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Maybe a Definite

Photo by Steve Double

Not the Beatles: Oasis won't satisfy U.S. audiences looking for mop tops.

England's Oasis fights fame by mouthing off

By Gina Arnold

When I was young, I loved British music. The Beatles and the Stones, the Who and the Kinks, and, later on, the Jam and the Clash, and the Buzzcocks and the Gang of Four--these acts typified the meaning of the word "cool."

At the time, America was full of bland, bearded, boring acts--Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Eagles, Meat Loaf. Ah, but England was the province of skinny men with pale skin, pouty lips, satin slacks and elaborately tailored jackets, trotting down Carnaby Street and up the King's Road.

In the mid-'80s, however, New York and London went into an artistic (and economic) decline; and then R.E.M. shifted one's attention to rural and suburban America, where it's pretty much stayed ever since. Britain is now the land of nod, and has been since about 1980. Each year, the country trots out some hopeful trend--new romanticism, "Mad"chester, jungle music, dream-pop--and each year, said trend lands with a dull thud on our shores, never to be heard from again.

In fact, the English music scene--once so supreme--has unleashed a series of really embarrassing failures over here, notably the Stone Roses and the London Suede. Sure, it also had its occasional triumph: the Smiths, Sinead, PJ Harvey. But those acts, by their very paucity, merely proved the rule.

In truth, the number of crap acts to grace the cover of Melody Maker and NME (England's two biggest weekly music papers) in the last decade is a little bit startling. Who among us remembers the Farm, the Woodentops or We've Got a Fuzzbox (and We Know How To Use It)? It doesn't matter if you don't, since none of those bands--all of whom were hailed at one time in Britain as saviors of the English music scene--ever amounted to anything.

For a while, England turned, as if in despair, toward electronically activated rave acts like the Orb, the Shamen and Aphex Twin--music that has no place on radio and that depends, therefore, on the more fragile temperature of London clubland for its adherents.

But things move fast in the pop music world, particularly in the U.K., where the singles charts and radio airplay still have a big impact on record sales. Recently, Britain has spewed forth a bunch of more old-fashioned bands, the kind with two guitars, a bass and drums--bands like Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Menswear, Elastica and Supergrass, to name but a few.

These bands all aspire to pop stardom, pure and simple. They delight in having a look and a sound (particularly a look), in being seen in the right places, and in making it big. They are, in short, antithetical to grunge and indie rock, the last two trends to sweep that nation.

Ironically, the one British buzz band that's had any success in America in the last few years (barring the Cranberries, who are Irish) is Bush, which is the band that sounds most American (i.e., like Pearl Jam), and the chagrin this fact has engendered in the British press is quite hilarious. Bush is snubbed and slagged in NME with a fervor that borders on the religious.

Instead, Britain's hopes are pinned on two British bands: Blur, whose album Parklife was highly praised in last year's critics' poll, and Oasis, whose Definitely Maybe made a brief, if tiny, splash in the charts thanks to an achingly tuneful single called "Live Forever."

Both bands are huge in England--bigger than the Farm or Fuzzbox ever got--in fact, during a recent visit to London this past September, I was surprised by their penetration. Not only were they played on Top of the Pops and Radio One, but they'd also managed, time and again, to poke their noses into the mainstream press, thanks in part to their participation on Warchild, a charity album to raise money for Bosnian aid, which sold 70,000 copies in one week, a record for Great Britain.

But the main stink occurred when Blur's "The Great Escape" beat Oasis' new single into the charts by one slot, and Oasis' bitterly piqued Noel Gallagher subsequently told the Manchester Observer that he hoped Blur's members "caught AIDS and died." It was just the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that makes even mainstream papers sit up and take notice, and it certainly helped the British music papers set up a Beatles/Stones, Kinks/Who, Clash/Jam kind of rivalry it just revels in.

This kind of controversy is all very well as far as name recognition goes, but whether it will sell records in America or not remains to be seen. It's actually rather interesting to contemplate, in light of the recent mega-Beatles Anthology that has just graced American television. I really think that Americans are strangely eager to embrace British acts; they've been waiting for another Beatles ever since the Beatles played Shea Stadium, but English acts have not, to date, given them much to love, other than thin, watery pop songs and the occasional cute item of clothing.

What Americans really like is blues-based rock and country. That's what they liked in the Stones and Zeppelin, it's why Pearl Jam and U2 are huge, it's even the basis for the popularity of hip-hop, which is of course a form of urban country with deep roots in the blues. But today's English bands tend to play music that is deliberately soulless.

Its conventions are drawn not from classic blues rock but from more secondary sources like Roxy Music, Bowie and, inevitably, the Beatles. Blur is at a particular disadvantage in America, since its music is an unabashed amalgam of ultra-British musical and verbal references that few mainstream Americans are likely to understand.

Which leaves Oasis as England's latest, greatest, hope. Oasis happens to sound unbelievably Beatles-esque, a fact that it then shamelessly exploits by doing Beatles takeoffs in its video and covering "I Am the Walrus" live. But this very Beatles-esqueness may hamper Oasis' success here, since Americans have a history of rejecting such acts. Big Star, the Dbs, the Smithereens are all examples of Beatles-y music that never went anywhere.

Another drawback to Oasis is that--like many a British act before it, but totally unlike the Beatles--the group really sucks live. At a Fillmore show last spring, Gallagher had the gall to sit on the edge of the stage while singing during part of the set. (He did the same thing on David Letterman, prompting Letterman to quip, "That guy looks awfully young to be so tired.") When Gallagher did stand, he pretended alternately to yawn and to wank himself, which is hardly an endearing strategy.

As the AIDS comment demonstrates, Oasis' members exude arrogance and stupidity, not a combination that will bring them many adherents, however catchy the songs. This is a pity, because Oasis' newest record, (What's the Story) Morning Glory, is really quite good, awash with great gushes of guitar-ridden hooks, dreamy pop sentiments and amazingly tuneful songs like "Roll With It," "Don't Look Back In Anger" and the elegiac "She's Electric." It is as close as Britain has come to producing a transcendent act in many years.

Alas, it's not enough. Maybe age will mellow Oasis' members' mouthyness; maybe the giddy hooks of their pretty, pretty songs will break through the American pop barrier, but somehow I doubt it. Of course, England longs for something of its own to cherish and be proud of, but here in America, we're still waiting for a brand-new Beatles--for the new wave of the new wave to sweep us off our feet.

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From the Dec. 7-14, 1995 issue of Metro

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