I was listening to some old Oasis songs the other night, and it got me thinking about creative longevity. Oasis’ first three albums from 1994 to 1997 are generally thought of as classics; even if you want to omit their third album, infamous Britpop-killer Be Here Now, the first three entries in their discography are definitely of-a-piece stylistically. This isn’t surprising, as all three featured songs entirely composed by lead guitarist Noel Gallagher, and anecdotal evidence from this period indicates that Noel had written so many songs by the time the band hit it big that many of the tracks on Be Here Now were written before (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? had even been released.
In 1998, the band followed up Be Here Now with The Masterplan, a single-disc collection of various B-sides from the many singles the first three albums had spawned. Far from being an odds-and-ends collection of half-baked studio experimentation, The Masterplan ended up being in many ways a comparable collection of work to the “official” full-length releases. And then…
Two years passed, rhythm guitarist Bonehead and bassist Guigsy were sacked, Noel got really into classic rock, and he relinquished control of the songwriting to new members Andy Bell (formerly of Ride), Gem Archer (formerly of Heavy Stereo) and brother Liam Gallagher. A lot of fans kind of see this series of events as detrimental to the band, but I think the central issue at play is that it was a mistake for Oasis to continue on under that name. It wasn’t just that new members had replaced the old; an entirely new system and creative model had replaced the old.
Looking back, Noel has admitted that if he had it to do over again, he might not have “wasted” some of his best songs on B-sides, ostensibly so that he could extend the critical and commercial gravy train. But I think Noel and Oasis’ situation is a perfect example of how difficult it can be for one person to sustain an elevated level of quality and quantity over a long period of time.
In contrast, look at bands like The Smiths, Teenage Fanclub, and Idlewild. Morrissey and Johnny Marr (The Smiths) and Roddy Woomble and Rod Jones (Idlewild) had/have the luxury of working together on compositions, with each partnership’s member playing to their individual strengths without having the added pressure of being responsible for every aspect of the creative result. Teenage Fanclub follows a slightly different, but no less effective model; the three principle songwriters (Norman Blake, Gerard Love, and Raymond McGinley) are more or less responsible for both the music and lyrics of their respective compositions, but are limited to only needing to provide 3-4 per album. That comes out to only 24-32 songs for each of them over their (thus far) 20 year career—excepting B-sides, of course. Canadian power-pop group Sloan works in much the same way.
Now, does this mean that one method is superior to the other? Not necessarily. But it does depend on the kind of career you’re hoping to carve out for yourself. Would you rather blow up, make millions, and then face diminishing returns with each release that comes out following your “imperial” phase? Or would you rather subscribe to the “slow and steady wins the race” philosophy?