A sobering fifteen years have passed since I last saw Oasis perform live. Glastonbury Festival 1994 and they were half-way down the bill between acts few can now be bothered to remember anymore. The sense of excitement was palpable as they had defiantly belted out ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Supersonic’ before topping it off with a crowd pleasing performance of the Beatles ‘I am the Walrus’. Hard to imagine now, but at the time they were an exciting band to look out for. ‘Definitely Maybe’, their debut album, had made rock and roll fashionable again and had shot a pulse of youthful energy through the musical landscape that came to be labelled ‘Britpop’.
It is now 11 July 2009 and we’re sat at the back of the new Wembley Stadium along with 50,000 other people, ducking plastic projectiles of what I can only hope are beer dregs. Oasis have sold out this colossal venue not once, but three times. An extraordinary feat for any band – but exceptional for one who few consider to have recorded anything worth listening to for more than ten years.
How has a band that had been off their game so long managed to maintain this level of success? Before stepping into that venue, I’d no idea. I disliked Liam’s nasal vocals. I hated the Gallagher brothers trumped up swagger and had long since grown tired of the songs that had caught my attention those years ago. We were sat half a mile from the band - specks on the horizon and had little choice but to watch them on the oversize telly screens that flanked the stage. The gig, it must be said, was not looking promising…
We might not have had great seats for watching the band, but we did have a bird’s eye view of the audience. Below, the football pitch was dense with tens of thousands of bodies. Arms waved in the air, plastic cups of beer were enthusiastically lobbed into the crowd. Scuffles and skirmishes broke out. Passionate embraces and outbreaks of affectionate snogging proved a welcome way of passing the time before the band came on.
On swaggered the brothers Noel and Liam, accompanied with their latest crew of session musicians who make up the band’s current line-up.
It quickly became clear the audience weren’t here to listen to anything new, or for that matter anything recorded in recent memory. They were here for the old ‘classics’ and it wasn’t hard to tell when the gig was going well. When the opening bars of a recent song started up, there was a mass exodus as the audience surged along the gang-ways towards the queues for the bar and toilets. A familiar song or an old favourite brought the crowd quickly flooding back. The last ten years of albums were dismissed as background filler to the main event, an intermission for a pint and a pee before the band played old favourite ‘Wonderwall’.
I sat there, a cynical voyeur, for almost an hour before something changed. And finally I realised why 150,000 people were prepared to pay fifty quid to see an uncharismatic pub rock band in a venue the size of an aircraft hanger. The band thumbed the opening chords of ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ and a chorus resonated throughout the stadium. First it was a few hundred, then a thousand. Within three or four minutes some tens of thousands of voices, ourselves included, were united in one huge, ragged but emotional beer soaked crowd.
Separately, none of our voices and least of all the lead singer’s could hardly carry a note. But together, the bum notes and wrong keys were ironed out. The lyrics might not have been much to look at, but it’s hard to deny the power of the mob as these feeble words were transformed into an inspiring anthem that roused the soul. Together, our voices were little short of hypnotic, the sense of communion utterly wonderfully overwhelming and impossible to resist.
The only trick the band missed was that the words weren’t displayed on the backdrop TV screens. But perhaps that would have been a step too far towards karaoke. The following day in the press, Liam reportedly chastised his audience for not shutting up and listening. But he’d rather missed the point. He was no longer the lead singer of a rock and roll band and he wasn’t the centre of attention. Instead, he’d become the reluctant conductor of a boisterous mob of joyous men and women who were here to join in, sing and take part, not shut up and watch.
Oasis always acknowledged their Beatles inspiration with their mop top hair, Lennon and McCartney influenced lyrics and St Pepper-esque videos. It was an unfortunate comparison since Oasis could never hope to match the lyrical prowess or inspired experimentalism of the band they looked up to.
It is ironic then, that in Oasis’ final days they had finally matched their idols in one respect. The Beatles quit touring when they couldn’t hear themselves perform over the screaming of their adoring fans. The following month, after their Wembley gigs, Noel “with great relief” quit Oasis. The band’s future remains uncertain.