Brit-Rock 'n' Role Models

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(Photo [L-R]: Noel Gallagher, Gem Archer, Andy Bell, Liam Gallagher)

A few short weeks ago, Noel Gallagher—with his new girlfriend and another couple in tow—went out for what he thought would be a nice, quiet night on the town. Dinner followed by seats in the secluded balcony of London’s Round Chapel, the intimate venue where Coldplay was performing a hush-hush gig to premiere songs from its upcoming X & Y album. Sure, Gallagher’s multi-platinum outfit Oasis also has a new effort in the wings—Don’t Believe The Truth, a dark, neo-psychedelic stunner for Epic that’s bound to blindside its “Wonderwall” faithful. But Gallagher wanted to avoid the spotlight for an evening and just vicariously enjoy the crowd-wowing return of Coldplay. Chris Martin, however, had other plans.

Gallagher believed no one would notice him in his shadowy crow’s-nest hideout. He was wrong. “So I was just sitting there, having a beer, smoking a cigarette, getting off on the gig,” he recalls with a muffled Mancunian chuckle. “And the next thing I knew, Chris was right in me face, giving me a big kiss to enormous cheers from the audience.” Stealthily, Martin had crept up on his unsuspecting prey. “He’d climbed up from the stage onto the piano, then on top of the P.A. stacks, then up a pole, across a set of chairs, just to give me a kiss. He asked me how he was doing and I said, ‘You’re doing alright, man! You’re doing alright!’ We had a very funny evening.”

Granted, Gallagher admits, he and Martin are old pals. So a Capulet balcony kiss—however odd it might’ve appeared—came as no big surprise. Later, the two compared notes backstage. “He was asking about our record and I was asking about his,” recalls Gallagher, 37. “And we were both saying how difficult they were, how we’d both scrapped ’em a few times. And I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but in recent years we tend to put albums out at the same time. So we were kinda both asking ‘Where ya gonna be? What’re you doing? How are the kids?’ And all that shit.” Gallagher pauses and sighs over the pleasant experience, which instantly became a much-larger career-kudoing metaphor. “It made me feel really good that people like Chris and bands like The Killers, Kasabian and Franz Ferdinand all kinda check for Oasis now—it makes me think that we did do something right in the beginning, and the flame for [1994 debut] Definitely Maybe did inspire kids to start groups. Which was always the plan anyway,” he adds, before tacking on his first “D’ya know wot I mean?” He’ll repeat the catchphrase—which even became the title of an Oasis single a few years back—after almost every key interview point he makes. And with a lesser intellect, such repetition might be annoying. But Gallagher—a rapier-sharp wit lurking beneath that bowl haircut and beetled brow—makes it all sound natural, astute, almost professorial. He may seem sleepy-eyed and sheepish when you first meet him. But rest assured, he’s lupine-tense and ready to spring, and his darting gaze catches just about everything.

Gallagher (along with his fisticuffs-prone kid brother, Oasis vocalist Liam) had to grow up fast. Eight years ago, he was equally shocked and hurt when competitive countryman Damon Albarn moved the release date of his latest Blur single to coincide with Oasis’ single, thereby launching—almost through Blur-vs.-Oasis controversy alone—a new Britpop movement. And, he sighs, only a couple years ago “I used to meet kids who said they’d started bands because of Oasis. But they just weren’t very good. And now I meet people who’ve sold a million albums and they’re really cool and they’ve got it. They’ve got that passion and spirit. And it kinda makes me feel a little bit old. But it makes me feel good as well.”

Johnny Borrell—the blond-haired heartthrob who fronts up-and-coming U.K. act Razorlight—just sought Liam’s advice. And the younger Gallagher gladly gave it to him. “And all these new bands coming through, like Razorlight and The Libertines and Babyshambles,” he dotes like a proud parent. “I went to see all of ’em and I thought ‘F---, you are really good. And I wanna make better records than you. And as old as I am, I’m gonna do it, man!’” But here’s the cold, hard truth—it hasn’t been hip to dig Oasis for quite some time now, since the admittedly cocaine-addled Be Here Now (’97) and its conversely stone-cold-sober follow-up Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants (2000). Even the band’s recent return to rollicking form Heathen Chemistry—transfused with the fresh blood of guitarist Gem Archer and ex-Ride axeman Andy Bell, now on bass—failed to rekindle that Gallagher fire, the one burning so brightly on definitive ’95 sophomore set (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? And rumors of the turbulent Truth sessions didn’t bode well for the future; After mastering 10 tracks with Death In Vegas, Oasis ditched the duo, then reconvened with Noel at the production helm. A decision, harrumphs the Oasis elder, “that just led to slow, simmering arguments. Like ‘What song are we gonna do next?’ ‘Let’s do one of mine.’ ‘F---in’ hell, we did one of yours yesterday!’ And I just went ‘Look—I f---ing don’t wanna do it—we’re gonna have to get somebody in to referee this.’ I’d only agreed to produce it because we were in a bit of a scrape.”

The solution came from an unlikely source: Dave Sardy, a young producer the band’s manager had bumped into one night in Los Angeles. Fresh from overseeing the chart-topping Jet debut, Sardy was eager to flex his muscles with an equally intrigued Oasis, and the pairing proved magical. For nine weeks, they got down to comeback business in Hollywood’s famed Capitol Recording Studios, aided by brand-new drummer Zack Starkey—Ringo Starr’s son—who’d previously slapped skins for The Who.

New material poured out, with every member but Starkey contributing: Archer’s pounding ’60s sendup “A Bell Will Ring”; the Lennon-voiced Liam’s flower-power folk-poppers “Love Like A Bomb” and “Guess God Thinks I’m Able”; Bell’s jangly, Liam-sneered anthems “Turn Up The Sun” and “Keep The Dream Alive”; And Noel’s most sonically adventurous cuts to date, including the keyboard-slamming “Mucky Fingers,” the Chad-and-Jeremy-breezy “Part Of The Queue,” the vaudeville-campy “The Importance Of Being Idle” (all sung by Noel), and the chiming march “Lyla,” the disc’s first single. Truth closes with another curiosity—“Let There Be Love,” the first Liam/Noel duet since their classic early B-side “Aquiesce.” “That was Dave’s idea,” Noel swears. “He said ‘You should sing the middle part—it’ll sound great, it’ll be like The Righteous Brothers!’ And I said ‘It’ll be more like the self-righteous brothers.’ But it works.”

And the swirling paisley-print hues coloring most of the sitar-toned guitarwork? “Dave’s got a lot to do with that, as well,” Noel says. “But maybe the songs lend themselves to that. But Dave was right on the ball—he knew exactly the sound he wanted, and it was kinda the same thing we’d been after for f---in’ years. We were like ‘Where’ve you been?’ Plus, we know the guys from Jet, and they spoke very highly of him.”

Has Oasis risen to a new Sgt. Pepper plateau? Noel only knows what inspired him. “Lyla”: “If Sally from our “Don’t Look Back In Anger” was Sally Cinnamon from the Stone Roses song, then Lyla is her second cousin.” “Queue” and “Mucky Fingers”: “I look around London sometimes and think ‘These people are f---ing idiots!’ People with their f---in’ phones with their f---in’ cameras in ’em, going ‘Can I just get a quick picture?’ It’s like, ‘This is a quick picture—the fact that you’ve said it has already taken too much time outta my life.’ If people take pictures of me when I’m walking down the street, I don’t care. And I don’t care if they take pictures of my daughter [Anais, five, already singing lead in grade-school plays]—she’s gonna have to deal with that sooner or later. But I will not stop and pose for anybody. And I will f---ing drop-kick that camera phone, field-goal it from wherever I am, straight up the street.”

Ditto for Oasis concerts, Noel growls. “Now, instead of lighters in the air, it’s those mobile phones and they’re videoing you. Or text-messaging. And if I catch anybody at my f---ing shows texting, I’ll stop the song and say ‘What the f--- are you doing? Who exactly are you texting? Have a bit of respect, man—switch your phone off, just put it away and listen to the song.’”

Noel catches himself before he really starts ranting, stopping to laugh at his own perpetually irascible nature. Some things, he cedes, just don’t change. Except possibly Liam, who’s often made tabloid headlines for bare-knuckled dustups (many onstage with his brother), but who’s also been eerily absent from the news lately. “You just wait until we get out on the road—it’ll all be different,” cautions Noel, who’s booked a series of tiny London club dates a la Coldplay to debut Truth. “Liam’s a dirty rock ’n’ roller—he keeps the flame alive for all of us.”

Noel has had plenty of time for deep self-analysis. Particularly in 2004, when Oasis celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a series of arena dates and a repackaged edition of Definitely Maybe. “And I still don’t know what it all means,” he reckons. “But I do know that after a decade, people are still talking about Oasis, so it must mean something.” And besides, he chuckles, back in ’97 he was invited to 10 Downing Street to meet one of his biggest fans—English Prime Minister Tony Blair. “And in 1993, just four years previously, I’d arrived in London on a train in the middle of the night, with one acoustic guitar, two pairs of jeans, one pair of shoes, a pen and a notepad, and I was gonna come and make my fortune. And a few years later, I’m driving to Downing Street in a f---ing Rolls-Royce. On drugs. And I kinda got off on that shit—I was like ‘This is amazing! I’ve gone from the bottom right to the top, where the leader of the country wants to shake my hand and say, ‘Thanks.’ So I just said, ‘Hey—it’s a pleasure. Any time.’”

It’s a lesson of celebrity not lost on Chris Martin, who had enough respect for Noel to genuflect at the Oasis altar in plain sight of a sold-out house. Many Coldplay peers see it the same reverent way. Killers leader Brandon Flowers loves retelling the tale of the first time he saw Oasis, ripping the roof off the Hard Rock nightclub in his native Las Vegas on their Heathen Chemistry tour. He was so awestruck he decided to form his own combo the very next day. And Soundtrack Of Our Lives frontman Ebbott Lundberg enjoys reminiscing about all the nights spent on the road with Oasis as the Gallaghers’ pet opening act. “The one thing people don’t understand about them is that they’re really funny guys, funny and incredibly intelligent,” attests the Swede, who shamelessly turned another Noel catchphrase—“The wheels of boredom just keep spinning and spinning”—into a new Soundtrack song. Getting all these nods from the next musical generation? Hey, concludes an unusually humble Gallagher—he’ll take props wherever he can get ’em.

“And I know we’ve done some pretty good records and played a lot of great shows,” the Oasis co-founder admits when pressed. “So finally, after 10 years, I’m beginning to realize what we meant to people. And I think the thing is to not really take it for granted anymore. Because it would be dead easy to just sit down next time and go ‘Oh well, f--- it—we’ll write an album, put some tickets up for sale, they’ll all sell out, we’ll go ’round the world and Woo-hoo! Aren’t we f---ing great?’ We don’t ever wanna take that for granted. D’ya know wot I mean?”

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