I first became aware of Oasis in late 1994 via the pages of the juvenile British football magazine Match!. At some indefinite point that autumn, pictures of the Gallagher brothers wrapped in cerulean-blue Manchester City replica shirts started to appear in the features section of the magazine, which I read religiously every week from cover to cover in an attempt to stave off the boredom of pre-teen life in a remote corner of the north-east of England.
Years later, when I read John Harris’s lively (if thoroughly snobbish) history of Britpop, The Last Party, I discovered that the Gallaghers’ appearance in Match! was the result of a shrewd Creation Records promo strategy dreamt up by marketing head Tim Abbot. As he sought to anchor Oasis in populist terrain around the time of their debut album Definitely Maybe, Abbot secured coverage in unusual outlets – football magazines, sports programmes, dance music periodicals – basically, anywhere that lay outside the purview of the London-centric UK music press establishment.
The strategy worked spectacularly, and for me at least, it made all the difference. Encountering Oasis in my teen football mag opened up a world I had never thought existed. Within a couple of years I was reading the NME rather than Match! By the end of the nineties, I had metamorphosed from a cherubic school football team captain into one of those longhaired, drug-taking, music-obsessed types certain ungenerous sections of the high-school playground would label a “fucking hippy”.
Putting aside for a moment the traumas of a northern English adolescence, I’m pretty sure this experience of discovering Oasis in a bizarre grey area in popular culture – an area between high and low, popular and marginal, sport and art – is one that was shared by many people. In fact I think this context of crossover and gateway-opening might just be the single most important fact about the Oasis project, at least in its early phase (circa 1994-’96).
Oasis were the most important band of the last half century, I think, because they opened up portals in British culture (and throughout the world) that might otherwise have remained closed. Cultural historians of the 1990s tend to to see Oasis and the wider Britpop scene as a reactionary movement that closed down musical innovation and prepared the way for the crypto-conservative revolution of New Labour and its Cool Britannia mythos.
But however they ended up, when they released Definitely Maybe, Oasis were the figureheads for a great upsurge of possibility and optimism in mid-nineties culture that cannot and should not be dismissed as hollow populism. Indeed, it is precisely because of their core of populist, working-class idealism that we should look on the Oasis narrative as something much more meaningful than an unfortunate (and ongoing) tabloid farce.
The early Oasis story is a narrative about what happens when a marginalised group somehow wanders into the mainstream. When they emerged twenty years ago at the end of the era of Thatcher and Reagan, Oasis posed some vitally important questions about how cultural change occurs in a class-bound society that still have resonance today. What if working-class people who have remained out of the pale of the cultural mainstream are suddenly given the chance to step into the sunshine? What if embargoes are lifted on what is and isn’t regarded as “artistic” territory? What if the sorts of people who are often dismissed as football hooligans and proletarian thugs are given a chance to sing and quickly become the most revered celebrities in the land?
In the case of Oasis, the ultimate answer to these questions was almost wholly negative. But it is worth backtracking from the band’s later decline to their starting point, the point from which they were able to make the radical opening statement that was Definitely Maybe. In 1994 Oasis were a peculiar band, a band that reached out to parts of the world the exclusive, elitist culture of post-eighties indie music couldn’t reach. That, at least, is how they came into my life, and that is why I will always see a glimmer of utopian possibility in their story. – Alex Niven