Noel & Liam Gallagher, Bonehead & Guigsy - Alternative Press - November 1997
Onstage, however, Noel Gallagher must have had second thoughts. He checked the tuning of his rented Gretsch. It was fine, but every time the wind picked up the sound was lost. He's standing bang in front of a Marshall stack, and he still can't hear a thing. Downing Stadium-a shallow bowl on an island in New York's East River was not built with amplified sound in mind; the place is a way station for wind. Also, the crowd has no idea who the guy with the guitar is. The few who have programs consult them. Is this Ben Harper?
The stadium holds nearly 30,000. Only 16,600 people bought tickets, and most of them apparently chose this moment to find the Port-O-San. Fair enough. Noel hits the opening G chord to "Live Forever." He sings, "Maybe, I don't really wanna know..." and the crowd, what's left of it, wants to know one thing: Who's this guy?
Who's this guy? This is Noel Gallagher, mate. He is in the band Oasis. From Manchester, England. Their records have sold 20 million copies worldwide. Noel Gallagher writes all the songs and produces them. England's new prime minister namechecked Noel Gallagher and got elected for it, and had Noel over for cocktails at Number 10 Downing Street to say thanks. And except for his brother, Liam, Oasis' singer, Noel Gallagher might be the most famous man in England today.
Not many people in the crowd understand this, though. Some frat boys have figured out who's onstage, and they're shouting, "Go home!" You know, trying to wind up the guy in that English band who gets in fights with his brother. "Go home!" He plays "Cast No Shadow," the wind whips up, and then the PA cuts out. But just when it looks like the wind and the frat boys might defeat the artist, Noel plays "Don't look Back In Anger," with that exalted chorus, "Sooooooooo Sally can wait" - hey, the frat boys know that song. In fact the whole stadium thinks it might know this tune. It's weird-it's not as if anybody's rushing the stage, but there's a mass pause, like when a child stops crying because she heard a bell ring. Then it's "Wonderwall," then "Champagne Supernova"-these songs sing themselves. Even with the gusts scattering his reedy voice across Randall's island, Noel's words, somehow both pure and juvenile, get cradled in the breeze; some of them will get carried half a mile down river to the Kirby Forensic Hospital for the criminally insane, and a guy in lockdown will find himself wondering, "Where were you while we were getting high?" and for a minute he'll forget he's incarcerated. Noel Gallagher's songs can do that. Back in Downing Stadium, the hair on 16,600 pairs of arms involuntarily rises.
Even so, a transcendent chorus could not rescue this performance. Noel's voice was thin, the sound was murky, and he ended the set with an anemic version of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter." Backstage, Noel made a beeline to the VIP tent, a flock of industry lackeys trailing him like gulls in the wake of an ocean liner. He strode past Perry Farrell, who was enjoying a post-show chardonnay. Noel didn't look happy.
But how do you judge a man's happiness? The next time I see Noel Gallagher is on a sunny terrace in midtown Manhattan, 24 stories up. It turns out he can be quite content without smiling. He always has that look on his face, that anybody-else-smell that? puss. He is relaxing under a cafe umbrella on the penthouse terrace of the Peninsula Hotel. It's a nice hotel - Trump Tower is a block up; Tiffany is across the street. The cheapest room here costs $365 a-night; the presidential suite is $4500. Epic Records has lavishly secured this patio as an interview site. You have a clear view of Fifth Avenue from up here, from East Harlem on down to Washington Square Park. Dominating the view, however, is the Tishman Building. its address is 666 Fifth Avenue. The designers thought it would be novel to advertise the address, in 20-foot high red neon characters, on the north side of the building. Every time I look to the left of Noel I see the number of the Beast.
Noel starts right in on the Tibet show.
"I could have played better," he admits. "I mean the equipment I had was f***in' shit. It sounded like rubbish onstage. I couldn't hear meself sing or nothing, but it was good to do. You know?" He folds his arms: That'll do, out of the way. He cracks a smile. He might actually be happy. He just married Meg Mathews, his longtime girlfriend, in a ceremony in Las Vegas. No surprise that the Little Chapel Of The West was "a little Las Vegasy," but Noel couldn't very well have gotten married back home, where you apply for a license and are required by law to wait a week, and by that time, well, you could imagine that tabloid zoo. "Wonderwall" is about Meg. On Be Here Now, Mrs. Gallagher is "The Girl In The Dirty Shirt." If Noel appears becalmed, it's because he knows the real work hasn't begun. This will be the last downtime for awhile.
Less than a year ago Oasis were still touring for their hugely successful second record, (What's The Story) Morning Glory? Not only did the band outstrip the hype of their debut, Definitely Maybe, but for thefirst time in ages, an English rock band had a Top-10 single in America, the languid "Wonderwall." Their story so far sounds like some teen-exploitation newsreel from 1963. "Five young working-class lads, armed only with arrogance, melodies and a fanatical devotion to the Beatles, set their sights for the toppermost of the popper-most and guess what? That's just where they landed!" Of course, there have been rough edges, you know, a couple of misunderstandings, a public apology or two, a few punches, the odd cocaine-possession arrest, several lawsuits and a really long weekend in the American South when the band sauntered right up to the abyss and almost jumped. "We've always got the breaks," Noel admits, "but it's only because we put a lot of work into what we do. The people who work for us realise that. And we always deliver what we say we're gonna deliver."
What the band deliver on Be Here Now is just what we've come to expect from Oasis-huge hooks, nursery-rhyme lyrics, blithe Beatles references. But the record sounds better than the band's first two. Oasis have never been this well produced, nor this ambitious. The album's centrepiece is the 11-minute 'All Around The World,' a kind of perpetual-motion pop opus. With a 36-piece orchestra and a relentlessly upbeat chorus, it's Oasis' bid to sit alongside "Stairway To Heaven" and "Freebird" in the Classic Rock Acropolis.
"I suppose it's wanting to emulate your idols or whatever," Noel explains. 'I just wanted to write a big, massive, orchestral, sprawling, f***in' rock opera. So just sat down and decided I was going to write a big f***in' 11-minute song, and I wrote it. It's somewhere between [the Beatles'] 'Hey Jude' and 'All You Need is love."' He's serious. "Yeah," he adds, "a flag-waver."
Whether it's an instant classic or the work of an egomaniac in need of an editor... the jury's still out. But as usual, Oasis aim high, unafraid of seeming pompous or arrogant. After all, it's worked so far.
In the early days, Liam used to appear on magazine covers by himself, the face of Oasis. That is slowly, grudgingly changing. The rivalry between the two brothers is well-documented. One brotherly eruption occurred in the presence of a journalist and his tape recorder. He released the 14-minute profanity-laced squabble under the title Wibbling Rivalry.' (It is testament to the star power of the band that the bootleg reached number 52 on the UK pop charts, the highest placement for an interview disc.) With few exceptions, interviews these days involve a separation of church and state.
When Noel's turn is over, Liam bounds onto the terrace, showing off the new shoes he bought this morning. Joining Liam are the Other Three: Paul "Guigsy" McGuigan, the bass player; Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs, the second guitarist; and Alan "Needs A Nickname" White, the drummer.
The scene opens with congratulations. Liam has been married to actress Patsy Kensit for two months now; Bonehead's wife is expecting the couple's second child; Alan is engaged. I suggest that their press officer should keep that quiet - it isn't very rock and roll for the band to all be married. This is a joke. Not real funny, but at least as funny as Liam's attempt to hurl me off the roof for dissing his missus. And that's how we begin. Liam slaps his stomach. "Gettin' fat," he says. He slaps it again, daring a response. He is not fat, not in the slightest. He's wearing a skin-tight shirt and the as seen-on-MTV shades: a rock star at rest. Guigsy and Alan are also wearing shades, a notch less flashy than their leader's. Poor Bonehead has left his sunglasses elsewhere, and he could use them. He looks horribly hung over - his eyes are etched in red; his very face looks exhausted.
Liam spots The Sixes. "The devil, innit?" The other three titter naughtily. I suddenly feel like I am in the presence of a Disney-style villain (Liam) and his bumbling henchmen, one of whom (Bonehead) is a little quicker and therefore second in command.
Below, scenes from... The Liam King: Conquering America.
A.P.: You've said before that America doesn't get Oasis.
Liam: America does get us.
A.P.: It does?
Liam: Otherwise we wouldn't be playing here, would we?
A.P.: Then maybe it's us journalists who make such a big deal about conquering America.
Liam: You don't go out your way to conquer one place.
Guigsy: You don't conquer America.
Bonehead: You don't go out to conquer a country.
Liam: We're in America 'cause...we haven't been here for a bit. If America don't get it...if we're not big in America, we're not big in America. You can't force yourself on people. We're not here to conquer America. f we're big in America, we're big in America. If we're not, I can't be arsed.
The first time Oasis played in the States was at a tiny club in New York City. It was during the 1994 CMJ Music Marathon, and Oasis were the buzz band that year. Before the gig, Liam paced around the dressing room, clutching that star tambourine he used to carry as if it were his passport. But the band were having a blast. The place was packed. Word was out that Oasis were the next Beatles. The hype was so overwhelming, Oasis started to believe they were the Beatles, talking with Liverpudlian accents.
They took the stage and stood stock still. The New York crowd folded its arms and stared back. It stayed like that the whole set, an electric standoff-mutual distrust, mutual respect And that's the way it's been ever since with Oasis and America. Despite selling four million copies of Morning Glory in the U.S., Oasis cannot enter the States without something going wrong. The last tour, the one that ended so badly, also started off badly. About to board the plane in London, Liam suddenly freaked. He couldn't go: he had to buy a house. Now? asked Noel. Yes, said Liam, now. Noel sang lead for the first four gigs.
But that's in the past, and Noel is feeling good. By Noei's reckoning the new record is top. Not better than Morning Glory, but as good. Even though there are six tabloid reporters with work visas lurking in the Peninsula lobby, Noel feels at ease here. It's kind of refreshing that he can go out in NYC in the morning and hit the shops without hassle.
'The funny thing is," Noel observes, "the only people who come up to us in bars are English people. And they want to be your mate because you're both in New York. 'Hey, where you stayin'? Can we come by your hotel? Come on! All f***in' Brits together!"' He heaves a sigh.
"F***in' 'ell," Noel concludes, dragging on a duty-free smoke. "I didn't fly 10,000 miles to come speak to f***in' English people."
Too right. He's here, whether he wants to admit it or not, to conquer America. That's why the tabloid boys are in the lobby; that's why I'm here with a tape recorder.
You see, the last time Noel was in America, in September '96, his band nearly disintegrated.
They had just played huge festival dates in Europe and at home, then dashed off to the States for a quick victory lap. It didn't turn out the way they had hoped. Here they were expected to put on proper rock shows in places like Dayton, Ohio. They had played Maine Road, the home stadium of the band's beloved Manchester City football club, a kind of outrageous childhood dream come true. Two weeks later, Oasis headlined two days at Knebworth playing to 250,000 and breaking attendance records. A month later they found themselves in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Due to poor ticket sales, the September 11 show, originally booked in the 12,000-seat Independence Arena, was relocated. Oasis were now to perform across town, in the gym where the Charlotte Hornets train, capacity 5000. Everything came to a head in Charlotte The Oasis principals held a summit meeting in their hotel. The British press reported that the meeting ended in a fist fight. hours before the show, with the road c still waiting for the band to appear for sound cheek, Noel was aboard the Concorde on his way to London.
"If I hadn't gone home at that time had that break, I don't think we'd have another record. It was looking that way was gonna leave the group," he says. "I was pissed off at everybody's moaning. Every someone was moaning about something completely irrelevant. It almost got to Top level." Noel imitates Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel, and I have the privilege of watch a British rock star imitate an American a imitating a British rock star. "I don't want this,' says Noel/Nigel, holding an imaginary cocktail sandwich. And then he snaps out of it with a spew of vitriol. "I was like, 'You were on the dole four years ago; what in f*** all 'ave you got to complain about!. You're a f***in' millionaire, drive a Roll Royce, you c***. What is your f***ing problem!?"' It takes a second before I realise talking about himself. He nods toward The Sixes. "That must be where Satan lives," says. "That's Satan's office!"
"He’s got a sneer, inne?"' Noel says of Liam. Each brother fondly refers to the absent sibling as Our Kid. Each claims to be the other's biggest fan. It's a mix of adoration and disdain that drives the two. Without Noel, Liam is just a good-looking lout. And Noel's songs don't resonate by themselves. Without that voice, that cocksure snarl that treats vowels like taffy - without Liam, Noel's lyrics are nothing more than fodder for yearbook quotes. ("Maybe the songs that you sing are wrong/Maybe the dreams that we dream are gone" - Go Blue Devils! Class Of '97 Forever!)
If Oasis are great, they're great because of Liam. "People say, 'Well, if you write the songs, then why don't you sing them?"'
Noel holds his hands out like a scale weighing the question, the yin, the yang-it doesn't work like that. "He's a better singer than I am," Noel concludes. "If I could sing them better'n him, I'd sing them."
The fact that neither of them could do it alone probably drives them both mad. For instance,
Noel wrote "Don't Look Back In Anger" (an anthem with throwaway words) and
"Wonderwall" (a personal lyric about his future wife) around the same time. He gave Liam the choice of which he wanted to sing. You can guess which one Noel got, right?
"When I'm writing a song," says Noel, "if there's a note that I can't sing, that I know for a fact that he won't be able to sing as well, I'll still keep it in. And he'll say, 'I can't go that high.' 'Ah, yes you f***in' ken, you better hope you can go that high, 'cause if you don't sing it then I'm gonna sing it and then you're not gonna sing it.' And then he goes away and learns it till he sings it properly."
Of course, it works both ways.
"I remember when I played 'Champagne Supernova' for the first time. I said, 'What'd ya think of it? Noel pulls a sour Liam mug: Eh, 'sairight.' I said, 'Yeah, but it's not finished.' You know what he said? He said, 'It'll be all right when it's finished.'I was like, 'F***in' cheeky bastard! Noel clenches a fist and makes the why-I-oughta gesture. "Then you go away and you think, 'Actually, maybe he's right' And then I put that middle bit in with the guitar solo and all that. Then," says Noel, "it frightened him."
Part 2: Talking Songs
A.P.: You wrote a song with Seahorses [the new band of ex-Stone Roses guitarist John Squire]?
A.P.: What was that all about?
Liam: "I done it with John Squire. I didn't do anything with Seahorses. What's it all about? It's about... everything, really.
A.P.: Are you writing other songs with him?
Liam: Nuh, nah, just...no. He just come round me house one night and we got pissed up and we were talking about...I didn't write the song; I talked the song. I can talk a good song. We was havin' a chat about life and shit, and then he went away and wrote it... through my thoughts.
"Love Me And Leave Me" is Liam's first song, apparently. His brother, however, picked up the guitar at 13 and hasn't been able to put it down. He really hit his stride, writing the bulk of Definitely Maybe, when a construction accident left his right foot crushed and in a cast for three months. British Gas, his employer, transferred him to a storeroom.
"Nobody ever turned up. All that was there was nuts and bolts and f***in' overalls," says Noel.
"So I used to bring me guitar in, sit there, and write songs all day. Wrote 50 songs in three months." After that, he lucked into a job as a roadie for the lnspiral Carpets. Noel actually auditioned to be their singer. He was turned down. Still, he was determined to be a songwriter.
"It just all went from there, really."
He hit a dry spell after Morning Glory was released-seven months of nothing. "I started getting a bit worried. But then as Morning Glory started selling so many records, I thought, 'Ah, f*** it, I'm gonna be rich anyways; don't give a shit if I write any more songs. At least I f***in' wrote them ones."' And then it just came back.
"But then there's sometimes I don't want to write," he says. "Like now. Gotta stop myself from writing. I've written this album and all the b-sides, and they're all recorded, and then I'll be sittin' in the hotel room and the guitar will be in the corner, and it'll be going come on come on come on." Noel acts out a scene in which his acoustic guitar, which is capable of whispering, is able to seduce him in a kind of I-can't-write-the-songs/you must-write-the-songs to and fro. Despite his best intentions of not cluttering the catalogue, he always gives in.
And yet, sometimes his guitar commands him to write other people's songs. It's a criticism that has dogged Oasis from the very beginning. Oasis have never tried to obscure their Beatles idolatry. You could probably find a Beatles quote in every song, like some Where's Waldo? puzzle. Keep looking; it's there. But Noel has crossed the line between homage and plagiarism a few times. The first was "Shakermaker," from Definitely Maybe. Despite Noel's claim that the song was based on a Beatles instrumental, it's obvious the melody was lifted from the New Seekers' '60s hit "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing," best known to people as a Coke commercial jingle. The matter was settled out of court.
In 1995, music journalists received an advance cassette of (What's the Story) Morning Glory? containing a song called "Step Out." Somebody then realised that the chorus is, wow, not just close but virtually identical to Stevie Wonder's "Uptight." The song was yanked from the album. It now appears as a b-side with the unusual writing credit Gallagher/Wonder/Cosby/Moy. (A similar arrangement was reached with Gary Glitter on "Hello" after Noel cannibalised Glitter's "Hello, Hello, I'm Back Again.")
It's fair to question Noel's intentions. Did he call the song "Wonderwall" for a reason? Is there a connection between how he feels about Meg Mathews and George Harrison's first solo record, Wonderwall. Did he title his record Be Here Now because he read the Ram Dass spiritual text of the same name? Or just because John Lennon, who must have read Baba Ram Dass, once said,
"The whole Beatles message was be here now"? Even Paul McCartney himself has said it's time Oasis found another influence. "The reservoir for borrowing from the Beatles will run out on them," said Sir' Paul.
Of course, on Be Here Now, Noel has ripped off himself. The chord progression to "D'you Know What I Mean?," the first single? The same chords as "Wonderwall."
The Liam King, Part 3: Ask a stupid question...
A.P.: Does all the press, all the hounding, ever really get to you? Does it make you want to just walk away from it?
Liam: Quit? Never quit. 'Cause if you quit, that means, like, you're denying yourself [he brightens] another big f***in' house, another brand-new car. Loads of f***in shoes. Quit? What for, to work in f***in' Tesco? I can do what I f***in' want, man. No f***in' problem. I was out of me head till 4 o'clock this morning. And the day you stop doin' that, that's it; there s no reason for you being here alive.
A.P.: So I guess there's no point in asking, What do you think you'd be doing if you weren't a rock star?
Guigsy: We can't know that! It's stupid. [Looks to Liam] How are we supposed to know that?
You get the picture. But to be fair, how are they supposed to know that? At a time when every other band in the world was turning down the job, Liam and the lads noticed the position of Rock Star wasn't filled. Tortured Artist, for whatever reason, was very popular at the time.
Also, don't judge Liam by his quotes. Interviews are just... well, have you ever read a good interview with Liam Gallagher? One where he drops his guard? Where his mercurial essence is frozen for a second-that's what Liam's all about. No way.
"We're all in a good frame of mind, we're all chilled, we've had a nice break, it's good to be back," Liam says in a rush, as if he's convincing himself. "We're all relaxed, we've had eight months off. it's good to be back in NYC," he continues. We've got a brand-new album comin' out, f***in' feel good, got a top pair of shoes today. I feel fantastic."
Liam's plan for the day: He's heading up to the Dakota, the building where John Lennon lived and died. He'll have a sit, have a cigarette, just chill.
Noel's plans tend to be more long-term.
"We're gonna do it different this time; we're gonna space it out," he says. He doesn't want another Charlotte episode. "That was our first big record, so I suppose everyone was trying to cover as much ground as possible before anyone died or something like that.'
Liam is the star, but Noel, if he's lucky, if he can outflank this plagiarism business, is a songwriter for the ages, maybe. What he has going for Him besides an iron resolve never to fail - is that he's a fan at heart. While Liam can't imagine life without the cars and loads of shoes, Noel gives the question some thought: If he weren't in Oasis, what would he be doing today? "I'd probably be a roadie still, be a member of a road crew, something like that. I like travelling, getting out and about, meeting people, generally causing trouble and having a good time, really.'
Oasis recorded part of Be Here Now at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. Noel was a little disappointed. In the end they only did three songs because there are two other studios there, and Oasis kept getting asked, Could you keep it down? They're recording a string section next door. Keep it down in Abbey Road. But that's where they were recording that 11-minute amalgam of "Hey Jude" and 'All You Need Is Love' where else would you record a song like that? Abbey f***ing Road - it's one of the temples of rock and roll.
Of course, you're given a choice in a temple: Worship or desecrate. Obviously Noel Gallagher isn't going to desecrate - the Beatles vibe is way too powerful. But he'll worship in his own way. On the one hand, he is paying homage: He's got an engineer at the mixing desk trying to chase down the exact drum sound from 'Rain," the great Lennon b-side of "Paperback Writer." And in the other hand he holds an ashtray, one with ABBEY ROAD printed on it. So what do you think a Beatles fan is gonna do with an Abbey Road ashtray that's there for the taking?