Twenty years on from its record-breaking release, Oasis’ third full-length LP still divides opinion among fans and detractors alike, many of whom still can’t decide if 1997’s Be Here Now is an under-appreciated masterpiece, or a bloated, self-indulgent mass of hyperbole. After two decades and a lot of repeated listening, in a year touted to feature both Noel and Liam Gallagher solo albums, now seemed like a good time to reappraise.
In 1997, following on from the unprecedented, runaway success of debut album Definitely Maybe (1994) and its bigger and louder-still follow-up (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, Oasis were in an enviable position. Having conquered British indie with their no-nonsense blend of anthemic lyrics, sneering vocals, guitar distortion, and offstage tabloid-baiting antics, Oasis could – some might say should – have taken some time off. However, amid a deterioration in band relations, and a lot of hard drug use, songwriting guitarist and sometime-vocalist Noel Gallagher felt the best course of action was to write and demo some new songs, and get into the studio as soon as possible. He, along with his brother, gifted but troublesome vocalist Liam, and the rest of the band – Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs (rhythm guitar), Paul “Guigsy” McGuigan (bass), and Alan “Whitey” White (drums) – decamped to Abbey Road Studios. Be Here Now was the result.
The album opens with “D’You Know What I Mean”, introduced by the sound of an aeroplane and a lot of unnecessary Morse code, before a relentless wave of heavily-distorted and compressed guitars sets the precedent for the rest of the record. Audible (just) over the deafening high-end of cymbals and guitars, Liam continues to sing Noel’s words from the first two albums, this time with no lack of ambiguity – “all my people right here right now, d’you know what I mean?” We’re never told exactly what he means. He might not have known himself, but in summer 1997, it probably made a world of sense.
“My Big Mouth”, debuted the previous year at Oasis’ ground-breaking, earth-moving sell-out gigs at Knebworth House, follows on as quickly as it can after the first song’s lengthy outro and seems to cleverly allude to the brothers’ sharp-tongued attitude, and the problems it caused them with the press – “guess who’s gonna take the blame for my big mouth, and my big name”. It’s Oasis at their most self-referential, and the song throws punches which consistently land in a fashion more akin to an anti-ear barrage. Anyone expecting delicacy and tact must, by now, be certain that it’s not here.
From there, “Magic Pie” represents the album’s first moment away from total, all-out aural assault, opening with strummed acoustic guitars, rhythmic organ touches, and Noel Gallagher’s softer vocal style, but it quickly and suddenly jolts into top gear for a chorus which makes less sense – “you see me, I got my magic pie”. It supposedly came from Noel drunkenly misreading “magpie” in a rhyming dictionary, but it’s quickly forgotten as the long, slow outro shows no signs of slacking from the album’s repeated mantra – every song is at least two minutes too long, and any dynamic range in the mix is forfeited entirely for sustained, relentless volume.
“Stand By Me”, named after the Ben E. King tune covered by the Gallaghers’ idol, John Lennon, crams a string section amongst the drums and guitars, but for all intents and purposes is a traditional, affirmative single in the same style as “Don’t Look Back in Anger” or even “Live Forever”. The album reaches a slower pace midway through, as the raucous defiance of “I Hope, I Think, I Know” gives way to “The Girl In The Dirty Shirt”, which adopts a jaunty, Beatles-esque summer holiday rhythm and slide guitars, to back up playfully light-hearted lyrics.
“It’s Oasis at their most self-referential, and the song throws punches which consistently land in a fashion more akin to an anti-ear barrage. Anyone expecting delicacy and tact must, by now, be certain that it’s not here.”
“Fade In-Out” is a slightly drab aping of the blues-rock sound, drop-D tuned guitars and a tone slightly reminiscent of “The Swamp Song” from the band’s previous release. The tune features guitar contributions from Hollywood actor and frustrated rockstar Johnny Depp – despite being another of Noel’s celebrity acquaintances from the time, Tony Blair’s guitar playing is nowhere to be heard on this record.
“Don’t Go Away” is one of the least aggressive compositions from the band’s early canon, and is the musical equivalent of a Richard Curtis flick – soppy, syrupy, sentimental and of course, too long. Beyond the superficial melodrama are some notable lyrics – “Damn my education, I can’t find the words to say / About the things caught in my mind”, while contrasted with this is title track “Be Here Now”, which features “Wrap up cold when it’s warm outside / Your sh*t jokes remind me of Digsy’s”. The title of the album may come from a George Harrison tune, but Noel clearly shows some absurdism by way of “I Am The Walrus”, which closed Oasis concerts throughout the ‘90s.
The album begins – slowly – to draw to a close with “All Around The World”, a tune Noel had penned before the first album was recorded, but saved ‘til ’97 to be sure he could afford to record all the strings, horns, and other instrumentation he had in mind for it. The lyrics, while including “all around the world / you’ve gotta spread the word” also include a number of personal digs, the like of which appear sporadically throughout the album, “you’re lost at sea well I hope that you drown”. The disparity between anthemic inclusiveness and bitter defiance seems as if it wants more explaining, but by the time the song fades, after 9 long minutes, all is long forgotten. “It’s Getting Better (Man!!)”, a classic rock number in the vein of T. Rex or Slade, is one of the album’s standout moments, if a moment can last 7 minutes, and is rounded out by a reprise of “All Around The World”, ending the horns, strings, guitars, and drums with footsteps and a door closing.
Noel himself has somewhat disowned Be Here Now for the past 20 years, explaining that, if it was heard on the day of release, in the sunshine, and then never heard again it’d probably be one of the best records ever made. It’s easy to see why, after a full start-to-finish listen, its creator might feel this way. Be Here Now is way too long, way too loud, nonsensical in places, and completely self-indulgent. The amount of hard drugs consumed during its production, as explained by Gallagher himself, may have something to do with this. However, for all its valid criticism, Be Here Now is nowhere near as terrible as all that. At its best, it’s anthemic, unifying, life-affirming, and brazenly defiant in the face of life, disregarding hardship and strife in favour of being yourself, having a good time, and being unable (or unwilling) to know how many guitar tracks is too many.
Josh Will Eden