A record — from fans and band — of Oasis’s two record breaking nights at Knebworth on 10 and 11 August 1996, when over a quarter of a million young music fans from all over the world converged on Knebworth Park in Hertfordshire
It’s often remarked upon when watching 20th century concert footage, but the difference is still striking: the lack of mobile phones and iPads held up to record the moment for social media postings later. At Knebworth 25 years ago the only things in the air were waving arms and glowing lighters (we nearly all smoked liked chimneys).
Noel Gallagher himself comments on it as the cameras pans across a field of delighted faces, with a fan pointing out that then they were truly in the moment with the music, not proving to other people where they’d been. It’s one of many moments in this documentary that highlight the bond between this particular band and their fans that weekend. Beyond the fervent connections music makes so easily, for fans from the same background as the Gallagher brothers their talent, hard work and refusal to be patronised struck a huge chord. There’s even an extended anecdote from a fan who caught Liam’s eye from the front rows and was silently offered the singer’s tambourine, and then had to stare at him all night in case Liam saw him looking at Noel (I won’t spoil whether Liam gives it to him at the end).
250,000 people watched Oasis over the two nights, at a massive venue that had previously hosted giants Led Zeppelin and Queen; though while much is made of the Gallaghers’ self-belief that a quarter of a million people would turn up, I can tell you that at the time it didn’t seem hubristic at all, just the natural order of things.
I spent much of the mid-90s seeing Oasis in concert, sitting on a coach going to see them in concert, or hanging on the phone trying to buy tickets to see them in concert. I was 25 in 1996, and I’m intrigued to discover what today’s 25 year olds make of Jake Scott’s excellent, and poignant, documentary.
Nostalgia has turned into a dirty word but the best examples leave one both cheered and wistful at how easily we had fun then, and what we didn’t yet know (two things that are of course connected). Scott takes us back not just to the classics — bombastic, plaintive, provocative — belted from the stage, but also casts a concert floodlight over the fans who were there and what it meant to them, at the time and looking back now.
Scott looks too at Noel’s journey as a songwriter, his self-belief the thread running through the band from the moment he wrote Live Forever, telling us himself that the day before he was writing indie music and the day after he knew Oasis would be the biggest band in the world.
The film is split squarely into two, the Saturday and the Sunday. There are a handful of reconstructions as fans — now in their 40s and 50s, though we never see them as they are today — explain, for the benefit of any young ‘uns watching, the tortuous pre-internet process of buying tickets before heading to Knebworth by car, coach and rail. “It was like Willy Wonka and the Golden Ticket” explains one fan now, though I don’t remember Charlie Bucket jumping on a train to the factory with “a rucksack, some class As and a few beers” as one delighted gig goer reminisces.
The reconstructions are deliberately nostalgic for a time in their lives when everything came together on one perfect day, with an aged, crackly patina; while the extensive real-life footage of fans at the concert is much brighter and more modern-looking, with innuendo-laden voxpops and massive grins everywhere.
It works well, because however brilliant we feel on the day we only know with hindsight what it really means to us. There’s an innocence and a feeling that this is the last day of summer, a camaraderie among strangers that also heralds a turning point to adulthood and the inescapable changes it brings. There’s none of the irritating self-conscious irony that marked the ’90s, but then that was often a middle class way to mask prejudice and Oasis were a working class band.
This is an undeniably positive film with sincerity baked into it. I don’t know which came first, the fans looking on the bright side or the director searching out those stories, but all brim with joy de vivre. Realistically, despite the low levels of crime (“we had very few casualties considering the levels of inebriation,” deadpans one promoter) someone attending must have had a bad day. Maybe the person who lost their trousers when, on Day 2, suddenly there appeared “a tsunami of litter flying through the air”, including shoes, sandwiches and those trousers.
But above all this is about the music. As is pointed out, they are simply a rock and roll band performing on a stage. There are no gimmicks, just giant screens so everyone at the back gets a good view, and a special guest in The Stone Roses‘ John Squire. (This also means you can’t just show the band playing on stage for two hours. Instead Cigarettes And Alcohol soundtracks footage of Knebworth fans drinking and smoking, then queueing for the portaloos, then giving up and having a slash in the woods nearby.)
The most memorable concerts become cultural touchstones thanks to a perfect storm of time, place, and tunes, the music borne of what is happening in the world. One fan talks about that sunny summer: Britpop, Labour heading for an election landslide, the country seemingly picking itself up. Another sees Oasis as finally something great to come out of Britain, pride restored in what we do best.
We see support act The Prodigy, poignant footage of the late Keith Flint and a delighted concert goer who was baffled by them but loved them too. The other support bands, including Ocean Colour Scene, Chemical Brothers, The Charlatans and The Manic Street Preachers, get only a mention.
Hearing Noel speak now it’s shocking how much society still expects people to be very very ‘umble, whether false modesty from the wealthy or unending gratitude from the less privileged. Noel still sounds like a breath of fresh air, delighted at his achievements, but also demanding he gets credit where it’s due, pointing out that he wrote Wonderwall and Don’t Look Back In Anger in the same week.
Also always there is the sibling rivalry. Speaking on Radio 1 on the Sunday morning after the Saturday night before, Noel says of his brother: “He was sober last night. He could actually surpass himself on the knobometer tonight.”
At the end though, even Liam, talking now, is as stunned as the fans by what they did: “for me it was the Woodstock of the ’90s… the music and the people coming together. It was biblical and I’ll never forget it.”
To the tabloids, Oasis has always been the Liam and Noel show, as is this film. Though I liked that as a 1996 interviewer went round various fans at the gig asking them to name their favourite — “Liam!” ‘Noel!” “Liam!” “Noel!” — one solitary fan struck out with “gotta be Guigsy”.
Oasis Knebworth 1996 is out in cinemas worldwide on 23 September 2021.
Watch the trailer now: