It was 20 years ago today…
Album: Be Here Now
Release Date: 21st August 1997
Produced by: Owen Morris and Noel Gallagher
1. D’You Know What I Mean? (7:42)
2. My Big Mouth (5:02)
3. Magic Pie (7:19)
4. Stand By Me (5:56)
5. I Hope, I Think, I Know (4:22)
6. The Girl In The Dirty Shirt (5:49)
7. Fade In-Out (6:52)
8. Don’t Go Away (4:48)
9. Be Here Now (5:13)
10. All Around The World (9:21)
11. It’s Gettin’ Better Man(!!) (7:00)
12. All Around The World (Reprise) (2:08)
What’s the most hyped you’ve ever been for something? Did you binge watch 6 seasons of Game of Thrones for the new episodes? Perhaps you watched The Avengers a dozen times in the cinema because your favourite Marvel heroes were actually on the big screen together? Or maybe you queued up for the midnight release of one of the latter Harry Potters or Call of Dutys. Well, add all of that together and you get some idea of how much a young James was looking forward to Be Here Now in 1997. So, on the twentieth anniversary of its release, I’ve decided to give it another listen, and to give you my thoughts.
First, just a little bit of background first for those who didn’t experience Britpop in the flesh. I’m not going to do the full history of Oasis or 90s British music, but the release of Definitely Maybe in 1994 had marked out Oasis as something very special, becoming the biggest selling debut album in the UK. Anthemic songs like “Supersonic”, “Cigarettes and Alcohol” and “Live Forever” crossed over to capture a bunch of fans who connected with the Gallagher brothers and the motley crew of Mancunians – if that isn’t too patronising to say! Then, a “feud” with Blur caught the imagination of parts of the media, and the release of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? moved them into the mainstream, going to number 1 in the album charts for 10 full weeks. Although the music press didn’t particularly like it, as Paolo Hewitt said in the sleeve notes “In this town the jury is always rigged but the people know. They always know the truth. Believe. Belief. Beyond. Their morning glory.” This was an album of the people.
The Gallagher boys’ rock star antics (Noel quitting the band and Liam missing the start of an American to buy a house with Patsy Kensit) just built Oasis’ popularity, and a couple of concerts at Knebworth saw them play to 250,000 fans over 2 days in August 1996. So when it came to the release of Oasis’ third album, Be Here Now, anticipation was at fever pitch. Songs like “Don’t Look Back In Anger” and “Wonderwall” had become instant classics (still being played by annoying guys at parties to this day), but what could Noel Gallagher produce this time?
The first single from Be Here Now was “D’You Know What I Mean?”, released on 7th July 1997, was a huge number 1, selling 370,000 copies in its first week, one of which was to me. That’s right, this was the first single I ever bought.
“D’You Know What I Mean” is a very good song… that is about three and a half minutes long. It sounds very different from anything that Oasis had done before, yet still had the familiar hallmarks of a big chorus and Beatles references. But mainly, it had an ambition which further fueled my excitement for the upcoming album, which arrived on Thursday 21st August 1997 and was bought by yours truly at about 10am on that day, which for me, in the middle of the school holidays, was a huge achievement.
Obviously, 14 year old me loved the album. I didn’t listen to anything else for weeks. I taped it on cassette to listen to it on my Walkman (look it up in a museum). I learned all words, tried work out which bit of guitar was Johnny Depp (I didn’t know what “slide guitar” was), and bought the follow up singles. I read every review I could find – which were mostly incredibly positive – and couldn’t comprehend why anyone didn’t think it was the best album ever. But…
Over the coming months, I realised there was other music outside Oasis. Actually listening to Blur’s album Blur (released earlier that year) showed that they were never really competing with Oasis, they were on totally different musical levels. I’d originally ignored the Manic Street Preacher’s Everything Must Go even when it won best album at the ’97 Brits, but when I did, it was a revelation. And although I can’t remember for sure, I think it was Urban Hymns, Richard Ashcroft’s masterpiece return with The Verve, that was the first album I listened to after Be Here Now. And although I would argue that each of these contemporary albums are better, the thing that I learned most from listening to them is that an album, even an ambitious one, shouldn’t be 71 minutes long.
It was a strange thing to learn at fourteen that sometimes less is more. Take the second single “Stand By Me”:
Again, it is a very good song. But it is nearly 6 minutes long. And when you are listening to it on the album, you are TWENTY MINUTES into Be Here Now despite it being only the fourth song. There was simply no-one to rein-in the band’s, and specifically Noel Gallagher’s, excesses. There are just loads and loads of guitar laid on top of simple acoustic songs, with no-one in the Oasis camp able (or willing) to tell Noel to ease off. The lyrical content is more meaningless than ever, but that was never really an issue for Oasis, it’s just that the songs collapse with the layers of guitar tracks piled on them. Liam Gallagher does his best on vocals, but it is buried in the mix – although the 2016 remastered version does treat him a bit better. Allegedly “My Big Mouth” has 30 guitar tracks on it. No song should have 30 tracks of anything unless you are making something cosmically groundbreaking. “My Big Mouth” is just a very average rock song.
For a band who had been so Mancunian, so Northern, so British, all of a sudden the tracks are from a different era. While in the past he nicked riffs from bands in the past, it was still in an Oasis style. Now Noel Gallagher’s output sounded like bland, middle of the road soft rock. “Don’t Go Away” is a ballad that owes more to the dreaded American “AoR” radio than their first two, vital-sounding albums. Listening to it now feels very strange, especially when Noel Gallagher’s solo output sounds so different to what he produced on Be Here Now.
And there was just no, for want of a better word, editing. Song after song repeat their choruses and bridges over and over, leading into noodlely guitar outros. “Be Here Now” should be a 2 and half minute punky blast… instead it is over twice that. “The Girl in the Dirty Shirt” should be a brief love song like “Married With Children” from Definitely Maybe or “She Is Love” on Heathen Chemistry. “I Hope, I Think, I Know” is the closest to a normal length song, yet it comes in at 4:22. That first single, “D’You Know What I Mean?” – Noel himself thought that someone would tell him to take two minutes off it. No-one did, so there’s a long intro then a needless backwards bit at the end. It was the first song on the album! It doesn’t need that much of an outro!
And take the second last (proper) song on the album is “All Around The World”, which was the third and final single, is over 9 minutes long. It’s a song that makes “Champagne Supernova” sound restrained and focused.
And then it has a two minute reprise as the last track. For me, “All Around The World” proved that Oasis weren’t The Beatles, they were just a band that sometimes wanted to sound like The Beatles. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s a quote from Noel: “imagine how much better “Hey Jude” would have been with three key changes towards the end.” Oasis genuinely thought they were making an album to put them in with the all-time greats. Instead we got a very long, overblown, overloaded mess of an album. Buried somewhere in there is a 45 minute classic – I think the songs are better than the hungover Standing on the Shoulder of Giants – and if you pick single songs out of it, there are enjoyable to listen to.
But in 2017, as a whole, listening to Be Here Now is a tiring, head battering affair. It’s a testament to excess and… there’s just too much guitar. And coming from me – that is saying something.
(In case anyone thinks for whatever reason I am lying about my love for Oasis and this album on its release, here are my well-worn copies of the album and singles. I genuinely did love it, but it really doesn’t stand up now. It will always have a special meaning for me – like any first love – but the memory is better than reality, like most teenage obsessions!)
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
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