The English beat
Beyond Oasis, what does the next wave of the British Invasion sound like?
When people wax rapturous about perfect singles, Oasis’ ”Wonderwall” is the type of song they’re talking about. For starters, the British band’s breakthrough hit is built on the kind of seamless, flawlessly constructed melody no one seems to write anymore. It is also, as with many classic 45s, a sad sack’s declaration of angst. It starts simply, with busker-style strumming and the downcast voice of lead singer Liam Gallagher. ”I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do/About you now,” he laments, his voice riddled with both cockiness and sorrow. Gradually, more instruments enter the mix, including a cello that deepens the mournful undercurrent. Still, the song never loses its spare, haunted quality.
The mood dissipates only in the chorus, when the melody suddenly brightens and Gallagher summons whatever hope he has left for this relationship, feeding his lover the corniest but most humble line in the love-song book: ”Because maybe/You’re gonna be the one that saves me?” The band’s 1994 single ”Live Forever” had a similar effortless pull, and ”Wonderwall” is equally realized, as a song and as a recording. In fact, it already feels like a standard — or a future Gen-X wedding-band favorite.
The success of ”Wonderwall” has lifted Oasis’ bracing, four-month-old album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, into the top 10. It’s also established a musical beachhead in America for the newest wave of British guitar bands. Perhaps now, Anglophiles are hoping, Americans will lend an open ear to the likes of Blur, Pulp, menswe@r, and Gene — England’s newest hitmakers — whose latest albums have been greeted here with a collective shrug. (The exception has been the unrelenting success of grunge aspirants Bush, who sound as if they left their accents in a Dumpster somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.)
Pundits often make the same logical case for this lack of connection with the American record buyer: These bands are either too provincial or too wimpy for the backwards-baseball-cap Lollapalooza set. The reasoning is valid, but what may ultimately hobble this new British Invasion is sheer dubious musical quality. The London Suede have rock-star attitude up the puffy sleeves but are hampered by weak songwriting, especially on their last disc, 1994’s Dog Man Star. Blur singer-keyboardist Damon Albarn aims for the insight of Ray Davies, but on The Great Escape, his digs at suburban middle-class complacency seem mean-spirited and condescending. Even worse, the band’s music is a mesh of light rock and the strains of a West End cockney musical — which points to a cultural disparity as well. When Americans explore their musical roots, they tap into country or blues. From the early Stones through the Jesus and Mary Chain, many British musicians have gone the same route — but an equal number, like Blur, see their heritage as quasi-Tin Pan Alley music-hall melodies.
Pulp’s second American album is called Different Class, and thankfully, they’re in one — from most of their peers, at least. The music has the punchy zip of new wave, with a tinge of decayed glamour — they, and not Tina Turner, should have performed the Goldeneye theme. In singer-guitarist Jarvis Cocker, the band has a leader with the perfect moniker for a British pop star and a wry, bemused persona to match. ”Sorted for E’s & Wizz,” Cocker’s recollection of an all-night rave, is both sarcastic and remorseful, as if he feels that the energy British kids devote to such gatherings is sapping the country of its strength. In ”Common People,” a dilettante approaches Cocker’s protagonist in a bar and says she wants to mingle with the common folk: ”What else could I do?” Cocker sings with the sardonic droopiness of Leonard Cohen, ”I said, I’ll see what I can do.” On the import version of Different Class (the album will be released in the U.S. on Feb. 27), Pulp also score bonus points for packaging: With a quick flip of six coaster-size cards, the cover art can be changed to one of 12 different tinted photographs of the band members lounging about in parks and fields.
Even on a finely tailored disc like Different Class, the lingering impression of the new British rock is that it has yet to find its own voice. The British Invasions of the past–be it the Beatles/Stones attack of the mid-’60s or the takeover of Top 40 radio by Culture Club, Eurythmics, and the rest of the synth-pop brigade two decades later — were nothing if not forward thinking. This latest wave feels, at times, like an entertaining retread of the history of British guitar rock. You can hear hints of late-period Beatles (Oasis), the Kinks during their rock-opera days (Blur), glitter-period Bowie (Pulp), the Smiths (Gene), or the snotty mod revival (menswe@r). And compared with jungle, trip-hop, and other constantly mutating forms of avant-garde dance music coming out of England, the loud guitars and shag haircuts of the new Brit rock don’t look or sound contemporary enough.
Which brings us back to Oasis. At times they do recall the past, from the Carnaby Street foppishness of their image to the hint of John Lennon rasp in Gallagher’s throat. But listening to the soaring guitar architecture of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, it’s clear why they’ve connected with American kids in a way their peers haven’t. The songs, written by Liam’s guitar-playing brother Noel, are so rock solid that they could sustain a London air raid. You don’t need to be a resident of the Olde Country to relate to their songs of consolation, advice, and rueful disdain, and it’s hard to find a more universal statement than “Another sunny afternoon/I’m walking to the sound of my favorite tune.”
Most important, the music is big and brawny, loaded with feedback, screeching guitars, and boogie riffs. Oasis sound as if they want to conquer the world, not just a small, economically depressed part of it. And isn’t that what great rock & roll is all about?