Oasis vs. Shoegaze vs. Grunge: An Excerpt From Alex Niven’s 33 1/3 Book ‘Definitely Maybe’

In a new entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series of album-themed books, writer Alex Niven contextualizes Oasis’s 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe, in a way that requires an eye toward British politics. Up for discussion are class warfare, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the shifting definition of the UK everyman — and what made early Oasis the perfect soundtrack for that archetype. Niven’s take is a crucial read on the true core of Oasis, at a time when so much of the band’s legacy has been rewritten by the Gallagher Brothers’ bad behavior and beefing. In our exclusive excerpt from the book, released earlier this month, Niven places Oasis on a continuum alongside grunge and shoegaze. (All this, mind you, happens in the context of a chapter about water.)

From Alex Niven’s Definitely Maybe:

Oasis caught the rising wave of nineties economic and social optimism at exactly the right moment, just as it crested in 1994–6. So it is no surprise that they were among the major champions of oceanic feeling in a decade that at times seemed to be overflowing with it.

Oasis songs are saturated in water imagery to an almost ridiculous extent. Perhaps, as well as being a nineties trend, this was another legacy of their Manchester origins. Manchester is renowned for being the UK’s rainy city, so it was apt that the band’s original name was The Rain (apparently a tribute to the legendary Beatles B-side ‘Rain’, a work of humid psychedelia released along with ‘Paperback Writer’ in the summer of 1966). ‘Oasis’ itself, of course, is a name with overt water associations. Like most band names, this one seems to have been fairly casually chosen. Nevertheless, throughout Definitely Maybe and its B-sides, the water theme filters through into the lyrics to become a central motif. At almost every turn in early Oasis songs, there are references to rivers, rain, sailing, drinks, sinks, overflowings, downpours, rainclouds, water- falls, dreams washed away in the sand, fears of getting lost in the sea, the fantasy of running away to the coast.

Musically, Oasis’s oceanic side found expression in a surging, engulfing aural texture that filled every corner of the speakers to create a formidable wash of sound. In this fondness for sonic excess, Oasis were indebted to wider trends in early nineties pop and rock. At the beginning of the decade, when Definitely Maybe was gestating, widescreen, oceanic timbres were the hallmark of the two most popular movements in alternative music – the grunge rock that poured out of Seattle (another famous rain city) from about 1991 onwards, and the ‘shoegaze’ or ‘dreampop’ that emerged largely from the Thames Valley in southern England in the same period. Although Oasis are sometimes viewed as hardcore musical reactionaries and masters of pastiche, to a large extent Definitely Maybe is an amalgam of these two contemporary styles, a fact that makes it sound unmistakably like a record of 1994, in spite of its retro borrowings.

Grunge was a belated breakthrough for the tradition of angular underground rock that evolved in the eighties in the wake of punk. However, the defining feature of grunge was its fuzzy, curvilinear production sound, which marked a radical break from the jagged brittleness of much eighties punk and post-punk.28 Building on the warm, distorted guitar tones of eighties alt-rock innovators like Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü, the leading grunge bands – Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney – popularized a sound that was expansive, lush and aurally overwhelming. As these bands migrated from the DIY underground milieu of the Pacific Northwest indie scene to become global megastars in the early nineties, they traded the lo-fi aesthetic for the gigantism of corporate rock and its multi-tracking, guitar effects and colossal drum tracks. The grunge era witnessed the conversion of punk and indie into hugely bankable international rock movements, and this shift was embodied in the grunge bands’ increasingly waterlogged, saturated textures on record.

Shoegaze – a localized scene that was more or less invented by the British music press as a way of marketing the imitators of My Bloody Valentine – was nothing like an international success story. However, it shared grunge’s attachment to immersive guitar textures and an expanded volume range, introducing a panoramic dimension to a UK alternative scene that had become timid and insular by the late eighties.

Shoegaze marked the moment British indie finally exchanged the rectilinear harshness of post-punk for a sweeping, studio-aided sublime and abundant whirlpools of guitar noise. On the albums Isn’t Anything (1988) and Loveless (1991), My Bloody Valentine guitarist Kevin Shields innovated a sound that drew on shimmering arrangements and dense sonic structures to produce a startling revision of the pop template. Shields’s work on the first two MBV albums was so distinctive that it became the guiding influence in a large portion of the British guitar rock of this period: his methods were soon adopted by a legion of acolytes – Ride, Slowdive, Swervedriver, Chapterhouse – most of whom were housed, like MBV, on Creation Records (later, of course, Oasis’s label). As this movement gained in popularity in the rather barren environment of early nineties British indie, the term ‘shoegaze’ was coined to describe a genre in which guitarists abandoned stagecraft to focus almost exclusively on the massed embankments of effects pedals lying at their feet.

Definitely Maybe is indebted to both grunge and shoegaze in a number of ways, some superficial, some more profound. The grunge influence entered the album largely by way of Noel Gallagher’s somewhat grudging respect for Nirvana’s Nevermind. Although, lyrically, Gallagher’s humanism was apparently a deliberate reaction to Kurt Cobain’s deadpan nihilism (see especially the Nirvana song ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’), when it came to actual music there was a large amount of common ground between the two. In fact, there was even a loose personal connection linking Gallagher and Cobain: Mark Coyle, Gallagher’s best friend and co-producer during the Sawmills Studio sessions for Definitely Maybe, toured with Nirvana in 1992 as sound engineer for their support band Teenage Fanclub (another Creation act).

Whether or not Coyle carried over anything from this experience into his production work on Definitely Maybe, there are a number of moments on the album that speak of an affinity between Oasis and their Seattle counterparts. ‘Slide Away’ adopts the classic grunge technique of combining a heavy rock base with a melody that alludes to Neil Young and The Beatles. On a smaller scale, the leaden power chord sequences in ‘Supersonic’ and ‘Bring it on Down’ are heavily reminiscent of those on Nevermind. So, too, are the phaser effects used to treat many of Noel Gallagher’s overdubbed lead guitar parts. Phasing is an electronic effect that produces two slightly different copies of the same note. Throughout Nevermind – and especially on its lead singles ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Come as You Are’ – Cobain uses phasing and the very similar ‘chorus’ effect to create a swirling, underwater guitar sound. Reportedly with the aid of the Boss PH-3 Phase Shifter, Gallagher replicates this underwater tone fairly often on Definitely Maybe, notably in the solo halfway through ‘Shakermaker’, in the outro to ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Star’ and in the main guitar line that eddies throughout ‘Columbia’.

Indeed, divested of its twelve-bar-blues references and kitchen-sink allusions (‘Shakermaker’s’ collage of British consumerism, Liam Gallagher’s Mancunian vowel palette), Definitely Maybe might almost be mistaken for a grunge record. Cobain’s ambition for Nirvana was to combine the melodic subtlety of The Beatles with the hard-rock dynamism of Black Sabbath, and Oasis achieved a very similar synthesis in their early compositions, although their interest in the Sex Pistols and glam rock contrasted subtly with Cobain’s taste for seventies metal.

The shoegaze influence in the early Oasis sound is just as pronounced as the debt to the grunge of Nevermind. Although they were viewed as something of an anomaly within the shoegaze label Creation, Oasis were nevertheless a neo-psychedelic rock band with a taste for distorted guitars and classic sixties pop, so in fact they fitted in relatively well with the Creation house style. Moreover, being connected to the Creation stable along with My Bloody Valentine, Ride and others meant that Oasis rubbed shoulders with a number of people who had been influential in establishing the shoegaze sound. Perhaps chief among these was Anjali Dutt, the main sound engineer on both My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Definitely Maybe (as well as records by Swervedriver, Spacemen 3 and the Boo Radleys). Dutt’s involvement in the studio brought a much-needed element of nuance to the album, an emphasis on the cerebral and the textural that seems to have been carried over partly from her experience of working with the shoegaze bands.

But the major shoegaze influence on Definitely Maybe arrived from a source outside of Creation. Throughout the last weeks of 1993, Oasis toured with Verve (later to be renamed The Verve), a band formed in Wigan, just outside Manchester, who were heavily associated with the shoegaze sound at this point. While My Bloody Valentine and the Thames Valley bands were probably too culturally distant from Oasis to offer any direct inspiration, Verve were from a broadly similar background, and hence much more easy to assimilate into Definitely Maybe’s pot of influences.

Verve’s 1993 debut album Storm in Heaven is far more esoteric than anything Oasis ever produced. But with hindsight it sounds very much like a darker, weirder cousin of Definitely Maybe, and it seems likely that Oasis’s experience of touring with Verve on the eve of the early 1994 recording sessions was part of the reason for the similarity. Noel Gallagher almost certainly stole the title of ‘Slide Away’ from the Storm in Heaven track of the same name, one of the biggest indie singles of 1993. Oasis and Verve also shared an almost identical visual aesthetic: the Brian Cannon/Michael Spencer Jones partnership designed all of the early Verve cover sleeves, and many of these ideas would later be recycled and refracted in their artwork for Oasis.

Most importantly of all, Storm in Heaven’s echo-drenched guitar textures provided another model of how indie rock might be made to sound expansive and all-encompassing on record after a period in which it had largely been content to be marginal and recondite. In seeking to achieve the engulfing wash of sound on Definitely Maybe, Oasis drew heavily on Verve guitarist Nick McCabe’s latter-day acid-rock techniques, from his reliance on delay and reverb effects to the use of slide guitar as a psychedelic device. Brian Cannon’s cover  for Verve’s second single ‘She’s a Superstar’ featured a photograph of a cascading waterfall. This was an embodiment of the sort of romantic grandeur Oasis would try to emulate and extend.

Alex Niven’s 33 1/3 on Oasis’s ‘Definitely Maybe’ is available now via Bloomsbury.