Noel Gallagher - Pulse - December 1997
Two giant screen prints sandwich the Earl's Court marquee: on the left, a black-and-white billboard of guitarist/songwriter Noel Gallagher, cutting right down the middle of his caterpillar-browed mug; on the right, a half-face picture of Gallagher's singing kid brother Liam, with matching monobrow and surly glare. A single word adorns both signs, and it's all you need to know: OASIS.
For a third night, the greatest band in the land is headlining another sold-out gig in its new hometown, supporting its newest album, Be Here Now (Creation/Epic). The portraits--shot by Jill Furmanovsky, whose Oasis-chronicling "Be There Then" photo exhibit currently tours England--add to the electricity already jigsawing through the night air.
Inside, opening act the Verve finishes a somber, brilliant set. Lights dim, and the Gallaghers--attired in casual Polo shirts and sweaters--saunter out to deafening cheers from the mostly laddish crowd. The stage design echoes Be Here Now's surreal cover art: Liam, walking like an arthritic King Louie from Disney's The Jungle Book, shuffles past a four-foot clock, a tilted phantom phone booth and a Keith Moon-mocking Rolls-Royce submerged in a faux-pool. Then he cocks his head back, folds his arms behind him, plants his upper lip firmly on the microphone and--in patented John-Lennon-meets-trap-clamped-mink style--begins to sing. "Wash your face in the morning sun/ Flash your pan at the song that I'm singing," he yowls from Be Here Now's title track, while Noel's guitar grinds out the song's stamping cavalcade of riffs.
Down on the floor, the lads are bouncing up and down. Rigorously. Deliriously. And crowing along to every Liam-sung line. Two wall-mounted monitors project a real-time film of the event, perfectly capturing Noel grinning hyena-happy at the stunning enormity of it all, at the sheer rabble-rousing euphoria that is Oasis.
"I'm not really bothered with the bullshit of the business or about being #1 anymore or anything like that," he'd humbly confessed during a candid pre-show chat. "I've had all that when I was younger, d'ya know what I mean? I've had my states of competing with other groups and watching other groups compete with us. But I think we settled those scores a few years ago, so it's like, we just wanna have a good time now and play music for the people."
But Oasis' power isn't so easily defined. A few songs later, some 40-odd thirsty folk are gathered at a Carlsberg lager--ahem--oasis (one of many that dot Earl's Court's walkways) when the band breaks into a signature anthem, "Don't Look Back in Anger." As the chorus hits--"So Sally can wait/ She knows it's too late as we're walking on by"--everyone in line, bartenders included, throw heads back, Liam-like, and bay blissfully along.
One British mag last year listed 100 wonderful things about England: "Pub sing-alongs--Thanks, Oasis!" Clearly, no spectator is immune to the magic Gallagher spell. And it's a visceral thing: Definitely Maybe, (What's the Story) Morning Glory? and the face-slapping rebuttal Be Here Now. Twenty million records sold to date, written for the clock-punching masses by one of their own. Dig deeper into the Oasis mythology--look the gift horse in the mouth, in other words--and you'll miss the truly mystical point.
Why has Oasis become such an institution abroad? Could be the friendly familiarity in the architectural skills of Noel, who's defended his habit of plundering the pop vaults (the T. Rex/"Bang a Gong" riff of "Cigarettes & Alcohol," the quasi-Stevie Wonder/"Uptight" chorus of "Step Out," the cagey Lennon piano notes that open "Anger," the blatant aping of Coca-Cola's "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" anthem on "Shakermaker") with a brash "So fucking sue me--see if I care. And they do. Sue me, that is."
Or how about his music's singsong, hand clap-propelled moods, compounded by lyrics that often border on nursery-rhyme childish--which, ironically, are rooted in an adult respect for attention-grabbing TV jingles and, Noel's admitted, the late-night rants of the WWF?
"The thing is, when you're writing lyrics like 'I'm feeling Supersonic,' you only have to watch these wrestlers, man. The speeches that they give before a match--they're great lyricists, man, them wrestlers!"
Noel's case is aided greatly by having his epithets delivered in Liam's bratty, devil-may-care bleat. But there's something far greater at work here, creeping through the tunesmith's warm chordings and classically fluid leads, a wide-eyed reverence for all things majestic in rock: Noel Gallagher believes; you just know he does. Which is probably why Oasis had no trouble finding believers--so many that a legion of cover bands has sprung up overnight, led by No Way Sis (first no-brainer single: "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing"). Even the London Philharmonic hopped aboard, with a plush orchestral disc, Plays the Music of Oasis (Music Club).
The U.S., it appears, is the last place to succumb to the Oasis hoodoo--while Morning Glory made a triple-platinum U.S. splash, Be Here Now (after losing a #1 debut slot to Puff Daddy by a mere 700-some units) puttered around in the 30s, only earning Gold certification last month.
In person, there's nothing remotely sorcerous about Noel Gallagher. The mouthy Mancunian comes off like a really quick nightclub comic, albeit with a prankster edge. Beneath his heavy brow are still heavier eyelids, which create a dopey effect. Except when he's onstage and bright-eyed beaming, Gallagher always manages to look stoned, really "Whoa, dude!" out of it. Don't be fooled. "He's a very clever man, very clever," warns Gallagher's Morning Glory/Be Here Now co-producer, Owen Morris.
Two years ago, Noel sat down for a backstage chat and--fielding a question about what it was like meeting Beatles hero Paul McCartney--swore that the only advice he took from that historic summit was: "Don't marry a Japanese woman!" He puffed on his Silk Cut, let the deadpanned aside hang just long enough in the air before breaking into a goofy grin and adding, "I'm jokin,' of course!"
This time, however, the claws were out, as Gallagher contrasted his self-sung "Magic Pie" track and McCartney's coincidentally titled new disc: "Flaming Pie is a bag of shite, a load of fookin' rubbish. I don't like it at all--I've never liked McCartney's stuff." This coming after Macca went on record slamming Oasis as derivative.
Gallagher may swear he's finished scrapping with other groups. But he's got a bigger fight on his hands now. Take, for example, this illuminating tidbit from "Magic Pie": "They who don't say what they mean/ Will live and die by their own sword." The subject of his diatribes: the prying media. Why? Here are just a few of the media-sensationalized Gallagher escapades that have rocked Britain since Morning Glory catapulted Oasis to worldwide, paparazzi-dogged prominence.
In August of '96, Noel winged an Oasis MTV Unplugged appearance after Liam skipped out; a few weeks later, Liam offered a makeup present to MTV--a nasty wad of lager-fueled spittle on its Award Show stage and an exaggerated fart in the camera's direction. Liam also bailed on a U.S. jaunt at Heathrow Airport, claiming house-hunting for he and then-galpal, actress Patsy Kensit, as an excuse.
"NO-asis!" screamed the U.K. tabloid headlines later that September, as a fed-up Noel packed his bags on said tour in Charlotte, N.C., and headed home. The London-held Q Awards in November saw Oasis tagged as "Best Act in the World," Liam punched a News of the World photographer afterwards (who'd taunted him with a racy photo of him kissing someone other than Kensit) and, the next morning, got nabbed on Oxford Street for cocaine possession.
Other hassles ensued: Liam got thumped by two thugs in a pub restroom, got into a nightclub donnybrook with Hurricane #1 singer Alex Lowe, and assaulted a limo-tailing cyclist, who testified to police that Gallagher broke his expensive sunglasses. ("It's like, 'Well, go and sell the photograph you've just taken and buy yourself a new pair of sunglasses then!'" Noel growls defensively.)
The biggest snafu, though, belonged to Noel, who--speaking to some post-awards radio reporter--drunkenly noted that taking drugs was like having a cup of tea in the morning, and that a good portion of Parliament was already hooked on cocaine or heroin. Returning to London the next day, he found his house surrounded by a media swarm, with then-girlfriend Meg Matthews trapped inside.
Oasis high points? There were a few. April 7, 1997: Liam and Patsy tie the knot at Marylebone Registry Office, the site of Paul and Linda McCartney's 1969 nuptials. June 7: Noel and Meg wed in a secret Las Vegas ceremony, catered by an Elvis impersonator. Then, after the Labour Party swept elections, new Prime Minister Tony Blair invited Noel to a private party at his #10 Downing Street headquarters. A fair exchange, since Gallagher had nicked part of a Blair campaign speech for "Magic Pie." What deep thoughts did the two exchange? "Uhhhh ... I can't really remember--I was quite drunk at the time!" downplays a snickering Noel, whose estimated worth has spiralled past £40 million.
"I was just sorta tryin' not to fall over and embarrass me Mam, who was watchin' on television. He said, 'Congratulations on your success, blah, blah, blah,' and to be quite honest, my wife butted in at that point and she spoke to him more than I did.
"I got the invite to go, and it was like 'Ummm, what's this, then?' But my star sign is Gemini, y'see, so I had to satisfy my curiosity by going.' And of course, me being a rock'n'roll rebel." Gallagher cackles again. "Everyone's going, 'Well, you should tell him to fuck off!' And I'm thinking, 'Ahh, but people like me can't do that, y'see. People like me are too curious. People like me have to go and see what it's like inside, see what wallpaper they've got up, see what color the carpets are!'" Sure, he sighs, "It was a publicly staged thing. But now I've been there! And they have these tiny little white porcelain ashtrays with a Number 10 in the middle! I was trying to pinch an ashtray, but I didn't get out the door with it."
The Gallaghers may be on the Downing Street A-list now, but it wasn't always that way. Noel, 30, and Liam, 25, were raised mainly by mother Peggy, and weaned on such TV rock shows as Tony "Factory Records" Wilson's So It Goes. It wasn't a privileged upbringing; according to Oasis legend, the teen brothers often stooped to burglary to make ends meet.
By 1989, budding songwriter Noel had entered popdom--as roadie for the Inspiral Carpets. In the first Noel-less Oasis lineup--featuring mainstay bassist Paul "Guigsy" McGuigan and guitarist Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs--Liam wrote the lyrics (early example: "She Always Came Up Smiling").
After watching his brother's band onstage in 1991, Noel invited the band to his flat to hear his solo songs. He laid down strict ground rules for a merger; the group agreed. It was the beginning of a new era in English music. Oasis' albums--and a catty rivalry with chart foes Blur--brought the term "Britpop" into common parlance. And the band's habit of tacking three album-worthy B-sides onto its CD singles pumped still more fresh blood into an emaciated U.K. music market.
Fellow Mancunian and old industry pal Shaun Ryder (of Happy Mondays/Black Grape renown) has an Oasis theory or two: "I'll tell you what Noel and Liam's mission was--it was to live a rock'n'roll life and to earn money. They were kids who came from a very boring, shitty council estate; they weren't going anywhere with their jobs. And the only way you make it out of that situation is, you either become a footballer, you get into the music business, or you become a real fucking villain. They wanted to be rock'n'roll stars, and the great thing about it is, they make damn good pop songs."
The notoriety didn't gel during '94's Definitely Maybe. It was only after the breakthrough Morning Glory (and ballady U.S./U.K. hits like "Wonderwall" and "Champagne Supernova") that the Gallaghers became front-page tabloid fodder. So hunted, in fact, that Noel had to retreat last year to the tiny island of Mustique, just to write and demo songs for Be Here Now. He was cornered, nonetheless; Mustique photos quickly circulated, of Noel strolling the beach with his new buds Kate Moss and Johnny Depp (who contributed a wicked slide guitar to "Fade In-Out"). Is it any surprise that the record wound up so reactionary?
How does a musician--once he's created an inside-dirt demand for himself through his populist anthems--make music undisturbed? Or shake pursuing dirt-diggers and proceed normally with his life? A Sisyphean, impossible task? The Princess Diana tragedy, Gallagher sighs, gave him pause. "Now I'm not a fan of the Royal Family or anybody connected with the monarchy in any way, shape or form. But having been in that type of position meself, been in the back of cars being chased through the streets by paparazzi, I suppose I stopped to think about it for maybe half an hour. And I thought 'Well, that could've been me in that car.' I was quite upset at the way it happened, but I mean, you know--shit happens, people die every day, don't they? And until somebody changes the law, I don't think there's much anybody can do about it, apart from just try and cope with it as best you can."
Gallagher--whose customary tabloid shot is a two-fingered "fuck you"--adds that he's tried to put himself in the photographer's shoes: "Tried to understand that the people behind the camera have got a job to do. But I just can't get their vibe on it at all, I just can't." And if Di was the #1 most-badgered personality in Britain at the time of her passing, he says: "Me and Liam are #2, closely followed by a footballer by the name of Paul Gasgonie. The Spice Girls are up there with us as well. And the longer it goes on, the more you expect to see yourself in the paper. Say, like--hypothetically speaking--if I went out tonight and went to a strip joint, like. I would expect that to be in the papers the next day. I just would. Me and me brother have been followed É well, I've been followed around today, shopping, actually. You can't really see who they are, but you know they're there somewhere. You know they are." Gallagher stops for a second, then adds, "Or maybe it's just paranoia. I don't know."
Maybe not. On the eve of Be Here Now's unique Thursday release this August, U.K. rags ran pictures of Noel and Meg, emerging from their island-hideout beach house, as well as a St. Tropez-relaxed Patsy and Liam, who had irked the resort community by carelessly tossing beer bottles into its waters. And, yes, paparazzi had captured him, mid-lob. Noel gets steamed up just thinking about it. "The thing that annoys me is, surely there must be more news to report than the drunken babble of a pop star. I'd have thought, d'ya know what I mean? There was a story on the front page of one of the main papers yesterday. You know how Scotland and Wales are voting at the moment on whether to go independent from England and set up their own governments? This thing's been going on for 800 years, right? And they finally get to vote. That was on page three, this big vote thing. On page one was a story about Liam going into a fish'n'chip shop and buying a meat and potato pie, and swearing at the girl behind the counter. That was the front page news! It's like, Fookin' hell! Get your fookin' priorities right, d'ya know what I mean?
"But it will never keep us from going out. I go out in London quite a lot, just to spite the people who would like to see you stayin' indoors for the rest of your life." Via leviathan, multitracked guitarwork and Liam's especially acidic phraseology, Be Here Now exorcises all that anger and frustration in long, spine-vibrating torrents, such as "My Big Mouth." Near the close of the track--which sonically resembles a jumbo jet nosediving into a screaming suburb--Liam sings a curious Noel couplet: "As you look into the eyes of a bloody cold assassin/ It's only then you realize with whose life you have been messin'." It's probably his ultimate, and darkest, fame analogy, Noel concedes. "I suppose it's when John Lennon must've stared into the eyes of Mark Chapman at some point, and the things he was sayin', the things he was writin', were obviously fookin' with somebody's brain. That's not to say that you shouldn't [write and perform songs]--I mean, the geezer was obviously fookin' mental. But what I was sayin' was that I would imagine that only then did everything run through Mr. Lennon's brain--'Fook! Shit! I was affecting people!'"
Distractions aside, Gallagher still managed to produce. Yes, a couple of wry plagiarist gags remain on the new disc: "Long and winding road," "The fool on the hill and I feel fine," "So get on the helter-skelter" ("I suppose I went a bit overboard with the jokes this time," Noel chuckles). But it isn't the sound of Revolver-era Fab Four, Gallagher clarifies. "We use the tones. And obviously, we derive something from the Beatles. A bit. But not as much as people say we do. I mean, apart from the end of 'She's Electric,' which is a direct rip off of ... well, whatever the fook it is ["A Little Help From My Friends," actually] and the beginning of 'Don't Look Back in Anger,' which is a direct ripoff of 'Imagine,' I've never sat down and listened to Beatles records and tried to rewrite them. People who say that are insulting me as a songwriter, and insulting the band as a band, really. And just being idiots, so fook 'em!"
How far did Gallagher push the creative envelope? Leadoff single "D'You Know What I Mean?" is a perfect example. He and co-producer Owen Morris combed through more than 30 tape-looped rhythms before settling on three hip-hop sluggish grooves. Then drummer Alan "Whitey" White topped it with a thundering tandem salvo, which inches its way toward a Goliath all-stops crescendo (and a hypnotic chorus of "All my people right here right now/ D'you know what I mean?") that--after a few listens--feels as fervent as a tent-held revival meeting. The bridge, with palpable irony, coldly skewers organized religion: "I met my maker I made him cry/ And on my shoulder he asked me why/ His people won't fly through the storm/ I said 'Listen up man, they don't even know you're born.'" Morris see the song as "very much a mantra, by the time it gets going." Fran Healy--frontman for another Oasis opening act, Travis--is in absolute awe of the track. "Noel's taken something that millions of English people say at the end of their sentences--'D'ya know wot I mean?' --and stamped 'Property of Oasis' on it. Now any time anybody says 'Blah, blah, blah, d'ya know wot I mean?' it's Oasis! Subliminally! Now how smart is that?"
Gallagher takes it all in stride. "A lot of people don't seem to get ["D'You Know"]. It is a marching song, a song meant to be sung on picket lines, or a song meant to be sung when you're marching somewhere." In "My Sister Lover," the composer had stated his credo more clearly: "Faith in the Lord is something I will never have/ 'Cause the Lord I know don't got no faith in me." Gallagher was simply using a softer touch on "D'You Know": "'Maker' is the alleged Lord Almighty, and it would make him cry by tellin' him what the world is really like, the world that he allegedly created. What it's really like--the poverty, the pain, the hardship, the homelessness, the rape, the murder and the drugs and all the rest of it." If Gallagher could meet God, he insists he'd call him on the heavenly carpet by asking "'Do you know what shit you left behind, mate? Where the fookin' hell have you been for the last 800 years, while we've been wallowing around in the shit you left for us?' You'd make him cry and then," he adds, all out of breath, "well, then maybe he'd apologize."
Be Here Now winds down with an optimistic, epic-length nod to the Beatles' "Hey Jude," "All Around the World." The album even closes on an uplifting note, with the clanging, muddy-mix rocker "It's Gettin' Better (Man!!)" Other revelations may shock Oasis fans. Like Gallagher's admission that "Magic Pie" was born when he misread the word "magpie" in a rhyming dictionary. Oasis uses a rhyming dictionary?! "Afraid so, afraid so," he laughs, good-naturedly.
"I never wanted to be a guitarist and songwriter. I never wanted to be a lyricist. So I have to use everything in my power, really, and I'm afraid rhyming dictionaries are one of the things that I do use when I get stuck."
Still in cuddly candid mode, Gallagher goes on to say that Liam always "knows what I'm goin' on about, even when I'm goin' on about nothing. We have the same sort of semi-delinquent state of mind. And I've always realized the importance of him--it's just that Liam doesn't think that I do. Liam seems to think that I think he's a shithead, but I don't." Pause. Then a declaration. "I don't think he's any more--or any less--than the greatest singer in show business. Simple as that."
Back to Earl's Court. Midconcert, one aging soccer tough, late 40s most likely, repeatedly jumps to his feet between songs, as Liam murmurs, mumble-mutters various indecipherable asides, many--after some miscreants attempt to blind Noel with pesky pocket lasers--peppered with myriad "Ya fookin' coonts!" "'At's it, lads!" the gent blusters. "You tell 'em 'ow it is! You fookin' tell 'em, lads!!"
But what was Liam actually saying? The chap, red-faced with drink, shrugs his shoulders and cackles. "I 'aven't a clue, mate!"
Perhaps the Oasis enigma was best summarized on Definitely Maybe, wherein Noel's prophetic "Rock and Roll Star" words drip from Liam's curled lips like so much venom: "If you're not down with who I am/ Look at you now, you're all in my hands tonight. ..." Don't fight it. Lift your lager to Oasis and shout along.
NOEL GALLAGHER'S Desert Island Discs
1. Pretty Vacant-- the Sex Pistols
2. Paperback Writer--the Beatles
3. I Can See for Miles--the Who
4. Tin Soldier--Small Faces
5. You Really Got Me--the Kinks
6. (Smells Like) Teen Spirit--Nirvana
7. I Wanna Be Your Dog--the Stooges
8. Mirror Man--Captain Beefheart
9. Subterranean Homesick Blues--Bob Dylan