Oasis after the orgy

Liam and Co play the Nineties game of pop stardom with post-modern aplomb, says Peter Popham

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The art of big-time pop celebrity involves being impossible to ignore, no matter what it takes. We had already had enough of Oasis in 1995: 1996 should have been the year they died and disappeared. Indeed, much of the media spent much of the year predicting that event. Many of the stories that kept the band in the headlines were intimations of imminent disaster, the ritualistic paroxysms that band after band has undergone during the past 30-odd years, preceding break-up due to "musical differences": feuds and fights, a cancelled tour of the United States, walk-outs, tantrums, girlfriend distractions, recording studio bust-ups. The new album was postponed and postponed again. Liam was arrested padding along Oxford Street early one November morning, allegedly the worse for drugs. And so on.

But the inevitable did not ensue: each pratfall, by some dreamlike logic, carried the band to a higher place, a securer fame. The only thing that kept the papers talking about them was the imminence of their demise, yet like martial artists Oasis converted all the negative energy and denial into affirmation and acclaim.

At the end of 1996, Oasis are bigger than ever, bigger than anyone since The Beatles and The Rolling Stones at their peak. They have sold 15 million records worldwide. Morning Glory alone has sold eight million. In May, they became the fastest-selling pop group in history, when half-a-million fans telephoned for tickets in five minutes. At Knebworth in August, where they played two concerts, both to 250,000 fans, and one of the concerts was relayed live to radio stations in 34 countries, they made pounds 6m.

Alone among their peers, Oasis demand comparison with The Beatles. But when The Beatles became world-famous and then set off on their long trajectory towards ultimate disintegration, everything they did was for the first time: they were the first band to have long hair, the first to flirt with the mystic East, the first to take LSD, the first to have problems with their wives. Together with the rather different stories generated by The Stones, Hendrix, The Doors and so on, the myth of pop stardom was invented, with every conceivable wrinkle from madness and murder to boredom and inanity already in place.

Thirty years on, after the whole thing has been rehashed over and over again, all that remains is to repeat what has gone before. That is perhaps why the media are so keen to see the back of all the new bands as quickly as possible - it is the boredom of it all, the sheer predictability. But seeing as there is nothing new to be done, seeing as everything has already been tried, Oasis hit upon a novel solution: do everything that can be done, however contradictory and irreconcilable, at the same time.

In this they showed that they have the one key qualification for serious pop fame, far more important than musical ability: they are instinctively in tune with the spirit of the age.

The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard foresaw such a solution to the problem of contemporary fame in his book The Transparency of Evil (1990). What do we do, he asks, "after the orgy"? After "the moment when modernity exploded upon us, the moment of liberation in every sphere" - the time, in Philip Larkin's formulation, ushered in by the Lady Chatterley trial and The Beatles' first LP. "Now all we can do is simulate the orgy, simulate liberation. We may pretend to carry on in the same direction, accelerating, but in reality we are accelerating in a void, because all the goals of liberation are already behind us ... We are obliged to replay all scenarios precisely because they have all taken place already ..."

In 1996, Oasis have contrived to replay all scenarios that are available to a pop group. They fight, they kiss, they take the celebrity girlfriend home to mum; they boast about taking drugs, they lend support to a campaign against drugs; they conspicuously consume, they give abundantly to charity (more than pounds 1m in all); they sneer and spit and swear, they turn out to play football for a good cause. They split, re-form, split, re-form, split, re-form - or perhaps they never split at all, and it's just silly rumours. In this way, by flying in all directions at once, they do what is otherwise very difficult these days: they mesmerise our attention.

They also contrive to oversee the most spookily post-modern development in pop music ever. "Nothing", Baudrillard went on to say, " ... now disappears by coming to an end, by dying. Instead, things disappear through proliferation or contamination ... or as a result of the epidemic of simulation, as a result of their transfer into the secondary existence of simulation." With uncanny instinct, Oasis smile benignly at the "epidemic of simulation" that now surrounds them: a swelling aureola of tribute bands, No Way Sis, Oasisn't, Oasish, Quoasis and Champagne Supernova, to name a few, who wear their clothes and play their songs as faithfully as possible at more or less humble gigs up and down the land. The most prominent of them, No Way Sis, now have a record contract of their own. It can't be long before they spawn a tribute band of their own.

At the still centre of all this strange and frenzied activity are two working-class Mancunians with one eyebrow apiece, one of whom, Noel, is down to earth and clever enough to let the whole thing spin on as it must, whatever strange place it may end up in.

One day, too, he may write a song that bears comparison with anything on The Beatles' Revolver. But it hasn't happened yet.

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