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Music

Why did Oasis split up?

@TylerGolsen

The question was never really “why did Oasis break up?”. For the nearly 20 years of their existence, Oasis were constantly breaking up at all times, largely thanks to the ever-combustible relationship between an older brother, guitarist-songwriter Noel Gallagher, and a younger brother, frontman Liam Gallagher. It was somewhat astounding that they had even made it to 2009, surviving a complete turnover of band members, the death of the genre they largely pioneered, and the fluctuations of the record industry as the freewheeling 1990s turned into the mass consumption internet age of the 2000s. It’s not “why did Oasis break up?”, instead it is more: “How did Oasis last two decades?”.

Most bands have a definitive breakup story: unequal balances of power, strained relationships, creative differences, and money issues turn a once-solid group of friends into bitter enemies. But these elements were present from the very second a young Manchester group called The Rain let the lead singer’s brother take over the band and rename them Oasis. Noel demanded control: full songwriting responsibilities and the majority say over the band’s style, and in return, he would bring his (admittedly somewhat nascent) industry connections and dedication to making the band famous. It worked, but it was never easy.

Being in Oasis was akin to being in a constant war of attrition. Most of the members were loutish lads like Liam: football lovers, with streaks of hooliganism in their blood and a predilection towards drugs and drink. Of them, only rhythm guitarist Paul Arthurs, known to all as ‘Bonehead’, had the dedication and musical talent that gelled with Noel’s vision of global takeover. The rhythm section was composed of taciturn, working class, Irish-blooded gents, Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan on bass and Tony McCarroll on drums. Their instructions were simple: stay out of the way, do as you’re told, and you’ll get to be a part of the biggest band in the world.

Another rule was to know how to survive constant turbulence. Noel and Liam fought like dogs, but they were brothers, and both were necessary to lift Oasis into the stratosphere. But Noel was a loner, a busybody in the studio who would just as soon take over your role in the recording process if you messed up one too many times. Liam was gregarious and outgoing, but a troublemaker who was often more interested in the pub than the studio. Knowing whose side to take was always easy: go against Noel at your own peril. But Liam was an expert in roping in anyone around him into his uniquely endearing and destructive tornado.

Watch Liam Gallagher and Bonehead recall iconic Oasis recordings

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Charting the first Oasis “split” is nearly impossible, considering how frequently Noel and Liam either left or fired one another. Noel always had the final say, but no matter how many times he might have wanted to, he knew he could never get Liam out of the band. He was too distinctive, too popular, too good at his very specific skillset to let go. Noel might have been the behind-the-scenes mastermind who got a few lead vocal spots and the wittier barbs in the papers, but Liam had the voice, the sound, the look, and the attitude that made Oasis the band that they were. But even in the early days, walkouts and week-long absences weren’t uncommon.

There’s the infamous ferry incident that led to all of the members (minus Noel) getting deported on the first day of their first international tour in 1994. There’s the subsequent NME interview that found the pair arguing about the incident for minutes on end, eventually released as a charting single entitled ‘Wibbling Rivalry’. There’s the concert at the Whiskey A Go-Go that found the band members snorting crystal meth instead of cocaine, causing them to cock up one of their biggest make-or-break gigs of their young career. Each time, Noel walked out and vowed he was done, only to be coaxed back into returning, further solidifying his “me and them” attitude towards the rest of the band (the flight Noel took to San Francisco after the Whiskey gig eventually inspired the lyrics to ‘Talk Tonight’, so I’d call it a fair trade off).

As the band’s debut, Definitely Maybe, found major British chart success (and even some underground buzz in America), Noel began writing the material for the group’s sophomore album. But he came to a quick revelation: McCarroll wasn’t going to be able to play the songs. After a final tension-filled session for ‘Some Might Say’, Noel canned McCarroll and hired Alan White as his replacement. Even though Gallagher claims to have hired White mostly on looks, White’s notable chops elevated the band’s new material from the relatively placid “boom-chick-boom” of McCarroll’s style to a more nuanced and fluid take on rock drumming. Songs like ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, ‘Champagne Supernova’ and ‘Wonderwall’ wouldn’t be the same without White’s contributions.

Even better: White was happy to do as he was told. The recording of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? provided Arthurs with a chance to expand his musical palate, performing almost all of the album’s keyboard parts in addition to his guitar work. But ‘Guigsy’ was starting to get frazzled by the band’s fame and the pressure involved in making the album. Noel took over the bass parts on songs like ‘She’s Electric’ and ‘Cast No Shadow’, and by the time the band fired up the supporting tour, the constant demeaning and sheer scale finally got to McGuigan. Even though he had established himself as perhaps the most musically adept member of the group, Arthurs was still briefly relegated to bass for their appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman while Noel searched for a replacement, underscoring Arthurs’ deputy standing in the band.

McGuigan wasn’t the only one to quit the band (and eventually return) during the 1995-1996 tour. Noel once again walked out on the group before the first English leg, while Liam refused to fly to America. Liam also pulled out of the band’s MTV Unplugged concert, leading Noel to step in as the lead singer. This is truly where the seeds of the band’s eventual break-up were sown: the only thing holding the band together was the idea that Noel knew he couldn’t go on without Liam. Now that he had the adulation and acclaim from the Unplugged performance, Noel began to seriously consider striking out on his own.

But in the meantime, more walkouts and tantrums followed. Liam quit once again towards the end of the tour but returned in time to make the band’s scheduled appearance at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards. During ‘Champaign Supernova’, Liam began indulging in intoxicated antics, including provoking Noel and spitting beer all over the cameras. The group limped along for three more shows, but Oasis split up before reaching Charlotte, North Carolina and the remaining five shows, plus a planned Australian leg, was cancelled as the band were officially caput.

The Gallaghers eventually made up, but the MTV Video Music Awards proved to be the end of an era for the band. Just a month prior, Oasis played two legendary nights at Knebworth Park to an audience of a quarter of a million people. They were officially the biggest band in Britain, and inarguably one of the biggest bands in the world. Even if Knebworth was a peak, the band still held the cultural zeitgeist and could still be forerunners in music. Unfortunately for them, the culture was changing, and Britpop was beginning to wane as tastes shifted to more pop-centred fair.

But Oasis was simply too big to fail. The Gallaghers wouldn’t let it happen. Instead, they went as big as they possibly could with Be Here Now, a bloated mess of an album that took all the triumphant and anthemic qualities of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and blew them out to cartoonish proportions. As the new millennium approached, the band’s stronghold as Britain’s top draw was inevitably on the downward slide, with McGuigan and Arthurs departing before Standing on the Shoulders of Giants began recording. Eventually White would be out too, and Oasis became permanently centred around the Gallaghers.

Experimentation and generic rock records followed, with Noel allowing less of a stronghold on the band’s style. Oasis fell in stature, but still constituted a major concert draw. The Gallaghers were still reliable for drama, but they could also still pump out killer reproductions of their ’90s heyday. But as they continued to age, the Gallaghers’ constant war began to wear them both down. It all came to a head before a concert at the Rock en Seine Festival near Paris in 2009. Liam allegedly threw a chair at Noel, and the band never took the stage. Instead, Noel released the following statement shortly afterwards:

“It is with some sadness and great relief…I quit Oasis tonight. People will write and say what they like, but I simply could not go on working with Liam a day longer.”

And with that, Oasis was officially over. That’s the way it’s been for over a decade, despite most writers and fans believing that it would only be another temporary split, one of the countless brawls and breakups that dotted the band’s history. But Noel has remained steadfast about the permanent nature of the current split, and now that he has a successful solo career (and more money than God), there’s not much incentive to fire back up Oasis.

At this point, it would take a true miracle, namely the mending of the Gallaghers’ relationship, in order to bring Oasis back. That’s not impossible, and perhaps along with age will also come a mellowing of the most ferocious sibling rivalry in all of music. Despite what reports might suggest, it wasn’t one instigating incident that caused Oasis to break up.

Instead, it was 20 years of incidents that would have killed lesser bands multiple times over. Oasis were stronger than the rest, but even they couldn’t get out of their own way. Father Time is undefeated, and a slow deterioration of the bond between Noel and Liam Gallagher over the course of two decades meant that a breaking point was unavoidable. Two decades is easily ten years more than anyone thought they would, or should, have lasted.

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