“All my people.
D’you know what I mean?”
(“D’You Know What I Mean?” , Gallagher, N.)
Manchester, so much to answer for.
When Peggy Sweeney married Tommy Gallagher it wouldn’t have entered into her head that she was falling into a world of mayhem, abuse and violence. Like lots of other young Irish Catholic girls she would have taken her marriage vows seriously and would have been set upon being a good wife and mother. Sadly for Peggy, Tommy Gallagher didn’t seem to set much stall in the love and honour parts of his vows. Setting up home in Manchester in the 1960’s like so many other Irish families things would prove to be hard economically as well as emotionally for her but when her three boys arrived she set about providing them with the love and support that she had found so rare within her marriage.
Paul the eldest, Noel the middle brother and baby of the bunch Liam found home to be a place filled with love and discipline from their mother and bullying and violence from their father. It was to be Noel who suffered most directly from the ugly side of his father, like many young people who are victims of, or witness to, domestic violence he developed a stammer which took four years of speech therapy to eradicate. None of the brothers have ever spoken in detail about their experiences in the home but a look at their characters, their relationships with one another (particularly Noel and Liam) and their rare public comments reveals a dark childhood.
“I don’t look back on that time with any regret or sadness, it kind of makes you who you are.” (Noel Gallagher, RTE “The Meaning of Life”)
Manchester has a long history of Irish immigrants settling in the city. By 1841 nearly one in ten people in the city were Irish. Many of them lived in a slum area of Ancoats called “Little Ireland”, an area of the city that Engels labelled “…the most disgusting spot of all.” Poverty marked the lives of many of those early immigrants and indeed that was to be the story for many of those who followed them over the decades. Even now the links between Ireland and Manchester are strong, the annual Manchester Irish Festival is the largest in the UK and one of the largest in the world. The terraces of both football clubs also have pockets of Irish supporters making up the numbers.
Right across the UK those Irish immigrants have made their mark on the music scene. John Lydon, Kevin Rowland, Morrissey, Johnny Marr (Maher) and, of course, the Gallaghers are just some of the musicians and songwriters who have defined, shaped and altered forever the world of popular music in the UK and beyond. It’s not possible to imagine what the music scene in the UK would sound like without the musicality of those Irish immigrant homes.
The combination of a working class, Irish immigrant, poverty marked childhood and the dark presence of a violent father is one which could have broken many young men. The scars of domestic violence are not just left on the bodies of their victims but deep in the minds of the witnesses. For others though a different path is forged from this background, a strength of character, a drive to escape, a desire to rise above and a hunger to be better than their circumstances have dictated leads them to become…something, someone.
“I said maybe
You’re gonna be the one that saves me.”
(“Wonderwall”, Gallagher, N.)
When Paul, “Guigsy”, McGuigan invited Liam Gallagher to join his band “Rain” he was probably motivated as much by the fact that in Liam they would have a criminally good looking and achingly cool front man as by any belief in the littlest Gallaghers ability to sing or write songs. The band also featured Paul Arthurs, Bonehead, on guitar and it was with him that Liam would forge a songwriting partnership. The band rehearsed, they wrote some songs and they played a handful of gigs. It is safe to say that “Rain” were not exactly setting the Manchester scene of the early 90’s ablaze with their offerings. The only buzz was from the speakers.
Noel Gallagher had enjoyed more success with his first foray into the music business…as a roady for Madchester icons the Inspiral Carpets. Thanks to this gig Noel was able to leave Manchester and see a bit of the world and what it had to offer. It also offered him a front row seat at the theatre of the absurd that is life on the road…he liked what he saw. There was also a lot of down time which meant that there was room to practice his guitar playing and to work on the songs that filled his head. Like lots of people though he couldn’t see how to actually do the things he was watching other people do every night.
At some point in 1991 Noel caught his little brothers band playing live. “Just awful” is how Noel has described what he saw and heard. Liam doesn’t disagree, describing “Rain” as being “…shit”. What Noel did see though was a band. They didn’t have any actual songs but they could play and in Liam they had a touch of star quality…someone who could lift them from being another band to being the band. A name change was suggested and a few of his own songs were played to the others and that was that…the world might not have been listening to the two brothers apart but together there wasn’t going to be any way not to listen.
“I live my life
For the stars that shine.”
(“Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, Gallagher, N,)
The story of what happened next is a part of rock and roll history. The drive to Glasgow from Manchester. The Creation showcase at King Tuts Wah Wah Hut. Alan McGee in the crowd. A record deal. Simple.
What is interesting about this story is not the balls of these Mancunian chancers simply hitting the road convinced of their own brilliance and the rewards that just had to be theirs but is, in fact, the presence of McGee. Any other label boss may well have arrived in time for the headline act that night, if indeed they had any interest in seeing any live music at all…let alone in a tiny venue with no VIP section…and then may well have decided to ask some A&R man to take a second look at the band whose name he couldn’t remember.
Not Alan McGee.
Alan McGee is as much of a genius as any of the acts he has pushed, managed, promoted and evangelised about. His genius isn’t in writing or singing. His genius lies in his ability to have remained forever the kid from East Kilbride who formed a punk band and never lost the feeling he got when he heard those first, formative records that have inspired him for nearly 40 years. He’s a Peter Pan figure. The boy who has refused to grow up and start listening to Mumford & Sons. He has been a passionate, blistering and boisterous face and voice on the fringes of the mainstream since his adolescence. Even when he made it big he never lost his passion or his recklessness. He’s a genius I tells ya.
McGee was convinced that he had witnessed the greatest band he had ever seen that night on the stage of King Tuts. Something inside of him told him that this was it. This was going to be the band that would change everything. He knew that he couldn’t let them get away. A deal was offered and accepted. A match made in Heaven. That one decision by McGee was going to pave the way for the last hurrah of British working class culture as the dominant voice on the radio. It was a decision that was going to change the lives of everyone in the band and of everyone who ever heard the band.
“I wanna live
Don’t wanna die”
(“Live Forever, Gallagher, N.)
1994 saw the release of the first single from OASIS. It arrived in the form of 4 minutes and 43 seconds of nonsensical lyrics about a girl called Elsa, lazy, hazy drums, a bass line that drifted into your bones and a melody so steeped in British rock history that it could have been by any band from any time but still sounded like nothing else. Crucially it featured a vocal that couldn’t have been provided by any other singer ever…here was a voice that demanded you listen, really listen and then when you finished demanded that you go back and listen again.
What is interesting is that this isn’t hindsight talking. On its release everybody knew that this was something great. Keith Cameron in the NME went beyond gushing with his review of April 9th, 1994;
“If OASIS didn’t exist, it’s hard to believe anyone would have the gall to invent them. Great bands out of Manchester there has been, even ones that harked back to previous great Manchester bands, but nothing like this. First impressions dictate that here we have an inch-perfect amalgam of late-‘80s Mancadelic cool: Tim Burgess fronting the Stone Roses with lyrics by Shaun Ryder. To suggest these lads ooze self-confidence is akin to saying Ryan Giggs looks a bit useful on the ball; statements rarely come so under.
Yet these are only the crudest of reference points, and anyhow, Oasis are rightly setting mouths a-gape by being so astoundingly accomplished from the outset. Even their illustrious forefathers allowed themselves a few initial fumbles before hitting that swaggering stride, but ‘Supersonic’ is a paragon of pop virtue in a debut single: three or so minutes of laid-back urgency, generously appointed with at least four melodies, and fizzing with enough attitude to silt up the orifice of your choice. Milkmen will whistle it, impressionable youths will play air guitar to its swooping, stalking riffs, while fading twenty-somethings who remember with fondness something called ‘baggy’ will find themselves lapsing into the Dance Of The Tired And Emotional Baboon. Obviously, in the wrong hands this record is a potent weapon.
And those lyrics! “I’m feeling supersonic/Give me gin and tonic,” offers Liam Gallagher in Verse One, before totally outdoing himself in Verse Two: “I know a girl called Elsa/She’s into Alka Seltzer/She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic train/And she makes me laugh/I got her autograph/She done it with a doctor/On a helicopter…” Suffice to say in the next line he rhymes “tissue” with “The Big Issue”.
That Oasis have the nerve to foist such doggerel on a nation of still vaguely intelligent folk is sufficient proof of the intuitive genius at work here. That the B-side is a beautiful aching ballad called ‘Take Me Away’ demonstrates still further that they’re not just along for the ride ‘til the Roses finally sort themselves out. Thrilling? Absolutely. Stars? Inevitably. And? Simply a great rock ‘n’ roll group.”
I want you to try and imagine anyone sitting down and writing like that about a song, a single song, by Coldplay or Ed Sheeran or Harry Styles or Robbie Williams or, well, ANY other band today. It’s not possible to see it. That’s not because those people haven’t been responsible for some lovely songs (my position is that they haven’t but I’m prepared to accept that others may disagree) but is because none of the songs they have written (or had written for them) have ever sounded as epic, urgent and relevant as “Supersonic” did in 1994.
What followed was something even more incredible, something even more impressive, something even more inspiring. An album of such importance that it is now talked about in the same reverential tones as the debut Stone Roses album, “The Queen is Dead” by The Smiths or “Never Mind the Bollocks” by the Sex Pistols. An album that has sold over fifteen million copies worldwide, that has gone seven times platinum in the UK, that was the fastest selling debut of all time up to that point and that topped the charts in more countries than you could name (even with the help of an atlas). It is the defining album of its time.
“Definitely Maybe” is the album that announced to the world that things were about to change. There were new kids on the block and they were here to ensure that there wouldn’t ever be any need for New Kids on the Block ever again. It was an album that was inspired by everyone from the Sex Pistols to The Smiths, the Stone Roses to Slade. It was a rush of British rock and pop heritage. Twelve songs that would go on to inspire countless kids on council estates across the country to pick up guitars and start playing. Twelve songs that showed how easy it was to be a rock ‘n’ roll star…all you needed was the look, the attitude, the songs, the ability and, if you could find them, two bona fide geniuses. Easy.
“In 20 years’ time our album Definitely Maybe will still be in the shops and that’s what it’s about. In 20 years’ time people will buy the album and listen to it for what it is. They won’t listen to it because we were rock’n’roll or something like that. That’s what matters.”
Noel is right, of course, people don’t keep buying his new records, or Liams, because of their “rock ‘n’ roll” behaviour and it’s not why people are still buying and listening to “Definitely Maybe”. That is purely down to the brilliance of the songs. It would be naive though to ignore the fact that the sibling (wibling?) rivalry between Noel and Liam has been a central part of the OASIS story and that for people on the fringes of popular music (the sort of people who buy Coldplay albums) it is the largest part of the story. You can’t blame Liam or Noel for that but it remains true.
Lots of families have feuds and lots of brothers don’t get on and, in large part, the significance of the battles between the Gallagher boys isn’t because they are unique in any way but is because they have happened in the full glare of the public and because the UK tabloid press make constant reference to their fractured relationship and make every effort to stoke the flames. Oh…and cocaine. I think again we have to return to their childhood to find reasons for the bitterness that sometimes defines their relationship. No doubt both Noel and Liam would dismiss that as bullshit and psycho-babble (and they may be right) but there is some discussion in the psychology community about the negative impact that domestic violence can have on sibling relationships. Researchers at the University of Memphis have carried out some research into this (as have others) and they certainly believe that witnessing violence in the home can have very many negative consequences (Kitzmann).
For a while the antics of the band threatened to get in the way of the music. Brawls on ferries, aborted gigs, drink and drugs…great copy but it all hinted that, much like so many other bands who arrive with a bang, that they could be destined to go out with a whimper. What nobody knew at that point was that “Definitely Maybe” may well have been the best debut album of all time but that Noel and Liam were only warming up. A little over a year after the five singles and mega success of the debut their second album arrived and lit the UK music scene up like nothing that had come before.
“Today’s the day that all the world will see”
(Morning Glory, Gallagher, N.)
“(What’s the Story) Morning Glory” is the definitive album of the Britpop era and is, (un)arguably one of the greatest albums ever made. It confirmed OASIS as the biggest band on the planet, the best British band of their generation and worthy of occupying a spot on the same bill as any “Greatest bands of all time…” type list. It has gone on to be certified fourteen times platinum in the UK, four times platinum in the USA and gold or platinum in another 20 territories worldwide. It was, quite simply, a phenomenon. It is an album that is full of bravado for sure but it is also possessed of a very real, very sweet tenderness…no mean feat for a gaggle of hooligans from Burnage.
This period in the OASIS story is revealing for a number of reasons; not just because of their supernova success and the champagne but for how they dealt with that level of success. Some bands get to a certain level of fame and subtle, but deadly, changes begin to occur…they get chummy with the press, they start to “experiment” with new sounds and directions (code for…becoming shit), they lose touch with the very things that took them to where they are. OASIS did something very different…by staying exactly the same. As young lads growing up in Manchester they had taken drugs, had some rucks and got pissed…now as megastars they took drugs, had some rucks and got pissed. This was central to their ongoing success because all the people who had bought into the band because of who they were as much as they had for the music saw that these guys really were just like them. Authenticity is a rare commodity in the world of “celebrity”…lots of people try to pass themselves off as being “real” while acting like divas behind the scenes but not OASIS. From day one they have stayed true to themselves; Polonius would be proud.
At this point in time I was working as a rep for Coca-Cola. This involved my driving a white van from one corner store to the next in Dundee trying to hawk Coca-Cola and affiliated brands to shop-keepers. I did this while dressed in a bright red Coca-Cola branded polo shirt, a pair of steel toe-capped work boots and black shell-suit style bottoms. Cut quite the dash I did. One of the brands in the Coca-Cola portfolio is the flavoured water, Oasis. When I heard that the follow up to “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory” was on its way in August 1997 I had a marketing brainwave…I headed into the Dundee branch of HMV armed with cases of Oasis and suggested that we give away a free bottle of the flavoured water with every copy of the album sold on the day of release. Don’t call me a genius, I get embarrassed.
On the morning of the albums release the record buying public was in a state of frenzy. Stores were opening early to cope with the demand. Outside the Dundee branch of HMV there was a line of young lads waiting to get there hands on “Be Here Now” from before 5 in the morning. I was inside the store and was the first person to buy a copy of the album (possibly in Scotland, certainly in Dundee) and I was ready to make the day extra special with my free Oasis. That’s right, on the day of the most eagerly awaited album since, well, the last OASIS album I was dressed in branded Coca-Cola clothing handing out free bottles of juice. I’m sorry that my story doesn’t involved cocaine and supermodels but I have to be “real”.
Across the country “Be Here Now” sold over four hundred thousand copies on release and was the fastest selling album in British chart history. The initial reviews were overwhelmingly positive too although in the years since some people have viewed the album less favourably. My response to it was the opposite. At the time I thought the whole thing was bloated and tainted by the drug of choice of the Britpop era; cocaine. Cocaine is a great drug…for the people who are taking it, they feel invincible but for anyone not under the influence the truth of the situation is that it turns people into insufferable arseholes. Very few albums made under the influence of cocaine are career “high”lights…a quick listen to much of the Stone Roses “Second Coming” should be all the evidence you need. Now though I find myself returning to certain tracks from “Be Here Now” more and more; “D’You Know What I Mean?”, “Stand by Me”, “Fade In-Out” and “All Around the World” are all among my favourite OASIS offerings.
When you factor in the Knebworth story (covered so magnificently in “Supersonic”) the story of OASIS up to 1997 is one of the most compelling in the history of popular music. A gaggle of working class kids from one of Britains great musical cities form a band with the sole aim of being the best band in the world…then do exactly that. Along the way they influence other musicians, filmmakers, fashion, language and the way certain types of young men walk. A strong argument can be made for their having produced the best debut album by a British band, the best album by a British band and then one of the best selling albums by a British band ever. That’s a hat-trick of achievements that is unlikely to ever be repeated. Certainly, thanks to the Brit School and the disposable incomes of a new generation of public school kids, it will never be repeated again from kids like the Gallaghers; immigrant stock, working class and arrogant (a good thing by the way). That’s something that should be greeted with real sadness by people who care about authenticity (that again) in music.