Noel Gallagher - The Guardian - 29th January 2000
Once, life was a cruise for Noel Gallagher. Oasis's brand of rock with attitude sold and sold, and the cocaine and champagne kept coming. Until, one day, he called a halt. He speaks from the heart about his brother Liam, his wife Meg, the baby on the way - and the album that charts his turnaround.
Just when was it that the glamour of Oasis first started to fade? When did their seductive supernova swagger cease to be sexy, and begin to seem graceless? Was it when a heavily bearded Liam Gallagher set upon an unsuspecting fan in Australia, breaking his nose? Or was it when even Liam's impeccable singing voice failed to disguise the fundamental pub-rock flavour of the band's third album? Somewhere along the line, a couple of years back, Oasis began to resemble a parody of themselves. Then, last year, to make matters worse, both the guitarist and bass-player suddenly walked away from the group, and were swiftly followed by the boss of the band's label.
The glorious, giddy heights of Champagne Supernova and Wonderwall seem long gone, as are the days when the irreverent, hedonistic Gallagher brothers, boozing for England, could do no wrong: Noel and wife Meg partying at Downing Street; luscious Liam and pouting Patsy posing glossily under a Union Jack duvet on the cover of Vanity Fair's Swinging London issue, the sexy ubercouple - so much more fun than their usurpers, Posh and Becks.
The Oasis party started in 1993 and continued pretty much unabated until 1997. They brightened the Major years, saw in New Labour and (What's The Story?) Morning Glory sold 12 million copies worldwide, topped only by the Spice Girls in the 90s.
Not that their third album, Be Here Now, didn't sell. It did - six million copies, to be precise. It was not that Oasis had become less successful, just less fashionable - and less likeable. For Noel Gallagher, it was the 1997 world tour that did it. The nose-breaking incident in Australia was symptomatic. "It just turned into a travelling piss-up," he admits now, as he sits sipping tea. "Bonehead and Liam were just fuckin' out of control, and I was trying to keep everyone together and trying to explain that people had stopped talking about the music and were just talking about the bullshit that surrounded the band. But after about a month, I just gave up and thought, fuck it, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." It was not a great time for the band's public image: internationally, the view of them was "a bunch of lunatics who come roaring through town drunk, smash the place up, play a couple of gigs and fuck off again. We did some shocking gigs on the last tour purely because we'd been out too much the night before. As soon as we put the instruments down, we'd go out and get absolutely shit-faced."
He sounds almost repentant. I'd expected him to be sober (he'd recently declared his new, clean status), but I thought that he might be aggressive or arrogant. None of that. He's not what you'd call humble, exactly, but he's polite, friendly even. And in spite of what he fears may be the onset of flu ("you know something's wrong when cigarettes start to taste bad"), he looks rather well, all bright-eyed and clear-skinned. In spite of the band's downward spiral, something, it seems, stopped them from throwing it all away. They pulled themselves back from the brink of terminal self-indulgence and self-destruction, and have emerged from the chaos of the past few years with a new line-up, their own record label and an excellent new album, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants.
It's not a radical departure, and Noel's songwriting style remains the same, but Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants is more subtle than its predecessors, more of a "grower", and sounds perceptibly more modern than the previous three albums. "We needed a fresh inspiration from somewhere," says Noel. They enlisted Mark "Spike" Stent to co-produce with Noel. "If there's one person who can embellish a rock'n'roll sounding band, then Spike's the man, because he's worked with U2, Madonna, Massive Attack and Bjork, and he has one foot in the rock'n'roll camp and one in contemporary, electronic music. He'd always liked the band, but he thought that the records sounded crap, which was his opening line to us."
The songs are more personal, and there is less of the Supersonic-style sloganeering. Noel stopped writing lyrics "that just rhymed or sounded good. It's hard to write really deeply personal song and then give it to someone else who's five years younger than you to express it down the microphone. But Liam's got to understand that, from now on, the songs are going to get more meaningful to me and probably less meaningful to him. And he'll understand as he gets older."
The way Noel describes it, it's hard to know which was more insane, being on a deranged, drugs-driven world tour or being at home in London, where the party continued in much the same way. The new album is more about the comedown than the highs. Where Did It All Go Wrong? is a track written just before Noel and Meg, both now 32, moved out of Supernova Heights, their home in Belsize Park, north London.
Their house had turned into a nightclub, he says, "a pretty good one at that. The bar was always open, the door was always open, there were more people coming in and out than I ever got to know. I must have wasted years sitting there with the curtains closed talking about bullshit - aliens, pyramids, debating 'did they really land on the moon, let's watch the footage again in slow motion' or 'crop circles - what's that all about?'" One morning, he looked in the mirror at his yellow skin and popping eyes, unable to focus, with a load of strangers in the kitchen, and thought, "Oh fuck, how did we get here?"
Sunday Morning Call is about a particular person on a self-destruct mission, who is "too rock'n'roll for their own good". My guess is Kate Moss. "Could be - she's one of my mates, but I wouldn't like to say who it's about." Did Noel never think of checking himself into the Priory, the usual drying-out route favoured by the rich and famous? "I never understand people who spend £50,000 a month to cure a £10,000-a-month habit. And it creates another shit storm and a media circus, and people lie about why they're going in, and say they're 'stressed out'."
Instead, Noel and Meg sold their London house and moved to Buckinghamshire. He took the phone off the hook and stayed in. Gas Panic, the new album's darkest track, was written while weaning himself off cocaine - "going cold turkey, without wanting to sound too dramatic about it" - in the midst of a night-time panic attack. "It's basically a paranoid drugs song."
Even when the house wasn't full of party guests, life then at Supernova Heights sounds nightmarishly reminiscent of the Burton-Taylor carousing years. A drugs-and-booze-fuelled Noel and Meg were rowing "about fuck all. 'You said that to that person and they said that about me.'" Finally, says Noel, "I picked my missus up off the kitchen floor" and the two of them set off on a month-long holiday to Thailand. "We'd never really hung out together sober," he says. "We met through drugs. Our relationship was surrounded by drugs. We got married when we were pissed. Though we weren't drunk when we decided to get married," he adds hastily. "When I decided I was going to come off it and change the way I lived, in the beginning it was, like - how's that gonna be with our relationship. Am I still gonna like her?"
The holiday was a success, and he wrote the album's most uplifting track, the tranquil Who Feels Love, after a visit to a temple. "It was the calm after the storm. I suppose I was feeling at one with the world." He had become "re-acquainted" with his wife. "It was like, 'Yeah, she is cool'," he says. "'And I do actually like her. I love her.'"
Then, on their second wedding anniversary last year, Meg told her husband that she was pregnant, "as luck would have it", he beams (by the time you read this, the baby's arrival will be imminent). "That gave us something else. You go on being young and having nothing to keep you grounded... I like that I'm not going to be able to let myself go any more, because I'm going to have to be there." It was good timing, for both of them. Without the pregnancy, it might have been harder for Meg to quit the rock'n'roll lifestyle, says her husband. "Meg is hardcore, her and her fuckin' girlfriends are worse than any bunch of guys I've ever been out with." I find that hard to believe. "I mean it, man," he says seriously. "They are fuckin' hardcore rock'n'roll women. They can be a bit scary when they're out, actually," he smiles. "She's easily led, that woman," he says, rather fondly, "especially by mates who are 10 years younger than her. Meg always wanted kids, anyway, and I was, like, well, if it happens it happens, but I was over the moon that it did."
When guitarist Bonehead and bass-player Guigsy left the band in August last year, Liam "freaked out", but Noel was philosophical about it. "By their own admission, they weren't very good musicians," he says. They signed up rhythm guitarist Gem, formerly of Heavy Stereo, and bassist Andy Bell, formerly of Ride, to join the Gallaghers and drummer Andy White, and the new line-up made its debut in Philadelphia last December. The full world tour starts in Japan next month, ending up in the UK in July.
Noel is equally sanguine about the departure earlier this month of Alan McGee, the boss of Creation who originally signed up the band on the spot at a small gig in Glasgow and who has left to set up an internet company. "With two members leaving and then this, it looked like a big shit sandwich. But when you go to bed at night it's a crisis, and when you wake up in the morning it's just another problem to be solved." Liam was quoted as saying that he felt deserted by McGee, for whom the band had made around £30 million. "I know for a fact he just said that for effect, because I know he wasn't upset with Alan when he left. I dunno why he's saying he's broken-hearted because to be broken-hearted you have to have a heart, and he hasn't. He might think he does. He's got a soul, but he's not got a heart."
Creation Records has now folded, and 30 staff were made redundant. Noel feels for them, but says, matter-of-factly, "it's not the first record label that's folded, and it won't be the last...If it hadn't been for Alan, I wouldn't have signed off the dole. It works both ways. We made him a lot of money. He gave us the chance to make him a lot of money. He left us in a pretty decent position." The band have now set up their own label, Big Brother, though they remain under the auspices of parent company Sony.
A large number of young Britons spent their formative years on the late-80s rave scene, a movement that sparked a tabloid moral panic - and one that was largely outlawed by the Tory government. For those people, hedonism and anti-authoritarianism went hand in hand. So, when Oasis appeared in 1993, extolling the virtues of drugs - "like having a cup of tea", as Noel famously phrased it once - and proudly displaying their working-class, anti-establishment credentials, it's no surprise that the "chemical generation" took to them. Like the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses before them, Oasis tapped straight into the rebellious, feel-good moment.
After he'd made the famous drugs-and-tea comment, Noel recalls returning to his previous home in St John's Wood to find his house surrounded by journalists and the street cordoned off. He went to a friend's place. There had been questions raised in Parliament, and the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, was on television demanding that he be kicked out of the country. "Two years later, I was arriving at Downing Street in a Rolls-Royce and thinking, 'I hope you're fuckin' watching this now.'"
His mum was very proud, he says, as was Meg's mother, a former trades unionist. "And, of course, I was entirely convinced I was going to get a knighthood," he laughs. The post-victory euphoria was still tangible in Britain. Again in repentant mode, he says that he wished he'd called his Liverpool docker acquaintances the night before to ask if there was anything they wanted him to say to Tony Blair. "But of course I went there for the infamy more than anything, and it was, like, 'You're top.' 'No, you're top.' 'No, you're fuckin' top.' 'Well, thanks a lot, here's a gold disc.'" Whatever he may think of Blair now - he says he became disillusioned when the Government started "taking money off single mothers and students" - he's still glad that he went to Downing Street. "Once. I wouldn't do it again." He concedes that Blair's spin doctors were using him to heighten New Labour's credibility, "but we'd had 18 years of the fuckin' Tories drip-drying this country almost out of business. I'd voted Labour all my life."
Oasis's laddish demeanour was also very of-the-moment in the early days. Back in 1993, Loaded magazine was soon to be launched, and "lad culture", though not to everyone's taste, had at least a new frankness and honesty about it. Themn band's brashness seemed emblematic of a shift in British male identity. The popular perception of Oasis is still steeped in drugs, violence and sex. Is that a good thing? Noel pauses for a moment. "I can see that when we came along at the arse end of '93, it was Suede and all them lot, and we were, like, 'Right. They're shit. They're shit. You're fuckin' totally shit. Chop 'em out. Get us a fuckin' beer. Hello darlin'.' And the kids went berserk, because they were, like, 'that's me incarnate, how cool is that'. And the more people said it, the more we just went berserk. And we lived up to it for a while."
Liam, although calmer nowadays, still does, off and on. He "went missing" for a few days last November, and the tabloids made the most of it. For Noel, such behaviour, even now, is not without its advantages: "I was thinking, 'For fuck's sake, not again', but to some kid living in a council block in Glasgow, I bet he was going, 'You fuckin' go on, my son, you really don't give a fuck, Liam'." Episodes such as this - and Liam's scrape with the law for drugs possession a few years back - help Joe Public connect with the band, Noel believes. He can understand the media obsession with Liam and Patsy, he says. "Rock star. Headcase. Actress. Headcase. Little blonde chick, lunatic with a beard. I can see why people wonder what's going on behind closed doors." Patsy's recent comments in GQ magazine about the couple's sex life made front-page news in many of the tabloids.
Not that Liam and Patsy have a monopoly on the column inches, of course. At one point, Noel was approached by the tabloids to comment on more or less any subject: the Royal Family, the Labour Party, other bands. "They'd be, like, 'get someone round to Gallagher's house. He'll be up, he'll give you a quote'." And Noel would invariably oblige, usually drunk. "I'd be, like, 'What? The French? What've they done? Nicking our fish? Fuck 'em! Fuckin' French! And I'd go into one."
Nor has Meg exactly shunned the limelight. Her high public profile, frequently in Gucci, has added to the Gallaghers' seeming ubiquity. Unlike Patsy, who, since her days as the Bird's Eye peas girl, has been used to life in the public eye, celebrity was thrust upon Meg suddenly, and she embraced it. Her short-lived column in the Sunday Times, while curiously compelling, did little to enhance the band's mystique. Noel was not keen. "I went fuckin' ballistic. We have heated debates about stuff like that. To me it was just celebrity name-dropping and it was wrong." But the paper was offering her £50,000, and her party-organising business with friend Fran Cutler had not, at that point, taken off. "She wouldn't want anyone to think that she sits at home all day, eating cream cakes and spending my money. She's her own woman. At the end of the day, we had to agree to disagree. I would never put my foot down and tell her what to do. She'd tell me to piss off."
These days, "lad culture" has begun to look a bit tired. The Loaded ethos has been lifted and transformed by the wider men's magazine market, and the media generally, into something more ubiquitous and more cynical. For Oasis still to appear fresh, something more than a reputation for hell-raising is needed to justify their status, something more profound, and no one is more aware of that than Noel. But his approach is double-edged. On the one hand, he acknowledges that the mad-for-it melodrama helps people feel a connection with the band. On the other hand, he refuses to indulge his little brother. "I'm the only person who'll tell it like it is. He has a lot of people who pussyfoot around him and say, 'He does this because of that'. Fuck him. He's 27. He's a millionaire. I'm not having it that his life is any worse than someone who's living in fuckin' Leicester, who's got two kids and no fuckin' job. I'm not having any of that shit."
Liam doesn't always like hearing that, or reading it in print; it seems demeaning to him. "But if it wasn't for me," says his brother, "he'd think it was all right to go on a bender for three days and not see his kid. He'd think that was fine. He sees me and I'm, like, 'You're a disgrace.' It's for his own good. There's two sides to Liam: when he's pissed, he's fuckin' horrible, and I hate him, and I really mean that. I fuckin' hate him. It's just psychotic alcohol bullshit and I've got no time for him. When he's sober, he's a top geezer and you can have a rational conversation with him about anything." Rather sweetly, he adds, in his brother's defence, that it's a tall order to juggle the balls of rock-stardom and fatherhood, and that every so often Liam drops one of those balls, and that's when he goes on drinking binges. There's a track on the album written by Liam called Little James, about his stepson (Patsy's son by the singer Jim Kerr). "It's a good song," says Noel. "I wouldn't have let it be on the album otherwise."
Noel asked his brother recently which Liam would be coming on tour with them this year. He told him that if it was the same Liam who came on tour in 1997 - "with a beard and a stupid hat, blowing a stupid trumpet into his microphone" - then it would be the last tour on which Noel would be joining him. If, however, it was the Liam that he knows and likes, then that would be fine. "I just wanted to know what weapons to pack." Noel's worst nightmare is that somewhere in the middle of Texas, Liam will get drunk, start arguing, and the two new members of the band will bale out.
He's optimistic, though. "Everyone likes a drink and all that, but the chaos seems to have left, and I think we all know we're not some young punks any more. I don't like to say that we're responsible adults, exactly, but we want to put on a good show for the people who've bothered to come and see us after all these years."
The remorse creeps back into his voice."We've made some bad mistakes in the past, and still, in England, if we put out one photograph we sell out two nights at Wembley Stadium. To me, that is fuckin' astonishing. And we're not going to fuck it up this time."
It's perhaps no wonder that the Gallagher brothers are determined not to let their success slip through their fingers, nor that they went on a four-year bender when fame and wealth came their way. They had more reason to celebrate than most. Noel feels no nostalgia for his early years in Manchester. Out of his old friends, some are dead, some are in prison for drug-dealing or robbing, and a lot of them are "average Joes". He remembers going to his local, the Packhorse, on Friday nights. Everyone would stand around the pool table "talking about who was hardest, City or United". They are not romantic memories.
For Liam, their brother Paul, and himself, life was no worse than for anyone else on his street, but, he says, the 80s were not good time to be growing up. His unhappiest memories were of "unemployment and desolation, growing up on the dole on £17 a week. My Mam used to take half of it, and I'm glad she done it now. I come from fuck all and if I go back to nothing I'll have had a good trip." He won't be rushing back there, though. He still supports Manchester City, of course, but he gets agitated when Mancunians expect a more general sense of loyalty. "I'm like, 'Get over it, we don't live here any more. It's just the place where I used to live.'" When he goes there now, he says, he gets the sense of being a huge fish in a tiny fishbowl. "I think I'd probably go insane up there. London's massive, and there are millions of famous people, so who gives a fuck."
Of course, there's more to it than the grim surroundings. "Home life was a bit of a pain in the arse," he says, more quietly, "because my Dad was a typical Irishman, flying off the handle for any reason, and my Mam was a typical Irishwoman, always stood by him, even though we were always going 'leave him'." Peggy Gallagher waited until her sons had grown up, "God bless her", and then off she went. He hasn't seen his father for years.
Does he think they will ever be reconciled? "Never. I find it very hypocritical when he goes, 'my sons this, my sons that'. He doesn't even know us. He used to say that none of us would end up doing anything with our lives coz we were useless, coz we had no qualifications.
"If I went back to shake his hand and forgive him, that would condone everything he's done. He'd have got away with it. He's got to go to his grave knowing for a fact that I hate him and that Liam hates him and that my Mam doesn't want anything to do with him. He's got to fuckin' pay for his sins, man. Simple as that. Fuck him. He beat me up when I was kid. He actually physically had me on the floor, and I had black eyes because of him, up until I was 16, 17." His father has always denied this. But for Noel a reunion is off the cards. "There's no fuckin' way. There's nothing that anyone can say to me like 'but he's your dad'. Big deal."
Not that it was all doom and gloom. Learning to play the guitar in his teens was a happy time, he says, "strumming away on the same three chords - a bit like now." And listening to the Smiths ("Morrissey and Marr were like gods to me"), seeing the Stone Roses play, going to raves in his 20s, and working as a roadie for the Inspiral Carpets. His happiest childhood recollections are not of Manchester, but of summer holidays in County Mayo, Ireland, where the boys and their mother stayed with their grandma for six weeks every year, living on the farm and making hay. "My gran's got this house and the back garden is just fuckin' huge. The nearest neighbours are four miles away. She didn't have running water, so we went to the well to get water. It was back to basics. Those are my fondest memories."
So fond, in fact, that he recently went to a sanctuary and acquired two donkeys, because they reminded him of his childhood summers in Ireland. At their Buckinghamshire home, Noel and Meg also have four cats, some geese, some goats and five dogs (two Dobermans, two Jack Russell's and one mongrel they found abandoned in a shop doorway in Camden). He's hoping for a Staffordshire bull terrier for his birthday. Noel Gallagher? An animal lover? Who would have thought it. "They're for the kids, really, when they get a bit older."
Noel is now a three-pints-of-Guinness man ("then I fall over"). The couple threw a Boxing Day party at their country abode, and Noel thought that there were probably guests sneaking to the toilets for a quick coke fix. It didn't bother him, he says. He doesn't want to preach to anyone, it's just not for him any more. He says that, a few years down the line, when his kids get involved in the "same shit that their mum and dad did", that his experiences willthat his experiences will help him understand. When he eventually sits down to have that father-son or father-daughter conversation about drugs, "they'll understand that I've done it and that I'm not bullshitting them. When you're 24, and you're in one of the biggest bands in the world and you've got loads of money, you go mental. No one could have persuaded me then that, in six or seven years time, I was going to be lying in bed having a panic attack, getting the shakes. Life's for living."
The money he's saved from the drugs is "piling up in the bank". Along with a Porsche, a Range Rover, a Jag and 400 pairs of vintage Adidas trainers (which take up a whole room in the house), the couple have recently acquired a house in Ibiza. "Thinking 16 years ahead, our kids can go there and they'll be known on the island, they'll speak Spanish, the local police will know them - any trouble, their dad'll be over there."
And if, in their 40s, he and his wife get their "second wind", they'll be in the prime spot for a bit of clubbing. "We'll be the sad old gits at the back with our bottles of water who've forgotten how to dance," he says.
The baby is in "flight position", and Noel has been told by Meg that he will be at the birth. "I'm looking forward to the day after the birth. I've got a mental picture of the birth like some scene from The Exorcist with loads of swearing, people in masks, screaming, shouting, a smoke machine." His mother, needless to say, is ecstatic. "It's like a bus: you wait 10 years for a grandchild, then two come along at once." All is well, it seems. He wants a girl, he says. "Having two brothers and being in a band of five geezers, there are too many men in my life."
Another thing he will make sure of, he says, is that his kids know how privileged they are. "They won't grow up in a shitty council house with no money, but they'll have a pretty good idea what it's like, because I've been there." Recently, Noel was approached in the street by a fan asking for an autograph. He noticed that the boy was so over-awed that he was shaking. "Calm down," he told him. "We all shit in the same toilet. It's no big deal." The boy replied, "But you are my god." To Noel, this was absurd. But didn't he once say that Oasis were bigger than God? "I said we were bigger than God, but what I meant to say was taller. I believe Jesus was 5ft 7in and I'm 5ft 8 1/2 in," he smiles sheepishly. "I still stand by that."