Noel & Liam Gallagher - Addict - 1st February 1995
Beatle comparisons are inescapable when it comes to Oasis, right down to their lilting northern accents, their '90s take on the mop-top haircut, and their optimistic pop lyrics. As I set forth to interview guitarist Noel Gallagher, one fifth of this outfit, and brother of Liam, the band's lead singer, I begin to feel as if I've stepped into a remake of A Hard Day's Night. Maybe you can blame it on Oasis's proximity to Liverpool, the town that spawned the Beatles; the most successful and significant rock group in history. A town that casts a long metaphoric shadow over the surrounding countryside of northwestern England, if not all of the world.
Noel Gallagher internalized the Beatles' model, absorbing the musical style he had grown up listening to, and when he began to write songs for his band he used that same musical recipe. The uncomplicated harmonies; spare arrangements; the short, upbeat, exuberant tunes about love, ambition, and drugs; and spectacular hooks. Updating it with the grinding, often psychedelic guitars.
But Oasis are more than just Beatles clones. One can hear Ziggy-era Bowie in the album's lead-off track, "Rock 'n' Roll Star," T. Rex in "Cigarettes & Alcohol," the Stooges in "Bring It All Down." And one can imagine Liam mouthing Sex Pistols lyrics in front of the bathroom mirror when he was a kid; he has a classic English pop voice (think Lennon, think Ray Davies) that he uses to deliver a devastating Johnny Rotten (AKA Lydon) sneer at just the right moment. All of those influences have been thrown in the blender; the result is a sound that is as unique in its own way as Nirvana's take on punk was, or Pearl Jam's version of hard rock.
All five members of Oasisbassist Paul McGuigan, drummer Tony McCarroll, second guitarist Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs, and the two Gallaghersgrew up in Burnage, a suburb of Manchester, only thirty-two miles from the mothership of the Mersey beat, where the Beatles are the dominant musical and cultural paradigm. It certainly had its effect on the brothers Gallagher, who both claim vehemently and independently of one another that they aim to be bigger than the Beatles. Noel, at 27, the elder of the two and the author of all of Oasis's songs, reveals that his parents were huge Beatle fans. Beatle references are liberally peppered through their speech, and their songs are suffused with admittedly stolen licks.
But this isn't just a story of braggadocio and empty claims. Oasis' witty, engaging hook-laden songs deliver the goods. They are much more Muhammad Ali than Hulk Hogan. "I've been saying we're fucking great since our first interview, and that everyone else was shit," says Liam Gallagher, 22. "And I say the same thing now. People said to us, 'Who are you to say they're crap when you haven't even had an album out.' But now we do, and it's number one. It's good to look back and say, 'I've always thought your band was shit and we're the best,' and still mean it... And if we become the biggest band in the world, we doand if we don't we don't. I know we're the best band on the planet."
I enter the Fillmore in San Francisco with visions of John, Paul, George, and Ringo dancing in my head. It's been arranged for me to interview the "smart one" rather than the "cute one" according to the record company publicist, ostensibly because he is more quotable. Read: more circumspect and careful.
As I walk into the dark bowels of the club, I spy Noel and Liam sitting at a small round table near the bar, having their makeup applied. A slight woman, with a flesh colored disc in her right hand, is dabbing pancake makeup on Noel's impassive face. Liam sits to his brother's right, patiently waiting his turn. He raises his left hand in a silent salute, peering up at me and his publicist from behind his retro aviator glasses.
Noel looks over, cocks his head to one side, and gives us a wide smilewhile quickly taking off his glasses and slipping them into the pocket of his of faux brown seal coat before he gets up to follow me to a quiet corner of the venue. Although it is uncomfortably warm in the club, Noel never takes off his fun fur during our time together. Perhaps it's his talisman to help him fend off probing questions, because he is particularly skilled at that, even though his band is relatively new to all this.
Noel is rather a study in contradictions. He tries to come off like a cocky self-assured footballer from Manchester who talks tough and carouses with the best of them, destroying hotel rooms and going on days-long binges with the likes of Evan Dando. Yet he wears a delicate claddagh ring and an antique amethyst on his pale well-formed hands, and speaks in a slow northern cadence which suggest a more intellligent and sensitive nature. But then, so do his lyrics.
Noel is completely at ease in the interview situation, leaning forward on his elbows every now and then to clarify a point, making sure that he's not misunderstood. Something one suspects has happened quite a bit, since Oasis became The Next Big Thing in Britain. He's of average height, on the lean side and has pale steel-blue eyes, which are framed by the most impressive eyebrows I've ever seen. These are the brows of a nineteenth century politician. William Gladstone brows, heavy with the burden of a huge potential.
Oasis got their first break in what had all of the aspects of a Cinderella story. As the "official" story reads, late in 1992 the members of Oasis, who had only met a year before (and had never played beyond the confines of their native Manchester), hitched a ride to Glasgow with Sister Lovers, another local band on the understanding that they would be on that night's bill. When they got there, tired and broke (they had to spring for gas), the promoter tried to back out of the promise. These lads from the north of England weren't having any of that and they threatened him, not with arson (as the myth goes), but with bodily harm (as Noel will admit).
The club promoter relented, the band did their set, and unbeknownst to them, Creation Record's Alan McGee (who just happened to be in the audience), trailed them to their dressing room, intent on an on-the-spot signing. It's a good story, almost plausible, until you meet Noel, and then you know that all that destiny and happenstance stuff is pure crap. "No, no, it was definitely fate," he argues.
He lights a cigarette, leans forward on his elbows, and tries to convince me. "We didn't know that Alan McGee would be there that night. If we had, we wouldn't have gone. We'd have been too nervous," he continues modestly, but somehow I find that hard to believe. This is a guy who could have given Dale Carnegie a few tips on the power of positive thinking. Or he could have been a field marshall for the Third Reich. Under Gallagher they would have never marched into Russia. They would have taken a right at Greenland, as his hero, John Lennon once said, and found themselves in America, the last frontier for an up-and-coming Brit band. He says John is his favorite Beatle, but he's more Paul, ready with the quick self-deflecting quip, the succinct, romantic lyrics, even down to the matter of his birth sign and his left-handedness.
Noel wasn't even in the band when Oasis began in 1991. He was touring America as a guitar tech for the Inspiral Carpets when his mother informed him during a phone call to Manchester that Liam had formed a band. Noel arrived back home just in time to see the first Oasis performance. At that show Noel saw his future, and his ticket out of the industrial wasteland of Manchester. Afterwards he approached his brother's band. Depending on his mood when he recounts the story, he either asked them to let him join ("Let me write the songs, and we'll be stars. Or don't and stay stuck in Manchester.") or simply took over ("I barged in there and said, 'Right, I'm taking over this band now, so sit down, shut the fuck up, and we'll go make loads of money.'").
Whatever really happened, these days Noel is firmly in the leadership role, makes all the creative decisions, writes all the words and music, and produces the records. When asked whether Liam has ever refused to sing his lyrics, he answers tartly, "No, never. If he did, I'd kick him out of the band." When questioned whether writing everything himself is harder than collaborating, Noel matter-of-factly tells me, "Oh it's much easier, I don't get no fucking singer saying anything."
The two brothers battle incessantly. When asked what his pet peeves are, Noel says: "Brothers. Sound checks. Brothers. Making videos. People from record companies. Manchester United. Flying. Extremely hot weather. Brothers." They fight at the drop of a hat, and did so on stage in Los Angeles, when Liam knocked Noel in the head with his tambourine. And on a ferry to Holland, causing them to be barred from disembarking.
"We fight about nothing, everything, the weather," admits Noel. "We just spend too much time together. We used to get along famously. It's like any relationship, familiarity breeds contempt. We just had a month off and we've been on this tour for four days, and the first two days were great. And then it started getting back to the way it was. Arguing and fighting."
He is quiet for a moment, then adds regretfully, " It's not just big massive, major blows. It's just like petty things. It's childish."
"Who wins?" I ask innocently.
"Me of course."
Why am I not surprised at his answer.
As if on cue, Liam sticks his beautifully sculpted cheekbones in the door, and chides me for interviewing his brother, and not him. "Sure Noel is good, but I'm better. You should have been interviewing me," he says with a smirk. He quickly glances over to see how Noel is taking all this, and you can see he enjoys goading him. "Mr. Rock and Roll Star" is how he refers to Noel when his brother isn't around. Noel is used to this, you can tell. He he looks right through Liam, and, without missing a beat, says, "Who is he? Throw him out."
Liam is as animated off-stage as he is wooden on. He's tall and lithe, with enormous blue eyes that turn down at the corners. He has lush, pouting lips, that he juts in and out on stage, working his mouth around his brother's dreamy lyrics. He resembles his older brother Noel, but the parts just hang together differently on Liam. Where Noel is lean and tightly wound, Liam is limber and at home in his body, charmingly lethargic. Freer, looser. There's a refreshing bluntness about him, and he's liable to tell you exactly what he thinks without censor.
I'm beginning to realize why the publicists steer everyone to Noel. Liam is a bit of the loose cannon. In December, he told a reporter who asked him if he was getting a big head, that "I've always had a big head. Me, I'm a big-headed arrogant bastard. Only now I have a right."
Noel told Rolling Stone last fall that "When one of us starts acting like a pop star, he'll get a cut-down from the other one. And usually it's Liam getting one from me." That's not hard to believe, either. Liam has the same come-hither charisma that has marked some of the great ones. Jagger comes to mind. So does Iggy. He is reason the band is dubbed "The Sex Beatles" in the British press. But Liam is curiously subdued on stage. His moves are economical, if barely perceptible. He stands stock still in front of the microphone, eyes closed, occasionally shifting from one foot to the other, hands clasped behind his back as he snarls out Noel's lyrics.
One would be tempted to say this is the musical version of the Cyrano de Bergerac storywith the stunning Liam mouthing the beautiful words for his less stellar-looking brother. Except Noel ain't that bad. So what if these guys move like stick figures? The power and presence of the music is unmistakable, and their hit potential seems limitless. As Noel will tell you, he's got a million of them. When queried about how he can be so self-confident, he counters, "Because I write all the songs, and I write them in bulk. So I've probably written enough material for the next album, and the one after that. I'm the only one who has heard these songs, so I know what's coming over the next two or three years. I know it's good. As good as Definitely Maybe, if not better. But then I would say that wouldn't I?" he attempts at self-mockery, albeit unsuccessfully.
That's not too say he's all piss and ego. He's actually quite charming. It's just that he's on a mission. This is a man whose personal creed is "make it happen." A personal mantra that he admits is threaded through all his waking thoughts, and a phrase that he incorporated into the lyrics of "Cigarettes and Alcohol." He believes all that anyone gets at the top is five years, maxand he intends to make hay while the sun shines by touring incessantly, and being completely accessible to all media. "Well there's no point in being in a band if you're not going to be out there. People have got to hear you, and people have got to see you. And they have to be able to read about you, and see your photograph. Or what's the fucking point? You only get five years at the peak of your popularity. If you haven't built up a big fan base to carry it through to the rest of your career, then you're fucked... My goal is to be on the cover of every single magazine, and on the telly twenty four hours a day."
"So you never had any doubt that this was going to happen?" I inquire.
"Do you remember the film The Commitments?" he asks me. "The part where the guy is interviewing himself in the bath? I used to do that every night."
"What, watch The Commitments?" I tease.
"No. I used to interview myself in the mirror. I'm serious. I really did," he insists. He is dead serious.
I give him a funny look, then look away. Confessions have that effect on me. I start to squirm when things get too real. I think I'm more comfortable with pop star artifice. Vulnerability makes me retract my claws. "So what did you ask yourself, and more importantly, what did you answer?" I ask, trying to lighten things up again.
Noel refuses to answer. I've gotten off the beaten path, and we both know it. Noel seems suddenly a little abashed that he's actually revealed something about himself. This is a self-made man, in a self-made band, and he's determined to steer it to world domination. And there aren't any unscheduled stops along the way, not if Noel can help it. If not , it's going to be a Hard Day's Night. For someone.