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Since their Brit-rock supernova lit up the world, Oasis have been on a downward spiral of drugs, divorce, punch-ups, walk-outs and, frankly, mediocre music. Ten years on, the Gallaghers are back to their swaggering best. Craig McLean meets an older, wiser Noel; Liam, meanwhile, is still just Liam.
Liam Gallagher is most emphatically Not 'Avin' It. How can Radiohead's OK Computer be the Greatest Album of All Time? 'No way, I'm not 'avin' it,' he spits as he strides around a north London photographic studio. Then he thinks he has the answer. It was Thom Yorke who cast all the votes, e-mailing them in, bash, bash, bash. 'No wonder his eye's f***in' cabbaged - all that computer voting.' And now Liam is miming someone with a lazy eye typing away like Frankenstein. Oasis laugh like drains.
It is the morning after the night before. Channel 4 has just broadcast the results of its poll to find the 100 Greatest Albums. It's another cheap marketing exercise dressed up as Sunday evening entertainment, a pointlessly subjective ranking of the usual subjects. But it's got Oasis all riled up. 'No Dylan!' Noel Gallagher splutters. 'Alanis Morissette at number 16!' he squawks in visceral outrage. 'I was embarrassed that Definitely Maybe was above [the Beatles'] Revolver.'
At 9.20am the phone had rung in the mews house in Marylebone, west London, that Noel shares with his PR girlfriend, Sara MacDonald. It was Paul Weller. He was, it seems, Not 'Avin' It either. 'How come you got two in there and I only got one?' an incredulous Modfather asked of his old mucker. Oasis had Definitely Maybe at six and (What's the Story) Morning Glory? at 15. The Jam's All Mod Cons limped in at 60. 'No Wildwood!' Weller raged. 'I'm not 'avin' it!' 'Don't blame me!' Noel shouted back. 'It was nothing to do with me!'
Then it was back to OK Computer. 'How,' Noel asks rhetorically of the small group of musicians and band associates gathered in the studio, 'can a record that I don't have, and that no one I know has, be the greatest album ever?' He hangs his mouth open, holds up his hands and furrows his caterpillar eyebrow at the illogicality of it all. He sniffs.
Welcome back, Oasis. Liam and Noel Gallagher, it's good to have you here again. We've missed you. Missed your arrogance, certainty, opinions and abusive verdicts on your contemporaries. The poetry of your hooligan swagger. The haircuts. The sunglasses, indoors, at night. The swearing (from here on, it should be assumed that any quote was originally delivered peppered with umpteen f***in's, many a f*** and the occasional C-word). And we've missed you making good records.
It has been a decade since Oasis released a decent album. After the dizzy days of Britpop and 1995's (What's the Story) Morning Glory? - the band's second - it has been a long helter-skelter decline. In a way, after their epochal 1996 Knebworth shows ('the Woodstock of its generation, although not as socially significant,' Noel adjudges reasonably) the only way was down. They have lost members, wives, weekends, entire American tours on account of bad behaviour (from Liam) or walk-outs (by Noel). For perhaps the most iconic and revered British band of the past 30 years, they have made as many poor albums as they have good ones, three apiece - and that's only if we let them count as an album the tremendous round-up of early B-sides, The Masterplan.
Noel Gallagher, chief songwriter and band leader, is well aware of this, and the reasons why. 'Be Here Now  was made in a blizzard of cocaine and KFC,' he will blithely admit. 'Standing on the Shoulder of Giants  was made in a haze of downers, coming off drugs, downers and alcohol.' By that time Liam and Noel were the only remaining members of the original line-up. Paul 'Bonehead' Arthurs and Paul 'Guigsy' McGuigan had recently left under a cloud; their first drummer, Tony McCarroll, ejected back in 1995, had sued for a share of royalties and secured a £500,000 settlement in 1999 - 'a bargain,' Noel mutters. (McCarroll's replacement, Alan White, lasted until January 2004 before he too was sacked.) Things were so bad that Noel wanted to name Standing… after one of its particularly maudlin tracks: Where Did It All Go Wrong?. Naturally, the record company wasn't so keen.
Liam, in one of his more idiot-savant moments, just didn't get it. 'Where's it all gone wrong?' he asked his elder brother at the time. Noel was gobsmacked. 'What's gone wrong? There was five people in this band last week. How many are there now? Two! That's what's f***in' gone wrong!' (For comedy's sake, that swear-word needed to remain.)
But now, finally, in 2005, Oasis are back with an album that's mostly great. Don't Believe the Truth is everything you want from an Oasis album: short, zippy, singalong rock songs. It clocks in at a pacy 39 minutes. The 'silent' wing of the band - guitarist Gem Archer and bass player Andy Bell - are, five years into their membership, contributing fine songs. And Liam, too, has written three numbers that stand toe-to-toe with those of his once-dominant elder brother.
Previously, Liam's offerings were less convincing: Little James from Standing on the Shoulder of Giants was his tribute to his then-stepson James, the child of Patsy Kensit and the Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr. It was suitably nursery rhyme-ish: 'Live for your toys/even though they make noise/have you ever played with Plasticine/Even tried a trampoline?' On 2002's Heathen Chemistry three Liam songs met Noel's critical standards. Songbird, his light but affecting tribute to his current girlfriend, the former All Saint Nicole Appleton, was even allowed to be a single.
Of course, on Don't Believe the Truth the lyrics are the usual mix of bluster and doggerel; musically, it's still meat-and-potatoes rock'n'roll. The first single, Lyla, is the latest in a long line of Noel 'steals', this time from the Rolling Stones' Street Fighting Man. 'Oh, totally,' Noel says. 'I make no bones about it, I'm not here to blag [trans: con] anybody that I'm an original artist. I'm here to get people shaking their arses in a gig. He who has the best record collection makes the best records, man. That's the rule.'
Noel knows his limitations better than anyone. He might never again be able to write a song as skyscrapingly aspirational as Live Forever (completed in 25 minutes, in the span of an episode of Coronation Street). But he is back writing thumpingly infectious and hypnotically primal ones.
'I had to write Where Did It All Go Wrong? to get to the point now where I can write [the new album standout] Mucky Fingers and go, "Wa-hey, it's back!" ' Noel says. 'That's all part of the story. It's all part of the life of Oasis.'
Wheeler End Studios are 15 minutes outside High Wycombe in the affluent Buckinghamshire countryside. A farmhouse turned recording complex, it was once the property of Alvin Lee of the late-1960s blues-rock band Ten Years After. Since 1998 Oasis have leased it as their semi-permanent base. When they are not using it, they let their mates - Weller, the former Stone Roses singer Ian Brown - use it 'for free. I couldn't be arsed running it as a business,' Noel says.
He has a house five miles away in the village of Chalfont St Giles. He and his former wife, Meg Mathews, had sought rural seclusion there as a means of escaping the druggy lifestyle associated with Supernova Heights, their notorious party house in Primrose Hill, north London. When they split up eight months after the birth of their daughter Anaïs in 2000, the divorce judge let Noel keep the country home. Mathews now lives in Camden with Anaïs; Noel has regular and amicable access to his daughter, now five. (As well as the Marylebone house, Noel also owns a cliffside house in Ibiza. Previous owner: Mike Oldfield.)
The year 2000 was a tumultuous one for the Gallagher brothers. Preceding the Noel/Meg split, Liam and Patsy Kensit separated after three years of marriage and the birth of a son, Lennon. About the time their divorce was finalised, Nicole Appleton (previously engaged to Robbie Williams) became pregnant. Liam and Nicole's son Gene was born in July 2001. Further complicating the domestic picture of the younger Gallagher is the existence of a third child, Molly, now seven, whom he fathered with the sometime singer Lisa Moorish. She reportedly became pregnant a week after Liam married Patsy. She also has a child with Pete Doherty, the ex-Libertine and paramour of Kate Moss. If the ever-watchful tabloids are to be believed, Liam is not happy that while he pays £2,000 per month in child support to Moorish, Doherty's enthusiasms for crack and heroin are preventing him paying his share.
In comparison with the dizzying biological/celebrity circus surrounding his younger brother, Noel's personal life is calm. He lives quietly with MacDonald, a Scottish former public schoolgirl. Where Liam is hassled daily by paparazzi who shadow his every move and know how easily provoked he is, Noel says photographers have realised that his life and habits are boring and of little tabloid merit.
His relationship with his ex-wife - whom he met when she worked at his former record label, Creation, and about whom he wrote Oasis's biggest song, Wonderwall - is one of the few things he won't talk about. When I ask him if reports of Mathews receiving a £3 million divorce settlement are accurate, he replies that he 'doesn't want to get into' such topics 'because my daughter is old enough to read. It's such a long time ago, and it's not an issue in my life any more, and I don't want my daughter to read about her mam. That's water [that's] way, way under the bridge. Suffice to say things are pretty good. As for my daughter, f***ing hell, man: if I ever lucked out once, it's having her. She's one amazing kid. She's five going on 20 - she calls me her old man! She's showing an interest in music, which is good, and drawing and apparently writing stories - her teacher tells me she's got a very vivid imagination. And I love her to bits. But that's enough of that.'
Oasis did much of the spadework for Don't Believe The Truth at Wheeler End. The album's fresh, easy-rolling feel belies its difficult birth. Early on Noel had decided he didn't want to produce the new album, as he had done with the previous two. The responsibility had been onerous. First Oasis tried to work with the edgy dance duo Death In Vegas. But after three weeks Noel realised that the new songs weren't good enough. There was another stint in a Cornwall studio, but that didn't work either. The confusion within Oasis was evident in their muddled, lacklustre, grumpy headlining set at Glastonbury last summer.
But rumours of Oasis's death were exaggerated. Last autumn they took the radical (for them) step of recording in Los Angeles. A new producer and a new environment gave them the jolt they needed. They ended up with enough songs for a double album. Whittled down to a single disc, the limber, urgent likes of Turn Up the Sun, The Meaning of Soul and A Bell Will Ring make for a thrilling listen.
Noel has sunk into a sofa in the studio's control room. In polo shirt and denim jacket with a badge proclaiming his love for the fabled Liverpool band the La's, it's a crinkled-but-crisp-looking 38-year-old who is pointing out his home-from-home improvements. He ripped out the studio's guts and installed all the retro-looking recording equipment he has collected over the years. New floors were laid, heavy soundproofing doors hung, various awards (Brits, NMEs) poked away on a shelf, assorted plastic Yellow Submarines stuck on the walls. In the loft Noel stores his guitar collection. Two of them - a Gibson Les Paul Standard that once belonged to the Who's Pete Townshend, and a Les Paul used by Johnny Marr on the Smiths' album The Queen is Dead - are gifts from Marr, who was an early mentor to Noel.
How many guitars do you have altogether?
He is aware how Spinal Tap this sounds. He says, 'I have been known to say, "Don't even look at it." But since I gave up being a professional drug user, I've always got to be addicted to buying something. And guitars are my vice. And vintage Adidas trainers.'
Do you still buy them, too?
'Like a lunatic.'
How many pairs?
'Don't know. Hundreds… even my girlfriend's girlfriends come round and go, "You've got a problem." I'm like, "Think how bad I would be if I was Kylie Minogue! I'd be mental!" '
He doesn't wear the trainers, just collects them. 'I don't know what it is about my personality,' he says. 'Me missus reckons it's because we were skint when we were younger. I used to stand and look in guitar shop windows and sports shop windows, and I could only wonder about buying stuff like that.'
Noel, Liam, 32, and their elder brother Paul (a serially unsuccessful band manager) were born to working-class Irish parents and grew up in the Manchester suburb of Burnage. Music and football (they are huge Manchester City fans) were a large part of their childhood, but they were also teenage tearaways, with Noel famously admitting to a misspent youth involving petty burglary (car stereos a speciality) and common-or-garden drug dabbling (glue, cannabis, mushrooms). Their father, Thomas, was reportedly a drinker and was physically abusive. Peggy finally left him shortly before Noel's 17th birthday. Neither Noel nor Liam has had much contact with him since.
After leaving school Noel worked in the building trade before landing a job as a member of the road crew with the Manchester band the Inspiral Carpets. He toured the world with the 'baggy'-era outfit. Returning from an American trip in 1992, he found that his younger brother had formed a band. Recognising that, in his absence, 'Our Kid' had developed a unique and powerful singing voice and an undeniable rock'n'roll presence, Noel said he would join the band on the condition that he was in charge and that he wrote all the songs. So Oasis were born. Two years later they would find instant success with their scorching landmark debut single, Supersonic. Acclaim, fame and riches would start flooding their way.
A decade or so later, now that he has - as he will freely reveal - about £15 million in the bank, Noel can buy as many trainers and guitars as he likes. And cars: he has got rid of the chocolate-brown Rolls-Royce given to him after the success of (What's the Story) Morning Glory? by Alan McGee, the Creation Records boss who discovered Oasis performing bottom of the bill in a Glasgow club in 1993. Now Noel has a Range Rover and a 1966 black convertible Mk II Jaguar with 70 miles on the clock. But he still can't drive. When he was 17 and all his boy-racer mates were getting lessons, he was 'more interested in learning how to play Stairway to Heaven'.
It's a sober, cheerfully honest and thoroughly entertaining Noel sitting here on this bright late-spring evening. The last time I interviewed him, in a Glasgow hotel room, he very obviously conducted a drug deal right in front of me. Admittedly, that was 1994. Tonight, over the course of six hours he will smoke two Marlboro Lights and sup one cup of tea; he still likes a drink, but not even a beer will pass his lips even though we will eat a curry and watch the Chelsea/Bayern Munich match. Liam was supposed to be talking too, but at the last minute it was decided Liam would not be talking after all. Why?
'I don't know,' Noel shrugs. 'It gets on my tits to be honest. I don't think he can be arsed. And there's no point in the pair of us being interviewed together 'cos he just interrupts me all the time.'
But the battling brothers are getting on better than ever before. Again, it had to bottom out before it could improve. Noel walked out of an Oasis tour in Barcelona in 2000. 'That was the one time I came really close to quitting. It was just rowing for the sake of it. Just really nasty rowing. He said a couple of things that concerned… his niece, my daughter. Not that he means any of it, he's just a nasty drunk. But I thought, "I'm not putting up with that", so I nutted him. It got pretty ugly fairly quickly. I thought, "I'm not singing harmonies with that prick any more." '
Noel flew to his house in Ibiza for a few weeks. At his manager's urging he rejoined the band to play stadium shows at Wembley, Murrayfield and in Ireland. At the Wembley show I attended, Liam was drunk, buffoonish and more interested in getting girls in the crowd to show him their boobs.
Then Gem Archer and Andy Bell - who had been part of the live band, but at that point had yet to play on an Oasis album - asked when they were going to start recording what would become Heathen Chemistry. Noel said it wouldn't happen; then he thought about it. Oasis only had to make two albums to fulfil their record company contract. 'So my plan was to go back, do these two records and then [say], "Sod off the lot of you." But as it's happened, Liam's songwriting has taken over from his ego-trips and he's into it more.'
Is writing a safety-valve for Liam's madness?
'I don't know what it was, but it seemed as soon as all that shit hit the fan, maybe he started writing 'cos he thought I was gonna leave. I dunno.' It seems that Noel has never asked Liam about this. 'But it's certainly done him the power of good. Because he concentrates more on being a proper member of the band, rather than just standing outside the band, spitting: "It's all shit [spit], you're all shit [spit]." But whatever happened in his head was great 'cos we've only had one major bust-up since then, and that was over music, not petty, stupid nonsense.'
Has he cut back on his drug intake? 'I don't see him do any drugs any more. I haven't actually seen anybody… I haven't done any gear [trans: cocaine] since 1998. It was during France '98 - panic attack. I thought, "That's it, I'm not doing it any more." '
From the moment the band exploded into the spotlight in 1994 it was the combination of Liam's undiluted essence du rock'n'roll and Noel's golden way with a tune that marked out Oasis as different. They were straight-talking Northern lads with the common touch, exerting a magnetic pull over a generation; little wonder a newly elected Tony Blair was so keen to have them onside. They were football, street fashion, gang culture, hedonism, consumerism, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and the Pistols rolled into one intoxicating whole. This engendered a fanatical following among their (largely male) fans, one that saw them through the fallow years - earlier this year, before anyone had heard a note of new music, they sold 330,000 tickets for their forthcoming UK shows in only three weeks.
Even America has gone mad for the 2005-model Oasis. The US has long taken a dimmer view of the younger Gallagher's wild behaviour. He outraged an entire television nation when he swore, threw a can of lager into the crowd and dribbled on to the stage of the MTV Awards in New York in September 1996; a week later came another 'Oasis split' rumour as Noel abandoned the tour in North Carolina. Most recently, in late 2002, the band had to cancel their last US shows after a cocaine-fuelled Liam lost his two front teeth in a brawl with some estate agents while on tour in Munich (total payments to German prosecutors for Liam's bail and fine: £210,000). And yet, and yet… this year Oasis sold out New York's Madison Square Garden in an hour, and are also playing LA's legendary Hollywood Bowl.
Noel can't quite believe it himself. But he's biding his time. He knows it could all go belly-up. He knows what his brother gets like during the course of Oasis's grinding world tours. 'When it's all going swimmingly, I can see it in his eyes: "Right, this is going too well, it's getting too boring, I'm gonna start shaking this up." So he'll start picking fights, or he'll headbutt a fan, or he won't turn up for a gig, professing to have a sore throat.' Noel, meanwhile, will just be getting on with his thing: 'drilling the band so it's like clockwork to them. Me and Liam are polar opposites.'
Does he perhaps take after your dad (an absent and abusive alcoholic) and you after your mum (a tough matriarch)?
Noel smacks his lips. 'That's exactly right, yeah. Yeah, that's it. Wait till I tell me mum that.'
Oasis have been quietly taking care of business: their own label Big Brother has been buying back from Sony the rights to their back catalogue, a future revenue goldmine. They have wound up Definitely Maybe, the company that looked after their concert activities, and started a new one, the Noise and Confusion Touring Company. 'That sounded a bit more apt.'
Noel reckons the line-up has finally solidified. 'I think if anyone left now, we'd quit.' He's hopeful that Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr's son and the drummer on much of Don't Believe the Truth, will soon join the band permanently. But he's aware that if the familiar Oasis antics start up again, Starkey might think 'sod this' and go back to his 'middle-aged' day-job with the Who.
Meanwhile Noel is keeping a watchful eye on the tabloids, aware of the likelihood of someone trying to stoke up an Oasis vs Coldplay war - as their albums come out on consecutive weeks, it would be easy to bill it as a rematch of the Blur/Oasis battle that made it on to the News at Ten in the silly summer of '95.
'I know Chris Martin quite well,' Noel says. 'The irony is that we're all massive fans - well, not massive fans of Coldplay, and I'm sure they're not massive fans of Oasis. But I buy their records and they buy ours. So I think we should be all right. Chris summed it up properly. He got a message to me: "There's no reason why soft rockers and hard rockers still can't be the best of friends." And I called him up and said, "Well, f***in' ditto." '
Other than that, there's the satisfaction of knowing Oasis have made a career-revivifying album. It couldn't have come at a better time. With their contract now completed, Oasis are the subject of some sort of record company bidding war. In 1994 they signed an initial deal for £47,000 for six albums. Reportedly this time they could get £15 million for three albums.
'It's not something I want to get involved in.
I know we don't need a record deal in England 'cos we've got Big Brother. The only thing a label in England can offer us is money, and we don't need any of that. We've got our own studio so we can finance our own records. For the rest of the world it would be essential. But I leave that to [our manager]. He's got to earn his 20 per cent somehow. But it's liberating to sit here today and know I haven't got a record deal. I like that.
'When people ask why this album took so long, I say, "Because we're lucky," ' he shrugs. 'I would fight anyone in the street to have three years to follow up Morning Glory. We rushed Be Here Now. We went on a huge tour, all fell out, then we came back. Instead of taking a year or two off, and basking in all the glory of all the records we sold and all the money that we made, instead of buying big houses, we went straight back in the studio. I'm definitely taking another three years before the next one.'
Four weeks later, Oasis play their first show since the Glastonbury debacle. It's at the Astoria, a 1,600-capacity venue in central London that is, for Oasis, tiny. The band are in cracking form. Turn Up the Sun and Mucky Fingers already sound like worthy additions to the canon. When they play Champagne Supernova, Rock 'n' Roll Star, Wonderwall and Don't Look Back In Anger the crowd's roar almost takes the roof off. Liam wears daft half-length trousers but, being Liam, he gets away with it.
The finest of Liam's three contributions to the new album is Guess God Thinks I'm Abel. It's about Cain and Abel, with Noel cast in the Cain role; in the Old Testament, Cain kills Abel. The opening line of the song is, 'You could be my lover'. Noel is gobsmacked by how good it is, slightly weirded by that first line, and bewildered by the thought of how Liam might have come up with the song in the first place. 'I can't for the life of me believe he sits down and reads the Bible and thinks, "I'll write a song about that," ' Noel says. Liam, after all, once said he has read only one book in his life, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
In the north London studio, I had asked the singer about Guess God Thinks I'm Abel. Where had the inspiration for it come from?
Liam looked at me with his big-lidded, soulfully belligerent eyes and shrugged. 'Dunno. It just came.' Then his eyes lit on Gem Archer sitting across the table. The guitarist had plucked a kiwi from the fruit bowl and was teaspooning its green flesh into his mouth.
'What's that?' Gallagher junior asked. He had seemingly never seen a kiwi fruit before, and now couldn't believe the hassle involved in eating one. It's hairy? You need a teaspoon? You've got to scoop sticky stuff out?
Liam Gallagher snorted. He didn't care how much vitamin C there was in a kiwi fruit. 'I'm not 'avin' that,' he said, and reached for a good old-fashioned banana.