The Time Bandits

Oasis reminds us that our past is present

On “Wibbling Rivalry,” a taped interview released as a bootleg 7-inch, the brothers Gallagher of Oasis argue interminably over younger brother Liam's indiscretions on a cross-channel ferry. Noel teases Liam by suggesting that he should act like Keith Richards and throw a television set out the window, and, as Noel continues to chastise him for his bad behavior, Liam responds by pointing out that the elder Gallagher writes songs that celebrate precisely such activities. (“White lines” in “Cigarettes & Alcohol” is the example Liam cites.) Finally the interviewer gets a word in: “The Who hated each other an' all — is that important to you?”

Even as the creative forces at the core of Oasis debate the essence of rock, everything about them seems to be about something else. For even the officially sanctioned “Wibbling Rivalry” single references the righteous brotherly tensions of the Kinks, as it also points to another 1960s text — The Troggs Tapes.

After many years of supporting second-wave Britpop contenders like the Television Personalities and Teenage Fanclub, and then another generation of popsters (Primal Scream et al.), London's Creation Records hit pay dirt with Oasis. The band's second album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, reached the U.S. top five in the wake of a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign that utilized a low-key approach to the debut release, Definitely Maybe, and a reliance on live dates in small venues. With kids and critics softened up, and cautious strategies used in the choice of singles (always rock, not pop), Americans were deemed ready for “Wonderwall.” Enough said.

If Oasis sounds less “British” and more “American” than its Britpop rivals, there is a reason: The Gallagher brothers are from an Irish family — and they reportedly just turned down a chance to emulate New Order and write a song for the English national soccer team, which even if it isn't true is a significant PR line. (This doesn't stop the band from supporting its home team, Manchester City, however, at whose stadium they will play two megagigs next month.) Americans are perhaps a bit frightened of “British” music right now, less because of the threat from without than from within; the Anglo connection is hardly alien, after all. But Oasis poses no such problems, its lyrics being less specifically English because they are simply less specific, period.

If the songs lack substance lyrically, they nonetheless possess a swaggering bravado and the occasional brilliant couplet: “I was standing at the station/ In need of education in the rain,” from “Some Might Say,” for instance. I have no idea what that line means, but like a lot of good pop writing it evokes an image, and it is musical. But the essential reasons for the success of Oasis are simple enough: Noel Gallagher writes killer hooks (most of which are not stolen) and Liam has a compelling, sexy voice.

Nonetheless, Oasis does plunder. From their Faces-style guitar licks, through songs whose melodies appear to be inspired by the New Seekers (“Shakermaker”), T. Rex (“Cigarettes & Alcohol”), Suzanne Vega (“Supersonic”), and Gary Glitter (“Hello,” on Morning Glory, shares a writing credit with him), their debts are many. Even the untitled jam sessions on Morning Glory sound as though they might have been abandoned because of similarities with Norman Greenbaum's “Spirit in the Sky.”

But the ever-present touchstone here is, of course, the Beatles, through those Merseybeat fringes and numerous lyrical references, and in both melody and arrangement (“Don't Look Back in Anger,” “Cast No Shadow,” “She's Electric”). Not that these nods aren't put together without some originality and with impeccable taste: “Up in the Sky,” for instance, crosses the riff from “Taxman” with some of the tune from “Rain,” which shows a well-honed sense of what's worth stealing.

These thefts have generated hostility that borders on hypocrisy. It is hard to say which of the two camps of Oasis detractors is the more annoying. Is it the pomo-Gen-Xers, who look down upon today's successful pop music from the lofty heights of a pseudo-intellectual avant-kitsch devotion to Tony Bennett, Henry Mancini, and elevator Muzak? (Years from now perhaps some cyberspace virtual-bands will do an Oasis tribute album on the World Wide Web, and then, at last, it will be safe to enjoy the finest rock songs to come out of Britain in many years.)

Or should our contempt be reserved for the parents of today's pomo kids, whose obsession with the first British “Invasion” seemingly never stretches to the thunderingly obvious insight that the Beatles, like Oasis, stole some of their best ideas? (In case you haven't noticed, Chuck Berry, skiffle, Buddy Holly, the '60s girl groups, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, English music hall songs, the Beach Boys, the New York avant-garde, and 18th-century classical string arrangements, as mediated through George Martin, probably via Hollywood, all inform the “timeless” music of the Beatles.) It is truly amazing that the baby boomers, having rammed their music down our throats for 30 years, affect surprise when the contemporary mediascape comes tinged with a '60s hue.

Oasis wants to be the Beatles, but this is not possible. The Fab Four addressed an audience for whom there was some general consensus about popular music. No act can dominate this decade as the Beatles did the '60s. Neither can today's musicians mirror the optimism of those times. Despite the soaring affirmations of its 1994 breakthrough single “Live Forever,” Oasis is singing to a crowd that is less interested in immortality than in making it through to the end of month. The Beatles made music that was notoriously nostalgic — an effect that is achieved by the 1995 Mike Flowers Pops version of “Wonderwall” — but not by Oasis themselves, who appeal to that particular postmodern moment when the music of now, sounding familiar, reminds us that our past is present. And is therefore nothing to be nostalgic about.

I've given sociological reasons, and not musical ones, for rejecting the comparison with the Beatles, because, in the end, Liam is right — it isn't just music. The Beatles, like the Sex Pistols, were a great band because they made the right music at the right time. Whether Oasis is to be remembered alongside them depends on the times, not the songs.

Oasis plays Sat, April 13, at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in S.F.; call 346-6000.

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