‘They Ripped Off The Beatles’ – Oasis and the strange currency of originality in pop.
They Ripped Off The Beatles
Oasis and the strange currency of originality in pop.
“We never said we were as good as The Beatles. In some respects I’d say we’re better.”
When Oasis promised a surprise announcement, the buzz went out among fans: surely there must be a reunion on the cards. The news, of course, turned out to be just another reissue of debut album Definitely Maybe, re-mastered and bolstered with a handful of bonus tracks. To their detractors, it was Oasis all over: steamrollering in on a blizzard of hype, promising so much but delivering only a lazily retooled version of the past.
Even Liam Gallagher weighed in, urging fans not to buy the album “How can you re-master something that’s already been mastered?” he said, apparently ignoring the ‘re-’ part of re-master. Internet trolls came out with the usual jibes: it didn’t take long for the inevitable Beatles comparisons to emerge (and they were actually more relevant than usual: if there’s any band that’s made a killing from endlessly retooling and remarketing their back catalogue, it’s The Beatles*)
Britpop was pilloried by its critics as 60s revivalism despite the fact none of the Britpop bands sounded like they were from the 60s.Oasis would probably deny being part of Britpop but like it or not, they were tagged as the swaggering northern rock flipside to the London art-school hipster pop coin: The 60s comparisons landed particularly heavily at Oasis’ desert boot-clad feet. Especially The Beatles.
“We ripped about two songs off The Beatles and the rest off Slade.”
Oasis rarely sounded much like the Beatles. They Ripped Off The Beatles isn’t just a lazy assertion, it’s a shit one: you want lazy Oasis comparisons? Slade Meets Ride, The Pistols doing Badfinger songs, Tim Burgess/Lee Mavers-hybrid fronting Crazy Horse: there you go, three lazy comparisons for Oasis off the top of my head, each of them better than The Beatles.
No-one listened to Oasis because they reminded us of The Beatles: we listened to them because for a few glorious years, they could do so much with so little. Because their best songs spoke of pride and ambition and the yearning for escape in a world out to reduce you. If anything, they were less a new Beatles and more a British Guns’n’Roses: rock classicism distilled into a brash, abrasive assault with a deeply sentimental side (and an obnoxiously charismatic frontman!)
Like a lot of great bands since punk, Oasis made a strength of their weaknesses: the boneheaded rhythm section that sounded like a wind tunnel on every song, like a post-Madchester Ramones (“Pure white rock’n’roll with no blues influence”), Noel’s silly lyrics that somehow lodged themselves in the brain: for a universally derided lyricist, his lyrics got repeated and discussed an awful lot, Liam’s singular pronunciation of the word ‘Sunsheeeeeeeeeeyaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiin’.
“Progression is going forwards. Going backwards is regression. Going sideways is just gression.”
Originality is an unreliable barometer of quality in pop: No-one listens to something purely because it’s ‘original’. We listen to music because it delivers in some way: emotionally, intellectually, a combination of both. This can mean originality – delivering in some new way that nothing has ever done before. There are lighting-flash ‘what the fuck was that?’ moments in pop: I Feel Love, Tomorrow Never Knows, Fear Of A Black Planet, Outta-space – add your own favourites to the list.
Innovation isn’t always granted critical acclaim in the here and now though: Motown, Reggae, Heavy Metal, Disco, Rap: all dismissed as novelties by critics until the weight of popularity and influence forced them to listen again with opened ears. Conversely, there are plenty of innovations in pop, celebrated at the derided or dismissed as blind alleys by future generations. Prog Rock was innovative, literally: Progressive by name and in nature, but you wouldn’t catch anyone saying so by 1977 (correction: you wouldn’t catch anyone cool saying so by 1977!) – now, for better or worse, musical subcultures are rediscovering prog. People were writing Punk Is Dead on walls back in 1978 but its influence and appeal persists.
Music can’t be reduced to a simple linear timeline of innovation and regression. There are subtle, incremental moves forward, there is re-interpretation, juxtaposition and re-contextualisation, there is gression: unexpected moves sideways.
“You rip a few people’s tunes off, you swap them round a bit, get your brother in the band, punch his head in every now and again, and it sells.”
Oasis were not innovative. They were wilfully magpie, stole from familiar sources but crafted a strong sonic identity: they sounded a bit like lots of bands but they sounded a lot like themselves. Like The Strokes seven years later, they were accused of ripping everyone off but sounded mainly like themselves. Their critics accused them of plundering the past, their fans loved them because they didn’t sound like the present. Tellingly, Oasis forged a strong sonic identity despite boasting of their own unoriginality and deriding experimentation: you could always tell within seconds when it was Oasis on the radio. Admittedly often just because it was louder and cruder than anyone else!
For a few years, they made some of the most thrilling records in rock (and gave the most entertaining interviews – Oasis never sounded thick and ordinary even when they were boasting about being thick and ordinary) despite their wilful musical conservatism: Yearning blue-collar anthems of escape, swaggering rock anthems of confidence, surprisingly tender acoustic ballads, knowing Lazy Sunday-style knees-ups.
Why then, can Radiohead lift from The Hollies’ The Air That I Breathe for Creep and the whole of Sexy Sadie for Karma Police and get called ground-breaking when Oasis get it in the neck for pinching the occasional riff (and admittedly, the entire melody of Stevie Wonder’s Uptight)? Because Oasis fetishized the 60s and the idea of being part of a heritage while Radiohead spoke the language of innovation and progress.
“We are the biggest band in Britain of all time, ever. The funny thing is, that fucking mouthing off three years ago about how we were gonna be the biggest band in the world, we actually went and done it.”
Oasis’ brand of hype (“We’re important, like the Beatles”) would come round to bite them in the arse. Radiohead had the smarter marketing strategy: “we’re important because we’re important.” Oasis’ imperialist arrogance would turn people against them: ‘magpie-ism isn’t just one way of making great records,’ they told us, ‘it’s the only way or at least the only way worth bothering with, experimentation is for rock’s middle classes: minnows without our big tunes and big charisma, “No-one’s gonna hum a Sonic Youth tune.”’ Fame and cocaine would curdle their witty, pithy charm into boorish arrogance.
They’d made lad-ism and classic rock swagger too popular and too cool for the critics who hated that to attack them on it so instead, they hung them with their own words: if you boast about ripping off songs enough, you can’t be surprised when people say you’ve no talent of your own. (The same critics, of course, raved over genuinely 60s-sounding records from Belle & Sebastian, Super Furry Animals and Pavement)
Worse than destroying their critical reputation, Oasis’ megalomania painted them into a corner: it’s all about the tunes, they said, it’s all about feeling godlike, anything less is cowardice and navel-gazing lack of ambition. Once the inspiration had run out, they weren’t allowed to step off the pedestal they’d put themselves on and engage in the sort of experimentation that might re-ignite creativity: Noel and Liam’s respective guest spots with the Chemical Brothers and Death in Vegas hinting at what a less monomaniacal Oasis might sound like.
You can get away with being perversely primitive when you’re the snotty young upstart, just as you can get away with being audaciously cocky but when you become the biggest band in the country, people start asking what you’re going to do next. The primitivism and swagger that sounds like a thrilling middle finger to critical good taste on a debut album becomes a suffocating blanket on creativity once it’s at the heart of the mainstream and countless lesser talents are copying it.
You can be a brilliant thief and people will admire you on your way up but once you’ve fought your way to the top, people say ‘you’ve conquered the world, what are you going to with it: you’ve built all these great songs on sounds that were given to you by other people, you’ve stolen all this stuff and made good on it, when are you going to put something back into the pot?’
Their great strengths, their very identity as a band: their monolithic, instantly recognisable sound, their insistence on making every song sound like an anthem, their towering self-belief were eventually their undoing. The relative failure of Blur’s Great Escape allowed them breathing space to take their music in other directions but Oasis remained chained to the yoke of success measured by magnitude: of album sales, of volume, of emotion. By their own rules of greatness, they couldn’t experiment, they could only try to make the records sound bigger and bigger. They could have tried different things: new things, experimental things, subtle things but they wouldn’t have been Oasis any more. If Karl Marx had heard Oasis, he’d have told you that their essence contained within it the seeds of their own (sad, slow) destruction.
By 1997’s Be Here Now, it sounded like being the biggest had become more important than being the best. In Noel Gallagher’s coke-blown mind, the two were indistinguishable. The majority of UK critics, embarrassed by the lukewarm reception they’d given Morning Glory, gave Oasis a free pass on Be Here Now. The fans weren’t so sure: to date, Be Here Now has sold about a third of what Morning Glory managed. What a predicament: where selling eight million copies of an album constitutes failure!
Oasis never really recovered. They cut down on the Charlie and they backed off the noise but the anthems never really came back. Album sales settled off at the sort of levels that would provide healthy pension plans for most indie bands but fell well short of their own sky-scraping ambitions. Their legendary status assured, they’d always be a big band but never again would they seem like they owned the world.
The cruellest irony: when Oasis ended up looking dino, it wasn’t for their fascination with the 60s or their determination to place themselves in a rock lineage but for shackling themselves to their own history. For a band that insisted the future would sound like the past and then sounded like no-one but themselves, they were caught in the amber of their own legacy, too big to stop and too heavy to move with the tides.
*Which is actually fair game, The Beatles got robbed back in the day, they’ve every right to cash in now.
**By my reckoning: Pistols, Slade, Stone Roses, T-Rex, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr, The Real People, The Jam, Thunderclap Newman, The Las, The Rutles, Stones, Small Faces (the obligatory one-per album knees up), Ride, Smiths, Crazy Horse, REM, The Glitter Band and even occasionally The Beatles!