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Remember When Oasis Played for 250,000 People?

‘Supersonic’ tells the story of a band who actually walked the talk

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Oasis: Supersonic, Mat Whitecross’s new documentary, executive-produced by Asif Kapadia (Amy, Senna), follows a group of marginally talented council-estate stoners that, through the confounding hardness of their heads, for a not-altogether-brief moment in the mid-’90s, reached the pinnacle of rock ’n’ roll stardom.

It’s a treasure trove of VHS recordings, live show footage, tabloid clippings, and impossibly early versions of would-be classic songs, with vibrant animations filling the gaps between. Also, crucially, there’s the constant and colorful Manc banter from Noel and Liam Gallagher, driving home Supersonic’s refusal to take itself too seriously. “We were the biggest band in the country,” Noel Gallagher intones at one point. “But we didn’t give a fuck.”

Somewhere in there is a clip of a Noel interview from MTV. It was right after he’d made the executive decision to oust drummer Tony McCarroll, who’d been with the group since its humble basement-rehearsal beginnings in Manchester, replacing him with Alan White, right before the band got massive in 1995. It was also scathing. “Drummers are really smelly, useless, horrible, talentless losers, man,” Gallagher says. “I mean, fancy having a job where you bang things all day. Orangutans do that, don’t they?”

As a person who loves drums — and sometimes people, so probably drummers too — I’m not really supposed to like Oasis. The Brothers Gallagher have the kind of loud, brash, tone-deaf, and indefensible public personas that lie at the heart of the thorny and persistent can-art-and-artist -be-separated debate. But that debate doesn’t consider whether the artist wants to be considered independently of his or her art. The two frontmen, from the same family, but famously of two minds, obviously have slightly differing opinions about this. To hear Liam tell it, “Any band worth its salt is not just about the music.” (This comes after he relates a hilarious story about a dustup on a ferry that was mostly if not exclusively his fault and led to the band being kicked out of the Netherlands). But later on, in one of his lengthier bouts of self-awareness, present-day Noel — who, like present-day Liam, is only heard and not seen in the film — reasons that after all is said and done, “what will remain are the songs.”

That much seems true. Through it all — that dustup on the ferry boat, the crystal-meth-fueled bender that ruined their first American show (yeah, really), the “Shitelife” acceptance speech at the Brit Awards, the never-mentioned but all-consuming Britpop rivalry with Blur — the songs endure. Especially the ones from their first two albums: 1994’s Definitely Maybe and 1995’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory.

I first heard “Don’t Look Back in Anger” through laptop speakers in my friend’s dorm room in my freshman year of college. It felt instantly familiar, though I’d never heard it, or heard of “Oasis,” before. In the years that followed, me and my friends would bring down the lights at pregames, house parties, or just because, and wheel away into that nonsensical chorus, as close to “in unison” as we could get: sooooo Sally can wait, she knows it’s too late as we’re walkin’ on by.

After “Don’t Look Back,” I needed to hear another, and then another. “She’s Electric,” “Wonderwall,” obviously. I got halfway through Heathen Chemistry before deciding to turn back. I was taken with the bumptious guitars, and with Liam’s nasally voice that sounded like the trucks of a skateboard on a handrail. Or like, a steel bracket sliding down the walls of a drainpipe. I spent a lot of time thinking about exactly what it sounded like. I was having this connection with Oasis, nearly 20 years after their peak moments of relevance. I was late, and trash, but at least I was in the building. And the warming, rough-ground, come-as-you-are quality of their music made being present seem like the most important thing.

Supersonic ignores the later incarnations of the band, the increasingly forgettable music they released, and their eventual breakup. Instead it charts their meteoric rise, culminating with a pair of sold-out shows in Knebworth, in 1996. Total attendance for the two dates was 250,000, winnowed out from the record-smashing 2.6 million that entered a lottery to purchase tickets.

In the film, Noel takes care to note that these shows occurred right before the birth of the internet as we know it. He talks about Knebworth like it was one, final mass gathering before everyone took to the web to find their tribe. And it doesn’t sound — as it usually does — like a crotchety old man harrumphing about the raffishness of the modern era. Here, Noel’s technoconspiranoia sounds about right.

As they launch into the opening chords of “Champagne Supernova” at Knebworth, it seems as though the fan farthest back near the car park could have been just as enraptured as the fan nearest the stage. Each one of those 125,000-some-odd fans with their arms outstretched, was singing along with the same abandon you might find in the rafters at the Manchester Derby or my college dorm room, 20 years later. In that moment, they were totally unconcerned with how long it took them to get to the show, or where they’d be going after, and least of all what anyone else might have been thinking of them.

And that genuine connection, between a band and thousands of fans screaming their lyrics back at them, is the kind of thing that makes the art vs. artist debate seem like little more than barstool chatter. Oasis, for better and for worse, were just genius enough to be timeless, and just dumb enough to be fun. They could be great, they could be awful, and, as that riotously funny clip of the infamous Whisky A Go Go gig shows, they could be both at the same time.

They were earthbound and interstellar all at once. You could identify with them as working-class hooligans that just wanted to knock off and watch City claw themselves out of the relegation zone, and you could be envious of how unnaturally cool Liam looked in round sunglasses and a parka. This is the same way we relate to Kanye West railing against in-app purchases one day, then pay $150 to mosh underneath his floating platform for two hours as he plays the hits the next. It’s no wonder then, that Noel once said that Kanye is the one celebrity that fame isn’t wasted on. Besides himself, of course.