“This is history!”
Noel Gallagher, Knebworth, August 1996
It was the biggest gig of the 1990s, and I missed it.
Music journos usually cite Knebworth as the crowning glory for a pub-rock band from Burnage. For size and scale, Knebworth was history in the making – but in cultural terms, the two nights they played Maine Road constitutes the definitive Oasis concert. This was cultural-consciousness-conquering Oasis in full-flow: bombastic and hubristic, unadulterated as weapons-grade cocaine; yet still rooted to the city, the people and the circumstances that shaped them.
This was prime, Morning Glory Oasis. Before the Be Here Now debacle, and the post-Britpop comedown. Before the Gallagher Brothers parted company with founder members Bonehead and Guigsy. Before a raft of tired, uninspired albums, and the group morphed into the tribute band to end all tribute bands: the No-Way Sis to Definitely Might Be. Before Noel met Tony and before Liam met Spongebob. Before Noel entered the pantheon of rock’s elder statesmen. Before Beady Eye and the High Flying Birds.
Before the lucrative reunion tour – and it will happen – breaks down in predictable acrimony and humorous quotes.
We cadged a lift in my mum’s blue Renault Espace. Me, my mate Paul, his younger brother Matt, and Rich, a classmate. My younger brother also came with to help my nervous mum get out of greater Manchester, while doubling as a flesh-and-blood anti-car-jacking security device.
She dropped us off outside the Kippax Stand, in a tsunami of sky-blue flyers, fag butts and crushed cans. I don’t remember much else from outside the ground. By all accounts it was a maelstrom of drunken City fans – spliff-smoke, sprayed booze, football chants and raucous yodelling – a Dionysian tableau through which I passed like a Man Utd fan with PTSD.
As we clicked through the stiles at the Kippax Stands and had our tickets authenticated, a quiver of excitement and a bolt of acute terror shot through my adrenalized form. I was shaking with anticipation. We were here. We’d arrived. This was it. Something magnificent was going to happen today. Some indistinct, epoch-defining, coming-of-age moment was upon me.
Being an immature 16 year old (physically, intellectually, emotionally, etcetera ad nauseum), I was always on the lookout for coming-of-age moments. This I ascribe to spending too much time in the brain-space of Adrian Mole. I’d never even been to a crap gig before – never mind the most eagerly-anticipated homecoming gig by the self-appointed biggest band in the world. So when my mate Paul said his older brother was getting tickets and asked if I wanted to go, of course I said yes, then immediately started to worry about whether I’d be allowed.
Because Maine Road was in Moss Side. Moss. Side. The bete noir of BBC North West Tonight. In the 1990s, people got indiscriminately shot in Moss Side. I knew because Gordon ‘The Krypton Factor’ Burns told me. Gordon and his stolid news anchorage. His deep, portentous voice inculcating dread.
So even if we did get tickets – and it wasn’t likely – it was pretty moot given we were likely to die. Being an Oasis fan wasn't simply a state of mind but a mode of being, an ontology: you were either mad for it, or you weren't. We were heading straight into the jaws of the beast.
The die-hard Oasis fans wouldn’t have given a fuck about that. They’d have died happy. I came to Oasis by accident, having spent most of the 1990s listening to 80s pop (well before the school-disco fad kicked in). While others were indulging in Definitely Maybe and Parklife, I was listening to Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. At some point during the first year of my A-levels, this changed. Some of the fascination was word of mouth, some of it personal curiosity. By the time of the Maine road gig, you cut me and I bled Oasis. I’d bought both albums, all the singles (for the peerless B-sides), owned a clutch of Ben Sherman shirts and was trying to grow my straight blonde hair out like Alan White’s.
Having bought an overpriced programme and ugly Oasis t-shirt (which added a third layer to my attire), we took our seats. We stayed in them, like diligent dilettantes, for the opening support, Ocean Colour Scene, whose note-perfect set culled from their Moseley Shoals album, replete with a barnstorming cover of The Beatles’ Day Tripper, was thoroughly usurped by a figure in a white anorak up in the executive suites, rumoured to be Liam, or the King Monkey himself, Ian Brown.
Cast were due to play but had cancelled as one of their members had his arm in a sling. This I was particularly disappointed about, as I liked the spikiness of their John Leckie-produced debut. It also meant a lengthy gap between sets, so the afternoon began to drag. People getting restless. We ventured into the crowd for The Manic Street Preachers, minus the recently-disappeared Richie Edwards: a sober set, undemonstrative, almost mournful – certainly less engaging than the postmodern Mods OCS.
That was when the trouble started. The crowd surged forward. A girl got knocked down in front of us and her boyfriend span round, snarling at us to get back. I meekly complied. Trapped in a panorama of blokes, booze and banter, the compelling urge to go for a piss overtook me. I didn’t know then that the correct procedure under such circumstances was to find a plastic pint pot, fill it with piss and launch it. Instead, I told my friends I was going for a wazz, and asked them to remain where they were. In my youthful naivety, I expected to find them where I left them.
It still seems like an idiotic decision, but worse was to come. Pissing, I heard the sound of a helicopter passing up above, followed by a drawn-out roar of braying adulation, shrill and guttural. Then the unmistakeable strains of Swamp Song struck up.
Swiftly left I the stinking piss-trough to findeth my rightful place in the righteous crowd. Scant hope: much like Bonehead’s hairline, they’d vanished. I drew a bead on the point where they had been, in the vast swell of beanie hats and replica City shirts. I inched my way to the approximate point in the crowd where we parted company, continually apologising as I trod on feet and knocked pint-raising elbows, ducking as pots of piss rained down from on high.
Imagine trying to find three teenagers dressed in blue in a fucking cosmos of teenagers dressed in blue. Crestfallen, I began inching my way to the edge of the crowd, trudging my way to the back of the stadium, scuffing my Gazelles through the tide of rubbish.
I watched the entire gig from the far end of the ground on my own. I was too panicked to enjoy the performance. How the fuck was I going to get home? Paul’s dad was supposed to be giving me a lift. But we hadn’t agreed a meeting point, other than outside the massive Kippax stand. It was assumed we’d stick together. Only me – idiot – had failed to do so.
Sure enough, post-encore, the floodlights came on and I scanned the surf for recognisable faces. I couldn’t see a single soul. There were other people I knew would be there, so I looked for them. No sign either. I walked back through the turnstiles. People selling rip-off Oasis merchandise, pissed up Liam-imitators milling around looking for trouble, taxis and minicabs juddering off into central Manchester for after-parties I’d never know the like.
The crowd was thinning, and by now I was beginning to panic. For a nanosecond, the thought of hitching a lift home entered my head. Then I remembered Dennis Nilsen. And decided to stay put.
Subsequent to our fated trip to Maine Road I’ve spoken a number of times to Paul’s dad – who was supposed to be giving us a lift home – about what he did when he came to collect his son and friends and found one of them missing. What did he do? He drove back to Sandbach, dropped off his son’s remaining friend, thence continued home, whereupon he called my parents to inform them that their eldest son was still in Moss Side. Missing, presumed dead.
Amazingly, a miracle occurred. Around midnight, I randomly bumped into someone I knew: a lad from my year. We weren’t on first name terms, and rarely spoke. Some mutual antipathy. I fell upon his mercy, and he squeezed me in the back of his mum’s car. We travelled down the M6 in silence.
Such is the vividity of those hours of solipsistic solitude that I remember little of the music, nor what happened after I got home. I have a dim recollection that my dad had driven off into the night to find me, and my mum phoned him on his mobile to call off the search. Perhaps that's wishful thinking: most likely they were still at home thinking I’d turn up, possibly in a police car. Either way I’d have been informed I was a ‘dipstick’ or an ‘idiot’, maybe even a ‘stupid boy’. And they were right.
It was the best gig of the 1990s, and I missed it. So much for being mad for it.
i checked with Paul for verification of the events as outlined above. His response:
Ha. Well you missed the bit about us looking for you for about an hour...We waited until there was no one left. Pre mobile phones this must have been a standard occurrence- big Dave was pretty stressed.... I think he called your parents from Manchester and pretty sure you arrived home before we eventually did. I think the main puzzle was why you hadn't called home from a pay phone and explained what had happened.... You were in bad books with my Dad!
This from Big Dave:
After completing several laps of the outside of Maine Road I rang Paul's mum with instructions to ring your mum to try and find out if she had heard from you, she hadn't. The outside of Maine Road was becoming more and more isolated but no less sinister. After the point when I felt I was beginning to recognise every single face in the area of which none was you, I drove home because I could not think of anything else to do. When we got home we were greeted with the news that you had arrived home some time before and was not sure what all the fuss was about. With hindsight I still don't know what else I could have done.