There were only three kinds of teenagers in Britain in 1996 – those that went to one of the huge Oasis’ shows at Knebworth park, those that wanted to go and couldn’t, and goths. I was one of the second group, and it’s nice to see that, I too, am represented in Oasis Knebworth 1996, the new documentary/concert movie that tells the story of that weekend. One scene shows a lad tucked away in his bedroom with his brother and a four-pack of cheap lager, his hands hovering over the ‘record’ and ‘play’ buttons on his stereo as he prepares to tape Sunday night’s historic set off of Radio One. I did that. I clearly wasn’t the only one – at the screening we attended, introed in person by Noel Gallagher himself no less, the moment got a huge laugh of recognition from the audience.
Back in 1996, aged 15, I made a cover for my tape using a collage of images from Monday morning’s Sun, which had several pages celebrating the gigs. I listened to it endlessly and knew every beat of Liam Gallagher’s stage banter and improvisation …. a year later, I was pretending I’d never liked the band at all and that, had I gone to Knebworth, I’d have left after the Manics’ support set.
You shouldn’t review movies in the first person. It’s just not the done thing. But Knebworth warrants an exception. For someone of my age, it’s almost impossible to disconnect the images from the memory. Jake Scott’s movie, assembled from a concert film commissioned by the band at the time but unreleased until now, shaky camcorder footage, voice-over from band members and – more crucially – fans in attendance on the day, is ostensibly about a weekend of gigs, and more broadly about an old indie band. That’s not the story here though. This isn’t the story of a weekend or a band or a gig. It’s the story of a moment. A specific fixed point in British culture. A hinge-point for a decade. If you were there then you know what I mean, if you weren’t; Oasis Knebworth 1996 does a good job of showing it.
It’s hard to comprehend, 25 years on, how massive Oasis were in 1996. You can know that they were a big band, you can see the sales figures and chart placings, but honestly, I promise, if you weren’t there you can’t really get your head around their scale and importance – quite simply because it hasn’t happened since and, as Noel explained in his live pre-amble, is unlikely to again. I’ll give you some examples. A few months after Knebworth I went on holiday to Portugal with my family. One night, much to my Dad’s delight, we found an English bar that sold Boddingtons for the ex-pats and tourists, ran by a lovely couple from Oldham. At some point someone put (What’s The Story?) Morning Glory on the jukebox; not the song, the album. All of it. In sequence. Every single person in that pub, strangers drawn from all corners of the UK, sang along to every single word of every single song. Not just ‘Wonderwall’, not even just the singles – the whole thing. I don’t think there’s been an album released since that could pass that test. At one point a novelty lounge version of ‘Wonderwall’ (by the Mike Flowers Pops) was a top ten hit. An Oasis tribute band called No-Way-Sis scraped into the top 40 with a cover of ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’, the song referenced on Oasis’ own ‘Shakermaker’. They got on Top of the Pops with it.
Once the Gallaghers shrugged off their indie roots and beat Blur in the ‘Battle of Britpop’ (for which, FYI, I still haven’t forgiven them) they transcended mere music and entered the consciousness of the public on a whole new level. Honest. Seriously. Britain was in the throes of what was cringingly called ‘Cool Brittania’: Trainspotting, Damian Hirst, The Face magazine, Kate Moss, Euro 96, Loaded, Tony Blair. To be young in the UK between 1994 and 1998 was to feel like you were in the centre of the universe. Knebworth was Cool Britannia’s zenith (a word Noel uses a lot here), its high point. Before the cynicism set in; before Tony Blair turned out to be, well, Tony Blair. Before all the bands started to look and sound like Oasis, but shit. Before Oasis started to sound like Oasis but shit. It wasn’t just a gig, it was a celebration, a crystallisation of a moment that went beyond music. It defined something.
Scott’s film does an excellent job of capturing that sense of speed and thrill. That sense, as Noel put it at the time, of “history” (“This! Is! History! Right here! Right now!” he says at Sunday’s show. “I thought it were fuckin’ Knebworth” replies Liam.) There’s a lot of story-telling skill on show here; it would be easy to have edited the gig footage into some sort of shape and thrown the odd Gallagher over the top to explain stuff, and the resulting product would have been a serviceable enough record of proceedings – the approach here is more interesting and certainly more cinematic. By surfacing a dozen or so fans that attended the shows and using their real voices to tell the stories of their day, Scott manages to capture the genuine excitement around the event. It means that his film becomes far more than a band on stage – it becomes, to use a hideously overdone word, a snapshot of the zeitgeist.
What’s genuinely impressive is that Knebworth manages to both give these shows a mythic quality while simultaneously demystifying them. The 125,000 people in attendance each day have merged together to become an amorphous, faceless mass in the years since – by telling individual stories Scott manages to pull the focus away from the big picture in a way that actually helps define it. They’re great stories, too – the girl whose brother accompanied her just to keep her parents happy and ended up having a perfect day with his sister before he was diagnosed with cancer soon after, the guy who saw the first night and decided to sleep outside the main entrance in the rain so he could be first in the next day, despite having nothing on him but his ticket and a packet of cigarettes; the lad who found out his girlfriend was pregnant that very day; the foreign tourists who spotted the last two tickets left for sale in London on the day of the show and raced across the countryside, unplanned, to get there, the guy who ended up sharing a limo with Kate Moss and Anna Friel when their driver stopped for directions and many more. Each a snapshot of a moment, coming together like one of those collages of tiny stills that when viewed from further away make up a single image.
The concert footage itself is fine. It’s Oasis at their peak, as the band freely admit, and the songs are fairly bulletproof, but shorn of the context it’s just a gig (albeit quite a good one. The second night, especially, sees Liam in incredible form, his charisma is off the charts). The music is the framing device though, not the point itself. The point is the moment. In fact, taken alone the live stuff actually undermines the mystique a bit – for a start, aside from Liam (who’d look good in pretty much anything) the band look bloody awful. Noel does both shows in what appears to be M&S knitwear and everyone else is in boring button-down shirts, rooted to the spot. If it wasn’t for the big tunes, communal vibe and mega-watt Gallagher charisma it would be genuinely dull.
It’s a reminder that, though Oasis became Britpop’s focal point they also pretty much killed it – it was all downhill from there. The band never recaptured the magic and would be treading water creatively for the next decade. The film makes a point of showing us the cross-section of British youth that attended the gigs, with a roughly 50-50 gender split: within a few years, the popular perception of an Oasis fan was a bucket-hatted thicko shouting about the football. We all moved on, slightly embarrassed, to Radiohead or Placebo or the Spice Girls or Robbie Williams or Slipknot or … whatever. After a while, people forgot that for a few brief years the Oasis fanbase was most of the country. But then that’s the point. Oasis Knebworth 1996 captures the crest of the wave, an untouchable crystalised moment, and for that, it’s nigh-on perfect.
OASIS KNEBWORTH 1996 releases in cinemas globally from September 23rd.