Nothing unites the British quite like the power of song.
The recent UK terror attacks have encouraged the country to come together and one of the unlikeliest developments is that Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis, a 21-year-old song by a group that acrimoniously disbanded a decade ago, appears to have been unofficially adopted as Britain’s unifying national anthem.
The people of Great Britain have lived with the threat of attack ever since The Blitz of 1940. The next major terrorist threat existed between the 1970s and the 1990s primarily thanks to the actions of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). Scores were killed and injured in a campaign that culminated in a 1996 truck bomb in Manchester which injured more than 200 people.
While the IRA threat in mainland Britain was neutralised the best part of a generation ago, a new one has surfaced. It’s the ugly head of terrorism once again, but this time it comes from an Islamic extremist militant group which targets innocent civilians in its attacks against western culture.
A month ago, England’s second city, Manchester, was again the target as a lone suicide bomber known to have links to Islamic extremists detonated a homemade explosive device at Manchester Arena following a concert by American singer Ariana Grande. Over 100 were injured and 23 were killed in the worst attack on UK soil since July 2005.
While the country was obviously distressed, Britons were far from reeling. Two days later, about 400 people gathered in St Ann’s Square in Manchester at 11am to observe a minute’s silence being held nationwide as a tribute to the dead. It was a sunny morning and floral tributes had been piling up around the historic plaza.
After the silence – only punctured by the sound of a police helicopter overhead – a shout of “Rock on, Manchester” was heard, causing some to smile and clap. But despite the official gesture of respect having ended, the crowd remained emotionally overwhelmed. No one moved and the square remained silent.
From somewhere in the crowd a lone woman’s voice could be heard. As a few heads turned to look, the single figure of Lydia Bernsmeier-Rullow could be seen, clutching a bouquet of flowers and nervously singing the opening verse of Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis.
More heads turned to look and while she might not have been perfectly in tune, she continued unabated. One or two joined in and now several people were singing the lyrics to the second verse of the song. By the time they reached the chorus the whole square erupted into song.
Everyone was still standing exactly where they were, but instead of looking down, heads lifted as spirits rose. In just a few seconds people had been reminded that, while they remained sad for the loss of loved ones, they should also be happy for having known them. Life will go on and it should be celebrated.
It was an emotionally resilient moment that managed to capture the feelings of so many all at one time.
It could be argued that the choice of song was obvious. After all, Oasis’s band members hailed from Manchester. Students at Chetham’s music school, a boarding school that was inside the police cordon in the city’s centre, performed the song – with their arms around each other – when their usual afternoon concert was cancelled.
Bernsmeier-Rullow told The Guardian: “I love Manchester and Oasis is part of my childhood. Don’t Look Back in Anger – that’s what this is about: we can’t be looking backwards to what happened, we have to look forwards to the future.”
Then on June 4 at the One Love Manchester benefit concert Coldplay, led by singer Chris Martin, together with the enthusiastic accompaniment of the crowd, sang Don’t Look Back in Anger to Ariana Grande.
The public championing of Don’t Look Back in Anger continued on June 13. Before a football friendly in Paris between the two nations, fans of France and England joined together to sing it at the Stade de France.
This confirmed that Don’t Look Back in Anger is the de facto UK national anthem right now.
Released in February 1996, it was the fourth single from Oasis’s second album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? Written by Noel Gallagher, it became the band’s second single to reach number one on the UK Singles Chart. In the US it reached 55 on the Billboard Charts.
While the song wound up the 16th biggest-selling UK hit of 1996, it was voted the fourth most popular number one single of the last 60 years by the UK public in a 2012 survey.
Although public affection for the song has clearly not diminished in the last two decades, at first sight it’s unlikely that Don’t Look Back in Anger has taken on such societal significance.
The song itself pleads “Please don’t put your life in the hands of a rock ‘n’ roll band.” The chorus lyric “So Sally Can Wait” doesn’t refer to anybody- it was inspired by Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher mistakenly hearing his brother Noel while he was messing about on an acoustic guitar during a soundcheck in Sheffield.
The title was inspired by David Bowie’s 1979 song Look Back in Anger so Don’t Look Back in Anger is hardly the epitome of originality. And the debt to The Beatles isn’t just expressed in the song’s musical arrangement. Noel Gallagher lifted lyrics for it from John Lennon’s bootleg memoirs.
But the anthem has now achieved a cultural catharsis like no other contemporary song perhaps since Lennon’s 1971 song Imagine.
How did this happen? “Just look at football fans; people in the UK love to have a crowd singing,” says Paolo Hewitt, a British music writer and author of Getting High: The Adventures of Oasis. “I think with football as well, it’s almost like a tribal thing and every couple of weeks the fans are singing new songs, so it’s certainly a very powerful form of communication.” (Hewitt happens to be a huge Tottenham Hotspur supporter, so he should know.)
“Equally it’s about identity. Just look at the Proms – people gather there to sing and every year they blow the roof off the Royal Albert Hall because they’re proud to be British.
“I think Don’t Look Back in Anger is a very positive song. It talks about forgiveness and the need to move on, which is a very powerful sentiment. It talks about a revolution of the mind and summertime; it’s got a lot of positive imagery that is particularly relevant at this time.
“When you apply that to everything that’s happened, it’s a powerful statement of reconciliation rather than aggression.”
Hewitt adds: “It was popular from the moment it was released and still is. It fits the bill perfectly.”