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BE HERE NOW

To understand just how hugely anticipated the third Oasis album was, you have to go back to August 10, 1996 and to Knebworth Park, Stevenage. An hour into their set, and the greatest, biggest, most unstoppable band of a generation have had every word, every riff, every guitar solo bellowed back at them by the largest crowd ever assembled in the UK. The euphoria peaks, as it will on so many nights afterwards, with ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’. And then, as Liam Gallagher walks back onto the stage and up to the microphone centre stage, something strange happens.

As he announces simply “New songs”, this choir of 125,000 people, their throats sore from singing so loudly, collectively all “shhh” each other. Suddenly bedlam is total, reverential silence: the very, very drunk now trying to sober themselves up for just ten minutes, concentrating hard so that they might commit what follows ‒ the cyclical five-chord blast of ‘My Big Mouth’; the pop swagger of ‘It’s Gettin’ Better (Man!!)’ ‒ to memory. In the pre-internet age, it will be more than a year until anyone here gets to hear these songs again: the home-taper friends back home thwarted by their omission from the live radio broadcast. For the rest of 1996 and months into 1997, they will have to make do with daily, spurious tabloid updates on Oasis ‒ by Christmas, Liam shaving his head will be front page news ‒ and dreaming about what ‘Be Here Now’ might sound like.

Contrast this to Definitely Maybe: those who bought its three preceding singles and their B-sides owned versions of six of its 11 songs and, in addition, had fallen already for the instantaneous majesty of ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Star’ and ‘Cigarettes & Alcohol’ via live shows. Everyone ‒ not least its composer ‒ knew that it was a classic before it even arrived. ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’, meanwhile, seemed to arrive so swiftly afterwards and amid such a flurry of activity that it did not have time to be ‘highly anticipated’ at all. All of a sudden, it was just there: every last one of its songs blasting out of pubs, clubs and radios as though they had existed forever.

But ‘Be Here Now’ is shrouded in secrecy, in mystery. No-one bar Oasis and their tightest inner circle knows anything about it. Noel announces in a TV interview that he has nearly finished another tune called ‘I Hope, I Think, I Know’, and there are rumours that a song called ‘All Around The World’ ‒ supposedly the Oasis epic to end all Oasis epics, which Noel has been holding back since 1993 until recording budgets will allow him to do it justice ‒ will close the record. If you spot Liam in the street and can get through the gaggle of photographers and journalists that haunt him as he and Oasis depart Abbey Road for the slightly more secluded surroundings of Ridge Farm Studios in Surrey, he might tell you that it is “great”. But that is about it, as far as pre-release information goes.

So when ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’ explodes onto radio in June 1997, it is into a world that has been starved for too long of Oasis. Indeed, the hunger is such that the likes of daytime Radio 1 will also instantly A-list its B-side (‘Stay Young’) while constantly playing these eight minutes uninterrupted. And what an eight minutes they are: a dense, druggy cacophony of guitars, with strings and drum loops buried deep underneath. But more than anything, ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’ is loud: the sound of Oasis turned up to one hundred and eleven, topped by Liam Gallagher ‒ whose voice at this point is sounding more incredible than ever ‒ revealing how he “met my maker and made him cry”. It of course goes straight in at Number One.

From this point there are another agonising six weeks to wait until the third Oasis album is upon us, and in this time the already-at-fever-pitch anticipation just grows and grows and grows. The reviews, when they come, are almost universally positive (even if for some reason mostly stop just short of declaring ‘Be Here Now’ an out-and-out masterpiece). Noel has now revealed in interviews that one song features Johnny Depp on slide guitar, and that ‘All Around The World’ will indeed feature, with no expense spared. By the time it lands in stores ‒ on a Thursday rather than a Monday, for reasons that will never be made clear ‒ it is the lead item on the six o’clock news, with fans queuing from early in the morning quizzed as to what they think, and whether it is everything they hoped.

And, initially at least, it is. It has to be. No-one can even entertain the possibility that the third Oasis album can be anything but. As the now-familiar blast of ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’ ‒ now extended even longer with more noise ‒ comes to a close, ‘My Big Mouth’ ‒ the first of those songs from Knebworth ‒ erupts with a squall of feedback. Now though, it sounds different to how it did that night, with 36 tracks of guitar layered on top of one another, all playing that same riff like an orchestra. It is deafening. Alongside more lyrical references to God, and in a line that will come to encapsulate the album, Liam sings, “It was a sound so very loud that no-one could hear.”

Because this is an album, just as the white Rolls Royce poking out of a swimming pool on its cover suggested, that will be defined by excess. The Noel-sung ‘Magic Pie’ unapologetically creeps over the seven-minute mark. Even after this super-intense opening trio, next single ‘Stand By Me’, ‘I Hope, I Think, I Know’ and ‘The Girl In The Dirty Shirt’ all begin with more guitars feeding back and collectively feature enough guitar solos for twice as many songs. ‘Fade In-Out’’s acoustic strumming ‒ assisted by Mr Depp’s slide ‒ comes as a kind of light relief, at least until Liam emits a quite terrifying primal scream and the distorted wall of noise erupts once again. ‘Don’t Go Away’ is the sole moment of actual tranquility on the record, and then it’s back to a pair of songs ‒ the title track; the other Knebworth song ‘It’s Gettin’ Better (Man!!)’ ‒ that  again start with ear-splitting feedback and only get louder from there.

And in between these two comes ‘All Around The World’ which, as promised, Noel has thrown everything at. Two key changes. Strings. Horns. Guitars. Heaped backing vocals. More guitars. A two-minute reprise at the climax of the album, to add to the nine and a half it has already clocked in at. It is ‘Be Here Now’ in excelsis: a ludicrously over-the-top hyper-anthem, with its sights seemingly set on nothing short of aligning the planets, that ends up, in the cold, sober light of day, merely being a whole lot of fun.

Of course ‘Be Here Now’ goes straight in at Number One. Of course it becomes the fastest-selling British album in history. And if in time fans, critics and even band will start to concede that it isn’t the album that they all dreamt it could be in the year between Knebworth and now ‒ how could it ever have been? ‒ then 20 years on, it still stands as the most unique album in the Oasis back catalogue, and a unique album in the history of rock’n’roll: more excessive than even the most excessive 60s or 70s titans ever got. It is the sound of a generation defining band at the absolute peak of the mountain, as high ‒ in all senses of the word ‒ as it’s possible to go, trying to take them and their audience even higher.

And that will always be a sound worth revisiting…

Hamish MacBain