Pop’s Oasis of hype

New disc from the U.K.'s Fab 5 bows

LONDON — John Lennon sparked outrage when he joked that his band was more popular than Jesus Christ. But if the hype surrounding the third album from Oasis is to be believed, then today’s controversy is whether Britain’s premier rock group is about to become bigger than the Beatles.

In England, “Be Here Now” hits the shops today, and many industryites believe it will go on to be the most successful U.K. release ever — topping the band’s previous disc sales of 12 million worldwide. Most important, “Be Here Now” is expected to significantly boost an otherwise sluggish domestic market.

And to ensure that prophecy is fulfilled, Creation, the record company for Manchester’s Fab Five, is pulling out the stops.

The “indie” (the label is 49% owned by Sony) is handling all the marketing of the album in the U.K., and is doing everything it can to manipulate both the media and the industry itself. Epic will release the album in the U.S. Aug. 26. Radio play since the July 7 release of the single “D’You Know What I Mean?” — which reportedly went platinum on the day of its release — was limited to four tracks. On Aug. 12 Radio 1 in Britain and the BBC’s online service broadcast three additional tracks from the disc.

Reviewers — and only a very few were given copies — had to sign contracts stipulating that the album would not reach the ears of anyone else or, laughably, even be discussed.

Meanwhile — despite the fact that “Be Here Now” was not available to buy — fans were invited to come to select record stores last week for a full album listening session — a kind of listen but do not touch.

So effective has been the cumulative tease that quality newspapers have reviewed the record as news — accompanied by analysis — on the second or third page of the first section. The Daily Star ran an eight-page pull-out on the album that annoyed fans because it gave the wrong release date.

Hype machine

Taking an inventive approach to building pre-release hysteria is very much in keeping with the style of Creation co-founder Alan McGee. McGee is a maverick in the British music industry, often found voicing his opinions very publicly, including criticizing the mighty Sony and doggedly running the company as he wishes regardless of its connection to a major.

But the success of the new Oasis record is crucial to the label.

Last year, Creation had sales of about $34 million, of which approximately three-quarters was derived from “What’s the Story Morning Glory,” Oasis’ second album released Oct. 2, 1995, which sold 12 million units worldwide. (Their debut, “Definitely Maybe,” has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide since its Aug. 30, 1994, release.) McGee bullishly suggests 1997 will be a $40 million year on the back of “Be Here Now.”

Oasis itself, of course, is also doing its best to up the ante. Very characteristically, Noel Gallagher, the group’s songwriter, is unabashedly blowing his own horn, proclaiming “our band will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time … we’ll be a footprint in the history of rock music.”

The fans clearly agree. Outside Abbey Road Studios in London, for example, there is no shortage of graffiti extolling the virtues of Oasis over the fab four old-timers.

Recalling the TV perfs of their forefathers, Oasis had to re-record “D’You Know What I Mean?” for “Top of the Pops” after dozens of fans tried to grab band members onstage at the BBC’s Elstree Studios in north London.

Critical brickbats

Some critics, however, read footnote for footprint.

Like on the previous albums, the material on “Be Here Now” is derivative of the Beatles, a recognition factor that grabs the listener easily, but also triggers ambivalence among those who have heard it all before.

On the other hand, other critics have sung the album’s praises, characterizing it as the best work the band has done to date.

Vox magazine, for example, wrote, “Oasis’ third LP is a veritable monsoon of an album; a giant jigsaw puzzle, an elemental force, a monster that cannot and will not be contained.”

Many critics suggest its derivative qualities are negligible in the face of grand, inspired material. Besides, every ground-breaking act in popdom had its influences, and Oasis makes no secret of the fact that the Beatles is theirs.

“To Be Here Now,” for instance, is a Lennon quote referring to what he saw as the essence of rock ‘n’ roll. Gallagher echoes Lennon often. In the current issue of the monthly music mag Q, he refers to a particular good gig in the band’s career by saying the band was bigger than God, a statement likely more mischievous than anything else.

But if the anticipatory frenzy in the U.K. make Oasis seem like demi-gods, the picture is less overwhelming elsewhere. Yes, the Gallagher brothers (Noel’s brother Liam is the group’s bad-boy lead singer) and company are a major international act, but only one of many in the megastar firmament.

Sony is handling the release of the album in every territory outside of Britain, and has naturally prepared a big push, but nothing out of the ordinary. They are scheduled to perform on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” Oct. 4.

Tickets for the band’s 12-date U.K. tour in September, which includes three nights at the Earl’s Court in London, sold out in one day. (That’s 157,000 ducats).

It took one of the Spice Girls to put the hoopla into perspective. Said Mel C, the “sporty” one of the bunch, to the venerable pop newspaper Melody Maker: “If Oasis are bigger than God, what does that make us? Bigger than Buddha? Because we are a darn sight bigger than Oasis.”

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