Stop the Clocks
Big Brother / Columbia
here’s a story going round. It runs something like this: in the mid-nineties, British music was really exciting; Blur, Elastica, Suede, The Auteurs, Saint Etienne, and numerous others were forging new paths for music, with their sharp music and sharper lyrics. Then, from the north, came Oasis. For one hot minute they made rock ‘n’ roll look exciting, then they turned into lad-trad-Dad-rock ultra conformists. They also became far too popular, thus putting the clever Britpoppers out of business till The Strokes / The Libertines / Arctic Monkeys (delete depending on year written) saved us all from post-Wonderwall catatonia.
It’s a good story; it has a beginning, middle, and end. There’s a bit of truth in it too: this double-disc stocking stuffer is a helpful reminder that Oasis have dispensed some of the laziest, most turgid musical offal this side of Kelly Jones. 2005’s comeback single, “Lyla,” is the worst offender, a charmless trudge with the most unconvincing freak-out ending in musical history. Stop All the Clocks exposes more, though—namely the parts of the narrative that get trampled in attempts to canonize them as kings of “proper music” and attempts to whitewash them as dullards. Listening to the group’s earlier songs, for instance, brings the realization that, in the same way Nirvana alchemized the grimy sounds of the American underground into mainstream gold, Oasis, perhaps inadvertently, connected the bliss-out of 80s rock-crit wet dreams to Britain’s ignoble yob-rock tradition. They drew a line from Slade through Spacemen 3 and, with a bit of tabloid bravado, became the biggest British rock act in the world.
Those early songs, anchored by Tony McCarroll’s leaden thud, flow rather than rock. Oasis had more in common with the shoegazers, their songs immersive and oceanic, their choruses turning into mantras. “Cigarettes and Alcohol” may be a slice of recharged Bolan boogie, but it’s also curiously sexless; the bump ‘n’ grind is buried beneath distortion, eaten up by watery cymbals. Noel Gallagher had somehow sublimated the big ideas of the ‘80s cutting edge; minimalism, feeling over meaning, distortion, distortion, distortion. Yet, whilst label mates The Jesus and Mary Chain or Ride had dabbled with mainstream melodies, their presence was always dazed and confused, half a world away from Liam Gallagher’s steely self-possession. His pebble-dash voice rises from the morass but remains entwined. What Noel understood was that the one thing that has defined numerous strains of uniquely British rock is the stomp; from the music hall through Glam to punk and beyond, the British have made a virtue of stripping syncopation to the minimum.
The sound they created was overwhelming, like being battered into submission by waves of sound. That they managed to transfer this approach to ballads was what gave them their shot at immortality. “Wonderwall” will always be their calling card; there’s something strangely threatening about it, barren and imposing, Liam’s voice hammers home every nonsense syllable with complete conviction.
There are many things I’d like to say to youThere is the crux of the story. After this towering peak, Noel learned how to say what he wanted to say. Unfortunately, he spoke not in the non-sequiturs of old, but in clichés.
But I don’t know how
As you might expect, this “Best Of” is weighted towards that 1994-1996 period. Of the 18 songs here, only four are from the last ten years. It’s a curious compilation; two UK number ones are omitted, whilst four b-sides and three album tracks are included. In fact, there is no evidence that the much derided Be Here Now ever existed. Magisterial non-album single “Whatever” doesn’t get a look in either, possibly because half the royalties would go towards the remaining members of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band due to its resemblance to “How Sweet to Be an Idiot.”
Let’s try to be even-handed, then: Oasis had no real manifestos; their no-nonsense rock hit you between the eyes or sailed overhead—if you got it, you got it. The rise of the internet and corporate takeovers undoubtedly helped in their ascent, but in the space of two years this is a group that managed to completely reshape the landscape of the UK music scene; they got rid of Phil Collins and the spectres of punk and they also inadvertently degraded pop music discourse to trite observations and stock narratives. The video of last year’s “The Importance of Being Idle,” a song that for the first time in years showed flashes of the group’s early menace, portrayed them as grim faced funeral directors. It’s a fitting metaphor. Oasis were not so much unwelcome gatecrashers at the Britpop party as pallbearers of the post-punk dissensus.