In the eye of the BritPop storm.
By November ’95, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory had hit No.1 and was on the way to shifting over five million copies and scoring 14 platinum discs. The band followed the release with two fully subscribed nights at the 20,000-capacity Earls Court, a giant middle finger in the face of their nearest rivals Blur who, in the summer, had won a race to the top of the singles chart. In the space of a few months, the swanky Mancs had stolen their crown.
For a bunch of shoegazers, Oasis conveyed a rare energy. Their deafening levels of volume were such that the tube station opposite the exhibition centre was temporarily closed after low-frequency vibrations registered on the Richter scale. These Earls Court concerts really were the shape of things to come. ‘Wonderwall’ was the anthem of the day and Noel Gallagher told me after the first show’s soundcheck to expect bigger and better the following year. How right he was. Just one year after the gig I saw in Southend, Oasis had graduated to playing a pair of dates at Maine Road Stadium, the home of their beloved Manchester City F.C., setting the scene for what was arguably BritPop’s greatest moment: Knebworth.
This was hallowed ground. I had attended many stellar shows at Knebworth in the past, by bands such as the Floyd (my first outdoor gig experience in 1975), the Stones, Genesis, Zappa and Led Zeppelin, but when I checked into the Quality Clock Inn on the outskirts of Knebworth Park on August 9th, little prepared me for what was to come over the next two days and nights.
Drawing a record 250,000 fans, these two concerts defined the ’90s. They were the epicentre of the BritPop explosion and the summit of the Oasis legend, and I was so lucky to watch it all unfold. To give an indication of just how big the band were in 1996, nearly 5% of the UK’s population applied for tickets. The band could have sold out another 18 Knebworth shows.
The backstage excess was eye-watering and with 7,000 on the guest list, one might be forgiven for imagining that the band’s raison d’être was to piss all over the records set in the ’70s by history’s most outlandish rock stars. As fellow journalist Roy Wilkinson so accurately observed at the time, “An immense marquee was lined with bars, all fully stocked with any drink you could imagine. A barbecue sizzled eternal. To anyone with a pass, everything was free, day and night. There were also free ice creams and lollies, plus portrait artists and magicians permanently on call. Professional entertainers wandered the marquee offering tricks and caricature sketches.” The backstage party lasted through until the early hours each night. Of course, it would have been rude to not indulge but there was also a lot of work to be done.
The band’s choice of support acts was inspired. As well as the Manic Street Preachers, Cast, The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and The Charlatans, the bill included The Bootleg Beatles – a smart move and a respectful nod to the band that motivated the elder Gallagher as a songwriter. Also starring were Kula Shaker, a band in their ascendency with the psychedelic summer anthem ‘Tattva’, a single that I rate amongst my absolute favourites of the decade, probably because it sounds like it was recorded in 1968.
I had pre-arranged an interview with them for one of my guitar magazine clients and, well, I can only describe it as hysterical. It didn’t start well on account of me referring to a completely different band’s single as “a genius début”. “Errrrr… we didn’t make that record,” said snooty frontman Crispian Mills, drily. It all went downhill from there, though it was not entirely my fault. I had studied an advance copy of the band’s first album, K, and been impressed by their modern take on psychedelia and especially their Indian music references. It was all very Syd-era Floyd, Walrus Fabs and flower power Quo poured through a Rishikesh filter, but done with an air of credibility.
The son of actress Hayley Mills and grandson of British film legend Sir John Mills, Kula Shaker’s leader wasn’t short of a few bob and his charmed life had given him an easier ride than most aspiring musicians. As we sat amongst his bandmates in a backstage portacabin and I asked him about the secrets of his songwriting, the patronising crap that flowed in response was astonishing.
“You’ve got to travel, man… I guess you wouldn’t know,” he said, referring to the five minutes he spent in India. This guy did not make it easy to like him.
Noel Gallagher was his polar opposite. On the second afternoon, I was welcomed into the Oasis camp to chat with him about the band’s touring achievements so far that year and he was brilliant. Basking in the spotlight of his inflated status, Noel wasted no time in grabbing the souvenir programme from my bag and collecting signatures on my behalf. “There you go, mate. That’ll be worth a fortune in years to come!” he said, every inch the wide boy.
At other times, I was grilling the crew about this vast production and gathering content for a wide range of features that spanned the trade and mainstream press in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and Japan. Everyone wanted a story.
Knebworth was never as magnificent as this. After allowing myself to be jostled around in the crowd during the first night’s monumental communal experience, and singing myself hoarse during ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, I watched Sunday’s show from the top of the lighting tower and photographed the entire performance. One of those shots was licensed by the band themselves and by the PA system manufacturer Turbosound for a poster, as well as being reused by countless magazines.
My experiences with Oasis would continue all the way through to July 2009, when they played three nights at Wembley Stadium, just weeks before their split. Although tension was often in the air, it was only a year after Knebworth that I was faced with the most vivid example of the chaos for which the Gallaghers earned their reputation.
Music Bank’s rehearsal facility on the south side of London Bridge was one of my regular hangouts at the time. At one point or another, I oversaw rehearsals by the good, the bad and the ugly of BritPop, and nothing was quite as ugly as the time when the sibling rivalry between Noel and Liam Gallagher hit a peak just as Oasis were preparing for their Be Here Now tour – a tour now legendary for the cocaine-addled bad behaviour that occasionally ventured into The Who’s territory of old.
Liam and I crossed each other on a staircase. “You here to do all that the knobs and faders malarkey again, mate?” he asked. How astute.
About half an hour after interviewing Noel with sound engineer Huw Richards and lighting designer Mikey Howard for SPL, the new magazine I had founded for SOS Publications, I was having a quiet cuppa in the production office when I could hear an argument drawing nearer and nearer, until Liam barged through the door, picked up a nearby computer and threw it on the floor with great force, smashing it to smithereens. Bejaysus!
The singer stood there for a few seconds, surveying his work, before Noel came barging in after him. “What have you fookin’ done?” Noel yelled, twatting ‘Our Kid’ with a tasty right hook and then making a swift exit, muttering “stupid fookin’ c**t” under his breath. The show was over. Nothing more to see here.
Being around the Gallaghers was never dull and neither was this job.
Adapted from ‘Heartsongs: My Family And Career in the Nineties’ by Mark Cunningham