While the technique of having the opening scene of a film return at the end (with the story told in between) is hardly new, it does work perfectly for the compelling Oasis documentary ‘Supersonic.’
Beginning with the group boarding a helicopter flying them to Knebworth, where they would play to 250,000 people over two August nights in 1996, it ends with them taking the Knebworth stage as the most popular band in the world. The flight may have only been a short hop, but the journey taking key members of the group, brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher to their preeminent position in the rock world had been turbulent, chaotic and in the previous two years bewildering frenetic. By August 1996 Oasis had reached a stratosphere of popularity that very few attain and the fact that they had arrived there at such a very early stage of their career made it even more astonishing.
But if their speed in reaching the top of the mountain had occurred in a blur (if Noel and Liam will forgive the analogy) maintaining such a level of attention from there on in was always going to prove a huge task. They were the most important band of the era and Knebworth was the highest height they had so far reached – but it was to prove their crowning glory, Noel Gallagher admitting as much at the end of the ‘Supersonic’ documentary: “After coming from where we had in the two and half years before I had a feeling at Knebworth that this was the end rather than the beginning. I remember thinking where do we go from here?”
Where they had come from was a tough Manchester neighbourhood and a childhood where their abusive father was regularly violent toward his wife and elder sons Paul and Noel. Youngest of the three Liam also received some rough treatment and although mother Peggy eventually gained legal custody of the children and for the most part raised the family on her own, their troubled early lives did not forge any unifying bonds between Noel and Liam, which the documentary makes quite clear; Noel described as withdrawn and Liam antagonistic. Their fractious, often threatening relationship (and worse) is the hub on which the backstory of Oasis turns -and even in early home movies of the group, long before their mutual animosity became the stuff of tabloid headlines, it often appears the sneering and petulance is only a heartbeat away from fisticuffs.
At this point it is impossible not to start drawing comparisons with Kinks mainstays, Ray and Dave Davies. Not only does Noel take over Liam’s band, as Ray did with the band Dave had formed, an often horrible sibling rivalry drives other members of the group to the exit, with jealousies and provocations a prelude to outbreaks of physical violence. What Noel says about Liam could easily be Ray commenting on Dave: “He was always cooler than me, funnier, had a better haircut and clothes looked better on him. But he was jealous of my song writing talent.”
If Ray and Dave go down as the Brothers Grimm of rock, then Noel and Liam are the Peaky Blinders engaging in a civil war.
After Noel joins the group in 1991 there follows two years when he recalls, “not a single paragraph was written about us.” But his developing talent as a songwriter and their dynamic live shows in which Liam is becoming a front man and rock singer par excellence, bring them to the attention of Alan McGee, head of Creation Records, who signs them to his label in May 1993. But if anything the road then becomes even more rocky (and not purely in the musical sense). They make a series of fine singles – including ‘Supersonic’ – while their debut album, ‘Definitely Maybe’, exceeds all expectations in terms of both sales and critical acclaim. It will go on to become the fastest-selling debut album in UK music history but alongside the music quickly develops a (warranted) reputation for unruly behaviour which brings deportation from Holland and a disastrous appearance at the Whisky-A-Go-Go Club in Los Angeles where drug excess leading up to the show muddles heads to the extent that different songs are played at the same time, culminating in a furious on-stage exchange between Liam and Noel, which results in Noel leaving the tour and for a short time, the band (he is eventually found holed up in San Francisco and persuaded to return – the episode prompting Noel to write the wistful ‘Talk Tonight,’ one of a number of fine lyrical ballads he would write around this time).
What happens next is less follow-up album and more nineties cultural phenomenon – (‘What’s the Story’) ‘Morning Glory’ (1995) is one of those rare records like ‘Tapestry’ or ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ that are an essential embodiment of their time. If much of ‘Morning Glory’ is exceptional, then the statistics are mindboggling – 347,000 sold in its first week of release, 13 times platinum in Britain, 4 times in America and officially the fastest selling album of the decade. Even if you are wary of equating vast sales with musical accomplishment – football teams, sitcom actors and puppets have all had number one singles whereas The Clash and Neil Young have not – there is no doubt Oasis produced a very fine album, with at least three tracks ‘Wonderwall’, ‘Don’t Look in Anger’ and ‘Champagne Supernova’) becoming defining songs of the era.
Lyrically forceful but also melodic, it was a welcome antidote to the prevailing grunge rock trends and stands as the undisputed high point of the Britpop movement whose origins harked back to The Beatles and The Kinks, two bands whose influence loomed large in the structure of Oasis songs. Contemporary reviewers have come to regard ‘Morning Glory’ a little less favourably, calling Beatles-tinged material derivative and they may have a case, but only to a point – let’s face it at times The Beatles themselves were not adverse to borrowing an idea or two, taking inspiration from the likes of The Byrds, Dylan and The Who.
Toward the end of the ‘Supersonic’ documentary Noel Gallagher reflects on the moment when Oasis arrived on the Knebworth stage: “Nothing anybody does in the future will be as big as Oasis – in the times in which we live it is unrepeatable.” Before playing a note he announces to the crowd: “This is history – right here, right now.”
An assessment even more pertinent today than it was then.