December 2019 – January 2020

Arts & Letters

Don’t look back in anger: Liam and Noel Gallagher

By Martin McKenzie-Murray

Liam Gallagher

As interest in Oasis resurges, talking to the combative brothers recalls their glory years as ‘dirty chancers, stealing riffs instead of Ford Fiestas’

Have you ever seen Liam Gallagher in an interview? It’s phenomenal. He waddles into the room like a proud but inebriated penguin, slouches imperiously upon his chair, pops gum and pretends that sunglasses can be worn appropriately indoors. But what’s most remarkable is his gravity. It’s intense. Long-reigning autocrats have smaller auras, and you have to remind yourself that the man generating it is the same man who once sang: “Pigs don’t fly, never say die!”

But I know the above only from extensive research (YouTube). I’m speaking with my childhood idol by telephone; Liam’s in England. What I can say authoritatively is that you don’t really interview Liam Gallagher, so much as massage his nonchalance into expression. And even if Liam Gallagher has always suggested that he doesn’t give a fuck, he also seems at permanent risk of being swallowed by his own caricature.

When Liam told me that his post-Oasis band Beady Eye – insipid and largely ignored – were at one time “the best fookin’ band in England”, it sounded like a tired recital. At 47, this pungent self-possession seems more silly than formidable. When I ask Liam if, when he was one of the most famous men on earth, he was as fearless before the global gaze as he seemed to be, he replies: “Totally. I’d put anything up my nose, I’d put anything in my fucking mouth, I’d drink anything, I’d fucking smoke anything. We were fearless, man. It was the unknown that was beautiful.” The comedy of this may or may not be intentional. With Liam, it’s always hard to tell.

By a coincidence of album releases, I get to speak with Noel Gallagher around the same time. This is personally exhilarating. Noel has a more complicated relationship to his image. Hilariously, if self-consciously, quotable, he mocks himself, his brother Liam, his band, his fans. He’s ridiculed the empty seriousness of Oasis film clips (“Look at all those helicopters – fucking nonsense”), his own clichéd excess (“I once forgot I’d bought a vintage Jaguar – I can’t drive”), and the philistinism of his younger brother (too many quotes to choose from).

Noel Gallagher is the rock star whose entertainments aren’t contained to the stage or the studio; the enfant terrible who has now become, at 52, a stately curmudgeon and a jukebox of pithy provocations. But having an opinion on everything leaves one open to contradiction, and Noel has plenty.

The man who thinks Brexit’s dumb didn’t bother voting in the referendum – he thought Remain was a fait accompli. He despises a culture of people “blurting out fucking everything that comes into their heads” but once flippantly wished AIDS upon the members of Blur. A democrat of working-class origins who wanted the postman to whistle his songs, he now says his brother makes “unsophisticated music for unsophisticated people”. The self-declared feminist told me that the best way to militate against professional aides becoming drug-mad lads who think they’re part of the band was to hire women – “because then we don’t have to hang out with them”.

Clever, articulate, Noel Gallagher seems to have mastered the jujitsu of public relations by disarming critics with witty self-effacement. But he’s still very serious about his talent, and prefers his criticism to be self-administered. “Do I contradict myself?” Noel might say. “Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain pop classics. Heaps of them. Try writing just one, you feckless muppet.”

In the 1990s, Oasis declared themselves the Biggest Band in the World. A dubious title for a group that never really registered in America, but the scale of their success was still staggering. Their second album, 1995’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, sold 22 million copies; in Britain it was the highest-selling album of the decade. The year after its release, in just two nights, the band played before 250,000 people at Knebworth Park, north of London. Such was the demand for these tickets, they could have played 20 consecutive nights to an audience of 2.5 million. The brothers’ faces were splashed on newspapers and magazines more frequently than the royal family’s, and for a period almost a third of United Kingdom households contained one of their albums. Not since The Beatles had Britain experienced so virulent a fever. It’s doubtful it ever will again.

I suggest to Liam Gallagher that they didn’t just seem comfortable with that fame, they gave the impression that it was the fulfilment of destiny. “But privately,” I ask, “what did celebrity do? Did it become claustrophobic, or weird? What did it feel like?”

“I don’t take it that seriously, man,” Liam says. “It is what it is. I’m famous for being in a band, and I’m comfortable with that because I do class myself as a talented singer or rock star. I’m good at being a rock’n’roll star … I’m good at being famous and I’m good at being me. The thing is, if you wake up in the morning and you’re not yourself, you’re gonna get caught out, aren’t you? And if you just wake up in the morning and be yourself, and if that’s what you become famous for, then it’s a fucking doddle, isn’t it? It’s a walk in the park.”

Noel says he was mostly unaffected by fame too – it was everyone else who went mad, including bandmates. He described the peak of Oasis insanity as a storm of cocaine and sycophancy, but one he could partially escape from with a guitar and a quiet room. He was drug­addled, sure, but productive, and as he was the group’s sole writer, his bandmates were left famous, wealthy and idle.

“When [debut album] Definitely Maybe came out, and everyone was sucking each other’s dicks about how great we all were, I knew what was coming with Morning Glory because I was writing it then,” Noel says. “So I knew. I was lot more prepared than everyone else. I thought, Well, if you think ‘Live Forever’ is good, wait until you fucking hear ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’. So I was bracing myself for what was about to come.

“Everyone else [in the band] was listening to ‘Wonderwall’ for the first time, and going down to the estate agents to buy a new fucking house … Oasis in its first incarnation never recovered from fame. Bonehead and Guigs [Paul Arthurs and Paul McGuigan, rhythm guitar and bass] left immediately after ’97. A lot of people around us lost their minds. Luckily, and thank fucking God, I always had the work, which was an anchor in a sea of madness.

“But if I’m a bass player, and I’m sitting around all day waiting for someone to put the songs in front of me, I don’t know how I’d feel about that. My shield was always the work. And when it was going great, I never had any time off. And when the perception of Oasis turned in the late ’90s, early 2000s, it was even more of a shield. The rest of the band were standing around with their hands in their pockets, multi-millionaires all of them, but they’ve got fuck all to do – and they end up turning into cunts. I always had to work.”

He has a related theory on the late singer Amy Winehouse. “Fame smashed her to pieces,” he says. “She could not fucking deal with it because she was not a sole writer, she relied on other people. She was writing, of course, but she was a co-writer. I could lock myself in a room, and it was just me and guitar. While the storm was going on outside, I was always working my way through it.”

I once worshipped Liam Gallagher. For about half a decade, I recognised this belching and unrepentant hoodlum as the coolest man alive. When Oasis first arrived in Perth in 1998, so extraordinary did the conflation seem – gods in my city? – that it was as if Noah’s ark had appeared on the Swan River.

Their flight from Hong Kong almost didn’t make it. After an eruption of obnoxiousness – smoking, food fights, the sustained abuse of passengers and flight crew – the pilot threatened to divert his plane. “I didn’t throw anything,” Liam said when they landed. “I don’t know what they’re talking about. Some panhead told me to shut up – some panhead who needs stabbing through the head with a fucking pick axe.”

The panhead was the pilot, I think. The airline was Cathay Pacific, which banned him for life. The circus had begun before they’d landed. It earnestly rolled on once they did. Liam headbutted an English backpacker in Brisbane, breaking the fan’s nose, and was obliged to appear before a judge. He gave a tortured onstage performance in the same city, and Noel was obliged to apologise. I recorded every televised news story, and not for the first time my father despaired at the company my imagination kept.

Liam, it seemed, couldn’t help being bad, nor help thinking that his misbehaviour equalled some mystical rock’n’roll authenticity. It was natural that Liam’s sense of subversion hung so blithely on this cliché, because there was a comic incongruity between the band’s professed dangerousness and the often intolerable mawkishness of their music.

The British sketch comedy The Fast Show thought so too. In a ’97 skit, an allegedly subversive new act that resembles Oasis is introduced by a gravely smug hipster: “Tonight, Indie Club brings you Colon … See them tonight at the Dublin Castle – three pounds 50 on the door, or three pounds concession, which is the only concession Colon will make because they’d rather die than compromise.” What follows sounds like The Rutles, the 1970s Beatles parody band.

Oasis didn’t have the inventiveness of peers like Blur or Radiohead. They had three chords, two fingers and one Mott the Hoople riff, and when the schtick tired they had nowhere to go but self-parody. It had already begun on their third album, 1997’s Be Here Now, a powerful testament to the dangers posed to artistic judgement by cocaine. At 73 minutes, the album was both colossally decadent and dull, and finished with a reprise of the already unpardonably long “All Around the World”, which, if their reverence for The Beatles wasn’t obvious, would strike its listener as a willful attempt to defile their legacy.

In lieu of writing chops – and interpersonal harmony – they racked up lines, turned the amps to 11, employed an orchestra, put Johnny Depp on slide guitar and hoped no one noticed the cold vacuum in the middle of the noise. Such was their status, most didn’t. Q magazine gave it a perfect 5 stars and likened it to Revolver.

Fans thought differently. Fairly quickly, so did Noel. “When you’re playing them to the people, they just weren’t moved by it,” he says. “You can play a song to eight people in a room, and they’ll get self-conscious and say it’s fucking great – play to 50,000 people and 30,000 people aren’t into it, you fucking work it out. When we started doing [Be Here Now] on the tour, suddenly I realised: these songs are fucking too long, it’s all over the place arrangement-wise, and the lyrics are shit.”

Ah, the lyrics. One mystery of Oasis is why Noel’s wit and self-awareness found such little expression in them. The man who said “I only know 11 guitar chords, but God help you when I find the 12th” was, by 2000, still writing couplets like “I can see a liar / Sitting by the fire” and aggressively milking the sun and stars of their clichés.

But it’s unfair to isolate lyrics – anyone’s lyrics. They’re not poetry. They may aspire to it – and they may be poetic – but there are different demands on each. Music can re-mint language, it can redeem clichés. What lies limp on the page can levitate a stadium. And believe it or not, Noel Gallagher’s thought a lot about his. These days, when talking about lyrics, he refers a lot to “universal truths”. I ask him what he thought they were. “Well, people in England get their hearts broken, people in Japan get their hearts broken,” he says. “People in Australia have loved and lost, people in Africa have loved and lost … I was never one to write about ‘me’ or ‘I’. It was about ‘we’ and ‘us’, which is why Oasis was so popular, because the songs were inclusive. I’m probably the opposite of John Lennon, who was only too willing to write songs about how he lost his mother. But that’s not me.”

The claim doesn’t bear scrutiny. Definitely Maybe, at the very least, is heavily studded with the first­person singular pronoun. But if lyrics aren’t poetry, nor is simplicity opposed to a song’s quality or life force – I’ll always prefer “Teenage Kicks” to the Goldberg Variations. Yet simplicity still needs inspiration, and by ’97 the lads had slipped into an asinine groove. Be Here Now wasn’t their last album – or their worst – but it marked the end of the band as a musical force more than a decade before they officially dissolved.

Still, for two and a half records (their collection of early B-sides, The Masterplan, is better than any subsequent studio album), they were kind of magical. Noel had a gift for melody and Liam a distinctive gift for singing them like a pissed archangel. Their sum was greater than its parts, and together they achieved a rare thing: they gave a generation its soundtrack.

But the Oasis phenomenon wasn’t just musical – at least half of it was a dramatically self-fulfilling arrogance. Their first two albums were the work of dirty chancers, stealing riffs instead of Ford Fiestas, and gloriously combining mischief with melody. Not from art school had they emerged, but from a violent home in a northern city. When I ask Liam about his brothers’ physical abuse at the hands of their father, and how Noel once said that if you survive that then you’ll fear nothing – not even a crowd of 125,000 – Liam replies: “When the person that made you is fucking volleying you up and down the living room and you come out of it alive, why would you fucking fear going onstage and being adored?”

They were a great story, the hacks said. And they were.

Oasis split 10 years ago, when Noel suddenly called time. As the band’s biggest fan, Liam still misses it – a lot. As Beady Eye were effectively Oasis minus Noel, he says his sense of loss was delayed until that band folded in 2014. “All I ever wanted was to be in [Oasis] and do my bit for that band,” he says. “So when it split up, I actually didn’t see it coming. I thought me and our kid would just roll on having little arguments like an old married couple. But the way it split up, I thought, Ah, okay, he’s actually fucking just jumped ship. And for what reason? And the reason being for just fucking selfish reasons. I wasn’t having that, man. I put my fucking heart and soul in that band, and for someone just to fucking toss it away like that without a decent enough fucking reason doesn’t sit right with me.”

Noel says that he did have a decent enough reason: he could no longer tolerate Liam’s violent histrionics. About the infamous backstage fight in Paris, which triggered Noel’s immediate departure and the dissolution of the band five minutes before they were due onstage, Noel’s previously said that an argument with Liam swiftly devolved into his brother swinging a guitar in the green room “like a fucking axe”.

“Oasis was counterproductive,” Noel says. “Chaos is great when you’re in your 20s, but when you’re getting into your 40s and people are still behaving like they were in their 20s, it’s time to move on. And I took the work with me. When I went solo, the people around me were holding their breath. And I said, ‘Don’t be nervous for me. If my songs are good enough, I’ll be fine. And if they’re not, I’ll fucking write some more. It’s easy.’”

But Liam depended on his brother’s writing. Liam’s first song, “Little James”, wasn’t released until the fourth Oasis album and has powerful claim to being history’s worst composition. His second, “Songbird”, appeared on the fifth, and is quite beautiful. Still, he’s no writer. By way of asking how much of his identity was invested in Oasis, I remark to Liam that ex­footballers have told me their sense of identity can be terribly injured by retirement. “I totally, totally, totally agree with them, man,” he says. “That’s all I’d ever done, d’you know what I mean? I’m not saying I’m Michael Jackson, started when he was four and that. But I pretty much left me mum’s house 17, 18, and [then] I was in that band. All my later years were just in Oasis. For a couple years [after the split] I thought: What’s the point? D’you know what I mean? If I didn’t have that band with me and singing them songs, life looks pretty fucking bleak, even though I would never do anything stupid ’cause at the end of the day, life is still life. But I was fucking devastated, man.

“Listen, I’m always gonna be Liam Gallagher. I’m always gonna have me swagger and always gonna have a few quid in me back pocket. But, you know, I need the band as well. I was just sitting around in pubs all day drinking and fucking hanging about with divs. I didn’t have no structure, and that’s no good for anyone.”

The brothers’ mutual antagonism became the world’s most scrutinised sibling rivalry. In 1994, a 14-minute recording of them squabbling viciously made #52 on the UK charts. Long ago and from a great distance, I wondered if the rivalry was theatrically exaggerated – by the press, their performative selves, or a magnifying effect of both.

Maybe, but the relationship is genuinely broken. Today, the brothers’ only communication is publicly exchanged insults, which Liam occasionally punctuates with overtures to an Oasis reunion.

Noel’s having none of it. In previous interviews, he’s said that Liam crossed a line when he abused the older brother’s family. Noel’s called Liam a misogynist, and, referring to his wife and daughter, has said that his brother intimidates women. I ask Liam directly about this. “He obviously exaggerated,” he says. “I’ve never threatened anyone. He was slagging me off, calling me some stupid fucking names and I just said, ‘be careful’. A threat is when you threaten someone – you say, ‘Listen, if you carry on doing this, this is gonna happen.’ That’s a threat.

“I’ve got plenty of women in my life, and they know that I’m not a threat or a bad person. It’s as simple as that. My daughter wouldn’t be hanging about. We wouldn’t be getting married [Liam’s engaged to his publicist]. My mum wouldn’t be spending time with me. He’s just playing on the fact that his mates in The Sun seem to like to write all this shit about me. He makes out I rang his missus. I’ve never left a voicemail on his missus’s answering machine, ever. So I don’t threaten women. And he’s a liar, and we all know that.”

“Do you mourn the relationship?”

“I don’t mourn anything,” Liam says. “He’s not dead. He’s just going through a funny phase, and he’s surrounded by a lot of fucking idiots and they need to shake their heads as well. Shame on them. They should be more trying to get Noel and me back together a lot more. Not as a band, they should just be more encouraging. Me and him together are a force; separated we’re a lesser force. So it’s good for some people, whoever they are, that we’re separated and at loggerheads. But it’s a shame that me mum has to witness it.”

Liam Gallagher may give the impression of not giving a fuck, but I soon learnt that he does, in fact, have fucks to give. A few days after we spoke, his people called the office. They said Liam had “flipped out” after the interview, and had cancelled the rest of the day’s press. Thrilling as this was, it was also astonishing – he was politely receptive for the entire interview.

What sort of tough guy was this? So gentle and deferring did I think myself, and so resistant to reflection was “our kid”, that I immediately thought the interview a failure. Maybe I’d provoked him by asking whether it was true he’d once, as a young valet, stolen a door from football player Eric Cantona’s car. The story was emphatically denied on the grounds that Man City fan Liam adored Cantona, despite his playing for rival team United, although Liam admitted he may have “gobbed” on other players’ vehicles. 

More likely, it was my asking him about meeting his once-estranged daughter, Molly, for the first time last year, when she was 20. It’s something Liam sings about on his new album. “What was that meeting like?” I asked.

“Emotional, very emotional,” he said. “But very beautiful. We speak every day. We hang out as much as we can. She’s a wonderful human being and I’m very lucky to have her in my life.”

“You must have been nervous?”

“Oh, I was nervous, man. Deep down I was expecting a bit of a bollocking, or her being a bit moody and that. [But] she was amazing.”

“When you say you expected a bollocking – did you deserve one?”

“I probably did, yeah, of course, man. I should’ve stepped up to the plate a long time ago. But I didn’t, and there you go. You need to draw a line under it and move on.”

After Liam “flipped out”, nothing was recanted and no further discussion entered into. 

Liam’s now released his second solo album – Why Me? Why Not. – and tours Australia this month. Solo is the obligatory description for an album bearing just one man’s name, but this is in fact the work of a small army of writers. Regardless, Liam’s bullish about it. “If this album had Oasis written all over it, the world would be going bonkers for it,” he says. “Some of the songs are better than anything [Noel] could ever imagine to write. It’s a fact. If he wrote ‘Once’ he’d be on Sky fucking News now telling everyone about it. The geezer wouldn’t be able to sleep.”

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds have released an EP, This Is the Place, and will release another in March – Noel’s third in a year. For two of them, he’s worked with Irish producer David Holmes, a gifted electronic composer who makes the kind of stuff Noel might have once derided. But it’s Holmes, he says, who’s fruitfully encouraged him to embrace discomfort – to try sounds and instruments he’s never considered before, like a keyboard.

Always the contrarian, if never musically, Noel now relishes the opportunity to finally upset the expectations of his fans. “The stuff that’s coming on the next EP, one track is so far removed from what I’m known for I might even release it with an apology because there’ll be some fucking parka monkey that will probably put out a death threat. But that’s good, I think.”

Both men tell me they’ve accepted a few things about themselves as musicians. “I’m not a tortured artist, there’s enough of them cunts in the world,” Liam says. “I’m more comfortable singing songs than writing. I don’t really write. I’d much prefer to work with people. I’m better at that. If I never wrote a song ever again, I wouldn’t jump off a bridge, d’you know what I mean? Whereas if I could never sing a song again, I’d be close to jumping off a bridge.”

Noel’s accepted something different. The man who wrote an album that sold 22 million copies fell captive to its success. Worse things happen to people, but Noel spent a long time trying unsuccessfully to re-create it. But the spell’s broken now, and he’s free to experiment. “When you play stadiums, you tend to write stadium rock,” Noel says. “That’s it in a nutshell. When you don’t play stadiums anymore, you can be a bit more considered about what you do. If you’ve only ever worked one way, then it’s ever decreasing circles. At some point you need to have the balls to put it back on the line. And be prepared to fail, prepared to be laughed at, prepared to be derided. But it’s like, what are you? Are you an artist, or just a fucking tribute act? It took me 26 or 27 years to accept that I was an artist.”

Today, there’s an Oasis resurgence. You can feel it. One senses the swelling tide of nostalgia and, rising with it, the interest of a generation conceived after Knebworth. A recent documentary has helped. But time’s the chief culprit. With enough of it, the memory starts filtering out “Little James” and Liam’s behaviour. With enough of it, the past starts looking like a foreign country with better weather. It’s been a decade since they split, and a quarter century since their debut. Since then, the promise of young Blair and Cool Britannia have been successively effaced by the Iraq War, austerity, Brexit and Boris.

But you can’t go back. You can never go back. And whatever the question, more “Wonderwall” isn’t the answer. While Noel discovers keyboards, Liam dreams of reformation. So does the British press. I say let sleeping dogs lie. Nostalgia – with its fictional memories – is one reason for Britain’s current waking nightmare.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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