Career Killers: “Be Here Now” by Oasis

I read several articles commemorating Oasis’ mammoth 1997 album, Be Here Now, which was recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. The consensus has long been that this bloated, overproduced, self-indulgent, chemically non-enhanced album is what ended Oasis as a major commercial force and may have even killed off the Britpop phenomenon. As Rolling Stone famously put it, Be Here Now is “a concept album about how long all the songs are.”

Then I saw this review. Fatherly called Be Here Now a “perfect album” but not in terms of quality. Instead, this critic argues that the album was a perfect encapsulation of where the band was at the time and a honest reflection of everything they stood for. To me, that sounds a bit like arguing that The Room is a perfect movie because it flawlessly captures Tommy Wiseau’s delusions of grandeur and limitations as a filmmaker.

I don’t know if I buy that argument. But this album was perfect in one sense — it was a perfect disaster.

It’s hard to overstate just how big Oasis were in 1997. The band’s first two albums, Definitely Maybe and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? were bonafide classics and helped jumpstart the Britpop fad. For a band that often compared itself to the Beatles, it could be argued that Oasis had become the U.K.’s biggest home-grown rock band since The Fab Four.

By the time 1997 came about, Oasis were riding a string of seven consecutive Top Ten singles, including two #1s (“Some Might Say” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and two #2s (“Roll With It” and “Wonderwall“). Meanwhile, their 1996 concerts at Knebworth drew a stunning 250,000 fans over two nights — a U.K. record that stood until 2003 when Liam Gallagher’s archenemy Robbie Williams drew 375,000 over three nights. And if you still need evidence of just how huge they were, a disc of the Gallagher brothers arguing with each other during an interview hit #52 on the U.K. Singles Chart — the highest ever for a non-musical release.

Another factor that allowed Oasis to stand out from the crowd: They were one of the few Britpop bands that had managed to attain major success across the pond. Morning Glory hit #4 on the Billboard 200 and eventually sold over 4 million copies in the U.S. (for reference, their main domestic rivals, Blur, managed just one gold album and two minor hit singles in the U.S.).

Behind the scenes, though, things were falling apart. Even in the best of times, the Gallaghers had always had what could diplomatically be described as a combative relationship (as evidenced by the aforementioned interview disc). Throw in a massive amount of fame, money, media coverage and drugs, and they turned into Cain and Abel. Reported incidents included Liam chucking his trademark tambourine at Noel before a gig in 1994, causing the senior Gallagher to quit the band for the first, but hardy the last time. Then there was an incident where Noel cracked Liam over the head with a cricket bat (and, fittingly, that bat was later sold at auction).

And that’s just what was reported. Who knows what else was said or done in the studio, backstage or at the Gallagher family home?

One thing was clear: All of the bickering and hard living had started affecting Gallaghers’ work-relationship. In August 1996, citing a sore throat, Liam refused to perform during an MTV Unplugged taping, only to treat said ailment by smoking, drinking and heckling his brother (who had assumed the role of frontman for the evening) from the audience. During a subsequent American tour, Liam sat out the first few days, ostensibly because he wanted to go house-hunting with then-girlfriend Patsy Kensit. Noel got fed up and even quit the band for a bit but quickly came back.

Despite all of the nonstop chaos and drama, Oasis decided not to take a much-needed break and, instead, went right back to work. After all, they were the 90s Beatles right? They had to strike while the iron was hot (Noel also said in an interview that the band’s management believed in keeping them busy, because otherwise, they might fall apart — which definitely sounds accurate).

And for their third album, they decided to embrace their ubiquity and release a record that reflected their sheer bigness. With a stated goal of making the album as “colossal” as possible, Noel went about writing and recording long, epic songs with tons of production, multiple overdubs, orchestral instrumentation and lots and lots of volume. Indeed, all but three of the tracks on this album are over 5 minutes long and four surpass the 7:00 mark (and one of those sub-5:00 entries is a short reprise of the longest song on the album). Even the album cover reflected Oasis’s sheer grandiosity and utter decadence, taking an actual Rolls Royce and having it submerged into a swimming pool as an homage to Keith Moon.

Doubling down on what had made them big was a very Oasis move. However, writing long, complex songs with different sections, time signatures and key changes was not on brand for a band known for simple, stadium-rocking, sing-along anthems. Nevertheless, whether it was ambition, hubris, drugs, or a combination of all three, Noel Gallagher figured he could do no wrong and went about creating an epic album that would stretch the limits of both Britpop and CD storage capacity.

That length was not well-utilized. Unlike the band’s first two albums, where nearly every song was single-worthy, Be Here Now is heavy on filler. “My Big Mouth,” “The Girl in the Dirty Shirt,” “I Hope, I Think, I Know,” “Magic Pie” and the title track are all forgettable and would have struggled to be b-sides for singles from Definitely Maybe or Morning Glory (Oasis have always had good b-sides, after all).

Nevertheless, there are some great moments on this album. Fourth single “Don’t Go Away,” which was written about Noel’s and Liam’s mother was hospitalized, packs a real emotional punch and is a beautiful, marvelous song. It also features the best of the brothers, as it’s one of Noel’s finest competitions and one of Liam’s greatest vocal performances. Second single “Stand By Me” is another highlight and has become one of the band’s most loved songs.

It’s not a coincidence that those two are among the shortest songs on the album. However, that’s not to say that the longer songs on the album are all bad. For instance, third single “All Around the World” and “It’s Getting Better, Man!” are good songs that could have benefitted from some trimming, while lead single “D’You Know What I Mean?” has a long intro and outtro that could have easily been cut. In fact, Noel Gallagher says he thought he would be asked to cut two minutes off the song, only no one had the nerve to ask him.

A much bigger problem with “D’You Know What I Mean?” is that it comes off as a song that has an epic feel to it, but ultimately comes up short. But don’t take my word for it. “I was going to make up some profound statement in the chorus but I couldn’t come up with anything that fitted,” Noel said at the time. “Then I just thought ‘All my people right here, right now, d’you know what I mean? Yeah, yeah.’ Very vague, very ambiguous, that’ll do.”

Indeed, that sense of dissonance wasn’t limited to the songs on this album and extended to how it was received by critics and fans. Upon release, Morning Glory had actually received less-than-glowing reviews with many critics dismissing it as inferior to Definitely Maybe.

Maybe because they were determined to make up for being so wrong about its predecessor, critics gave Be Here Now a rapturous reception. There were some notable dissenters. Q hit the nail on the head by famously calling it “cocaine set to music” while NME said it was “one of the daftest records ever made” that was “grotesquely over-the-top” with “the same old guitar runs, the same old drawled lyrical doodlings, the same pub-tastic, pint-mungous rhythms.”

Otherwise, most reviews were similar to MOJO’s, which called Be Here Now the “Oasis World Domination Album” with some even comparing it favorably with its two predecessors. “Be here now, yesterday, today and tomorrow, next week and the year after. In a year’s time, every home will have one,” Select gushed.

To find an album that had attracted gushing notices in such profusion, one had to go back thirty years, to the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

John Harris, Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock, 2004.

At first, it looked like the critics were going to be in-line with public reception. Be Here Now sold a record 663,389 copies in the U.K. during its first week of release — a mark that stood for 18 years until Adele’s 25 eclipsed it. In America, the album debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 — the band’s highest charting entry ever.

However, those rosy achievements had actually masked some red flags. In the U.K., Be Here Now would go on to be the best-selling album of the year. However, the album has only been certified for 1.97 million in the U.K., which means about one-third of those sales came from that first week it was out. As for the U.S., lofty chart debut aside, the album had actually underperformed, selling only 152,000 against an expected 400,000. Meanwhile, MTV reported that midnight sales of the album in the U.S. had been soft and turnout had been light compared to the one for Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land, which had come out two months prior.

But still, a hit’s a hit, right? And Be Here Now was a hit. However, it soon became apparent that it would not be the kind of genre-transcending, era-defining all-time classic that many of us expected.

The simplest explanation is that it just wasn’t that good. It wasn’t a terrible album, but it wasn’t the third part of the Oasis holy trinity, either. The band had been so white hot and the pre-release hype for Be Here Now had been so intense that it would have probably been impossible for them to live up to it. Ultimately, Be Here Now is a fine album but hardly world-changing or generation-defining. If anything, it reset expectations Oasis and set the stage for the band’s later albums: a few killer singles, some decent album tracks and filler tracks to round things out.

Another reason is that critics and fans may hate missing out on the next big thing, but what they really hate is buying into hype and then being proven wrong. Look at how viciously people turned on the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Or parts of the sequel trilogy. Once it becomes in vogue to hate on things that lots of people hate (see Nickelback), then a certain narrative takes hold that can be difficult, if not impossible, to break. At least for a little while before the pendulum swings the other way and people start questioning if the thing they hated so much was so bad after all.

Be Here Now inspired some dramatic 180s in the years after its release. Anecdotally, within two years of release, it became one of the most-sold albums to second-hand record stores in the U.K. That same year, the Guardian even took to declaring an end to the Oasis phenomenon.

Be Here Now was released to glowing reviews. Then, people took it home, played it and quickly came to the conclusion that a) it sounded too loud – the excessive volume in the mix drowned out most of the music’s natural sonic colour and b) it was too long, weighed down with too many uninspired songs.

“And the Band Played On,” The Guardian, Aug. 26, 1999

It hasn’t helped that one of the album’s biggest detractors nowadays is the guy who wrote it. Noel Gallagher has gone on the record numerous times stating his dislike for the album and admitting that he was uninspired at the time. In 2016, he said Oasis “should never have made that record then” and regretted not taking time off, noting Morning Glory was still doing well on the U.S. and U.K. charts at the time.

He also agreed with the consensus that critics had been embarrassed about missing the boat so completely on Morning Glory and were determined not to get caught flat-footed again. “That’s why when Be Here Now came out, which isn’t a great album, it got 10/10 everywhere, it didn’t get one bad review, because they didn’t want to be made to look like dicks again, and they were, because it’s not half the record Morning Glory is,” he said to the NME in 2020. In advance of the album’s 2016 re-release, Noel had announced plans to remix the album more to his liking but ultimately abandoned the project after re-doing just one song, “D’You Know What I Mean.”

It’s the sound of … a bunch of guys, on coke, in the studio, not giving a fuck. There’s no bass to it at all; I don’t know what happened to that … And all the songs are really long and all the lyrics are shit and for every millisecond Liam is not saying a word, there’s a fuckin’ guitar riff in there in a Wayne’s World style.

Noel Gallagher, 2004 interview.

Unsurprisingly, Liam disagrees and has consistently defended the album over the years. I don’t know what people are talking about,” Liam Gallagher said in 2017. “I think it’s great.” He’s also blamed Noel’s outspoken dislike of the album for how its viewed today, accusing critics and fans of simply going along with his brother’s viewpoint because they’re sheep who don’t know any better. “The reason why he didn’t like it is because it reminds him of a not-so-good time with his ex-wife. That’s fine. That’s his prerogative,” Gallagher told Vulture in 2017 while promoting his solo debut album, As You Were. “But me, I had a good time making that album. I think there are some great songs on it. I think I sung really well, and it was a good time to be alive.”

Regardless of how the band may have felt about Be Here Now, one thing was clear — Oasis’ heyday was over. In 1999, founding members guitarist Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs and bassist Paul “Guigsy” McGuigan both left the band during sessions for the band’s follow up album, 2000’s Standing on the Shoulder of Giants. That album did decently well on the British charts but was widely ignored in America. Subsequent albums followed a similar pattern until 2009, when Noel finally quit for good and went solo after one too many fights with Liam. The rest of Oasis continued as Beady Eye, but were unable to gain much traction (losing your most talented songwriter will do that to you).

While it may have killed Oasis’ career, is it fair to say that this album also killed Britpop, as a whole? Arguably, the genre was already dying by 1997 and several of the top bands of that era were already reinventing themselves. Blur had gone the lo-fi route with its American-influenced self-titled 1997 album and would continue changing up its sound on subsequent albums. Also in 1997, Radiohead integrated electronic music into their sound and released the highly acclaimed OK Computer.

Compared to those bands, Oasis seemed like they were stale, out of ideas and unwilling to change. Instead of taking the opportunity to adapt and survive, they had doubled down on a dying genre — doing a bigger, bloated, more over-the-top version of Definitely Maybe despite not having the songs to live up to it.

Maybe this quote sums it up best:

The only reason anyone was there was the money. Noel had decided Liam was a shit singer. Liam had decided he hated Noel’s songs. So on we went. Massive amounts of drugs. Big fights. Bad vibes. Shit recordings.

Producer Owen Morris, Q Music, 2007.

So in that sense, this album was a perfect statement by a band that always stuck to its guns, wasn’t shy about expressing itself, wanted fame and fortune, and didn’t like each other very much. But as a wise person once said: the perfect is often the enemy of the good.

Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

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