On 11 August 1996, Oasis played the first of their two monumental gigs at Knebworth. On that infamous weekend, over a quarter of a million people would watch this band of working-class scallies from Burnage, Manchester who had taken the country by storm since the release of their debut album Definitely Maybe two years previously.
The gigs were supposed to represent the next step in the seemingly eternal upward trajectory of the band. In truth, it would represent the peak of their powers, fame and musical relevance. Within a year they would release Be Here Now, an album that would prove to be the beginning of the end as far as the mania that surrounded Oasis was concerned.
Oasis had seemingly taken to the outrageous levels of celebrity with ease, but the reality was that the excess that had consumed the band since their arrival to the mainstream had taken its toll. The drugs, decadence, hedonism and excess had pushed the band to their individual and collective mental limits. Released 20 years ago this week, Be Here Now was the result of that excess. Overblown, over produced, too extravagant and too self-indulgent, it was the first sign that the party had gone on for too long.
The first exposure of Be Here Now came at the Knebworth gigs – as well as their appearance at Balloch in Loch Lomond. The set-list for the behemoth events included ‘My Big Mouth’ and ‘The Girl in the Dirty Shirt’. Both were received positively. If these songs were a sign of things to come then surely the Oasis bandwagon would keep on rolling?
However all was not entirely well within the camp. The constant feuding between the Gallagher brothers was an ever present of the Oasis circus, but as the pressure and exposure reached Beatlemania heights, the fights became more intense and things came to a head on the eve of a U.S tour in late ’96 when Liam Gallagher refused to set foot on a plane and left the band at the departure lounge at Heathrow airport. As had happened countless times previously, a reconciliation was reached – but not before Noel walked out of the same tour and flew back to England.
With hindsight, one of the main problems with Be Here Now is that it was recorded directly after the frenzy that had followed (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. It was felt by Alan McGee at Creation and Noel Gallagher that they should strike with their third album whilst the hype was still at its peak. But that proved to be easier said than done and with the benefit of hindsight it seems obvious that a break from the madness could have benefited Oasis.
With all that came with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? – touring, promotion, endless appearances and interviews – Gallagher had not written anything new in eight months. When he did sit down to start Be Here Now he discovered he had writers block, and fear and doubt gripped Gallagher for the first time.
There was a time when Gallagher was so confident and consistent in his writing powers that he would casually disregard genuinely great songs as B sides. Now in the middle of the biggest party of his life and financially secure, he found the motivation to write hard to come by. It took a break in Mustique with regular producer Owen Morris for Gallagher to finally sit down and start writing. But even then the experience was different, with Gallagher having to be disciplined and committed in order to get the songs out. For the first time in Gallagher’s life, writing felt like a job rather than escapism.
Recording started in Abbey Rd, however due to excessive press intrusion the sessions were scrapped and the band decamped to Ridge Farm in Surrey. But even away from the capital and all that it has to offer, Oasis could not free themselves from the bloated excess that had now come to define them.
Noel Gallagher initially said of the sessions that it felt like being in a band again. However as the years rolled past the true extent of the excessive cocaine use at Ridge Farm would come to light. In terms of the end product, Oasis were careering down the wrong path with no one within the band, the wider circle or the record label willing enough or capable enough of stopping them.
The result of this was the two main problems with Be Here Now: layer upon layer of heavy guitars – and an average track time of over six minutes. If there is an album that is a metaphor for the overbearing, overly loud guy on a night out who just doesn’t know when it’s time to stop, Be Here Now is it.
The first product of the sessions released for public consumption was the single ‘D’You Know What I Mean’, which was received well. The single was almost like a ‘return to arms’ statement – a theme that was extended to the military-esque style video. But despite the single reaching No 1 – and shifting 750,000 copies – there were signs contained within it of what was to come. Lasting over six minutes with excessive distortion, Morse code and guitars, the warning signs were there.
Even the album cover became an exercise in excess. Originally planned to have four individual shots of the band members – with Liam making a cameo appearance in each shot to ensure all five band members were accounted for, things soon had to change when concerns started to grow about the cost of such a cover. Ideas from individual band members for their shots ranged from relaxing by a swimming pool with a Rolls Royce submerged in it, to lying on a beach in St Lucia. The former – by Bonehead – was deemed a great idea and would make the final cut of the revamped proposal which would be a single shot of all the band members.
The shoot for the cover took place at Stocks Hotel in Hertfordshire, which was the former home of Playboy magnate, Victor Lownes. The first problem for the shoot was that the hotel was a working hotel, and so it soon became besieged when word of Oasis’ attendance became public. Secondly, the excess that followed Oasis wherever they went kicked in again and alcohol consumption reached levels that made it almost impossible to work. By early evening, the shoot had become a chaotic shambles.
It was widely believed that the cover held many cryptic messages. Bonehead is holding a giant Yale key in the style of a guitar, Noel is looking through a telescope at giant inflated globe, Liam is standing next classic Zündapp Bella scooter… All these things led to speculation about the hidden messages within.
But the reality was they were all props selected at random. The only messages that could be described as cryptic were the license plate on the submerged Rolls Royce (SYO 724F) which is the same as the police van that appears on the cover for The Beatles’ Abbey Road album, and the calendar which shows Thursday, 21 August – the date the album would be released.
Critically the album done very well. However this was largely down to most of the music press being lukewarm in their reception to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? When it had gone on to be a huge success, reviewers overcompensated with their assessment of Be Here Now in a bid to avoid further embarrassment – only to get it catastrophically wrong for a second time. Q magazine gave it five stars and basically described it as the best thing in the history of mankind ever, but within the hype there were reviewers who weren’t convinced.
Simon Williams at the NME wrote: “Be Here Now is one of the daftest records ever made…tacky and grotesquely over-the-top, Oasis have blithely carried on doing what they always have done…the only difference now is that the songs are louder, longer and a darn sight more expensive”.
Fans were also unconvinced and after the early promising sales, the album started to slow. Not only that, within a few months thousands of copies flooded the second-hand market as unconvinced fans relieved themselves of the chore of having to listen to it again.
History will never look back kindly on Be Here Now. But it has its own legacy. Firstly, it halted the juggernaut that was Oasis almost overnight. Instead of the album taking the band on to new, never before reached levels of hysteria, the spotlight moved away from Oasis almost completely and would never to return.
Secondly, it was the first chink in the armour of Britpop and the hope and positivity that surrounded youth culture at that time. Within three years of the album’s release the hedonistic 90s were gone, Robbie Williams and Coldplay dominated the charts and New Labour had turned out to be Old Tory under a different banner. Within ten years of its release, the banks crumbled and we headed into more austere times where the youth of today’s idea of having it large involves securing two shifts in the same week at their zero hour contract, minimum wage job in a bid to afford the £120 to see Ed Sheeran play live.
The band themselves would never recapture the glory days of Definitely Maybe and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? From Be Here Now onwards they would only show fleeting glimpses of what they were once capable of, most tellingly on 2005’s Don’t Believe the Truth, before eventually crashing and burning in 2009.
Be Here Now is neither Oasis’ best or worst album. But it’s a significant one that deserves its place in history. It was the beginning of the end of Oasis and in a wider context a major mood changer. The previous year at those famous Knebworth gigs youth culture had seemed invincible and in control of its own future. Be Here Now’s lasting legacy could be that it exposed a chink of doubt in that invincibility, and allowed normal service to be resumed.