at the Chicago Theater, April 18

It hardly rivals the tale of King Arthur pulling a sword from a stone, but one of the more potent legends in recent English history is the one about the Beatles smoking dope at Buckingham Palace. In June 1965 the Fab Four were made members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a reward for spearheading the British Invasion and almost overnight transforming English pop music into a valuable export. That October they bowed before Queen Elizabeth II, accepted their medals, and delivered their usual saucy comments to the press afterward. And as Philip Norman writes in Shout!, the most intelligent and reputable biography of the band, the whole ceremony took place “in the happy haze of a marijuana joint, quickly puffed by turns in a mahogany-lined palace washroom.” The story probably isn’t true–in the 1995 documentary The Beatles Anthology, George Harrison convincingly debunks it as a figment of John Lennon’s celebrated imagination–but as with any legend, the truth matters less than people’s need to believe it happened.

Noel and Liam Gallagher need it bad. The bickering brothers who front Oasis have never denied their slavish devotion to the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, T. Rex, and the other English rock icons of the late 60s and early 70s. Their reverence for the glory days extends from their music to their clothes to their family lives–Liam has a son named Lennon. Noel’s songs are larded with lyrical, vocal, and instrumental hooks filched from his heroes, and the resulting comfortable familiarity of Oasis’s music has paid off handsomely. Though the retro Britpop scene of the 90s produced far better bands–Ride, Blur, Elastica, Supergrass, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals–none of them has rivaled the international success of Oasis. Oasis is the Velveeta of British rock, not very substantial but palatable to a great many people: worldwide the band has sold more than 25 million records.

At the Chicago Theater two weeks ago Tuesday, Oasis laid out slice after uniform slice of polished stadium rock, the stately tempos and huge, droning guitars creating an envelope of sound one might find either tedious or hypnotic–I’ll confess to the latter. There’s a certain amount of pleasure in seeing anything done so well, and onstage the Gallaghers’ embrace of rock’s pomp and circumstance goes down a lot more easily than it does on their records or in their self-impressed interviews.

A film screened behind the band during the opening number, “Go Let It Out” (from the new Standing on the Shoulder of Giants), turned the bright lights of New York into a psychedelic abstract before zeroing in on the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park and a photograph of John Lennon in his “New York City” T-shirt. The crowd erupted in a contagious if superficial moment of Anglo-American solidarity, the Union Jacks held aloft by fans seeming oddly appropriate in the grand interior of the old movie palace. Yet few of us Yanks can relate to John Lennon in the same way as young people in the UK. For them, even after all this time, the Beatles represent an escape from the rigid social hierarchy that’s managed to survive into the 21st century.

The popular image of the Fab Four as working-class youths is another myth; except for Ringo Starr, they came from lower-middle-class families. But the fame, wealth, and social power they’d acquired before any of them was older than 25 still resonate in a society where most people are locked into their station by the time they get out of school. The chorus of “Go Let It Out,” sung over a mellotron part lifted from “Strawberry Fields Forever,” may seem like vague fairy-tale imagery to us, but to Britons it has the ring of a bitter anthem: “Is it any wonder that princes and kings / Are clowns that caper in their sawdust rings / And ordinary people that are like you and me / We’re the keepers of their destiny.”

Harold Wilson, the canny prime minister who presided over the UK for most of the Beatles’ career, understood this social iconography perhaps before anyone else in the government. Just as the U.S. had shaken off the doldrums of the Eisenhower era with the glamorous Kennedys, Britain ended 13 years of Conservative rule in October 1964 by electing Wilson and handing over the parliament to his Labour Party. Coincidentally or not, socialist rule ushered in the age of Swinging London, a fashion boom that turned the stodgy island into the worldwide capital of cool and the Union Jack into a staple of pop art. By awarding the Beatles MBEs, Wilson appropriated their golden aura of youth and social mobility for himself and his programs. (In return, the Beatles goosed him for confiscating all their earnings in the Harrison song “Taxman.”)

“I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star because I didn’t want to be a drug dealer,” Noel recently told the British magazine Uncut in a fawning 20,000-word interview that presents him as the voice of his generation. “I was just trying to get out of where I was because there was no future there for me.” Yet rock stardom has long since ossified into its own royal lineage. A few years back Noel assumed the mantle of the heir apparent by cutting a charity single of the Beatles’ “Come Together” with Paul McCartney and the Jam’s Paul Weller. In the Uncut piece he agrees that Oasis now wears the crown handed down from the Beatles to the Stones, the Who, the Sex Pistols, the Jam, the Smiths, and the Stone Roses–remember them? But unlike most of his heroes in their prime, he isn’t the least bit interested in shaking up the musical status quo. “I never got into trip hop when it was big,” he declares. “I’m not into fucking lo-fi punk music now and I’m not into fucking punk disco, or whatever it is. I’m into rock ‘n’ roll music.”

Really, the line between rock and royalty has all but dissolved: the biggest English pop star of the 1990s was the Princess of Wales, her death commemorated with a worldwide hit single by Elton John. Di could dig up all the land mines she wanted, but her true service to her subjects was wearing sharp threads and supplying the tabloids with loads of juicy gossip. Barely three years after she perished in a car crash (just like James Dean!), her sons, Harry and William, are following in her footsteps as gorgeous celebs: 17-year-old William recently made headlines for belting out the Village People’s “YMCA” at a hotel bar’s karaoke night, and while he’s been romantically linked to a handful of rich girls with hyphenated surnames, he’s also carrying on an E-mail flirtation with Britney Spears.

At this point his future as the new JFK Jr. is a surer bet than his succession to the throne. Hereditary power has been under attack in Britain since 1997, when Labour leader Tony Blair was elected prime minister. Like Bill Clinton, Blair dragged his party closer to the center while tapping into the star wattage of liberal entertainers. Noel Gallagher was a vocal Labour supporter, and after the election he was invited to 10 Downing Street for drinks with the PM; in Uncut he even claims that Blair made a nudge-nudge joke about the musician’s prodigious cocaine use. Blair may not be quite ready to hand out MBEs to the Gallaghers, but he did secure McCartney a knighthood. Last fall the House of Lords passed a bill expelling some 500 hereditary peers, and in January the prime minister announced that he would appoint some 50 new life peers to dilute Conservative control there. The Independent reported that Sir Paul McCartney was one of the candidates being considered, and though he hasn’t been granted a peerage yet, these days anything is possible. At least if his fellow lords find the washroom locked, they’ll know who’s inside.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/James Crump.