Ticket To Pride
Will Oasis' second album of "meaningless" anthems turn them into the new Beatles? And is such a thing even desirable in the 1990's? Yes and Yes, answer the Gallagher Brothers. (If they don't kill each other first.)
"Why are you in the country?" inquired the 20-something female customs clerk at London's Heathrow Airport.
"To interview Oasis," replied the American reporter. "Heard of 'em?"
"I'm afraid not," she apologized. "I must really be out of touch."
She's not the only one. The 30-something limo driver who transported me to the Columbia Hotel (where Oasis have been banned for, uh, creative redecorating) was blissfully unaware of the Fab Five's existence. Oddly enough, the 20-something woman at customs who questioned me upon departing from London also drew a blank at the mention of England's biggest band. Some might say Oasis are poised to become the new Beatles, but it seems they still have work to do.
While their recognition factor may not yet match JohnPaulGeorgeRingo's, Oasis are gradually infiltrating the Great British collective consciousness. In early September brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher graced the cover of the proudly superficial teen rag Smash Hits, wherein we learn such fun facts as Noel's height (5'7"), taste in women ("busty blondes"), Liam's real name (William), and hygiene habits ("He never changes his underwear"). And there are the Gallaghers and bassist Paul "Guigs" McGuigan looking sharp in print ads promoting Manchester City Football Club gear. There've been quarterly appearances on the TV program Top of The Pops. Mid-August saw the media in a frenzy over the chart battle between Blur's "Country House" and Oasis' "Roll With It," in which Blur barely edged out Oasis for Number One. Pundits caned it a flashback to similar competitions between the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the '60s. An August NME cover famously pitted photos of Blur's Damon Albarn and Liam and billed the showdown as "The British Heavyweight Championship." That same week Madonna also released a single but nobody really noticed. Most bizarre, though, was the sight of supermodels sashaying to "Roll With it" on goofy TV show The Big Breakfast. Go Kate, go Naomi!
Entering the luxurious Landmark Hotel, where the interviews will take place, it's apparent just how huge Oasis have become. Everywhere you look, poshness, tastefulness, and rich folk. Mineral water starts at two pounds (that's about $3.25, Yanks). A pianist and violinist politely play elegant music. If only Oasis' working-class pals in Manchester could see this, they'd have strokes. Rock and roll? Bollocks, mate. Oasis have entered the pop stratosphere. Last year Definitely Maybe became the fastest-selling debut album ever in the U.K., shifting 150,000 in the first three days of its release, on the way to a total of 800,000 in England. (A remarkable feat in a nation of 50 million.) Similar or larger amounts of the LP were bought by Japanese, American, and European fans. Many knowledgeable types expect the follow-up, (What's The Story) Morning Glory, to surpass these totals.
All very well, but sales figures aren't everything. Mere numbers cannot convey the hysteria that grips Oasis' fans at live shows. At this year's Glastonbury Festival Oasis brought 110,000 fans to eargasm, as they enjoined the crowd to sing along to "Live Forever," a song destined to be played at countless weddings and funerals (dig the irony).
Whenever a group gets as popular as Oasis, some people, music critics especially, are going to be skeptical about their merits. And rightfully so. Even as I'm transported by irresistible tracks like "Slide Away" and "Champagne Supernova," a naggling doubt stirs at the back of my mind that I, someone who usually wants musicians to at least attempt something new or plunder from unobvious sources, shouldn't be thrilling to such familiar chord sequences and song structures. And then "Up in The Sky" will come on and I'll feel like I can long jump continents. Quite a dilemma, you'll agree.
Oasis are the opposite of an acquired taste. You either love or hate their songs from listen one. It just so happens that an extraordinary number of people fall into the former category (including Metallica's Lars Ulrich!). Which means that in America Oasis appeal to more than just the hardcore Anglophiles who religiously read the British music press; they're also penetrating the dense crania of kids who think MTV is "cool" and folks who buy their CDs at mall chainstores.
That Oasis' British record company, Creation, can afford to put up Noel and Liam at this ritzy joint speaks volumes about the group's clout. Significantly, Noel is holed up on the second floor while Liam is ensconced on the sixth. The bros don't do interviews together anymore to save on hospital bills.
The first interview occurs in Noel's absurdly lavish suite, which includes a built-in bar. Be assured that the guitarist-songwriter does not neglect this luxury. The elder Gallagher brother (28) wears an expensive purple shirt that looks like a refugee from Elton John's closet. Noel flashes easy, scrunched-featured smiles and radiates the wit and confidence of John Lennon (one of his heroes) and Muhammad Ali.
On the road and at home Noel prefers to keep to himself, leaving Liam, Guigs, guitarist Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs, and new drummer Alan White with the important task of laying waste to brain cells, members of Blur, drinking establishments; you know, proper rock and roll behavior. Noel apparently did his share of carousing as guitar tech for Inspiral Carpets in the early '9Os. Which isn't to say he's not occasionally up for the fringe benefits that inevitably come with being in the biggest band in England.
But since he took over the controls of Oasis in 1992, Noel's become a songwriting machine of singular prolificness. His work ethic puts the Puritans to shame. Guigs says that "Noel writes five to eights songs a week, every week. His output and quality are unbelievable. It's scary. He's the best songwriter to come out of Britain in the last ten years."
Noel wouldn't argue with that, except to amend it to the last 20 years or so. How does he respond to critics not so enamored with his work? "People say that all I'm doing is a pastiche of '60's music," he offers. "I'm not gonna change. If you don't like it, fair enough. Somebody must fookin' like it. We're the biggest band in the country."
He's very confident that Oasis are the best band in England, maybe the world. "Best band in the world? Oh, yeah," Noel admits, as if it were never in doubt. "To me, I'm the best songwriter in the world. I'm at least up there with Neil Young . And U2. And Paul Weller. These are the people I respect. Everyone else can go sit in a country house (a dig at the Blur single of the same name.
Three weeks later Noel directed more venom towards Blur, wishing that two members would "catch AIDS and die")"
If anyone else had flaunted such dodgy taste to my ears, I would walk away in disgust. But Noel has an undeniable charm that excuses such wrong-headed opinions. Can Noel pinpoint what makes Oasis the best band in the world? "I wouldn't like to. It's a belief in what we're doing. And honesty, in that we're influenced by our record collections. We don't claim to have invented anything new. We don't claim to be avant- garde. We just play rock and roll music. And rock and roll will never die, as someone said," he says, smiling.
Noel can't remember much of Oasis' first American tour but the gold disc on his wall tells him that they must've done something right. "I think we're by far the most accessible English band since the Sex Pistols [what is he drinking?]. I think the American public will always find something magical about five English boys with funny haircuts and funny accents playing rock and roll music. As long as the music's good. And our music's good, we've got funny haircuts and funny accents, it's all there, ain't it?"
Oasis have taken heat for their static stage demeanor. The band's just not exhibitionistic, huh? "Definitely not. The songs speak for themselves. They don't need for us to go run up and down the stage like Guns N' Roses. We know our strengths and weaknesses. We're not showmen, we're musicians."
As noted earlier, Noel writes an amazing number of songs. "I can't sit still for a minute. There was about a week in Italy when I didn't bring a guitar. And I ended up buying one there. I just can't keep away from the fucking thing. I lost my freedom as soon as I learned to write songs. I'm tied to that guitar now forever. I'm never gonna get a holiday ever in my entire life because I'm gonna have that monkey on my back."
While Noel slaves away at his trademark anthems, the rest of Oasis generally get up to their usual mischief. "They're not sitting up till seven in the morning trying to find the middle eight that joins the verse and the chorus. That's fuckin' hard work, I don't care what anyone says."
The Gallaghers grew up in a depressed area of Manchester (Liam still lives there with his mother). Noel describes his lyrics as "very Mancunian, very Northern." What distinguishes Mancunian lyrics? "Sly wit. There's always a twist. I'm a very sarcastic person, very subtle. I have a very dry sense of humor, as all Mancunians do. We have a certain outlook on life. Very 'Aw, fookin' shit, man, get on with it!' That's why my lyrics aren't that angst-ridden. They're all sort of 'You've gotta roll with it, you've gotta say what you're saying, don't let anybody get in your way."'
Which of his songs mean the most to him and why?
"'Live Forever,' because of what it means to other people more than what it means to me. 'Slide Away' because it's about a relationship from about two or three years ago with a real person. I've forgotten what her name is anyway," he jokes. "'Wonderwall' on Morning Glory is about my girlfriend who I'm going out with today. 'Don't Look Back in Anger' because of the sentiments and the way it came out sounding.
"People will always read the wrong meanings into it. I'll be told by someone in the States next year the meaning of the song 'Hello,' which to me hasn't got no meaning. It's just words strung together. And I'll go, 'You've got a point there.' So people will tell me the meanings. I don't sit down and think about meaning. I try not to anyway."
Isn't it odd that someone in Noel's position would write lyrics that don't necessarily mean anything? Most of his songwriting idols (Lennon, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Mick Jagger, etc.) surely intended their songs to mean something. "All I can say is that they said everything I wanted to say. But they haven't played everything I want to play. I just want the lyrics to sound nice. As long as people can make some meaning out of 'em it doesn't really matter what I think about 'em. At the same time, they're not just throw-away. Takes a long time to write them.
"I always hate albums where you know exactly what the songs are about because before the album comes out the person who wrote the songs goes, [affects perfect sullen American accent] 'This was when I was going through a really bad phase on drugs, man.' you listen to the music and think, 'That was about when he was going through a really bad phase on drugs, man.' How interesting is that? When I listen to 'I Am The Walrus' [a Beatles song Oasis have covered] I think, 'What the hell was going through his mind when he wrote that?' Makes it challenging to the listener. It's about entertainment and opening your mind."
When asked to rate himself as a songwriter against his favorites, Noel replies, "If I was in the Beatles I'd be a good George Harrison. I've only done two albums so I'd say I'm as good as any of them after their second albums."
Speaking of Oasis' second album, Morning Glory is a more diverse, more melancholy, and better-produced work than Definitely Maybe, the expected result of having much more money to record. They could bring in string sections, acquire Mellotrons, Hammond organs. And they went through some rough times in the interim. (The last North American tour brought Oasis to the brink of splitting more than once.)
Morning Glory is also a trainspotter's delight. Savvy listeners will detect homages all over the place. They're all intentional, Noel confesses, and credit is given, so call off your lawyers. "Nothing is original anymore. There are like 30-odd chords or something. It's all been done before. Ask Keith Richards, he'll tell ya. You've gotta take the little bits out of the ones you want. As long as the chief parts you put together make something new, which I believe it does, then I think that's all right. What the fuck were the Beatles doing if not ripping off the Shirelles when they started?
"I'm always gonna write a certain sounding type of song. I write songs that go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-guitar solo-chorus-chorus, finish in about four minutes. This is the sign of a great song: I write a song before I go to bed. I won't have any Iyrics, just a melody. If I can remember it first thing in the morning, then I know it's good. I've done it with 'Live Forever,' 'Slide Away,' 'Don't Look Back In Anger' and nearly every song on Definitely Maybe. When I woke up I remembered the songs chord for chord, I knew the vowels and syllables I was gonna use."
In the future Noel wants "to mess with new instruments. Because of the success of Definitely Maybe we can try things backwards or upside-down, try to fuck up a few instruments and make 'em sound weirder. But it's still gonna be quite disciplined pop music, structured classically. Maybe we could get different people in."
Noel's not into virtuosity for its own sake? "Nah. Who wants to be Jimmy Page?"
A lot of people. That's the problem. "Yeah. John Squire [Stone Roses guitarist] does. I'd rather be George Harrison and write 'Something' than be Jimmy Page and go fucking 'diddle-uh-diddle-uh-biddle-uh-buh.' That's too much like hard work, innit?"
Does he think he'll ever get tired of pumping out anthemic rock songs? "I don't know what it is I do or how to do it. It just comes to me. I seem to write these anthems. It might change. As I get older it'll probably change. I'll become like Van Morrison and become a right miserable old fucker," he laughs.
Rumors abound that Oasis will break up after this world tour. "It was said we were gonna break up after three albums," Noel clarifies. "I said that after the third album maybe we were gonna take quite a bit of time off because we put out records every three months. There's an album every year. Maybe people would want a rest. We can sit back and reflect on what we've done and see where we go from there. Of course I'm not gonna take any time off at all 'cause I'm fuckin' starting to write an album as soon as we get off tour. Just maybe step back from the media machine for a while."
Back down to the second-floor lobby to question Liam, five years Noel's junior. Damned pianist is still tinkling away. Liam, unshaved, glares at me. Seems he wants to do one of two things: sock my jaw or knee me in the groin. Seems something's eating Liam; something's making a full-fledged banquet of his soul. During the interview, he can't stop swiveling his head, so his voice fades in and out.
Liam's features are made for enduring love affairs with cameras. Even as we speak, thousands of girls (and boys, too) are staring at his visage and thinking impure thoughts. Don't under estimate the importance of Liam's face. If he looked like, say, Gene's bassist, Oasis probably wouldn't be this mega.
Noel has said that he has the ability to get things off his head by writing them down and that Liam finds his release by getting off his head. Still true? "Aye, totally. Still gettin' off me head. I've no desire to be a songwriter yet. Too busy being the singer and just making sense of it all. But when I get a bit of time off, I'll sit down and write a song."
You think one day you'll develop into a songwriter? "Yeah, but just for me, not for Oasis. Noel writes Oasis' music and I sing it. And that's that."
Is it strange to sing Noel's words? "No," he says quickly.
Even if you're angry at him? "No. If I'm angry at him I just sing more angrier."
Ever find that sometimes you just can't bring yourself to sing his Iyrics?
[Quickly again] "No."
"Uh-huh. It's just right, innit? I've gotta sing it. I'm the singer."
Have you ever tried to put your own interpretation on any songs? "No. I don't change the melody or anything. Maybe I'll pronounce a word a little differently. Like 'My imagin-ay-shee-un' [from "Cigarettes and Alcohol"], that was mine. Snarl, y'know?"
Liam is perhaps the least mobile singer in music today. "I refuse to dance. And I can't dance anyway. I'm not in a band for that. It's about music and that's it. I'm not an entertainer. But I do entertain people, see what I mean? You don't go to an Oasis gig because the singer's jumping around or because the guitarist does a great fucking windmill. You've seen one of our gigs you've seen 'em all. But if you're into the music, you'll know that we played better the night before or we can play better.
"When I'm onstage I just feel like gettin' on with the job. Tunnel vision, straight down the line. I gotta serious job, y'know what I mean? Onstage I can't feel that mic. It feels too real. I never touched the mic in my life. I like to sing with me hands behind me back. I can project my voice."
Have you and Noel always been so combative and competitive?"Yeah, kind of. More so in the band. We're both on a musical quest now. It's gotta be done right. And sometimes I think it's gotta be done this way and sometimes he thinks it's gotta be done another way. So therefore we get in arguments."
What's an example of an argument you've had? "'Rock 'N' Roll Star.' I'll say that this song should go fast and should end like 'My Generation,' drummer going mad and that. The whole song should go faster. [Noel] said, 'No no no, it sounds naff.' Fuck that. The drummer can do it if he's a top drummer. It should go off its tits."
Along with millions of others, Liam likes his voice just as it is, a compelling blend of John Lennon's tunefulness and John Lydon's sneer. "I'm not gonna take singing lessons. I'm not singing from there [points to chest]. I'm singing from there [points to neck]. There's no time for that breathing in and out tackle. It just falls out straight down the line. And that's what gives you the snarl. Give me singing lessons and it'd make me sound like everyone else. I don't want that."
Liam's got a reputation for being short- tempered. Why so angry, lad? "Everyday life. The past. The future." Your present seems really good. "Yeah. Some of it's good, some of it's bad. I see the bad sides of it all. I see things that normal people wouldn't see. It's not all great being in a rock and roll band. It's not what I thought it would be."
What's not living up to your expectations? "The whole thing. Once you dreamed the dream and it's come true then that's it, innit? The whole thing was dreaming about what it would be like and how you probably couldn't have it. So that'd be the beauty of it. Wantin' it. This is fuckin' bobbins, y'know what I mean? The only reason I'm still in it is 'cause of the music and the band. The whole lifestyle is a load of bullocks.
"I've got no time. I've got all this fuckin' money but no time for it. I don't even got no time to buy a place of me own or get a flat. We play loads of gigs. Come home and I'm back where I was me whole life, where I was trying to get out of."
In one interview Liam said that he didn't expect to reach age 40. "I just don't think I will. I live too fast and I'm mad for it. Some nights I'm on the verge of blackout. When I get to 25 or 30 the heart attacks be kicking in."
You don't care about the long run? "No. I've got no more ambitions. I had one dream and it's done and I'm livin' it now. When I'm bored with that then it's over. But maybe I'm naive and young and I'll learn. That's what people keep on telling me. But maybe I'm not."
You don't seem to like doing interviews much. "Said it all last year. We're the most important band since the ' Pistols. We're the best band in the world today. And that's it."
Well, if enough important people keep saying that Oasis are the best band the world (I heard it often enough in my brief visit to London), most of us will probably start believing it. Know this: No band on the planet wants that fabled Beatlesque world domination more than Oasis. No band is working harder for it. And if Noel Gallagher keeps writing b-sides that, in Guigs' memorable words, "piss all over most groups' best songs," then get ready for Oasis lunch boxes and the inevitable cartoon series.