be the most enduring, eclectic rock stars of that era. Sure, other bands sold more records (Oasis), broke more hearts (Pulp), and even seemed fairly adjusted and consistent (Supergrass), but none of those bands had the dueling secret weapons of Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon. The former has since established himself as his generation’s David Byrne through countless prolific musical collaborations and, oh yeah, another Glastonbury-headlining band he founded that included 1/2 of The Clash for a bit. The latter has spent the last two decades stretching the electric guitar to the absolute boundaries of what could still be considered pop music. Also, for those of you interested in drug policy and international relations, their bassist Alex James hosted a BBC documentary about the cocaine trade and has settled into a quiet, normal life collecting expensive instruments and making artisan cheeses. You can’t make this stuff up. If I told you their drummer has gotten heavily involved in the Labour Party and twice run for public office, you wouldn’t believe me, BUT HE ABSOLUTELY DID. For all the right reasons, Blur’s legacy has painted much of what the world conceives as “Britishness.”

Anyway, when the members of Blur were in their star-shaped mid-twenties, a lot of Albarn’s lyrics happened to include references to English landmarks (e.g. the white cliffs in “Clover Over Dover”), but “This is a Low,” supposedly inspired by a British shipping newsletter, closes out the record with a veritable catalog of places which dot the English cartographic landscape. Much like the 1997 track “Look Inside America,” “This is a Low” pulls back, floats high in the sky, surveys everything it can see, and decides, with a slight smile… “yeah, it’s alright.” From what I understand, Albarn had hit some writer’s block when James gave him a handkerchief that detailed British shipping centers as a gag gift. It may seem a cliché, but inspiration can come from the most surprising places.

Lyrics (from AtoZlyrics.com)

And into the sea goes pretty England and me
Around the Bay of Biscay and back for tea
Hit traffic on the dogger bank
Up the Thames to find a taxi rank
Sail on by with the tide and go asleep
And the radio says

[Chorus]
THIS IS A LOW
BUT IT WON’T HURT YOU
WHEN YOU ARE ALONE IT WILL BE THERE WITH YOU
FINDING WAYS TO STAY SOLO

On the Tyne forth and Cramity
There’s a low in the high forties
And Saturday’s locked away on the pier
Not fast enough dear
On the Malin head, Blackpool looks blue and red
And the Queen, she’s gone round the bend
Jumped off Land’s End
And the radio says

[Chorus x 3]