DADROCK: Revisiting the sixties with Oasis and Radiohead
ANGLO-AMERICAN musical relations are always tense. Often, there is a trade imbalance. During the early nineties, American grunge and alternative bands triumphed overseas, while British bands met with confused snickers here. In the last few years, the roles have reversed. "Britpop" bands have reenacted the British Invasion of the sixties, stroking conservative ears with echoes of the Beatles and the Kinks; they have borrowed enough from the sixties generation to earn the additional nickname "Dadrock." At the same time, English turntable virtuosos dominate techno and ambient music: it's a dastardly pincer movement of nostalgia and futurism. We in America, by way of response, are sending out exmembers of Nirvana, filnky white teenagers from Oklahoma, Bob Dylan's son, and the lonely dynamo of Beck. We may as well give in, for now. The major English acts of the moment -- Oasis and Radiohead -- are threatening to raise the spectre of the Very Big Band, the kind that lives out a saga and leaves endlessly analyzable records in its wake.
To an American fan, the British music scene is a scary paradise. On the one hand, the record companies, the press, and the audience all seem more open to unexpected sounds. There is not, as in the United States, a barrier between major and independent labels: the underground can see the light of day in an instant. Elite radio d.j.s, like John Peel, on the BBC, consult their own taste and ignore whatever sinister lottery generates the Top Forty. Lately, programmers and critics have helped make minor hits out of the delicately skewed ballads of Belle and Sebastian, the imposing soundscapes of Mogwai, and the Sonic Youth nostalgia of Placebo. On the other hand, all this free-spiritedness slides a little too easily into a nihilistic lust for novelty. To read the British music press is to be bombarded by buzzwords for weeks-old styles pioneered by bands that have been around for a few months and will probably be gone in a year. Underpinning much of the frenzy is a brazen drug culture, which to the American puritan looks effortful.
The British knack for rock and roll both fascinates and repels Americans. The ease with which English kids hi-jacked an all-American art in the mid-sixties can no longer be explained by the ocean-spanning force of hippie-dippy youth. It has something to do with cross-cultural longings, laced with, envy and suspicion. British rockers are drawn to grittier American experiences, particularly African-American experiences; more cynically, they may enjoy America as a scenic expanse of money. Americans, for their part, consume British rock out of a deference to over-seas flair, but they have a lingering sense that the imports are a fad, a deft jam by fakers. They also may resent the vaudevillian panache that even the most laddish of lads apparently acquire as a birthright. In any case, Americans have a counterforce at the ready: that vast continental yawn with which our public lays waste to what no longer amuses it.
OASIS, the gold blimp of a band operated by the notorious Gallagher brothers, seemed to be veering out of control when it last toured the United States, in September of 1996. Noel Gallagher, Oasis's songwriter, lead guitarist, and chief executive, cut the tour short and flew back to London, with a breakup apparently imminent. But obituaries were hasty. A new Oasis album, 'Be Here Now,' racked up insane sales figures in the United Kingdom last August 21st, selling more copies in a day than any other album had previously sold in a week. Oasis's earlier albums, "Definitely Maybe" and "(What's the Story) Morning Glory," still hold sway in the British Top Forty. American fans have been more skeptical; most critics here have attacked the band for its thefts from the Beatles, and sales of 'Be Here Now" have been sluggish. The new record is indeed dense, bloated, and steeped in deja vu, but its ambitions, at least, are impressive.
In England, Oasis is a social phenomenon. After six years of existence, it has become the house band of the vestigial British Empire. Noel Gallagher endorsed Tony Blair before the May election; Blair repaid the debt by inviting Noel to his victory salon. Meanwhile, Liam, the younger brother, has not let marriage, to the actress Patsy Kensit, distract him from a record-breaking streak of rock star decadence: his impenetrable sunglasses, devilish haircuts, and steady substance abuse are still wowing the nation's youth. Unable to censor their internal monologues, the Gallaghers pick fights with any band that threatens them, and they also lash out at one another. (A recording of one of their squabbles became a hit single in the U.K.) They have specialized in monumentally arrogant statements to the press, of which my favorite is Noel's reply to a question about whether Michael Jackson had a Messiah complex: "Who does he think he is? Me?"
The noise would have faded by now Oasis had nothing to sell or to say.
Beautiful, vicious, diffident, and immature, Liam is one of the more fascinating singers of the current rock moment. After snarling lyrics into the microphone, he paces the stage like an unhappy cheetah; he may go to the edge of the stage and point a pistol finger at the audience or, during one of his brother's fastidious guitar solos, sit down churlishly on a riser. As the second verse approaches, he stalks back to the microphone, pommelling a tambourine. As a singer, he doesn't have much range, but he zeroes in on pitch with swooping, slurring urgency. The accusation that he copies John Lennon presumably does not bother him, since he is convinced that Lennon's spirit inhabits his body. Noel, meanwhile, stands still, strumming his guitar with all the passion of the Singing Nun. As Liam seems wired by the madness around him, Noel remains unfazed. Oasis's biographies, which fill two shelves at the Virgin Megastore, reveal that many of the songs for which Noel is now famous were written years ago, while he was still laying gas pipe in Manchester or working as a roadie for Inspiral Carpets. He made no effort,to get his music heard until his brother began singing in a band with various mates: Paul (Bonehead) Arthurs on guitar; Paul (Guigsy) McGuigan on bass; and, on drums, Tony Mccarroll, later replaced by Alan White. Noel looked at this gang of hooligans and decided that it would suffice as a front for the hits in his mind.
Noel's songs are a rude fusion
of rock history. Besides the obvious nuggets of the Beatles, he incorporates
baroque guitar flourishes out of Led Zeppelin, Burt Bacharach intermezzos,
hip-hop beats a la Beck, and the thick, seething textures perfected by
the great late-eighties band My Bloody Valentine. This heap of influences
is filtered through a clear conception of song structure. Noel finds singsong
phrases that insinuate themselves into your subconscious (sometimes they're
already waiting there) and joins them to rich harmonies strummed on all
the strings. The formula of cute tunes joined to sprawling chords is one
that the Beatles neither invented nor patented.
Less great are Noel's lyrics, which range from the half-baked to the lightly toasted. "D'You Know What I Mean" jumbles sound bites from Dylan and the Beatles: 'The blood on the tracks must be mine / The fool on the hill and I feel fine / Don't look back cos you know what you might see." In "My Big Mouth" he tries to apologize for past faux pas but arrives at a picture of himself "walking slowly down the hall of fame" --presumably the one in Cleveland. Still, he's capable of digging deeper. "Magic Pie," the strongest song on the new album, begins with the lines "An extraordinary guy/Can never have an ordinary day/He might live the long goodbye /But that is not for me to say," and ends with "I was that passerby/I've been and now I've gone." Noel seems to be imagining an exit from Oasis madness. He sings the song himself, in a voice shakier but sweeter than his brother's. It raises the overwhelming question: Is Liam necessary?
"Magic Pie" also has a grand vocal line that reaches one bright major plateau in the chorus and then climbs higher before the signature plunge to minor. The brouhaha of the sound matches the bigness of the idea. The same can't be said for the album's weaker follow-ups, which cry out for help when pinned under gratuitous extra tracks of guitar. "DYou Know What I Mean"- the song whose MTV video shows helicopters swarming over the band, tres "Apocalypse Now" -- has enormous power but no uplift. It somehow reminds me of Howard Hughes's Spruce Goose, that mammoth amphibious plane that never got more than a few feet above the water. Noel waited several years to record "All Around the World," a nineteen minute mockup of "Hey Jude"; his urge to restore all his early demos as would-be orchestral masterpieces is a warning sign of Guns n' Roses Syndrome (that is, egregiously unearned pretension).
The production values of "Be Here Now" seem intended to show that the band is not just rich but hip. Interviewed by Rolling Stone, Noel said he was trying to match the heavy synthetic beats and whooshing atmospheric effects of the Chemical Brothers and other "electronics" outfits. But his sentimental lyricism can't withstand such a barrage. In any event, the electronics trend is not worth emulating, since it is itself a retread, a makeover of German noise of the seventies. "(What's the Story) Morning Glory?" and the better songs on "Be Here Now" won't fade, because they seduce the ear rather than stun it into momentary submission. Whatever becomes of Oasis, Noel Gallagher will have been more than a passerby at the scene of British rock.
With Oasis holding a territorial claim on the later Beatles, other bands have made a run on every remaining sound and style of the period. For an ingenious, hummable echo of "Revolver" and the better parts of the Monkees, you can listen to the Seahorses; for a heady dose of Donovan and of George Harrison in his Indian garb, you have Kula Shaker. The seasoned Scottish band Teenage Fandub, a former star attraction of indie rock, has settled into a pastiche of the Byrds. Even Bob Dylan comes in for a bit of Britpop treatment, on a new album by the aptly named Charlatans UK.
Not all Britpop looks vacantly backward. Supergrass has the most infectious songbook of almost any British band, mixing updated glam-rock guitars with sassy pop arrangements (including the finest theremin solo of modem times). Ash, a trio of manic Belfast boys, plays stripped-down punk-pop tunes that never quite end up where you expect them to. In the dimly lit Velvet Underground corner is the Verve, famous for its trance-inducing guitars and for the journey-to-the-end-of-the-night life style of its ghoulishly handsome lead singer, Richard Ashcroft. The Verve's new single, "Bitter Sweet Symphony," gives a spooky twist to sixties nostalgia: over a tender string orchestra arrangement of a Rolling Stones riff, Ashcroft sings persuasively that he is "a million different people from one day to the next." As for Blur, Oasis's long-suffering rival, it finally broke through in America earlier this year when it traded in its Kinks-style class chronicles for loud, fast guitars. Its live show has frat boys jumping up and dovrn to diseased vaudeville numbers, hardcore punk, and most styles in between..
All rock-critical catchphrases disintegrate in the vicinity of Radiohead, which has a new album called "OK Computer" and last month ended an American tour with a majestic show at the Hammerstein Ballroom, in New York. This is the one modern British band that can equal the force of Oasis's personality, if not trounce it. While Radiohead also has a Beatles connection, its limited to a handfull of late-period experiments ("Happiness Is a Warm Gun," "Sexy Sadie," "Octopus's Garden"). Radiohead also looks to progressive-minded bands of the late sixties and earlv seventies-Love, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin in its artier, modal moods but, again, the influences come only in flashes. Formed a decade ago at Abington School in Oxford, Radiohead seems too bookish for the mainstream, but it mesmerizes large crowds nonetheless. The Trojan horse with which it took America was the 1993 song "Creep," whose refrain -- "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo"- pIeased fans of Kurt Cobain. The grunge pose was deceptive: the band's second album, "The Bends," reinvented rock on several levels.
Thom Yorke, Radiohead's mildly freakish lead singer, sings better than most in rock. He expands his tone operatically and pushes it into a pure, gleaming falsetto. His melodies have an Old World, prewar contour, gliding step by step and then jumping wide intervals. At first, his lyrics come across as glum, but his air of misery is often a cover for insolence and wit. In 'My Iron Lung,' from "The Bends," a hugely insinuating torchsong tune wraps itself around these words:
Suck-suck your teenage thumb
Toflct-trained and dumb
When the power runs out, we'll just hum
This-this is our new song
Just like the l-a-a-st one
A total waste of time, my iron lung
Yorke is insulting the teenagers who made a hit out of "Creep," but he does not alienate them, perhaps because he and they believe in the same illusion (music as "iron lung," life support). On "OK Computer" he casts his jaded eye on decadence, future shock, and the boxed-in individual. A song called "Electioneering" offers this diagram of a politican's mind: "When I go forwards, you go backwards, and somewhere we will meet."
Three other guitarists, meanwhile, are plotting byzantine musical designs, guitar and keyboards; his brother, Colin, plays bass; Ed O'Brien fills in other treble patterns. Jonny Greenwood, who once played viola in his school orchestra, admires Olivier Messiaen, among other twentieth-century composers; the breadth of his taste shows in the voluptuousness of the band's harmony. The backbone of thesong "Just," for example, is the octatonic scale (whole step, half step, whole step, half step, and so forth), which generated "The Rite of Spring." The band also throws in whole-tone scales, strings in quarter-tones, and other non-cliches. But this refinement is stowed away under the surface of the music: Radiohead knows the risk of not rocking. Russian chords can dissolve in a moment into a Punkish squall of guitar. Phil Selways vaguely jazzy drumming marks time in the cool, unfamiliar spaces.
"OK Computer" has fewer stately
airs than "The Bends," but it adds layer upon layer of weird beauty. The
sound is somehow tall: ideas unwind in every
register. "Paranoid Android" is a symphony in six minutes, moving from a shuffling introduction to a hardcore scherzo, then from a slow chorale on the words 'From a great height' to a hammering coda. Throughout the album, contrasts of mood and style are extreme: a couple of the songs could almost have been sung by Sinatra (or so it's fun to imagine), while a couple of others, rescored for bass clarinets, might win appreciative shrugs from new music cognoscenti at the Knitting Factory. This band has pulled off one of the great art-pop balancing acts in the history of rock.
The best English bands rummage
through the island's musical attic, retrieving old genres and adapting
them to rock. The Beatles, of course, were pastmasters of this. Those who
wail about Oasis's misappropriations have forgotten how much of a patchwork
Beatles songs really are. Radiohead repeats the means but not the end of
the Beatles' experiments; its fusion is original. I do not know how to
describe what is an essentially indescribable sound, but I had one last
idea while watching the very English spectacle of Princess Diana's funeral:
the varieties of lament heard during the service an Elgar elegy, an Elton
John ballad, an other-worldly contemporary dirge by John Tavener-could
have been telescoped into a fairly typical Radiohead song.