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Revisiting Oasis' doomed 'MTV Unplugged' performance

@TylerGolsen

It’s August 23, 1996, and as is always the case, Oasis are on the verge of breaking up. There was plenty of incentive to stay together: the band were at their commercial peak, with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory having become the second fastest-selling album in British history and steadily selling hundreds of thousands of copies throughout the year. The band made the jump to playing stadiums, and just two weeks before, Oasis performed their legendary two-night stand at Knebworth in front of 250,000 people.

In retrospect, the Knebworth gig represented the beginning of Oasis’ slide. For one, there was nowhere to go but down: the Knebworth shows were a culmination of a half-decade of hard work and hype. The stars were aligned at that time in a way that would prove impossible to replicate. But following the gigs, the rows that were already legendary between the Gallagher brothers began to overshadow the band’s music. From this point on, essential members would come and go, Be Here Now would be cited as the end of Britpop, and Oasis entered into their final decade and a half as simply one of the world’s biggest bands, not the world’s biggest band.

One of the initial signs of strain came as the band were set to appear on MTV Unplugged. Arguably the most popular recurring specials aired on the network, Oasis had rehearsed with a full slate of backing musicians for the two weeks following Knebworth to flesh out the band’s setlist without overwhelming volume and power. Liam, always a fan of the band’s rock and roll punch, allegedly attended only three days of rehearsals, during which he rarely sang. Amid those rehearsals, Liam consistently complained of having lost his voice.

The extent to which the frontman had actually lost his voice has long been debated. The show’s producers openly wondered if he would show up and in what condition, with Noel recalling: “The day of the performance, he hadn’t turned up and there were rumours that he’d been out drinking for a couple of days… and nobody knew where he was. About an hour before we were due to go on, he turned up, absolutely shitfaced.” While Liam had belted out Oasis’ catalogue with panache at Knebworth, the reality likely had more to do with his own lack of professionalism than with any dire health concerns.

Noel had a decision to make: cancel the concert or go on without his brother. Noel had taken the lead on ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, was the band’s songwriter, and had filled in for Liam during rehearsals, so he decided that the show would go on with him taking the role of lead vocalist. Thankfully, he didn’t forget any of the words.

The concert wound up being a rousing success, with Noel receiving praise for his vocal performance, but it wasn’t without incident. Towards the end of the setlist, Noel looked up towards the balcony when he began to overhear some heckling from the crowd. There was Liam, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, jeering at his brother for taking his spot. “Oh, there you are,” was all that Noel offered up in response.

As the show ended, the producers asked the band if they could redo set opener ‘Hello’. The band dutifully obliged but had to deflect the oscillating desires of their lead singer. “Liam comes on and he wants to sing,” Noel recalls. “After we’d played for an hour and a half or something! So we just told him to fuck off. And he went off, sulking.”

The band had survived blowups before: Noel famously quit the band after a disastrous gig in Los Angeles during the tour for Definitely Maybe, an experience that would later inform the lyrics to ‘Talk Tonight’. Original drummer Tony McCarrol was unceremoniously and acrimoniously fired before the recording of Morning Glory, and bassist Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan quit mid-tour citing nervous exhaustion. Replacement bassist Scott McLoed lasted only as long as it took to film the ‘Wonderwall’ video before departing himself.

But the cracks that were plainly obvious during the Unplugged performance became bigger and harder to manoeuvre around. The band left for Morning Glory‘s US tour a week later, but Liam didn’t board the plane. Noel once again stepped in as lead vocalist, but Liam rejoined the tour in time to play the MTV Video Music Awards, where he was inebriated and combative enough to cause another mid-tour break up. The band reconciled to finish the tour, but the drug abuse and band tensions would carry over to the recording of their next album, Be Here Now.

The rest of the Oasis story isn’t as much a fall from grace as it is a steady decline. Original members Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthur and McGuigan departed following the Be Here Now tour. Replacement drummer Alan White didn’t last much longer after that, and even though the band found notable ringers in the likes of Ride’s Andy Bell, Heavy Stereo’s Gem Archer, The Who’s Zak Starkey, the band would now be fully dependent on the volatile relationship between Noel and Liam.

It would not end well, and while their MTV Unplugged performance wasn’t the first notable fissure, it was the impetus for Noel to gain enough confidence to eventually leave Oasis in the rearview mirror.

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