Noel Gallagher - Q - February 1996
"NOEL GALLAGHER: THE GREATEST SONGWRITER OF THE 90's? 'TOP OF THE WORLD MAM!' From Burnage building sites to the biggest band in Britain: the rocket-assisted rise of Oasis has occurred with fantastic speed (not to mention "Charlie"). Having guided them this far, their big-browed groot kaas is now looking back at family break-ups, dictatorial determination, dyslexia, hobnobbery with ex- Beatles . . . and the devotion of multitudes. "It makes me cry," Noel Gallagher tells Phil Sutcliffe.
"You wouldn't believe the number of people who come to our front door," says Noel Gallagher with a grin full of rue and a wary glance towards the concrete steps descending to his modest basement flat in North London. "The trouble was, we moved in on a Saturday afternoon. Big fucking mistake. Me and Meg get the gear in, but there's no food in the fridge so we walk up the road to Sainsbury's. By the time we're on our way back, we're being followed. That was it. Oasis fans sitting outside singing Roll With It all hours of the morning. Stacks of hate mail from Blur fans every day.
"On the Monday morning after our two nights at Earl's Court, I'm getting up about 11, in me boxer shorts, having something to eat in the kitchen, when I look up and there's this procession of kids coming down the stairs. I've always sworn I'll never refuse an autograph or whatever, so I open the door and say, Do you want a cup of tea, then? I swear to God, man, it was like the chimps' tea party in here, all these kids, me with the Tetley's and the kettle.
"Then this thought comes to me. Mark Chapman. He's here. I'm gonna get shot! So I say, Er, sorry, you'll have to go now, a car's coming to take me to the airport, I forgot. I'm thinking, Last time I'm gonna do this. We've got to get out of here, get a place of our own. It's too much."
For Noel Gallagher, Oasis's songwriter, guitarist and semi-benevolent dictator, life is sweet and life is loony -- blink and it changes again. Two years ago he had nowt and he was nobody. Now he's up for quasi-John Lennon assassination paranoia.
Still, you've gotta laugh, and he does. Sometimes even at himself. After all, he and brother Liam did OK the release of Wibbling Rivalry, the Troggs Tapes de nos jours, a merciless assemblage of outtakes from an early interview which exposed bare naked the sibs' capacity for foul-mouthed epiphanies of internecine daftness.
And indeed, at times, they've walked it like they've talked it. Misconduct has been their watchword: Dutch deportations and hotelular defenestrations of fixtures and fittings a speciality. Of late, though, an element of restraint has borne down on these excesses. Conceivably, they've just been getting used to the constant shocks of how marvelously everything's gone for them since their first single, Supersonic, came out 18 months ago.
The wonder of it is not so much the parade of hit singles and the two probably- million-selling-as-we-speak albums. The crux is the combination of intensity and dumb luck that propelled them.
In 1991, Oasis were Liam Gallagher's no-hope Sunday afternoon rehearsers -- until the day they asked Noel to join. He raised the stakes a gigawatt or three by saying,"Yes, but you fucking belong to me seven days a week and we're going for it big time ! " Nonetheless, two years later they were still so obscure that they had never even been mentioned in a music paper. Then Alan McGee, boss of Creation Records, missed the last train out of Glasgow, dropped into subterranean gig parlour King Tut's Wah Wah Hut, chanced on Oasis and offered them a deal before they got back to the dressing room. They were made men. Bar all the hard work.
Gallagher's rented flat has a clattery tiled floor, rather dim lighting, few personal touches apart from the usual pop star's array of gold and silver discs -- including one in the toilet for an Ice-T single dedicated to Noel's long-time girlfriend Meg Matthews, who used to do the rapper's promotional work. (She's tolerantly parked herself in the bedroom to watch videos for the evening.)
He settles down in the back room, big armchairs under a glass conservatory roof. On the occasional table a small crowd of coffee cups, beer cans and dog ends gradually gathers like desultory listeners at Speaker's Corner.
He's in loquacious form. His nasal Mancunian tones buzzsaw indefatigably into the night. Comfortably aware that the minutiae of his life and character are now of interest to multitudes, he constantly reports his own past thoughts and speech, jumping up to act out significant scenes, frequently resorting to mime when words fail him.
As in every other aspect of Oasis's career, he 's going for it big time.
Did you enjoy Earl's Court?
They were the best gigs I've ever done in my life. I had to sit down and have a drink to comprehend it all. The fans confound me. Whatever did 350,000 singles. So did Some Might Say and Roll With It and Wonderwall. Earl's Court 40,000. Both albums have sold over 900,000 now. I mean, I meet these kids in the street and they're shaking but I'm saying, "I'm honoured to meet you."
You sound like an old showbiz sentimentalist.
I am an old romantic. It makes me cry. It does. It's beyond special. Until you've been in that position, I don't think you can judge it.
You like the numbers as well though, don't you, those sales figures?
It's lke in Raging Bull where Jake Lamotta says,"The jury's rigged in this town, but the people know who the champion is." Still, there's better bands than Oasis in England.
It's a surprise to hear that from you.
The Verve are a better band than we are. And Primal Scream, Cast, Ocean Colour Scene. All right, what I mean is they're as good as we are, not better. But they've not got involved in media bullshit bollocks like our so-called rivals Blur. They haven't been dragged into this "Who's bigger? Who's better?" thing. But if it comes down to it, we are the biggest band in the country.
Whatever it is that got Oasis to Earl's Court seems to spring from the Gallagher family background. Was it a "happy childhood"?
The early part of it. I remember my first experience of being cool: when I was in primary school I had a kidney infection for years, so I was the only kid allowed to wear long trousers. The others had these little grey shorts like something out of Kes and I had these dead cool black skintight trousers with little Doc Martens - everybody hated me.
What I was bad at was spelling. Still am. Anything over six letters and that's me gone.
Maybe you're dyslexic.
I am actually. Sometimes I give lyrics to Liam and the two key words of the sentence will be missing. When I gave him Don't Look Back In Anger, he's singing, "But don't back in anger, not today." I'm saying,"It's 'Don't look back in anger'." He's saying, "Well, that's not what's fucking written 'ere, chief."
When did you start playing guitar?
I was 13 or 14. I sent off to John England's catalogue. It was a horrible black acoustic rip-off of a Gibson Hummingbird. But it was homework out the window, practice, constantly playing House of The Rising Sun and Ticket To Ride, just the two songs forever and ever and mam downstairs going (mimics a very miserable mam glaring up at the ceiling).
Who inspired you?
First it was Steve Jones with his white Les Paul and his leather kecks. But I didn't take it seriously until I saw Johnny Marr. He had the Brian Jones haircut and the shades and the white polo neck and the big red semi-acoustic. When your Haircut 100s and your Echo & The Bunnymen and everyone were jingle- jangling up here (clasps imaginary fretboard at nipple level),Johnny was rocking out down here (stoops to mid-thigh).When The Smiths came on Top of The Pops for the first time, that was it for me. From that day on I was . . . I wouldn't say . . .Yes, I probably would say, I wanted to be Johnny Marr.
Was there a particular moment when you realized music might be the center of your life?
Yeah. I left school with no qualifications whatsoever and I remember me mam sitting down one night and going, "What is going to become of you?" I didn't have an answer. But the only thing I was good at, the only thing that would make me get off my arse was that plank of wood (points at guitar).
Allegedly, you wrote songs almost as soon as you'd learned your third chord. It's a huge leap from copying to creating. Do you remember when it happened?
I was in my bedroom. Winter time. It went G. E minor, C, D, the basic chords, right, and the chorus was, "And life goes on, but the world will never change". I must have been smoking too much pot at the time. It was, I dunno, just to see if I could do it. After that I wrote about 75 songs no one's ever heard.
Did you think, "Great! I'm a songwriter"?
No. I didn't think anything for years. The second stage for me was when I was about 20. I started playing at parties and they'd go, "Wow (spoken with wonderfully quiet awe on his listeners behalf). You should be a professional." That got me over a hurdle of playing my songs to other people -- nobody actually laughed at me. After that I was out to conquer the world, man.
In your late teens, your parents broke up. Liam says he took it in his stride. Did you?
I think we accepted that it was going to happen about three years before, so when it did, it was relief. I was only concerned for me mam. Dad had his own business doing concrete floors and he was a part-time. We all started off working him, but the worst thing in the world is working with your dad. You can't do anything right.
People ask what it's like being in a band with your brother and I think,"What about being on a building site in January when it's hailstoning -- with your dad and your two brothers and two of our cousins and two of your uncles and you Fuckin' hate the lot of them?" We'd turn up at work in this yellow transit van, all sat in the back like this (elbows on knees, head down, looking surly). Because we were always arguing we'd still be working at nine o'clock every night. Then we'd argue about whose fault it was we were late and then, when we got home, mam'd had the dinner in the oven for hours and she'd start kicking off. Years of just rowing. We were the Clampetts, the Burnage Hillbillies.
I quit and got a job with a building firm who sub-contracted to British Gas. And the pivotal moment of my entire life was this: a big steel cap off an enormous gas pipe we were laying fell on my right foot and smashed it to bits. When I came back from the sick, they gave me a cushy job in stores handing out bolts and wellies. Nobody would turn up for days on end. After about six weeks I started bringing me guitars in and I wrote four of the songs from the first album in that storeroom. I look at this foot sometimes in the winter when I get chills in it because of the cracked bones, and I go (thumbs up and big grin at his foot).
You and Liam are always going on about your mum.
Well, she never once said, "Go and get a proper job" or "Settle down and get married". She said, "If that is what you really want to do, I don't care if you stay on the dole. But you'd better make something of yourself. You'd better not let me down." And I've not.
She's retired now. She used to work in McVities' on the production line picking out all the mis-shaped Penguins and Jaffa Cakes. She used to come home with bin-bags full of them. Any time me aunties would come round, she'd be going, "You want a biscuit?" You could see them (lips curled, behind the hand),"Fucking Jaffa Cakes again!"
She still lives in a council house and she's the best gardener. She should enter competitions. She's got more fucking plants and trees and, uh, things knocking about - and birds, they must come from all over the world to nest in her garden. The lawn's like a bowling green, I think she cuts it with scissors. She just gets up in the morning and goes out in the garden all day, talking to the plants. Totally chilled out. Wherever she goes, the hairdresser's or whatever, it's all free now. She goes on the bus for nothing. "You're that lad's mother! It's on the house, luv."
You and Liam being five years apart, that's a huge gulf when you're in your teens. Were you close?
It's the theory of relativity, isn't it? When I was 15, he was 10. A social life with him was inconceivable. It's laughable to think I'd end up in a band with him. But here we are. I'm 28 and he's 23. Such is life. When I'm 65 he'll be 60 and it'll be irrelevant, we'll both be old together.
Your time as a roadie with the Inspiral Carpets must have been a limbo period.
No it wasn't, it was a great chance to suss it all out for three or four years. Being around managers, agents, record company people, journalists. I'd just sit there never saying a word to anyone, going (the thinker: chin in hand, attention rapt).
Is it true that, before you roadied for them, the Inspirals rejected you as a vocalist?
Yeah. When they asked me to come and have a go, I thought, "This is my destiny in life!" I did Gimme Shelter, shouting me head off like Shaun Ryder, and they turned me down.
Madchester was happening then and it must have looked as though you'd missed out. Weren't you afraid you were going to get stuck with a bunch of keys and bum cleavage for the rest of your days?
I tell you what, part of me thought,"This is staring me right in the face and I'm doing nothing about it." But one of the greatest lyrics that Morrissey ever wrote - and he's a Gemini, same as me - the one that stuck in my head for years is, "You should not go to them, Let them come to you" (The Hand That Rocks The Cradle). I always knew that it was going to be. And lo and behold, the chancer that I am, it fucking happened.
I couldn't believe it when Alan McGee walked up to me in that club and said, "Do you want a record deal?" I had to turn away and smirk to meself (turns away and smirks to himself). To be quite honest, we'd have signed for anyone. But it was only Creation Records - Jesus & Mary Chain, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine. Give us it! I believe in fate and I believe it was all mapped out.
There's a lot of religion going about here. Astrology, fate, some kind of God?
I don't wear that for nothing (pulls crucifix on a chain out of his shirt). I don't know what it symbolizes, but I believe in a higher power. I don't believe that on a Monday morning some white-bearded geezer with fuckin' nothing better to do created the planets. Bollocks to that!
The way you took over the band that Liam and the others started, by sheer force of personality it seems, still defies belief. Did they really just surrender, as legend has it?
To be fair to the rest of the band, I don't think it was a surrender. Once you've heard a song like Live Forever . . . I remember playing it to them on an acoustic guitar one night (sings), "Maybe, blah . . .", and it's one of the greatest moments I've ever had as a songwriter. They were just completely and utterly fucking speechless. If I hadn't had the songs, they'd probably have told me to fuck off.
With all the background of family uproar between you, why didn't you sack Liam when you took over the band?
Liam's a fucking brilliant frontman and he stamps his authority over everything he sings. It's his. I can't even come close. Now, the way it's going is there are certain songs where I'll go, "You're too punk rock for this one," so I do it. He's cool about it. What holds Liam back is his refusal to write Lyrics. He won't even entertain it.
Didn't that come from you putting him on the back foot, shaking his confidence?
I suppose so. Half of it's probably my fault. I'm not going to say,"I want you to write three tracks for the next album." But I hope if Bonehead or our kid ever presented me with a While My Guitar Gently Weeps or a Something I'd be big enough to go (hands up) . Until that happens, I'm too busy writing me own songs to spend time bringing stuff out of other people.
The first time you played with Oasis (October 19, 1991, Manchester Boardwalk) was the first time you'd ever played in public and you were 24 already. Most people on the local scene must have thought you were a prize bullshitter by then.
Listen, that gig, there was 40 people maximum there and we had a song called Rock'n'Roll Star. "Tonight I'm a rock'n'roll star." People were going (sniggering behind hands),"Yeah, course you are, mate, bottom of the bill at the Boardwalk on a fuckin' Tuesday night." Pretentious arseholes is what they thought we were. Went down like a fucking knackered lift (laughs) .We thought they were going to be in raptures And it ended in this bowl of silence.
But from that first gig on, I don't know what came over us. We knew we were the greatest band in the world. We'd go, "Fucking Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, they haven't got the tunes we've got."
For about 18 months you've been living a rock'n'roll dream come true. But what were the biggest mistakes you made?
I wish I'd never said some of the things I've said. That's done me no end of harm.
Especially the quote in The Observer, saying that you hoped Damon and Alex out of Blur died of AIDS?
I said what I said, and as soon as I said it, I was (head in hands). I apologized in the next breath to the interviewer. Weeks later when I saw it I put the paper down and I said to Meg,"I think I've blown it." she read it and went, "You idiot! "The first person on the phone was me mam saying,"I didn't raise you to say things like that! " My whole world came crashing in on me then. If it wasn't for our kid, I don't know what I'd have done (mimes arm round shoulder, quiet word ) . "It's all right, you just said something daft."This is my little brother, who I look after, putting his arm round me, saying, "It'll be all right, man." But I don't think people will ever forgive me for it.
How has success affected relationships within the band, not just between you and your brother?
It's hard to say. The main thing is that although the royalties on the records are split five ways, I'm the songwriter and I get the publishing.
Are the others jealous? Is it a source of conflict?
It's not a source of conflict. Whether they're jealous or not, you'd have to ask them. They've never said anything to me. I can't believe they'd expect a share of my songs.
It's often done, though: a percentage of the publishing paid to a band member whose drumming or bass playing is acknowledged as enhancing the songs. I disagree with that.
Why? Because in your band they don't play creatively?
No. Not that. But I disagree that a bass line has made one of our songs better or worse. I didn't get where I am today without losing a lot of friends in Manchester through being so driven by my own songwriting.
When I'm writing a song, that's it. I'll sit up in this chair 48 hours, smoking, drinking, playing the same line over again. I put that girl through hell. When I'm going through all that, them chaps are in their cosy beds, with their cosy lives - it's all cosy for them. And when it's time to make a new album, they wake up in the morning and go, "Where's the songs?" It's me who has to come up with them. It does come naturally to me, but you've got to fucking work your bollocks off, man, and I do. I live this band 24 hours a day.
What I will say, though, is if the shit hits the fan and all this stops tomorrow, I'm Bonehead's daughter's godfather, right, and I'm Liam Gallagher's brother, and I'm Paul McGuigan's best friend, and I'm Alan White's best friend. We are a family. Whatever I've got, they can have.
Liam appreciates your songwriting anyway. He's been quoted as saying, "Noel's up There next to John Lennon in my book." How you rate yourself?
If we were to sit down now and take John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Davies, Steve Marriott, anybody's first two albums against my first two albums, I'm there. I'm with The Beatles. If you ask me where I'll be after my eighth album in comparison to The Beatles, then they'll piss all over me. Probably.
You seem to have ambiguous feelings about songwriting. You've said it comes naturally and that it's very difficult too.
The music is easy. Like at the moment I've got this fucking blinding riff on the guitar - and the intro and the chorus and the bridge. I've even got the title: New Suede Shoes. Nothing to do with Elvis. The melody comes next. Then I get to my biggest failing. I sit down and go (despondently hunches over imaginary guitar), "Fuck, what am I going to say?" I said everything I ever wanted so say in Rock'n'Roll Star.
Then maybe you agree with some of the reviews of (What's The Story) Morning Glory? which said the lyrics were slack?
I know I could do much better. I could take more time over them.
One song from the album, Cast No Shadow, seemed to be partly about your dissatisfaction with your Iyric-writing..."Bound with all the weight of all the words he tried to say."
That's me. I'm not Morrissey. I'm not Bob Dylan. I'm not Brett Anderson. They are better lyricists than I'll ever be.
So Oasis is a band that's about the sound and feel of songs more than what they say?
It's about the connection and the emotion between the band and the audience.
Cast No Shadow could imply that you want to say less in your lyrics - if you let it all out then it might hurt you?
Exactly right. I don't ever want to bare my soul. Lyrics to me are an ongoing grey area and I don't know what it's about.
In Hey Now you wrote, "I asked myself, Why can I never let anyone in?"
There's one person on the planet who could explain that lyric to you and she's sitting in the next room. I'm a happy-go-lucky character. I'm not that miserable. But I can never ever let anyone into my world.
Apart from the Lyrics, do you ever get blocked?
Except for New Suede Shoes, I've been blocked since coming out of Rockfield. A good six months now. It's the only time in my life I've just had one song on the go.
Does that frighten you?
Frightens the fucking life out of me. But I know it's going to come.
Do you think your obsession with The Beatles could go too far?
It's beyond an obsession. It's an ideal for living. I don't even know how to justify it to myself. With every song that I write, I compare it to The Beatles. I've got semi-close once or twice. Live Forever I suppose, Don't Look Back In Anger, Whatever. The thing is, they only got there before me. If I'd been born at the same time as John Lennon, I'd have been up there. Well, I'd definitely have been better than Gerry And The fucking Pacemakers, I know that.
From what I've heard from Paul McCartney, he likes about half a dozen of my songs I met him twice, on the Come Together album and then I went round his house in St John's Wood one night. He likes Slide Away, Whatever and Live Forever. If I'd been knocked over by a taxi that night, I'd have died the happiest man.
When we were recording Definitely Maybe, Mark Coyle, the co-producer, said a great thing to me -- admittedly we were out of it -- he points at me and he says, "You have a duty to educate everybody in this country under the age of 20 about music."
When did you introduce your solo acoustic spot to the live show?
The critics are on about me being on a power trip and wallowing in the limelight, aren't they? Well, I first played it when we went to Japan and we were contracted to play for an hour and a half when we only had a 40-50- minute set. The one way out was for me to play acoustic. I'll admit to you right now it felt really good. I thought, "All right, I'll carry on doing this" But I've had a lot of shit off the band about it.
They think you're "wallowing in the limelight" too?
They probably do. The way I see it is this: I believe the fans of the band should get a chance to see how these songs are born. They all start with one man sitting in a chair with an acoustic guitar singing into a Walkman. I'll never let it go now.
People presume you're lining up to go solo. Is that your plan?
No. Never was, never will be. This is my first band and my first rock'n'roll experience and it'd be my last. I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
Despite Wibbling Rivalry, you and Liam do manage to say something nice about one another once in a while. There was an interview recently where he said, "Never one day goes by without me wanting to see our kid."
I know what he's saying because I'd like to be in Manchester to look out for him. He's a bigmouth, you know, all front, "I'm gonna shag Justine from Elastica," all that. I wish I did still live up there so I could (mimes locking Liam's head and er his arm, fist in face), "Shurrup, will ya, just shurrup." I miss him now and he misses me. He's the most famous person in Manchester. The poor lad can't walk outside the front door without being Liam Gallagher, if you know what I mean, and getting beaten up or threatened at least.
Why did you leave Manchester?
As soon as I got some money, I was out of there. In Manchester I was sick and tired of going into pubs I'd been going into since I was 15 and everyone saying, "Tight bastard! " if I didn't buy the drinks and "Flash Bastard!" if I did. I was sick and tired of young crack heads coming up to me in clubs sticking a screwdriver in me back and saying,"We're doing the merchandising on your next tour" or "We're going to be your security team."
I hate the way anyone from the working class who makes money, the working class turns on them. The people in my band, we'll be working class till we die. We were brought up socialists and we'll die socialists.
Do you enjoy spending money?
Oh yeah. I spent too long on the dole not to. I enjoy all the trappings. My biggest vice is guitars.
You've often given the impression that you hoover cocaine by the bucketful and some would suggest that's a vice.
Whoever said I'm on a line of cocaine every 40 minutes, I'll sue the fucker. That's out of order. In Oasis, Guigsy, Bonehead and Alan White don't take drugs. Me and our Liam do. We'll take anything that's put in front of us because . . . that's just the kind of guys we are. But we've never been on stage out of it. We've never taken heroin or crack. We do take too many drugs, though, and I wish I'd never started. In fact, I wish I'd never started smoking cigarettes or drinking beer or taking cocaine or ecstasy because I'd have a lot more money.