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Sunday, March 08, 2009
How Oasis Got Their Groove Back
On the eve of Falling Down release, the singer on Jack Straw, Jade Goody, depression, drugs, Coldplay, U2 - and jibes from Liam
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Backstage at a concert arena in Treviso, near Venice, Noel Gallagher’s younger brother is characteristically blunt about the interview that is about to take place with his sibling. “I hope you’ve got your glass eye in,” he warns, “because he’ll talk you to f***ing sleep.” It takes one to know one, of course, but he’s right in one sense: the elder Gallagher, as newspaper and magazine readers have discovered to their delight over the years, is no shrinking violet when faced with a tape machine. On the contrary, he’s known for giving good copy. Sometimes — as with last year’s controversy over his apparent objections to Jay-Z headlining Glastonbury — this can get him into trouble. When we meet, he is reeling about the coverage Jade Goody’s losing battle with cancer is receiving in the British press.
“I was watching the TV today and they’re all outside her house,” he says. “There’s a global crisis apparently going on, and it’s ‘Jack Straw, could you have a look at this?’ Max Clifford somehow manages to shape the mood of the nation.
I mean, I’ve got f*** all against Jade Goody, that’s nothing to do with me. But it bends my head. That, to me, sums up, in one tiny five-minute thing on the news, what an embarrassing place Britain is right now. You might as well shut No 10 Downing Street down and get Max Clifford to run the country.”
More often, though, Gallagher’s gabbiness serves as confirmation of what the recent, less turbulent years in the Oasis story have brought out in him. Talking about the live CD of songs he performed — with Paul Weller at his side and a string section behind them — at the Albert Hall in London in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust, he comes across as someone finally at ease with the weight of what he has achieved. The CD, which is given away with next week’s Sunday Times, features Oasis rarities and cover versions (including All You Need Is Love and the Smiths’ There Is a Light That Never Goes Out). “I came on to the theme from This Is Your Life,” Gallagher recalls. “And that’s what it was, it was all these diehard Oasis fans, and they all knew all these B-sides and album tracks. That TV show, it was about all these friends turning up and saying: ‘I knew him when was nothing.’ It was like, ‘This is our life’. There was magic in the air that night.”
As he is only too happy admit, Noel’s early years were rocket-fuelled, and the middle ones mired in depression, addiction and creative inertia. It took the collapse of his marriage, his record label, his health and his band to shake him from the stupor. The 2009 version, a 41-year-old father of two who has weathered surprisingly well, gives every appearance of having emerged not just blinking, but with a sigh of relief, from the wreckage of the past; able, finally, to comprehend exactly how and why every section of the Oasis saga occurred and led, inevitably, to the next. Only, being Noel, he puts it a little more pithily than that.
“There’s a magic period when you’re in a band,” he says, “and you don’t even f***ing notice it till it’s gone, and that’s when you are the same age as your audience, and in the same circumstances, ie, they’ve got no money, you’ve got no money. Two years down the line, you’re rich. You’re still roughly the same age, but they’re still normal, everyday people, coming to the gigs, and you’re a superstar who flies on private jets, hangs out with supermodels, you’ve got a big bag of drugs with you.”
Gallagher refuses to indulge in regret — or to deny that the party, while it lasted, was a blast. “You start off being a kid in an Adidas top,” he continues, “and you end being this guy in a fur jacket and two pairs of f***ing sunglasses. Which, let me tell you, is amazing. Those times were incredible. I wouldn’t want to go back to them for all the tea in China. That would be a joke. But I’m glad I lived through all that madness, all the fur coats and the crocodile-skin shoes and the drugs and the women. We made it look like what it is: the best job in the world.”
He is similarly candid about the “lost years”, a period that began with the release, in 1997, of the band’s disastrous third album, Be Here Now, and arguably ended only in 2005, when Don’t Believe the Truth found the brothers, in the post-1999 line-up alongside the guitarist Gem Archer and the bassist Andy Bell, convincingly relighting the sonic fires of old. He makes no apologies for it; nor does he try to hide from just how bad things got. “From the defining moment, which was the lights coming on at Knebworth in 1996, at the end of that second show, to (original members) Bonehead and Guigsy leaving halfway through the recording of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, during that period, for my own part, I was kind of just doing it for the sake of it. I didn’t know what else to do. What we should have done, after Knebworth, was let that whole thing just land, settle, and taken two years off. But with the drugs and all that, you get so addicted to the attention, and you get institutionalised by the band. ”
Standing on the Shoulder. . . was, he says, the absolute low point: “I’d kind of swapped one drug addiction for another. I’d stopped doing cocaine, but instead of stopping it dead, and not taking any drugs at all, I decided to do the Elvis thing. You know, ‘Well, if I get them off the doctor, I’ll be all right.’ So, instead of walking around with a bag of charlie, you’re walking around with a pocket full of pills. ”
The announcement that Oasis had won the award for best British band at last month’s NME awards was greeted by boos from some sections of the crowd. The incident encapsulated the unique status Oasis enjoy, the price they paid for their huge early success and the scale of what they have achieved by getting their groove back and becoming one of the biggest live acts in the world. (They sold out three nights at Wembley Stadium this June in a matter of hours.) The contempt of lapsed fans can seem ostentatious, as if they wince at the memory of the unquestioning ardour they once demonstrated — the way they hollered along to the early hits in a way they now dismiss as kneejerk. In this analysis, Oasis’s music is fundamentally conservative — though the deeply weird 22-minute remix of their new single, Falling Down, by Amorphous Androgynous militates against this view — and the polar opposite of the sounds made by such sophisticates as Blur. (Yes, that old debate is still hanging around, like rotten meat.)
Some of Gallagher’s utterances haven’t helped to shift this perception; but neither, surely, has the success his band (dare to) continue to have. They defined an era, selling 20m copies of their second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, hit a rough patch, then retook the summit, and that, to many people, is unacceptable. What’s more, this version goes, they’re irrelevant, the unthinking music fan’s meat and two veg. Not surprisingly, Gallagher isn’t having any of this.
That whole thing of bringing in Brian Eno,” he says, without naming names, but clearly thinking of U2 and Coldplay, “or hitching a ride to a good cause — it was people stopping being able to just feel, and starting to think. Which is brilliant if your music is directed at the small percentage of people that listens to music and likes to have a good think about it. Ultimately, though, what’s great about great music is that you don’t have to think about it. It just hits you, wham, and that’s it. You don’t have to go, ‘Yeah, well, you know Brian Eno, he made them all do their horoscopes before going in the studio.’ (Coldplay, again) Who gives a f***? What’s coming out of the speakers? That’s all I’m interested in.”
He’s on a roll now. “If it doesn’t hit you in the face, doesn’t speak of love, hate, friendship, sorrow, life and death, it doesn’t mean anything to me. The afterthought of any music should be, ‘Oh, wow.’ That’s the payoff. It’s like the Sex Pistols, the songs are so instant, but then you listen to the lyrics of Anarchy in the UK and you go, ‘F***ing hell, that guy was frightening.’ Even now, you listen to the Pistols and think, ‘He was 17 when he wrote that.’ Seventeen! What are 17-year-olds writing about now? Going to a chip shop and a bird’s just split up with him. So what? Get over it.”
Oasis songs at their best always were about communication. The world tour they are on — the Beijing and Shanghai legs of which were abruptly cancelled by the Chinese government last week — has allowed them to tighten up a set that seemed slapdash last autumn in north London. The songs from their new album, Dig out Your Soul, fit neatly in among the early singles. Go to one of their current gigs and you will see an audience packed with people in their teens and early twenties, word-perfect in songs old and new. Critics are habitually sniffy about Gallagher’s lyrics, citing examples of lame, exercise-book rhymes and, in some cases, their sheer incomprehensibility. “This writer, he was going on about the lyrics to Champagne Supernova,” Gallagher recalls, “and he actually said to me: ‘You know, the one thing that’s stopping it being a classic is the ridiculous lyrics.’ And I went: ‘What do you mean by that?’ And he said: ‘Well, ‘Slowly walking down the hall / Faster than a cannonball’ — what’s that mean?’ And I went: ‘I don’t f***ing know. But are you telling me, when you’ve got 60,000 people singing it, they don’t know what it means? It means something different to every one of them.’ ”
His suspicion of chin-strokers, of po-faced intellectual types, has not diminished over the years. He holds fast to the line that his band made it because they wrote songs that lodged in people’s hearts, rather than in their heads; and that their capture of a new generation of fans occurred for the same reason. It was, he insists, always about the moment; there was never a strategy. “If anyone had thought for an instant that I had conceived this huge master plan,” he argues, “it wouldn’t have worked. Because you’d just see through it. That’s the Duffy thing: good luck to her, nice girl, but you just feel that that’s been invented. It’s like they’ve gone, ‘Amy Winehouse, she’s got a black beehive, we’ll do a blonde one.’ That’s the problem with the musical landscape: everyone’s got clipboards. We were the first band to come along in years that made it look like a proper gig, like a laugh. We took indie music out of the Rough Trade shop and into the public domain. People would read The Sun and go: ‘Look at these mad idiots, look what they’re up to now.’
“All those songs, if you listen to them, the feeling in all of them is of yearning — to be somewhere else, not to be here. I didn’t know that, three years after I wrote Live Forever, it would become this anthem. I just knew, in my heart of hearts, that my place wasn’t in Manchester, I was meant to be somewhere else.” What got him out was the songs, but he wasn’t to know that when he wrote them. “Those songs on those first two albums, I wrote them before you’d even heard my name. I was doing part-time jobs. I was writing for me. I didn’t know what would happen.”
Acclaim and disdain are, he says, both overrated. “Nobody’s ever said anything about what I do that I didn’t think anyway. I came at it from a position of awareness. When they told me I was the greatest songwriter since both Lennon and McCartney, I never got home and went, ‘That’s exactly what I am.’ I thought, ‘I’m just me.’ I write songs that are derivative of an era I’m obsessed with. I don’t think I’m brilliant. I think I’m good at being me.”
Interview and show concluded, and with a heroically bibulous post-gig warm-down, a decision is made to hire a boat and cross the lagoon into Venice. As we weave past the Doge’s Palace, necking cans of lager, the talk is all of continuing the party at a nearby rooftop bar. Yet the minute the lift doors open and Noel spots his brother, far gone by now and loudly holding court, he slips off.
Liam, lurching towards me, says: “I’m John Lennon, I am.” Well, no, you’re not, I say; you’re Liam Gallagher, and surely that will suffice. “Come on, outside,” he replies, and for a moment things look as if they’re about to kick off. Instead, wearing the Lennon shades he has suddenly placed on my head, I find myself chain-smoking with the singer as he jabs me in the chest and says: “You shouldn’t have talked to him. You should’ve talked to me. I bet he just went on and on, didn’t he?” Well, yes, he did. And long may he do so.
via L4e /timesonline.co.uk / photo: Paul Bachmann
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