Noel Gallagher - The Guardian - 31st October 1999
Sex, Drugs, Rock'n'Roll
On a warm autumn afternoon, in a secluded rehearsal studio, Noel Gallagher, rock star and dad-to-be, is telling Paul Weller and The Observer about the exact point he decided that the party was over.
"It was about a year and a half ago, right?" he says, dragging on a Benson & Hedges. "And I just said: 'That's it, man, the bar's closed.' The house in London was like a nightclub. I'd be coming back off tour, and people would go: 'Your house is lovely.' And I'd be like (irate): 'Who the fuck are you?'"
Weller laughs and says to me: "He's left me outside before, shouting through the letterbox. I wasn't allowed to come in. I was on the D-list."
Noel ignores him. "There comes a point when you just can't do it any more," he says. "You can't go to any more parties, you can't drink any more drinks, you can't do any more drugs. There comes a point when you've just got to go, 'All this has got to change.' I've seen it all before, man, you know what I mean?" He turns to Weller for moral support. "It's kind of like the first time you have sex, isn't it? Every time after that you've done it before, haven't you?"
"Oh, I don't know," says Weller drily. "Some of us get better after the first time, Noel."
We're in the mixing room of Huckenden Farm, near High Wickham, where Oasis (or rather, what's left of Oasis after the recent departure of guitarist Paul 'Bonehead' Arthur and bassist Paul 'Guigs' McGuigan) are set to rehearse for the foreseeable future. Weller (it's always 'Weller') is a suave vision in sheepskin, while Noel (it's always 'Noel') sits slouched forward in his chair, with his anorak zipped up almost to his nose.
At times, watching them banter together, punting for punchlines, they seem less like a British rock-music dream team (trad division), and more like Brit-rock's George and Mildred, only with added swearing and drugs. According to legend, the first thing that Noel Gallagher ever said to Paul Weller was: 'Piss off!'
"That's right, isn't it, Paul?" says Noel, pulling up a swivel chair and lounging on it. "You were helping yourself to our rider at Glastonbury, and I wasn't having any of it."
Weller can't remember much about it. "I was drunk." Nor does the 41-year-old 'Modfather of the Rock Aristocracy' seem especially keen to analyse why it is that he and the 32-year-old 'Saviour of British Guitar Music' have turned out to be such good mates. "You just click with certain people, don't you?" says Weller gruffly, sticking his hands yet deeper into his jacket pockets. He's smiling, though.
Indeed, the only time that the notoriously touchy Weller gets remotely stroppy is when I refer to the photograph of him, Noel and Paul McCartney, taken at the time they recorded 'Come Together' for the Bosnian War Child project. It was then that the derogatory term 'Dad-rock' was coined, and it has stuck ever since. In some people's eyes, Weller and Gallagher being friends was suspicious enough. When their mutual hero, McCartney, came into the frame, it was as if Sixties elitism was taking over.
"It wasn't like we were jerking off," sighs Weller, exasperated. "We were doing something for a specific reason. And with it being three generations of people and all that, I thought it was pretty cool." Noel nods his head in agreement.
Where their backgrounds are concerned, Noel and Weller have a lot in common. Both were small-town boys with the sort of big dreams that their respective localities, Manchester and Woking (to which Weller eventually returned), couldn't begin to accommodate. "Wanting more, being dissatisfied with your lot, that's where the push comes from," says Weller. "It's not just an artistic trait, it's down to individuals striving to be something else."
"Exactly," says Noel. "Even if I wasn't in a band, if I was a milkman, I'd still be saving up to travel the world. Just getting pissed down the pub would never be enough for me."
Noel and Weller also have something in common politically, in that they've both been in bed with the Labour part - Weller on behalf of the doomed Red Wedge movement in the Eighties.
"Once I met the people involved, I thought, 'Get me out of here.' Forget show business, these people had egos the size of that barn."
Noel, even more famously, went to Number 10 for a drinks party that he's never been able to live down since. "I was just carried away by my own self-importance", he admits. "I just thought: 'Fuck me, if the prime minister wants to see me, I must be a right geezer!'"
Both men lived to regret their involvement. "Nothing really changes, does it?" says Noel. "Same shit, different day." Nor is either of them particularly impressed by New Labour notions of self-improvement.
"They think that working-class people want to be middle class, but they don't," says Weller.
"Wanting some bucks and a nice house isn't wanting to be middle class."
"Yeah," scoffs Noel. "What was it: 'We're all middle class now.' I find that really insulting. Being middle class is just one step closer to topping yourself, if you ask me. It's just the most boring thing I could ever imagine."
I ask Weller if, over the course of their friendship, there were any preconceptions about Noel that he'd found to be untrue.
"No," he says grimly. "It's all true." As it happens, Weller was impressed by Oasis from the start. "They really kicked the Nineties up the arse. They were the band everybody needed to hear."
For his part, Noel was a little young to be a hardcore fan at The Jam's peak. "But, in my weight division, I was probably the biggest Jam fan for miles around. When I first saw Paul on telly, on Top Of The Pops, with The Jam, I didn't give a fuck where he came from, or what his politics were. His records blew my head off, and that was it."
The fact that, all these years later, The Jam continue to 'blow people's heads off' is the main reason we're talking today. This week sees the release of Fire & Skill, a tribute album of Jam covers. The first single from it, 'Carnation', by Liam Gallagher and Ocean Colour Scene's Steve Cradock, went straight to number six in the charts. And simply because it is The Jam, Fire & Skill looks destined to do much better business than the standard tribute album.
Indeed, in terms of the respect and affection people still have for them, it wouldn't be too outrageous to describe The Jam as the Beatles in parkas. Weller, a living, breathing Quadrophenia movie, was singer, guitarist and songwriter; Bruce Foxton was on bass, and Rick Buckler was on drums. Together, they burnt a target-shaped hole in the nation's consciousness in the late Seventies and early Eighties, with albums such as Setting Sons, All Mod Cons and Sound Affects and singles such as 'Down In The Tube Station At Midnight', 'Eton Rifles' and 'Tales From The Riverbank'.
Blooded in working mens' clubs, and devoted to sharp tailoring, Weller and The Jam kept their mod ethos, even as they embraced the 'no star' ideals of punk. "We used to stay for hours after gigs just talking to fans," recalls Weller. "Our relationship with them was one of the really special things about The Jam. We kept to the punk rules more than the punks did."
During this time, Weller saw The Sex Pistols play at the 100 Club, which, in modern rock terms, is a bit like being in the stable when Jesus was born. Even now, Weller still retains a strong affection for the punk era, while having no time whatsoever for those bands who've seen fit to regroup over the years. "People go on about the Chinese population boom," he grumbles. "But there must be more reformed bands around than Chinese people. Soon, there won't be enough electricity to go round, because they'll all be plugging their amps in."
Should bands be caretakers of their own legends, Noel?
"I'll tell you in about 20 years." Weller split The Jam in 1982. "The best thing I could have done," he says. "You wouldn't want to see me jumping about in The Jam in 1999, would you?" Maybe not, but many people find it odd that, since the split, Weller has never once spoken to Foxton or Buckler. "I don't see why it's such a big deal," he says. "I never liked them. All this stuff keeps coming out about how they're always trying to make contact, and it gets on my tits. It wasn't like I ever felt any real support from them when I was writing all those songs. Nothing like, 'You did a good job there, Paul. Well done!' Well, maybe from Bruce a bit, but with Rick there was nothing. I'm not bitter about it, I just don't care. When we were playing together on stage, it happened, and that's all that ever mattered to me. They were never the first people I'd go for a drink with."
Foxton and Buckler don't appear on Fire & Skill, but Weller does, on the secret track 'No One In The World', at the end of the CD. "I just happened to be there when Steve [Craddock] was laying down the vocals," he shrugs. "I didn't plan to be on my own tribute album."
Noel, for his part, chose to record 'To Be Someone', the caustic cautionary tale about the rock star who has it all, blows it, and gets so smashed he can't even remember whether he enjoyed any of it in the first place. Remind anyone of anyone? As it was recorded more than two years ago, Noel is the first to admit that the moral of the lyric was wasted on him at the time, mainly because he was pretty wasted at the time.
"The song definitely means more to me now than it did then," he says. "I was living it then - going out, doing loads of drugs, the lot. I made an effort to sound earnest because I was being paid £20,000 for it, but it was quite ironic singing those lyrics because I was bang on it at the time."
How 'bang on it'?
"Very. The way things were around my place, it was almost like I had no choice. If everyone in your house is doing it, then you're hardly going to sit there with a can of Coke doing nothing. It would be rude not to join in, wouldn't it? Well, that was always my excuse, anyway." He grins at Weller, who is laughing and shaking his head mock-despairingly.
How about you during The Jam years? It must have been all speed and glue-sniffing when you were a boy?
"Oh yeah," says Weller, pulling a silly face. "'Hey everyone, it's Saturday night, let's splash out on a bit of glue!' Nahhh!" He shrugs. "We couldn't afford drugs, or find them in Woking. And I probably wouldn't have done them even if we could." He shakes his head, for real this time. "You'll never see me waving the flag for drugs, because I've seen the arse-end of them as well.
One of my best friends died of an overdose, and I had a really bad acid trip when I was a kid, and all that stuff put me off. I've had a bash obviously, but it hasn't done me any favours. I've never seen drugs as part of my culture really."
Weller's voice trails away, grows a bit wistful. "People just want to escape, don't they? Some for a little while, some for ever more."
For the longest time, Noel Gallagher and drugs were a match made in powdery heaven. "Being famous is a good laugh when you're on drugs. You meet people and go, 'Nah, nah, fucking, nah', and everyone goes, 'Wow, hasn't he got loads of charisma.' And, really, you're just hammered."
Then, relatively recently, Noel started having terrifying panic attacks. "Anxiety and all that."
"What's the matter?" says Weller. "Couldn't you find your gear?"
Exactly how frightening was it, I ask Noel.
He gives me a look. "It would have to be pretty frightening to make me consider packing it in, wouldn't it?"
What about Liam?
"Oh, he's all right. He's got three years until he's 30. He'll grow up eventually, in the time it takes to get his free bus pass." Noel feels now that after Oasis played Knebworth in 1996, he probably felt a little aimless. "Where could anyone go after that?"
What everyone seems agreed on is that, sooner or later, drugs start to affect your songwriting for the worst. All around us, in the studio, there are signs of a band determined to recover their 'natural high', so to speak. Behind Weller, on the mixing desk, sits a Dinky toy Marahishi, surrounded by four dinky toy Beatles. In the main rehearsal room, Oasis have placed pictures of John Lennon among the studio's own vintage Sixties posters. It makes you wonder what the new album (working title: Where Did It All Go Wrong?) is going to sound like. Or rather, it doesn't make you wonder at all (a wee bit Beatlesy is my wild prediction).
The important news is that Noel feels back on track after the over-hyped, under-loved excesses of Be Here Now. And what times they were. The helicopters. The armoured vans. The strong-arming over playlists. The egomania. The tantrums in America. The giant telephone boxes on stage. As Weller puts it: "All that stuff that happens when a band are left to their own good taste and devices." For a while back there, Oasis seemed less of a band than a rock-industry version of GoodFellas.
Any regrets, Noel?
"Oh yeah, absolutely," he says. "More than anything else, I regret not taking enough time over the songs. We've had a year off before doing this album, but we should have taken the year off before Be Here Now. There's probably three decent songs on that album. The rest of it was just winging it."
Isn't that being a bit hard on yourself?
"No, it isn't," says a sharp voice. It belongs to Weller. Not for the first time, I notice how, for all that they are mutually respectful, Noel and Weller are also very hard on each other, to the point of being brutal. There are times during the interview when they pace around like two big, proud cats in adjoining cages, pausing occasionally to stick a paw through the bars and take not-so-playful swipes at each other's heads.
Maybe one of the reasons they are such good friends is that they can discuss 'quality control' without resorting to platitudes or sycophancy. It's probably not so much a 'guy thing' as it is a 'success thing'. When you're a 'spokesman for a generation', maybe the only person you can trust to tell you the truth is, well, another 'spokesman for a generation'.
Noel agrees with Weller, anyway. "I think his exact words at the time of Be Here Now were: 'Coasting, you're fucking coasting.' And it has to be seen as disappointing when, after eight months of the album being out, you're still signing copies of the other two. Still, to this day, I've only signed about three copies of Be Here Now."
"In the course of a writer's life, you get these highs and lows," says Weller. "Yeah, I know," smiles Noel. "And I have to say that the best thing that could ever have happened was that album getting panned. It made me sit up and go, 'Hang on, I'm not God's gift to the music business.' If that album had sold more than the other two, I don't know what would have happened. I'd probably be sat here now, farting into your tape recorder, going, 'Put a breakbeat behind that - it will be number one next week!'"
Oasis's troubles aren't quite over yet. On the plus side, the new album is coming along well, and the famously fiery relationship between the Gallagher brothers seems to be mellowing. "I'm tired of analysing me and Liam," says Noel. "I'm in a band with him, and I'm always going to be in a band with him. Whether it's good or bad, could be better, could be worse, is irrelevant. I'd freak out if he wasn't there. He's the bullshit detector in anything I do."
However, while they have found the new Bonehead (Gem, formerly of Heavy Stereo), Oasis have yet to find a bass player. "Every-one wants to be Jimi Hendrix, these days," moans Noel.
"No one wants to be Bill Wyman. I don't think even Bill Wyman wants to be Bill Wyman." He has little patience with speculation that the rift was caused by his and Liam's legendary rows.
"I don't really know why they left, because they haven't had the courtesy to ring me and explain, but, you know, all bands row, fall out and walk off tours. Admittedly, not as much or as publicly as we do, but they all do it."
So, you have no real explanation to give to your fans?
"No", replies Noel. "And I don't think it's me that owes people the explanation." He holds his hands up innocently. "I haven't left the band. I'm still here."
With everything going a bit Spinal Tap for Oasis, it would be easy to forget that they remain the defining band of their era, with two classic albums, Definitely Maybe and (What's The Story) Morning Glory, and possibly another in the pipeline. Weller, for one, is watching Noel with a look in his eye that suggests that he personally wouldn't want to go through band-hell again.
"No, I wouldn't. It's a young man's game." Right now, Weller is working on the follow-up to 1997's Urban Soul. "I've got to prove myself to myself again." Before the massive success of Wild Wood and Stanley Road, he had his own 'humbling' period when his post-Jam outfit, The Style Council, had their fifth album rejected by Polydor.
For a long time, Paul Weller was about as fashionable as leg warmers. "It needed to happen, it brought me down to earth," he says. "I hadn't been living life - real life - properly, do you know what I mean? But it was hard, very hard, finding myself at 30, with no job, no contract, my first child, and nothing really to do with the rest of my life." Weller smiles ruefully. "It taught me a big lesson, and hopefully one I won't forget. I was lucky that I had my family around to support me."
The ongoing Paul Weller project has always been something of a family affair. His dad, John, is his manager; his mum, Ann, and sister, Nikki, used to run his fan club. Weller is totally devoted to his family, and they to him. Back in the Jam days, they would think nothing of having the phone disconnected to raise money for equipment.
"I come from a very loving background," he says. "But you know what? I'm still as insecure. It's not their fault, it's just the way I am. I don't sit there analysing it. I just accept that that's the way it is."
Noel is looking on enviously. "My background wasn't like that," he quips. "Mine was like the Clampetts."
That's putting it mildly. Gallagher Senior was, by all accounts, a violent, uncaring drunk, which left mum, Peggy, picking up all the pieces. At times, Noel goes to great pains to be gleefully, provocatively sexist. "Call me old-fashioned, but, you know, women - fuck 'em!" However, the fact remains that, at the height of his fame, the Mancunian groupie magnet jumped into a serious relationship with Meg Matthews. As did Liam with Patsy Kensit. "I like things to be stable," says Noel. "I'm not into chaos."
Later he says: "Childhood stuff isn't everything, is it? There's all that stuff that happens between 17 and 20 that shapes your outlook on life. Like when you first meet women, or hang out with a gang of friends. It's how you think about yourself, too. Lying down and having a think before you go to sleep, and realising that you might smoke a bit of spliff, and you might rob a few car stereos, but you're not this major criminal they would have you believe on News At Ten.
You're not a bad person deep down inside, know what I mean?"
"I don't think that childhood always decrees how a person is going to turn out," agrees Weller. "Love always makes a difference whatever your age, but if you look at our backgrounds and look at us, I'd say that, if anything, Noel was more confident than me, and no less the loving person for it, if you don't mind me saying so, Noel?"
"I don't mind you saying so, Paul. I agree, I agree!" splutters Noel. For a comical, and rather touching moment, the two men stare at each other in speechless, giggling astonishment, as if to say: 'What's going on - are we bonding?'
Seriously, Noel, are you haunted by any of it?
"Not at all."
You'll be a father yourself soon, are you looking forward to that?
"Oh yeah," he says. "I can't wait to knock the fuck out of my kids." A second later, Noel is crouching with his mouth a millimetre away from the tape recorder: "Can I just say that I was joking when I said that."
"Having a shit childhood and stuff," he says wearily, dragging hard on yet another Bensons & Hedges, "it can't help but shape your outlook on life, but it should never shape your actions towards other people. I would say that having all that happen is why I'm strong, why I'll always be one of those people for whom the glass is always half full as opposed to half empty."
Does it make you happy being able to make things easier for your mum?
"Oh yeah," he says, brightening. "Because that means that Mum looking after us had some meaning. We can give a little bit back to her. And having kids is part of that, because she's always wanted to be a grandmother. It's not like they're presents for me mum, but it's another meaning of life for her, and another meaning of life for me."
Noel pauses. "And just because I got knocked about by my old man, it doesn't mean to say that I would ever knock about my own kids." His mouth sets in a determined line. "Because I never ever would."
Weller has two children, Nat and Leah, with his ex-partner and Style Council bandmate, Dee C Lee. Does he have any wisdom to impart to Noel and Meg about their impending parenthood?
"Yeah," laughs Weller, slapping Noel on the shoulder. "Good luck, my son, you're going to need it."
"I'm shitting myself," says Noel in a whisper. "I don't actually know what I'm going to do. I haven't got the faintest idea, me. I'm just trying to book gigs as close as I can to the dates, and make sure that it's speaking by the time I get back."
"Are you going to be there for the birth?" asks Weller.
"I don't really want to be," says Noel.
"Why not?" says Weller. "Aren't you on the guest list?"
They both laugh, Noel, slightly hysterically. He saw his nephew, Lennon, at the weekend. "They don't do much, do they?" he says, as if he'd seriously been expecting to play pool with a newborn baby. "I'm waiting for mine to get born, obviously, but then I'll be waiting for them to get a personality, because then you can have a laugh with them."
"There's not much you can do in the first bit," says Weller (completely incorrectly, I might add).
"You feel a bit useless, but once they're up and walking, it's a whole different world. You can't imagine life without them. It changes everything, but in a good way."
You've got a son and daughter, haven't you, Paul?
"Two daughters," he says emphatically.
He even, very briefly, holds up two fingers.
At the time, I was confused. I had seen a photograph in a magazine of Weller bombing along on a moped with Nat and Leah, and I could have sworn that they were a boy and girl. But it seemed that they weren't - they were two girls. The moment passed, and I forgot about it. Then, a couple of days after the interview, Weller's publicist rings. Paul Weller wanted me to know that, actually, he had a son and two daughters.
The second little girl was from a brief relationship after his marriage to Lee had failed. Weller hadn't mentioned this in print before, simply because he didn't feel that it was anybody else's business. However, he'd realised that I'd got the wrong end of the stick, and hadn't felt comfortable. He didn't want his second daughter growing up thinking that he'd tried to hide her away, like some dirty secret.
Oh, I said, nonplussed, did he want to talk about it? No, said the publicist. She really couldn't see that happening. Weller had just wanted to set the record straight, do the right thing that was all.
I remember all this as I'm wandering around the bustling, chaotic launch for Fire & Skill at the Hackney Gallery. I'd parted company with Noel and Weller at Huckenden Farm with an abiding, slightly surreal memory of two of Britain's biggest rock stars executing a dual impersonation of yet another rock star - Liam Gallagher - at the scene of childbirth.
"Can you imagine?" Noel had said. "Him with a big green mask on, going, 'Come on, you fucker, come on!' And: 'Is that gas you've got there, mate? Give us some of that.'"
"Yeah, and having a go at the doctors," says Weller. "'Keep your hands off my missus!'"
They laugh and settle back into their chairs. A few more cigarettes lit, a bit more coffee drunk, a few more jokes told, and then that's it, they're gone.
I see Noel again at the Hackney Gallery. Outside, a fleet of specially customised minis with targets on the bonnets are running their batteries down, keeping their lights on in the drizzle. Inside, I see Liam Gallagher leaning against the doorway of phothe main party room. He's on typically cryptic form.
"I love Paul Weller," he tells me. "But I was too young to be really into The Jam. I preferred The Beatles."
I'm still trying to work that one out when I see Noel chatting to friends at the bar. His glass is half full, as always. I remember what he said at the interview about his current definition of success: "I could track my life in the records I've made - the first one was young and eager, the second one was a consolidation of those achievements, and the third one was fat and drunk. For the fourth, I want success on my own terms - which is just to be a decent songwriter in a good band."
Paul Weller isn't at the party, of course. "He wouldn't come to this sort of thing," says a close friend of his. "It isn't his style at all." And I realise that he's right. Paul Weller is probably sat at home, shunning the showbiz treadmill. Doing the right thing.