Book Review: 33 1/3 Definitely Maybe by Alex Niven

Let’s establish one thing from the outset: In no way will this review be unbiased. As someone who has spent the past eighteen years studying the career trajectory of Oasis and the post-breakup albums of the band members, and as someone who is hopelessly indulgent when it comes to the arrogance of Noel Gallagher, it is through these filters that I read Alex Niven’s contribution to the 33 1/3 book series, his examination of Oasis’ 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe.

33 1/3 Definitely Maybe [Oasis] by Alex Niven (cover)Though I love talking about music, sometimes I find it difficult to read about it. I like my praise unreserved, and I like my criticism without snobbery — not standard qualities found in the Pitchfork-age of decimal point ratings systems combined with the decades-old stance of preferring “their earlier stuff.” So while Alex Niven’s insights into Definitely Maybe were often thorough and interesting, they are bound in the idea that one should behave a certain way when successful. Because he lost interest in Oasis after the ’90s — as a lot of people unfortunately did — his commentary that compares the band’s first album to their later output is frequently off the mark.

To put it more plainly: While reading, I was torn between thinking, I am totally with you, followed by, And now we’re in a fight.

Oasis is a divisive band, I know. They were arrogant, unafraid of success, would say things just to get a rise out of people, and for awhile, the drugs amplified everything. In just a few years, they went from playing tiny clubs to the 300,000-person audience at Knebworth. Much has been written about their early history — some of it exaggerated for legend, some of it corrected over time — and even while they were one of the biggest bands in the world, people still criticized. They were “ripping off the Beatles” or The Who. Or The La’s. Or the Stone Roses.

And the band said, So?

In a 1996 Guitar World interview (that I distinctly remember reading instead of paying attention in English class), Noel Gallagher famously said, “Usually, I’m saying, ‘These are the greatest songwriters in the world. And I’m gonna put them all in this song”‘

The band’s directness and influences are not in question, and neither is their massive success. One could write a whole other post on it, but I kept wondering why Alex Niven spends so much time bemoaning their enjoyment of that success, especially when he opens 33 1/3 saying:

In what follows, I have tried to treat the early Oasis narrative with the seriousness it deserves. With one or two exceptions, previous writing about the band has tended to be salacious or plain dismissive, so there was a need for a study that looked Oasis through a critical lens, and with at least an attempt at objectivity and balance.

Just a few pages later, it become more clear that Niven is one of those disappointed, “they never did anything good after 1996” fans:

Where are the forgotten details in our recent history that might help us escape from a cynical present in which populism has disappeared from pop music and in which we don’t seem to have made any real artistic and social progress since the 1990s? The argument of the following book is that one way of answering this question is to look at the most apparently banal, ordinary, hackneyed phenomenon of the last 20 years. In order to move forward positively again, it seems reasonable to suggest, we should look at the most central, the most visible, the most obvious presences in pop culture and try to work how they went so badly wrong. We should look at the events that filled people with belief and made them feel part of a team, at the melodies that buried themselves in our collective consciousness but became so cliched and commonplace that we began to resent them, at the people who were co-opted and stereotyped in a world of money and selfishness until they became a crass parody of their former selves. One way we should do this, the following book argues, is by looking seriously and at length at the rock band Oasis.
Even if most of what they did from 1997 onwards was a travesty of popular art, we ignore the scope and significance of the initial Oasis narrative at our peril.
But how did it happen, and where did it all go wrong? What stray details about Oasis should we try to recover at all costs?

All right, settle down there, man. We can talk about the cultural significance of Oasis without throwing their later albums under the tour bus. How is it objective to talk about how great Definitely Maybe is, while also implying that Oasis are now tragic figures? You do know that on their last tour they filled stadiums, right? That every single studio album sold over two million by British chart-counts alone? Yes, yes, just because people buy something doesn’t necessarily indicate quality, but even with a more muted presence in pop culture, to write as though they are some sort of wayward genius-types that haven’t been written about in an in-depth way is ludicrous.

Their rise to success is practically a musical folktale at this point — blagging their way onto the fateful King’s Tut gig and how they were the biggest seller for Creation Records before the label’s implosion. However, Niven does have a point in that study of the songs themselves, paired with the social-economic environment from which they were written, is a relatively new thing. Noel Gallagher has done some of his own retrospective analysis, but it’s more difficult to see something’s impact when you’re still a part of the thing itself. Every time we arrive at a decade-based anniversary (like the 20th anniversary of the first album), the more journalists and obsessives like myself reflect upon the culture that informed Oasis.

I am with Niven when he talks about Oasis as a populist band, but where we disagree is that, while their perspective changed, I believe that they never stopped being one. Even now, Noel Gallagher and Oasis fans are still — to borrow that ’90s phrase — madferit, singing along to every song (yes, even the new ones). In a somewhat critical Telegraph review of Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn’s 2013 Teenage Cancer Trust gig, Neil McCormick writes:

The mast to which he has pinned his own musical colours remains stoically unchanged since the nineties. His headline set was the usual mass singalong event. It’s as if he can’t write a tune that doesn’t have the kind of melody drunken men like to bellow in bars and at football matches, simple and soaring, anthemic and cheery, with words so vague they mean whatever the singer wants them to. […] The most vociferous singing is done by men with unfashionable pudding-bowl haircuts and shirts hanging outside their jeans. The correct posture is arms spread, pint in one hand, like a football hooligan goading the opposition. For Wonderwall, one arm may be hooked over the shoulder of a girlfriend or wife, if available. For more rambunctious Oasis numbers, both arms should be thrown around a male friend. Plastic pint glass, preferably empty, may now be thrown into the air.

It really is extraordinary. These songs don’t really mean anything yet they mean everything to this audience. It is the church of Noel, a lung-busting collective celebration of lost youth.

Pair that with Niven’s analysis in this book’s introduction:

In an era in which destructive cynicism was threatening the very existence of counterculture and the mainstream left, Oasis offered an anomalous vision of radical positivity. And the fact that this was indisputably a working-class lived experience — one founded in the solidarity and fraternity of working class lived experience — was crucial. As the band’s biographer [Paolo Hewitt] once put it, Oasis were the sound of ‘a council estate singing its heart out.’

Comparing this twenty-year old sentiment with the decades that followed is not all that difficult. Consider the disillusionment with Tony Blair’s “special relationship” with George W. Bush, the 2008 Economic Crisis, and the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan — the early 2000s were also not easy times to lean left. Pair that with humanity’s nostalgic predilections, and suddenly, having a bit of rock ‘n’ roll church seems like a great relief.

“Oasis songs proliferate with calls for breakout and departure,” Niven writes, “but with an accompanying sense that doing so will result in betrayal and the loss of some precious aspect of a core identity.”

Are we not all culpable, to varying degrees, for how our lives changed over the past twenty years? And aren’t we, despite our successes, sometimes trying to find that place where we feel at peace?

Oasis initially may not have been convinced they would succeed, but the songs suggest that, if they did, some sort of downfall was inevitable. The press would turn. Listeners would punish them for their success and hubris. One core identity — that of working-class kids from Manchester — would feel both innate and farther away. This progression changes a band, yes, but it does not wholly discredit them.

Still, as tempting as it is to write a dissertation on the value of post-1996 Oasis songs, we should talk about the 33 1/3 book itself. Niven divides the book into elements — Earth, Water, Fire, and Air — which ends up working quite well. The punk rock magic of “Bring It On Down” fits well into the Fire Section, while the melancholy and desire for escape earn “Slide Away” its Air designation.

Analyzing both Definitely Maybe and its B-sides is necessary, since many of Oasis’ stadium-rousing epics never appeared on the studio album. Though the myth of Noel joining the band with a bagful of songs has been widely amended, he still had a fairly sizable output. It is within these B-sides that we hear Noel himself pleading, as Niven says, “To escape from the world, to live a secluded life by the sea where he can be alone and enjoy the little things in life.”

Do you know who is able to do that? People with money. People who have the privilege of controlling their own schedule. “My favorite pastime is staring out the window. When I go on tour, I can spend hours and hours just staring out the window, thinking about nothing. I love all that,” he once said. But no, let’s be disappointed that he can accomplish his goals when he pleases. Let’s try and set some arbitrary rules about how famous people are supposed to spend money they earned from two near-perfect albums. And all the subsequent albums.

I digress once more.

Niven talks about Noel’s mixture of hope and despair throughout the book, the “profound unease,” and he’s more or less on point. It matches up well with Noel’s Dig Out Your Soul-era quote, “No one’s fucking harder on this band than I am.”

Talking about Definitely Maybe as a reaction against Thatcherism and England’s changing political climate is also spot on, with “Up in the Sky” perhaps being the band’s most directly political song.

As Noel Gallagher once commented: ‘we were on the dole at the time under Conservative rule … [‘Up in the Sky’ is] about establishment figures who really didn’t have a clue how people were living in England at that time, and what people had done to the country. It’s quite an angry song…’

Like ‘Rock n Roll Star,’ ‘Up in the Sky’ is a song borne out of a feeling of lowliness and claustrophobia, a feeling of being trapped and desperately wanting to burst out into the open.

So while I go back and forth on agreeing with Niven’s analysis (for instance, calling later Oasis lineups “session musicians,” while also enthusing over the band Ride as though Andy Bell is not a member of both? Irksome), I still respect the amount of research beyond the band itself that had to go into writing this book. Knowing the climate in which Oasis was created is as necessary as the songs when one wants to talk about the importance of the band. On that, I am with him. The lyrics themselves, like many have noted before, are populist in that they can apply to so many situations. We can sing through our sadness, our triumphs, and everything between — and change will happen whether we want it to or not.

This is the first 33 1/3 book I’ve read, and while I’m aware that they vary in style, I wonder if I would have such conflicting feelings about the way the series covers other albums. Perhaps I take it all too personally, as though I should be treated as some sort of indulgent Oasis expert. Perhaps I wouldn’t know any better than to believe analysis of other musicians, and I’m inevitably going to be more critical of this book. It gave me a lot to think about, and the discussion and study of Oasis is one of my favorite subjects. While it’s near-impossible to mute my bias when it comes to Noel Gallagher, I can instead be up front. Other readers are also not without bias, and such is the reason we all passionately defend our favorites. In essence, your mileage may vary with Definitely Maybe, but don’t treat the “downfall” narrative as gospel.


Full Disclosure: This post originally appeared at Glorified Love Letters. Bloomsbury sent me this book for review purposes.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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