On a glorious morning in late summer, Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit stepped onto the tarmac at Cork Airport and set off for the Aer Lingus jet tarrying at the edge of the runway.
Kensit proceeded with the practiced, unblinking stride of someone who had spent much of her adult life fleeing press photographers. Liam, by contrast, wore a big, ragged grin and walked with a cheery swagger, a rather scruffy-looking backpack swinging from one shoulder.
Dashing alongside Britpop’s most glamorous couple on that sunny day 25 years ago were a seasoned photographer and a rookie journalist. Gallagher and Kensit were moving so fast it was hard to fire off a question.
But finally Liam turned, smiled from behind his John Lennon sunglasses and said something cheery. In my note-book I wrote it down as “top gig”. And then they were up the stairs and away.
Noel appeared a few minutes later. The photographer ran straight over and encouraged Noel to give a thumbs up. The elder Gallagher assented. He looked on top of the world.
And with good reason. The previous evening, on August 15, 1996, Oasis had played the second of two sold-out shows at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. And the weekend prior, they’d sang to a cumulative audience of 250,000 at Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. For good measure, they’d also performed a brace of shows at Loch Lomond in Scotland.
This, then, was the week Oasis were unofficially crowned the biggest band of their generation. It was the pinnacle of their imperial phase. They could do no wrong. And Noel and Liam were visibly basking in the moment as they walked across the concrete on that sunny morning in Cork.
“Cork was our Knebworth,” says Jonny Blair, an Oasis fan and travel writer who, as a starry-eyed 16-year-old, made the long trek south from Bangor in Co Down for the Páirc Uí Chaoimh gigs (and who later wrote about the concerts on his website dontstoplivin.net).
“Those three shows were the best three shows to ever see Oasis at. The Dublin, Wembley, Manchester shows [which Oasis played in 1996] just weren’t the same. It was all about being there then – at that moment, at that time. We saw Oasis at their peak, at their finest, their finest hour, their most beautiful.”
Knebworth was recognised at the time as a historic event. Now, on its 25th anniversary, it has been immortalised in a new documentary, Oasis Knebworth 1996, directed by Jake Scott.
But of course it’s hard to separate Knebworth from the Cork gigs which took place just three days later. All were part of the same victory lap for a band which, only a few years previously, were still clawing their way out of student disco obscurity.
“While the scale of Knebworth is rightly heralded – with millions of other young fans missing out on tickets – the speed of the ascent is all the more remarkable,” says Richard Bowes, author of Some Might Say – The Definitive Story of Oasis. “To put it into context: 12 months previously, Oasis were engaged in the Battle Of Britpop in an attempt to get their second No.1 single. Two years before that, they released their debut album. In August 1993, no-one had heard of them.”
The gigs Oasis played that week were more than a victory lap, however. They were also self-contained rock festivals. The Knebworth bill had included The Charlatans, The Chemical Brothers, the Manic Street Preachers and others. And in Cork, they were supported by The Bootleg Beatles and The Prodigy.
“The Prodigy were perfect that day,” says Jonny Blair of an event that had a ticket price of £22.50. “They got everyone completely hyped up for the main event. Firestarter had the stadium in eruptions. By the time Oasis came on stage, Cork was alive.”
Oasis were in top form, too. Coming off of Knebworth, they took on Cork as if they still had something to prove. And they went out of their way to honour their Irish heritage. On the second night, playing an acoustic version of Cast No Shadow, Noel Gallagher had even brought out a guitar belonging to the late Rory Gallagher (who’d passed away just the previous year).
“Many of the band’s extended Irish family were present and created a celebratory atmosphere,” wrote rock photographer Jill Furmanovsky, who photographed Oasis throughout that year and has collected many of the images for her new book Oasis: Knebworth, “Those were marvellous shows.”
Cork had been transformed by the concerts. Nineties kids were experiencing their own version of Beatlemania. And when it was reported that Noel and Liam had popped into a local department store for new socks, it was as if Elvis himself had materialised on the Grand Parade.
“Noel and Liam and their entourage walked into the shop,” Declan Flanagan, manager of the Bishopstown Court branch of Dunnes Stores, told the Irish Examiner in 1996. “They went straight over to the men’s clothing section and started to admire our range of autumn shorts. When they came into the shop there was pandemonium among the staff.”
That pandemonium continued as Oasis stepped out on stage shortly before 9pm, having journeyed from their five-star bolthole of Liss Ard Estate outside Skibbereen in West Cork (where they made time for pints at the Skibbereen Eagle bar).
Among those watching were Robbie Williams, comedian Lenny Henry and Formula One driver Eddie Irvine. Like the rest of the crowd, they will have sensed they were watching history unfold.
“Liam was well up for it,” says Jonny Blair. “His voice was mighty fine that night – the best gig I’ve heard him play live and I’ve seen him live 12 times. I don’t remember much from Noel: I think he wore a striped shirt and was flawless and funny as ever.”
If Cork and Knebworth were generation-defining, they marked the end of an era too. This was Oasis at the height of their powers. And it was the zenith of Britpop. Thereafter both would enter steep decline.
With Wannabe by the Spice Girls having reached number one that summer, the epoch of bands bestriding the charts was already at an end. And never again would Oasis reign unchallenged as the most exciting group in rock.
“Twelve months afterward the Knebworth shows, Oasis released the much-maligned Be Here Now, which marked the end of their imperial phase,” says Richard Bowes. “For a band with a legacy so ingrained in contemporary British culture, their imperial phase was surprisingly short.”
“Looking back, it was the time of our lives,” says Jonny Blair. “We may never experience anything like that ever again. This was Oasis at their peak, their finest hour. Smiles and happiness were all around. Strangers were singing along to Live Forever. We were all singing and jumping up and down like mad.”
- Oasis Knebworth 1996 is released in Irish cinemas on Thursday, September 23