Oasis: the last noel

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The Independent Culture

Decades have a habit of failing to end on time. The Fifties, one could argue, did not finally snap to a close until the defeat of Alec Douglas-Home and the first screeches of Beatlemania. The historical cab was not called for the Sixties until, in April 1970, Paul McCartney announced that the Fabs were no more. And the Seventies lasted until about 1981, when the last punk rocker hung up his bondage trousers.

Decades have a habit of failing to end on time. The Fifties, one could argue, did not finally snap to a close until the defeat of Alec Douglas-Home and the first screeches of Beatlemania. The historical cab was not called for the Sixties until, in April 1970, Paul McCartney announced that the Fabs were no more. And the Seventies lasted until about 1981, when the last punk rocker hung up his bondage trousers.

In pop-cultural terms, the Nineties finished at 10.53pm on Monday night, when five musicians bade farewell to a mud-splattered audience gathered in a field outside Leeds. The moment was the end of Oasis's four-day British tour of duty - a tour trailed by all manner of speculation as to the band's future. "I don't know if there's ever going to be another Oasis record," Noel Gallagher was quoted as saying. "I wouldn't have any breath-holding contests, you know what I mean?"

In the light of remarks like that, most of Monday's audience seemed to believe that this really was it. When John Lennon's "Imagine" and the Stone Roses' "I Am The Resurrection" - a pretty concise encapsulation of Oasis's heritage - tumbled from the onstage speakers as their pre-gig overture, it only increased the sense of finality. And yet, after months of rancour, they still refuse to say die. "I'm sorry to disappoint you," said Noel, just as he and his compadres lined up for an end-of-tour photograph, "but this is not a funeral."

None the less, Oasis now seem perilously close to extinction. Noel has spoken barely a word to his brother, Liam, since May. As things stand, he will only perform with Liam in the UK, where he can make a quick exit to his Buckinghamshire rock-star pile; when abroad, the group have been playing with a stand-in. Their last record, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants, has singularly failed to pull off the feat known as "shifting serious units".

In terms of both commercial clout and their internal bond, the brothers find themselves sitting at the bottom of a very steep downward curve, as the ever-honest Noel is all too aware. "Our first two records hang over us," he said recently. "I miss the euphoria of selling 600,000 copies of a new album in the first day. But if we don't get that back again, or if we split up, it doesn't matter. We've had it once."

If, or when, Oasis do return to the fray - which, thanks partly to the slug-like pace of the music industry, won't happen until at least 2002 - they will find it hard to shake off the idea that they are a relic from the recent past. Like combat trousers, the Teletubbies, Chris Evans and Trainspotting, they give off the odour of fresh obsolescence. In that sense, the Leeds show represented the final reverberation of a cultural moment that lasted from 1994 until 1998: that knot of music, celebrity, boom-time economics and fleeting political optimism that may yet become known as the Britpop Era.

Back then, as Tony Blair posed with a Fender Stratocaster and people talked about the "re-branding of Britain" without fear of the stocks, I attended a sequence of Oasis concerts that felt little short of momentous. "This is history," yelped Gallagher senior as he surveyed the 125,000 people at Knebworth Park in the summer of 1996.

Of late, by contrast, Oasis have presented the depressing spectacle of a band coming apart at the seams. The low-point came earlier this summer, at Wembley on 22 July: Liam incapably drunk, Noel counting the minutes till his departure. By dusk, the Wembley Way was festooned with chip trays, broken glass and vomit. Oasis, it seemed, were committing public hari-kiri.

The crisis surrounding the band was hardly unexpected. Oasis have been sliding for more than two years: cast adrift as the garish upsurge that they helped create began to wane, and then riven by internal strife. Joe Strummer of the Clash once acknowledged that he had "fallen into every pitfall in the book and invented 20 new ones on the way". Oasis were no less immune to rock's bear-traps.

Looking back, the band's fuzztoned pop suited the mid-Nineties to perfection. Magazines were awash with kitschy Union Jacks, provincial lads were newly clad in Ben Sherman shirts and desert boots, and urban trendies were riding Vespas. The Sixties were brazenly plundered, and London was swinging again, after a fashion.

Relative to the original this was an altogether more mass-market phenomenon, devoid of anything remotely "underground", and keener on boorishness than intellectualism. There was no Oz (we, for our sins, had Loaded), precious little in the way of mind-expansion (LSD was hardly the thing - people preferred the vista-shrinking effects of cocaine) and no Grosvenor Square (we had the altogether safer pleasure of watching Portillo lose Enfield).

But it was still fantastically exciting - particularly if you belonged to the generation which had been told that the PlayStation had vanquished the guitar and rock music could no longer be in the cultural vanguard. Oasis's first two albums - Definitely Maybe and What's The Story (Morning Glory?) sounded unbelievably exhilarating, alchemising their proudly basic ingredients into something era-defining. In this, the interplay of the Gallaghers was the key: on What's The Story in particular, Noel wrote words and tunes that emphasised sensitivity and self-doubt, while his brother sang them with the bravado of a man who possessed no angst whatsoever. Rarely has the inner battle of the post-adolescent male been so perfectly encapsulated.

By 1996, Oasis were walking on water. But, predictably, their confidence soon turned into hubris, the cocaine did its work, and the next year Oasis released a bilious record called Be Here Now, which captured precious little beyond the indulgence that comes from unlimited budgets. Still the critics, apparently snowblinded, hailed it as a key moment for Western civilisation. And the public dutifully took it home - where it poured from speakers like syrup - and asked: "Is this it?"

Oasis never really recovered. This year's Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants is an incoherent record indeed: introspective, troubled, yearning for something different without any clue as to what it is. It suggests there are certain things that Oasis cannot help: sounding like the Beatles and writing awful lyrics ("I can see a liar, sitting by the fire") among them.

No sooner was the record finished than two members of the group quit. Paul "Guigsy" McGuigan and Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs were two of the most unlikely rock stars in history - one looked like a young Jim Bowen and played terrifyingly rudimentary rhythm guitar; the other was a plunky bass player who always stood stock still, as if waiting for a bus. Noel recruited two altogether more proficient and better-looking replacements - Gem Archer and Andy Bell - and Oasis were back. Kind of.

But then came the most decisive blow of all. On 21 May, Oasis arrived in Barcelona, and Liam and Noel had one of their trademark drunken rows. Liam said something about Noel's home life; his brother, replete with black eye, announced that he was returning to the UK. Against all expectations, the group drafted in a replacement, and European audiences were treated to the bizarre sight of Oasis taking the stage without their songwriter, strategist and chief motive force. With or without Noel, the band's performances this year have tended to be strikingly rudimentary. Last weekend's shows in Reading, Glasgow and Leeds offered little deviation from a running order that has been set in stone since January: three songs from the new album, one from Be Here Now, four from What's The Story and - most tellingly of all - five from their début, Definitely Maybe. More than ever, when Oasis play "Cigarettes and Alcohol", "Rock'n'Roll Star" and "Supersonic", they sound unstoppable - but those songs were recorded six years ago. "They're just a tribute band," I heard a cynical reveller moan in Glasgow on Saturday night. You could see his point.

Of late, Oasis's fall from grace has only been hastened by Liam's fresh plunge into tabloid infamy. In the wake of the split from his wife, Patsy Kensit, Liam has completed endless, much-photographed circuits of London's fashionable Met Bar in the company of Nicole Appleton from All Saints - the very embodiment of the musical vapidity that Oasis came to avenge. On the side, he has reportedly dallied with Rod Stewart's ex-wife, Rachel Hunter; his opening gambit, apparently, was: "Do you think I'm sexy?" So now Noel thinks Liam is "too tabloid" - his choice of women perhaps undermines Noel's idea that Oasis are a serious rock group. After all, none of Led Zep ever went out with Lynsey De Paul.

This morning, the Gallagher brothers are re-adjusting to a life without stage-times and tour buses, and wandering what on earth to do next. Noel's recent on-off absence, it seems, has only intensified their problems: Liam has enjoyed life as the leader, and he is now demanding a status upgrade. His first song, a cringeworthy ode to his stepson entitled "Little James", appeared on Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants, and he has since composed several more. Noel, unfortunately, thinks Liam's songs sound "like Elton John". Oasis, by their very nature, are Noel's band - whether that notion can survive as Liam enters his late twenties is a moot point.

Whatever happens, Oasis have left the building. Britpop is dead. The charts, once proudly conquered by young men with funny haircuts and Beatles fixations, are the preserve of Steps, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. The Prime Minister, who used to seem the embodiment of some youthful Kennedy-esque dream, has become just another politician: a greying, embattled reminder of the fact that euphoria always carries with it the seeds of anti-climax. The UK has woken up to the new millennium with a hangover; our sachet of cultural Alka-Seltzer has yet to arrive.

Personally, I can't help but feel nostalgic for the days when the Gallaghers were at their peak; when Liam would glare at the audience through his shades, push his face into the microphone, and sing over his brother's adrenalised din: "Is it my imaginasheeeyun? Or have I finally found something worth living for?" Ah, but that's all so terribly Nineties, isn't it?