Inside The Explosive Rise Of Oasis With Michael Spencer Jones
One of the biggest and most influential rock and roll bands ever fostered on British soil, Oasis “were grafters who came from nothing and wanted it all”. Emerging from Britpop, the band’s debut album ‘Definitely Maybe’ released by Creation Records in 1994 was a definitive statement depicting working-class values and anti-establishment as much as encompassing a fierce determination not only to succeed, but to triumph.
The only music photographer who was allowed full access throughout the imperial phase of Oasis’ career was Michael Spencer Jones who followed the iconic band from 1993, he was with them at Knebworth in 1996, and accompanied them on tours up until 1998.
From studio recording sessions, to all the backstage action in the dressing rooms and front row areas, he gained unique, intimate insight into all aspects of the band’s life.
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To celebrate the 25th anniversary of ‘Definitely Maybe’ – Masterplan25 – a new photo exhibition at London’s H Club Gallery will showcase the photo artwork for Oasis’ early, most influential albums and singles. Delving beneath the covers, it will look behind the scenes, and with some emphasis on the period around 1994, it will reveal previously unseen works and shine a light on what also signified the end of an era.
“Oasis were the last gasp of air from that analogue age before we enter the digital age,” Michael Spencer Jones tells Clash. “Looking at the Bronica I shot ‘Definitely Maybe’ and ‘Morning Glory’ on I’m thinking, that’s a piece of equipment! Did I really need all that to take a photograph?”
The use of film meant any photographer needed to go to a lab for processing. “It’s a reminder of the way the world has changed”, he reflects. “The internet, the digital matrix, that we find ourselves in is running and controlling our lives”.
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Studying at Bournemouth and Poole Arts College, a prestigious job offer from a top-end advertising agency in London’s Mayfair followed, but his decision to move to Manchester – or Madchester as it became known - proved timely. He started freelancing and quickly secured some of the most sought after photography work in music, but it would be his photo art for The Verve’s single ‘All In The Mind’ that initially caught the attention of Noel Gallagher.
“I found myself freelancing just at the sort of point where the whole of Madchester and Stone Roses stuff was happening,” he recollects. “It’s one of them things where you never realise how good a party is until a week later and you go ‘oh that was a great party!’ But Manchester was a brilliant place in 1989 and 1990. And then suddenly up popped Oasis!”
“The Beatles could not have come from any other city in the world than Liverpool”, he adds. “It’s the same with Oasis, they could not have come from any other city than Manchester. It’s that Mancunian mixture of Irishness and working class culture that’s part of their make-up. It all becomes part of their music, and that’s the interesting thing with them. It was a total grassroots thing”.
Oasis became one of the biggest bands. Spencer Jones believes that the 1960s can be said to have ended in 1997, “When you look back there was Nirvana doing their Unplugged Session in New York, the 1990s seemed a lot closer to the 1960s”, he argues. “Oasis were the last great rock and roll band. They were the bookend, whether it’s Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard or The Beatles, Oasis are the bookend of the other side”.
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Noel Gallagher was working with the Inspiral Carpets when he met Spencer Jones. The first photo session with Oasis was at Out Of the Blue Studios in Manchester. “I walked into the studio,” he says. “They called it a studio, it was more like a rehearsal room. They were demoing ‘Shakermaker’ with Noel playing slide guitar. I realised that it takes an unusual amount of confidence and creative freedom not to care what people think”.
Most of the pictures taken were black and white. Once the processing was complete, he took the prints down to show the band. “They were pretty impressed, and that was instrumental in securing the gig I got with them. It wasn’t an easy situation to get a decent bunch of pictures together. The pictures I took of that session are still some of my favourite ones including the ones of Liam. The first photographs I ever took of him are going be in the exhibition including a close up”.
The intricate relationship between Noel and Liam was key to the band’s dynamic. The public perception was that they were always falling out, even when they got on well. “They did have a strong sibling relationship,” Spencer Jones explains. “It created an interesting creative dynamic that you wouldn’t get with other bands.”
“It was a creative rivalry amongst other rivalries, it went back to childhood, and Bonehead was the mediator. Noel has said that the creative dynamic also became the very thing that ended the band. When you look at any kind of artist or bands, there is always a fault line running through that personality, whether it’s Picasso or John Lennon”.
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He argues that an artist’s fault line is key when it comes to generating enough energy to create something. To expect artists to be perfect is risky, if you get a perfect, well-balanced individual the person won’t necessarily be interested in creating art. “I witnessed a few altercations at various places while they were recording,” he says. “But most of it was banter. Noel and Liam are highly intelligent people and very funny. They have got these observational skills and for the most part hanging out with Oasis in-between the friction and recording songs, they were really good company”.
An organic work process with just an initial idea became the starting point for ‘Definitely Maybe’. Noel had talked about ‘A Collection of Beatles Oldies’ inspired cover, the back side had a photo of The Beatles taken in Japan. The plan was to shoot at Bonehead’s house in his dining room. “I lived really close to him at the time”, Spencer Jones says. “But there was no way I could do it with the guys sat around the table. There was too many problems with it, and it just didn’t look good”.
The cover of ‘Supersonic’ shows Liam standing up, so the main alternative was for him to sit down. But Spencer Jones came up with the idea of having him lying down on the floorboards. “The lead singer is lying on the ground with his eyes shut and a globe spinning,” he says. It’s an arty image, but it doesn’t look arty. It’s a perfect representation of the band in 1994.”
“It’s impossible to think of ‘Definitely Maybe’ without that cover in the same way that it’s impossible to think of ‘Abbey Road’ without its cover of them crossing the road. The two are welded together, it’s got that element of surrealism. It’s quite arty”.
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The sleeve for ‘Some Might Say’ was a representation of the lyric with Noel suggesting the use of a Manchester train station. Spencer Jones came up with the idea of shooting at a disused train station using the platform as a stage with a set of characters waiting for a train that is never going to arrive. For ‘Whatever’ the idea was to have a vast open landscape, to shoot in Arizona while they were on tour, but things did not go to plan.
“I flew back home and then I had to find a location in England that was similar to a wide open space in Arizona,” he recollects. “The only place I could think of was this spot outside Sheffield that has completely uninterrupted flat space. What should have been shot in America ended up being taken five minutes from where I grew up. It’s ironic, it’s one of those accidental mistakes that improves things.
But no matter how legendary Oasis are, he does not necessarily want them to get back together. “I’m not big on nostalgia or reunions,” he admits. “One of the good things about The Beatles is that they never got back.”
“There may be one great album left in Oasis, it would be cool if they made more music. That’s the benefit of two big artists coming together, they become greater than some of their parts.”
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Michael Spencer Jones will host a retrospective of his Oasis photography at h Club London between November 22nd - January 12th.
Words: Susan Hansen
All Photographer: Michael Spencer Jones
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