[Here is the first of series of articles Mike Raine thought about doing on individual songs. They focus on background, meaning, and anecdotes, to varying degrees.]
Few songs can capture the mood of their time and place. When you here a song that does, there’s not much that can beat it and Oasis’
Cigarettes and Alcohol is one those songs.
From the opening line of “is it my imagination / or have I finally found something worth working for” sung in Liam Gallagher’s sneering vocal, the song takes charge and provides a mission statement for Britain’s working-class youth that had grown up under Thatcherism. It oozes attitude. It’s the song Marc Bolan (T-Rex’s singer) would’ve written if he spent more time brawling and less time primping.
The forth single off of Oasis’ debut Definitely Maybe, “Cigarettes and Alcohol” shot into the British Top 10 in October of 1994, much to the dismay of music aficionados. The song’s blatant borrowing (I mean rip-off) of T.Rex’s
“Bang a Gong (Get It On)’s” riff didn’t go unnoticed by listeners or the band.
As Noel Gallagher tells it, when he brought the song to their rehearsal space in a Manchester basement, the band’s rhythm guitarist Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs immediately objected to the riff. As Noel played the opening chords, Bonehead interjected with, “whoa, whoa, you can’t use that riff, that’s fucking T.Rex.” to which Noel replied, “I don’t give a fuck who it is, no one’s gonna hear it anyway”. Apparently the bands who shared the rehearsal space with Oasis weren’t too impressed either. The band arrived one day to find a note with the words, “write your own fucking riffs!” taped to the door.
Charges of plagiarism be damned: a great song is a great song. That’s something the elder Gallagher has always rightfully believed. What matters is the sentiment. “Cigarettes and Alcohol” was the perfect encapsulation of the times. Working-class kids in Britain had become terribly disenchanted after a decade of Conservative rule and were looking for something to believe in. When they heard “Cigarettes and Alcohol”, they believed in Oasis. As Alan Magee (Oasis’ manager from 1994-1999 and Creation Records founder) states, “is it worth the aggravation / to find yourself a job / when there’s nothing working for” is one the greatest social statements of its time. Combine that with a bridge of “you gotta/ you gotta/ you gotta make it happen” and you have the quintessential Britpop statement. That feeling of life is shit but it’s not going to any better unless make it so yourself. If there is one thing that Oasis represented when they hit the British music scene, it was optimism. Definitely Maybe was one big “fuck you” to the grunge ethos of smack addiction and depression.
That being said, “Cigarettes and Alcohol” contains the most unconcealed endorsement of cocaine use ever to make it past BBC Radio One censors. It’s beyond me how they missed a line like, “you could wait for lifetime / to spend your days in the sunshine/ you might as well do the white line”. Unlike most which talk of drugs from of one of two extremes – either they’re greatest thing since the microwave or they’re the end of civilization as we know it – “Cigarettes and Alcohol” simply paints drugs as a part of everyday life. Take them or leave them, it doesn’t matter. The song wasn’t meant to preach about the glories of partying. It’s a simple statement about the drabness of everyday life and the need to find your own way out. “I was looking for some action / but all I found was cigarettes and alcohol” is hardly a catchphrase that Belmont or Smirnoff can use in their next advert. For that reason it has become a lad anthem in pubs across the UK.
The song needed an album cover that would warn listeners of the assault that was about to hit their ears. How did the Gallagher brothers decide to spend the money Creation gave them for a photo shoot? They got a suit in one the most posh hotels in London, got some friends and booze, through a party, and had Michael Spencer Jones photograph of the proceedings. They were subsequently banned from the premises for life. It was only appropriate that the cover have the same “give a fuck” attitude as the song.
So concerned were Oasis with maintaining the band-of-the-people image that they had formulated, they even lied in the liner notes. A brilliant live recording of the band covering “I am the Walrus” is one of three b-sides on the single. Contrary to what the liner notes say, the recording done at a soundcheck at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland on February 6, 1994 as part of a Sony Music seminar. Apparently Noel thought it would look bad that the song had been recorded at a corporate event so he had the liner notes altered to say the song was recorded at the Glasgow Cathouse in June ’94. The sound of an adoring crowd heard at the opening and closing of the track was taken from a Faces’ bootleg owned by Noel.
Lies and rip-offs aside, “Cigarettes and Alcohol” remains the quintessential Oasis track. Its sheer attitude makes it the soundtrack to any booze-fuelled night out. The fact that it is written off as a shameless piece of plagiarism by almost everybody that heard it in its earliest stages makes it that much better. Who else would have the gull to release a single that so obviously ripped off classic tune? Moreover, who else could take a guitar riff from glittering glam-rock staple and turn it into a snarling working-class anthem?
Oasis, that’s who.