‘Shagging, Drinking and Taking Drugs’: How Oasis Made ‘Definitely Maybe’
In the summer of 1994, a group of working-class Englishmen announced themselves to the world. They were brash, confident and carried with them a bunch of catchy songs. With Definitely Maybe, Oasis presented one of the most successful debut albums of all time.
Noel Gallagher had been penning tunes for several years before finding his future bandmates. The songwriter drew immense inspiration from classic rock’s biggest acts. “My record collection consisted of the Beatles, the Stones, T-Rex, David Bowie and lots of great sticks," he admitted in Definitely Maybe the Documentary. "And that’s what I used to listen to."
He went on to specify that mainstream hits held much more appeal to him than deep album cuts: “Don’t fuckin’ ask about fuckin’ extra tracks on a fuckin’ Pink Floyd bootleg from 1972. Who gives a shit, man? I’d rather listen to ‘I Am the Walrus’ 20 times in a row.”
Noel’s younger brother, Liam, was already part of a group called Rain, playing local gigs in the Manchester area. When the elder Gallagher attended one of the band’s performances, he finally saw an outlet for the material he’d been piling up. He joined Rain in 1991, changed their name to Oasis and assumed the role of sole songwriter. He took pride in writing lyrics that were catchy, honest and relatable to his working-class peers.
“I wasn’t trying to impress anyone with my lyrical prowess," he'd later admit. "I didn’t give a fuck about that. And I wasn’t trying to make a point. And I wasn’t trying to build myself a platform where I could go and preach to the nation about this, that and the other. I was writing about things that were true to me. It was about shagging, drinking and taking drugs.”
Watch Oasis' 'Cigarettes & Alcohol' Video
Over the next two years, Oasis developed a reputation as one of the best live acts in Manchester. Still, the group’s dreams extended beyond their hometown. In hopes of drumming up more interest, the band recorded a demo tape in 1993. “There was no thought of getting a record deal," Noel Gallagher admitted. "It was just songs to play when we were doing the Boardwalk on a Tuesday night. Which is probably why it sounds so free and easy. It just flows.”
The quality of work wasn’t lost of Chris Griffiths, a member of the Real People, a fellow English band of the era. The musician helped Oasis record their demo and was impressed with what he heard. “We were thinking something’s gonna happen here with this," he revealed in Definitely Maybe the Documentary. "It was just the whole thing with Liam looking like a star, his attitude and all that anyway. When we were working together we weren’t saying if it happens, we were saying when it happens.”
Listen to Oasis Demos
The quality of the demo tape, coupled with the band’s growing reputation as a live act, earned Oasis a deal with Creation Records.
In late 1993, the band headed to Monnow Valley Studio in Wales to record its debut album. Dave Batchelor, who previously worked with various U.K. groups like the Kinks, the Sensational Harvey Band and Dr. Feelgood, was tabbed to produce.
As Oasis began laying down tracks, it became apparent that something was off. "It wasn't happening," recalled the band’s guitarist, Paul Arthurs, in the book Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock. Batchelor "was the wrong person for the job. ... We'd play in this great big room, buzzing to be in this studio, playing like we always played. He'd say, 'Come in and have a listen.' And we'd be like, 'That doesn't sound like it sounded in that room. What's that?' It was thin. Weak. Too clean."
Engineer Mark Coyle believed the studio setup was hindering the band. “There was no live music going on," he remarked in Definitely Maybe the Documentary. "It’d be drums, then bass, then guitar, and it wasn’t what anybody was used to. I think it was just the vibe of the thing. The way it sounded. It just sounded soft. There was no edge to it.”
As the band searched for answers, production costs continued to mount. Tensions within the group were high as recordings continually failed to meet expectations. “Behind the scenes, Noel was frantically on the phone to the management, going, 'This ain't working,’" Arthurs recalled. “For it not to be happening was a bit frightening."
Unhappy with what it had recorded so far, and unsure of how to proceed, the band made a tough choice: They would wipe the slate clean and start again from scratch. Surprisingly, they had their label’s blessing to do so. “I’ll always respect [Creation Records head Alan] McGee for that,” noted Noel Gallagher. “He just said ‘Look, fuckin’ go and do it again.’ And we were like, ‘Are you sure?’ He was like, ‘Just go and do it again, cuz you’ve got to get it right.’”
Watch Oasis' 'Rock 'N' Roll Star' Video
Batchelor was shown the door, Coyle was elevated to co-producer and the group assembled for a new set of recording sessions at Sawmill Studios in the south of England. The modest facility was accessible only by boat, giving the experience a summer-camp feel.
“It was all pretty cramped in and no frills,” recalled the band’s guitar tech, Jason Rhodes. “I slept in a sleeping bag by the pool table.”
The quaint surroundings didn’t slow the band’s partying ways. “They were doing drugs,” remembered engineer Anjali Dutt. “I’ve got no idea how bad the drugs got. But they were just funny.”
In the studio, every effort was made to capture Oasis’ raw energy. “We just set it up like a rehearsal room or like a gig,” attested Coyle. “We didn’t use any posh microphones. No headphones.”
The new vibe gave the songs an edge not present on their first recording effort. Things began to click and the debut album started coming together.
Four of the songs which originally appeared on the band’s demo tape were rerecorded for the LP: “Columbia,” “Bring It on Down,” "Rock n’ Roll Star” and “Married With Children.”
“Supersonic,” a track Noel Gallagher penned in approximately half an hour, would be the band’s first single. It was released before Oasis were even done mixing the album. The song hit No. 31 on the U.K. singles chart and No. 11 on the U.S. alternative song chart. Excitement behind Oasis was clearly beginning to build.
Watch Oasis' 'Supersonic' Video
Even though the second single, “Shakermaker,” would also do well in their homeland, it was the band’s third single, “Live Forever,” that announced Oasis’ arrival on the world’s stage.
“It’s a song of pride, it’s a song about youth, it’s a song about knowing who you are,” Noel Gallagher declared during a 2007 interview with Blender. The Oasis songsmith gleaned inspiration from two rock legends when writing the track. The first was the Rolling Stones, whose song "Shine a Light" sparked the melody concept for “Live Forever.” The second was Kurt Cobain. Gallagher had read an interview in which the Nirvana frontman mentioned his self-parodying song “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.”
“It struck me that this fucker, an extremely talented guy, had everything I wanted,” Gallagher later explained. “He was rich, he was famous, he was in the greatest rock 'n' roll band of its time — and he’s writing songs saying he hates himself and wants to die! My way of thinking was, well, I fuckin’ love myself, and I’m gonna live forever, man!"
“Live Forever” became a huge hit, reaching No. 10 on the U.K. singles chart and No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard modern rock chart. It has since been listed among the greatest songs of all time and been cited as a turning point in the Britpop music movement of the mid-’90s.
Watch Oasis' 'Live Forever' Video
By the time Definitely Maybe was released on Aug. 29, 1994, hype surrounding Oasis was monumental. The LP went straight to No. 1 on the U.K. chart, setting the record for the fastest-selling debut album in British history.
“I genuinely believed that people would buy it, but not on the scale that it did," Arthurs admitted. "I mean, that just went beyond me.”
Pressed to explain the album’s mass appeal, Noel Gallagher simply stated, “We seemed to catch the mood of the mid-'90s.”
Definitely Maybe sold more than 8 million copies worldwide, going platinum in the U.S. and seven times platinum in the U.K.. “I’d say Definitely Maybe and Nevermind by Nirvana were the two most important albums in the ‘90s in terms of what they achieved, who they inspired and what they were about,” noted Oasis’ manager, Marcus Russell.
The album's legacy isn't lost of the album’s writer. “I love it,” Noel Gallagher confessed. “Not only musically, but for what it meant to people. And what it still means to people.”