“If you don’t want to be bigger than The Beatles, then it’s just a hobby”: Noel Gallagher
Punch-ups… booze… drugs… bare-faced arrogance… In 1994, Oasis came from nowhere and established the perfect credentials for rock ’n’ roll infamy. But behind the headlines, Noel Gallagher was fighting to prove himself the best songwriter of his generation.
Image: Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images
This interview was originally published in our September 1994 issue.
Have you ever been really moved by rock ’n’ roll? Moved to the point where you feel like screaming out with pleasure – the point at which that rising knot in your stomach tells you you’re witnessing something that’s going to change everything? Have you ever been moved by rock ’n’ roll to the point where you can almost touch its indefinable urgency and smell its pheromone potency? Has the sheer power of three-chord pop ever thrilled you to the point where you’ve almost cried?
Oasis have reached the delirious finale to a devastating 40-minute set packed full of pop shrapnel bombs. Singer Liam Gallagher stands motionless, radiating post-adolescent cool, staring out at the audience. Guitarist Noel Gallagher has his head down, cutting up the air with those dangerous machete power riffs, weird delays and snarling feedback squalls. Rhythm ace Bonehead is busy sawing away at his guitar, while bassist Paul McGuigan is doing his best John Entwistle impression, standing as inert as a mannequin, barely fretting those monstrous bass notes. Their now infamous cover of the Fab Four’s I Am The Walrus crescendoes into wide, great arcs of ear-splittingly loud feedback, whch bounces around the room as the band depart from the stage one by one.
Imagine the Sex Pistols deconstructing the semi-orchestral mush of The Beatles’ original, turning it into a Pretty Vacant-style powerchord guitar anthem and you might get some idea of the breed of Oasis’ …Walrus. Sometimes, it takes one brief moment like this to clear away the accumulated crapola of a million tedious rock ’n’ roll write-ups and a million mediocre rock ’n’ roll pretenders. Tonight was like hearing rock ’n’ roll for the very first time.
And before you reach for a hefty pinch from the salt barrel, this isn’t more ‘new future of rock ’n’ roll’ shtick and I’m not the only one raving. Among his admirers, Noel Gallagher can count Johnny Marr, Pete Townshend, Bobby Gillespie, the entire music press and, most recently, Ian McNabb and Neil Young’s grizzled old lags, Crazy Horse. Noel was asked to guest with McNabb/Crazy Horse at one of the band’s recent London shows on a finale version of Sky Sunlight Saxon’s awesome 60s punker, Pushin’ Too Hard. It was a dream come true for Noel, himself a huge Neil Young fan. “I thought: ‘What the fuck, this is Crazy Horse and I’m up here on stage with ’em.’ I’m just this bloke who was on the dole a year ago and now it’s all gone insane.”
For his part, McNabb was amazed by the licks he heard falling from the 26-year-old guitarist’s fingers. “We couldn’t really hear what Noel was up to when we were up there ’cos it was so loud, but I’ve just listened back to the DATs of the gig and I was gobsmacked. Noel was playing like Peter fuckin’ Green!” Johnny Marr has shown his esteem by donating a vintage Les Paul Standard to Noel, gratis (more of which later).
It’s called the Oasis effect and, once you’ve seen them, you’ll be a convert, too – be you a metal-head, old blueser or grunge monster. What Oasis have is attitude by the yard and some of the greatest pop this side of 1966.
For their part, the band seem to have taken such accolades in their stride. “We always knew it would be this way,” says Noel, sipping his favoured gin and tonic in a London bar. “We’re not going to apologise for being successful. If you don’t want to be bigger than The Beatles, then it’s just a hobby. People keep going on about it being overnight success for us, but we’ve been together three years, so if anything, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Some bands form and inside six months, they’ve got a record out. Well, for them the sort of success we’ve had may be too much too soon, ’cos they don’t have the songs to back it up. S*M*A*S*H, Echobelly, Elastica and all them don’t have the songs, they’re embarrassed by success and they’re so boring and dour.
“There’s not enough humour in music. Look at Suede with all this ‘together in the nuclear sky’ bollocks. I’m sorry, but the Cold War is over, Brett. Let’s talk about beer and fags and lasagne instead. Even Bowie had a sense of humour. He wrote the fuckin’ Laughing Gnome, didn’t he? Oasis aim to be universal. ‘She loves you yeah yeah yeah’… that’s in every karaoke bar between here and Timbuktu.”
Noel, it should be known, has very serious aspirations, in a Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb, ‘universal songwriter’ kind of vein. “I wanna write songs that will stand up like This Guy’s In Love With You by Bacharach. Songwriting, for me, is about doing stuff that your middle-aged milkman whistles as he delivers his pints. No one’s gonna hum a Sonic Youth tune, are they?”
Guitar tech to guitar hero
As you’ll have realised by now, Gallagher’s theories and rants about modern music don’t exactly err on the side of the conservative. While it may seem pointlessly bitchy, a bit of rivalry is actually just what the doctor ordered – the perfect pick-me-up for pop’s frail, wheezing body.
Oasis were born in Burnage, near Manchester, three years ago [at the time of writing] when Liam Gallagher (22-year-old, doe-eyed, sharp-dressed vocalist) decided to form a band while brother Noel was away on tour as the Inspiral Carpets’ guitar tech. Despite the backroom job, Noel himself had songwriting aspirations early on. Brought up on The Beatles’ ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ albums – “It’s all there, the beginning until the end” – he began playing the guitar when his father bought him an acoustic and, by the age of 13, he was teaching his dad.
His proficiency was the result of a classic delinquent background, robbing corner shops, glue sniffing, bunking school, etc. It was while on probation that he concentrated on the guitar. “There was fuck all else to do,” he reflects. He spent the late 80s following The Stone Roses around, taking drugs and going to gigs before taking the Inspirals’ shilling.
“It wasn’t ’cos I liked ’em, but ’cos I had a talent for taking guitars apart and putting ’em back together. I got to see the world and got paid £400 a week.” Noel arrived home in Manchester on the evening of Oasis’ debut gig. “The music was terrible, but they had something and I was dead proud. Bonehead’s a solid rhythm player and our kid was a natural frontman.” Of their inauspicious debut, Bonehead recalls: “We were bloody terrible and about 20 of our mates turned up and got embarrassed, but to us then, we were the best fuckin’ band going.”
Noel delivered an ultimatum: either he joined the band as sole songwriter and they went global, or else “you stay in Manchester like sad cunts the rest of your lives”. The band took the ‘know all’ Noel option and spent the next 18 months gestating in private, playing a few pub gigs to universal disinterest. “We were yer typical indie saddos,” remembers Noel. Still, they stuck to the plan that Noel, via his ‘insider’ experiences, had worked out. They didn’t send demos out; they didn’t play every pissbarrel venue on the pub circuit; they kicked back until they knew they had a devastating set together. “We knew it would happen for us sooner or later,” he says.
Via a Manchester band they were friendly with, Oasis blagged themselves onto the bill of a show that Creation Records’ boss Alan McGee was attending in Glasgow. He witnessed the first song in their impromptu four-song set and, before the end, was hopping about on stage brandishing a cheque book, signing them the next day to a six-album deal.
Another year passes… the band are now very good, demos do the rounds and word spreads, as does their reputation as hellraisers. The inkies run stories about the squabbling love-hate sibling thing that’s at the heart of the Gallaghers’ antagonistic partnership, even though it’s nothing we haven’t seen before: Townshend and Daltrey, Jagger and Richards, Ray and Dave Davies, Morrissey and Marr.
“I write for Liam the way Townshend wrote for Daltrey,” insists Noel. “Our kid’s cocky and brash, but there’s some stuff he just couldn’t write ’cos it’s not in him. Our kid went to the Job Centre and asked if they had any vacancies for a pop star, so they gave him the forms and made him sit the test – but he got every question wrong and that’s what makes him a genius frontman. He hasn’t any fuckin’ idea, but he’s a natural, a one-off. It’s a classic case of hating the one you love – he wishes he was me ’cos I can write songs, and I wish I was as brash and cocky as him and I’m not. There you have it. We can’t ever say these things, so we fight about it instead.”
The fact that Liam has a dismissive attitude to what the guitarist feels is his real skill also fuels their mutual angst. “Interviewers ask Liam about the music all the time and I have to tell him to shut up, because he hasn’t a clue where it comes from. He might think he knows, but he did not have to sit up until 7am in the morning and write the fuckers. You get more and more drunk, you smoke more and more fags, then the sun comes up and you’ve got it – that’s satisfaction.
“I don’t want to get all poncey about it, but there’s a lot of pain involved in writing songs and for some 22-year-old to flippantly pass it off in an interview just pisses me off. He can’t write songs… he can’t even write his own name.”
Tales of squabbling, hooliganism, hotel trashing, drug-taking and stealing golf carts from Gleneagles Country Club are now part of the Oasis legend. It’s a side of the band Noel doesn’t deny exists, but he personally has no time for. “I can do without all this ‘rock ’n’ roll hooligan’ bollocks. I’ve been through it all before. It’s boring and I’d rather write a good song than do a hotel room. Our Liam wants to be remembered like Sid Vicious and all I want is my name to appear in 20 years’ time in an NME list of the 20 Greatest Songwriters Ever… then I’ll die happy.”
With the dawn of 1994, the band embarked on a series of packed London showcases and a national tour which had everyone who saw them fumbling for adjectives. Then came their first real test, the debut single, Supersonic. “We’d have looked like mouthy c***s if we hadn ’t made the charts, but it did and it was a great record,” says Noel recalling the relief of their first hit.
So they play Top Of The Pops in a Ready Steady Go! manner and follow it up by launching a 12-bar called Shakermaker into the charts. Their first trip to the US is a resounding success; the New York Times commenting: “Every song sounds like a bona-fide classic” – and this is before anything by Oasis has even been released Stateside. The band’s debut album, Definitely Maybe (produced by themselves, Owen Morris and Mark Coyle, recorded, re-recorded and recorded again until they felt they’d managed to get as close to their live sound as they could), arrives this month – and we’re more or less up to date.
Scoring on your debut
Definitely Maybe stands as one of those great but all-too-rare debut pop albums. Almost perfection: something like listening to the Pistols playing the Lennon and McCartney songbook while The Smiths and The Stone Roses are hovering about in the background. Oasis may never make another record as good as this, but that is now irrelevant.
Like The New York Dolls’ and Television’s debuts, the mere arrival of Definitely Maybe has caused a major rethink on planet pop. “I know it’s a great record,” says Noel, characteristically enthusiastic. “We worked hard. But it’s only the beginning – I’ve got another six songs as good as Supersonic and that’s one of the great pop singles of our age. Singles make great bands, not albums. When you think The Smiths put out How
Soon Is Now?, The Draize Train and Jeane as B-sides to singles, then you really begin
to notice the difference between the great bands and the average ones. Our album is 10 great pop singles… and a bit of a sloppy ballad for balance.”
The songs themselves pilfer from rock’s great treasure chest of past masters with unabashed abandon. A case of ‘rip it off and start again’. “Guitars have six strings, 12 frets, 36 basic chords – it’s all been done before. If you can’t accept that, then music comes to an end and you might as well fuck off and play Sonic The Hedgehog. Go for the obvious, go for the easy melody. Hey Jude is McCartney’s cheap shot; Let It Be is a cheap shot… but both are great songs.”
On the shoulder of giants
This neat theory is borne out by almost every track Oasis play, from the singles Supersonic and Shakermaker (with its 12-bar predictability and blatant borrowing of The New Seekers’ I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing) to Cigarettes And Alcohol and Slide Away from the album – the latter sees Noel exorcising his Neil Young fixation, coming on like an unadulterated but sophisticated trip into the realms of Cortez The Killer.
“It’s never really a rip-off, more of a sampling of the mood,” he adds defensively. Some more pedantic music critics have jabbed their fingers at Oasis’ magpie approach, commenting how Cigarettes And Alcohol is just T. Rex’s Get It On. Noel rises to the challenge, commenting that behind every great band in history, there’s been a songwriter with tea-leaf tendencies. “To those people, I say: ‘You’ve got us sussed, mate. It’s T. Rex alright, but it’s the best song Marc Bolan never wrote!’. Bolan was ripping off Howlin’ Wolf when he did Get It On anyway and even if he had written Cigarettes And Alcohol, it would have had lyrics about pixies and shit, so count yourself lucky.”
Despite these easy comparisons, ultimately, Oasis transcend them all. They’re not the next Beatles, nor the next Pistols nor even the next Stone Roses… they’re the first Oasis. Noel puts it in context, making the point that while he has influences, he doesn’t reserve any sacred reverence for his heroes.
“Being influenced by people is all well and good, but you’ve got to want to outdo ’em. I want to outdo The Beatles. I don’t have too many gods, ’cos otherwise, you’d get fuck all done and besides, it’s all just building on the past, that’s how you get to the future. The Beatles write Helter Skelter, The Stooges and the MC5 hear that and do I Wanna Be Your Dog and Sister Anne, the Pistols hear that and you get punk, then come The Smiths, the Roses and now us.”
Familiar to millions
A conveniently self-reverential encapsulation of pop history that could well be true. At any rate, it puts The Beatles firmly at the top of the pile as grandpappies of the Oasis sound. For this band, The Beatles are, simply put, the essence, the thing they aspire to. “You can’t knock The Beatles. Sonic Youth have been trying to do Helter Skelter for years and The Beatles did it 25 years ago!”
Noel says his proudest moment, aside from linking up with Crazy Horse, came when the band played a pub gig and something brought the whole Beatles/Oasis connection home. “This 50-year-old bloke was stood at the back with his wife. He had a great big droopy ’tache and was supping a pint. They turn up backstage and this bloke says: ‘I lived to hear
I Am The Walrus live, I can die happy now’.”
So there you have it: Oasis, the best new thing in guitar pop and considerably more likely to make old men happy than The Bootleg Beatles. They fight, they take drugs, they’re sometimes silly hooligans with a penchant for hotel demolition, but behind all the chemically fuelled foolery is a band hopelessly in love with music, songs and the pop ethic.
“I’m a loner,” concludes Noel. “I live in my own world and in that world, the only thing that really matters is music. If the devil popped up tomorrow and said it’s a straight choice between music and relationships – be it mum, girlfriend, or even Liam – I’d sign on the dotted line.”
Every generation kicks a bona-fide hero or two up the pop charts – a group who come to embody not just pop fad-ism but the spirit and aspirations of a particular zeitgeist. As
The Stone Roses were to the end of the 80s, Oasis will be to the mid 90s. The band embody the notion that we’ve reached the point where the spirit of 60s psychedelic mod pop can cohabit with the spirit of punk in perfect harmony. Perhaps The New Seekers were right after all…
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