Ticket to Riot
ROCK ’N’ ROLL AS A BAD INFLUENCE, EXHIBIT A: Liam Gallagher, lead singer of Oasis. Six months ago, Oasis were in Denmark to headline another in an endless series of rock festivals. Liam, unhappy with his ground-floor accommodations, decided to redecorate. Going for a minimalist look, he threw everything out the window: the telephone, the TV, the bed, the cupboards. Having defenestrated the entire room, he stood by the hotel pool admiring his handiwork. Just then, Oasis’s road manager came along and told Liam the band was moving to a better hotel. Liam, deciding he’d rather not get arrested, enlisted rhythm guitarist Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs; the two threw all the furniture back into the room and checked out. Sometimes with Oasis, it feels like time is moving backwards in the most chaotic fashion possible.
Oasis’s debut album, Definitely Maybe, was a record full of revved-up ’60s-style pop melodies, given a punk twist by Liam’s sneering vocals. Declared the perfect mix of the Beatles and the Sex Pistols, it went triple-platinum in England and gold in America–successful enough to let the band indulge their fantasies. Liam now tools around on his 1954 scooter, sky blue like the shirts of his favorite soccer team, Manchester United. Noel Gallagher–the songwriter, lead guitarist, and Liam’s older brother–buys $5,000 guitars whenever he gets bored, and claims to have more shoes than Imelda Marcos: “I’m totally beyond that bitch.”
The one thing fame hasn’t given Oasis is a sense of confidence–they were always convinced that they were the best band in the world. Even when they were rehearsing in basements in Manchester, England, they thought it was only a matter of time before the world recognized their brilliance. In an era where rock stars do everything in their power to avoid their celebrity, it’s refreshing to find a band whose members have enough arrogance to revel in what they consider their well-deserved fame. Oasis have no patience for bands that lament being in the public eye. “I just wish Eddie Vedder would get on with it and kill himself,” Noel spits.
Noel, at twenty-eight, is fully aware of the absurdity of his profession, and is just as likely to stay home and write another song as he is to go out and get smashed in a pub. The twenty-three-year-old Liam, on the other hand, has accepted debauchery as his inalienable right; he laughs about getting punched out by bouncers and about the band’s sex life. The other members of Oasis all have steady girlfriends, and Bonehead just got married–he and Mrs. Bonehead have a baby girl, Lucy Oasis Arthurs. Liam remains proudly single: “I’ve met loads of birds. They’ve all just met one.”
One for you in every city?
“About twenty just in London,” he boasts. “I’m a good-looking lad.”
ROCK ’N’ ROLL AS A BAD INFLUENCE, EXHIBIT B: the fighting side of Oasis. Oasis’s unshakable faith in themselves leads the band to approach everything in life as if it were a crusade, including their public feud with Blur. “They’re just pseudo-middle-class Cockney twats, egotistical confrontational paranoid wimps,” Noel says. Blur’s bourgeois whimsy rubs the working-class lads in Oasis the wrong way. Grappling for top position in England, the two groups released singles on the same week in September, amidst much hoopla and press analysis. Blur came in at number one, which has only fueled Noel’s passion further: “I hate them with a passion. And just in case that doesn’t come out on the tape, I’ll say it again: I fucking hate you bastards.”
The same sense of certitude led the band to fire drummer Tony McCarroll when they decided his lack of rhythm was holding them back from their rightful position as biggest band in the world. After unsuccessfully hiring Tony drum tutors, they dumped him in favor of Alan White, a 22-year-old with the unfortunate nickname “Whitey.” The firing turned ugly; Tony’s despondent father tried to kill himself by slashing his throat, an intrusion of tragic reality into Oasis’s playland of bluster, alcohol, and chart positions.
I talk with Noel and Liam at their manager’s office in London–separately. The brothers used to be interviewed together, until they started having fistfights in front of reporters. They clearly work each other’s nerves; Liam thinks Noel is a bit of a control freak, while Noel thinks Liam is a bit thick. They both have a point. But they also go out of their way to praise each other’s talents: Noel says Liam sings like an angel; Liam says his brother can’t write a bad song. Liam, unshaven and looking pretty vacant, sits at a conference table, dissecting a turkey sandwich with his fingers, talking with a full mouth. “Noel wins the arguments,” he admits. “But I win the fights.”
The Gallagher brothers haven’t traded punches for a few months. The last fisticuffs were in Wales, where Oasis were recording their second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? As Liam tells it: “I was with this girl and I asked him for the taxi number. He told me to piss off. I thought that was pretty rude, so I slapped him and he slapped me back.” They promptly began pounding each other. Noel won, but Liam says he only lost because he was drunk.
Boxing matches aside, the album went smoothly: one song a day for fifteen days. As a songwriter, Noel is prolific enough to be always one album ahead of the band; Oasis have released eight EPs over the last two years, just to get rid of Noel’s backlog. He’s got his formula for writing uptempo songs like “Roll With It” and “Some Might Say” down to a science: he writes the melodies and music over a period of weeks in various hotel rooms and buses. Then he goes out to pubs or watches TV until he overhears something that might work as an opening line. He then takes lots of drugs and lets the rest of the lyrics flow.
The resulting songs sound like you’ve been humming them all your life, classics written thirty years ago at the height of the British Invasion. That might be because Noel taught himself to play guitar by mimicking the sounds on the Beatles’ greatest-hits collections. (To this day, he doesn’t know the official fingering for chords or their names, so he makes up his own. A typical Oasis song might be played in the key of R, with the chords N, J, and Z.) It also might be because Noel often incorporates bits of his favorite tunes into his own songs. “I’d rewrite ‘Ticket to Ride’ all day long if I could,” he says. Never one to suffer from the anxiety of influence, he sometimes doesn’t sufficiently disguise his sources–the track “Step Out” had to be dropped from Morning Glory at the last minute when it was deemed too blatant a swipe of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” I ask Noel if there’s anything new to do in rock ’n’ roll.
“Oh, no, no. It’s all been said before, hasn’t it?”
Then why do it?
“Because you get loads of money.”
If Noel could have three wishes granted, they would be for John Lennon to be alive, for Blur to be dead, and for the Beatles to get back together. Liam, showing his often-concealed altruistic side, would wish for “everyone being happy,” “all the diseases in the world, none of that, you know what I mean?” and “no one poor, everyone with a few quid.” Bonehead’s wishes: a naked lady dancing on the table, a lot more money, and a helicopter.
ROCK ’N’ ROLL AS A BAD INFLUENCE, EXHIBIT C: Stay fit the Oasis way–take lots of drugs, and try to remember to eat a meal every now and then. On tour last year, Noel decided to test his theory that if he stayed up for three days, he would never need to sleep again. Unfortunately for scientific research, his drug-fueled body crashed at the seventy-two-hour mark, in Detroit. He blacked out and came to just long enough to call for an ambulance. The next thing he knew, he was in the hospital, hooked up to life-support machines, surrounded by doctors.
“Do you take crack, sir?” one asked.
“Do you take heroin?”
“Did you drink a lot lately?”
“Now that I did.” They gave him some antibiotics and released him the next day. The moral of the story, according to Noel: try to get some sleep every day or two.
Noel’s collapse didn’t exactly spur Oasis to an abstemious life in the following year. When I meet up with the group in Boston, they’ve arrived without bassist Paul McGuigan. “Guigsy” has been left back in England to recover from “exhaustion,” long a rock ’n’ roll euphemism for a wide variety of overindulgences. Although Johnny Marr and Paul Weller both volunteered to fill in on bass for this American tour, Noel picked the young Scott McLeod. Bad choice: three days from now, in Buffalo, Scott will catch a plane home to England, saying that he’s unhappy and refusing to talk to his bandmates. But today, Scott is just a quiet presence in the corner of rooms, carrying around his written transcriptions of basslines, watching the others drink and crack jokes.
Noel’s late for soundcheck today; he’s been scouring Boston for shoes. When he arrives at the Orpheum Theater, the other musicians are lazily, loudly jamming. Noel walks directly onstage, drops his shopping bags by an amp, and straps on a guitar; the band plays through “Morning Glory” a couple of times. When they begin the crashing rock song “Hey Now!” Liam strolls onstage, shirt untucked, and misses his cue. They start again. Liam sings a few lines; then, looking disgusted, he flaps his arms around and walks offstage. Elapsed time of Liam’s soundcheck: approximately thirty seconds. Noel takes over vocals while Liam sits on the side of the stage, watching the band, playing with a screwdriver.
Noel finishes the soundcheck by crooning a few songs with an acoustic guitar. Then he shows off his day’s purchases: two pairs of Hush Puppies and a black military-style cap. Liam explodes, saying he bought the same hat a year ago and was teased mercilessly by the rest of the band for it. Seeing an opportunity to agitate Liam further, Noel needles him about the embroidery and buttons on last year’s hat, undaunted by the fact that he is holding its cousin in his left hand.
The last time I saw Oasis play, in New York, Liam stood at the microphone as motionless as John Lennon’s corpse, with his hands clasped behind his back. During guitar solos, he sat down on the drum riser, sometimes with a towel over his head. His singing was throaty and emotional, but he seemed to be under the mistaken impression that New York City awarded free bags of cocaine to lead singers who acted especially petulantly. As I muttered to my date, if that were my little brother, I’d beat him up too.
Liam says that he’s a singer rather than an entertainer, which absolves him of any obligation to move around–but tonight in Boston he’s animated. During “Some Might Say,” he marches around the stage in circles, shimmying and swaggering. He’s prone to breaking a dramatic pose by scratching his scalp like he’s trying to get rid of fleas, but it’s still an improvement. The band sounds thick and layered, as if there are eight guitarists onstage, especially during “Cigarettes & Alcohol”–which Noel tellingly introduces as a love song. The set finishes with “Champagne Supernova.” For Liam, it ends a little early: frustrated by a sore throat, he starts punching his microphone, and eventually storms offstage. Noel finishes the song, and then performs the encores without Liam. His voice doesn’t have the same drawling power as his baby brother’s, but the band have grown used to Noel filling in on short notice.
Backstage after the show, Liam seems to have gotten over his sore throat quickly. He’s drinking beer and arguing with visitors about the Beatles. Why Liam hates Yoko: “McCartney’s trying to write some top tune, and this bitch is coming down and wailing over it.”
Noel sits in a separate room, recovering from the performance. Right now, the glamour of rock stardom seems a distant abstraction. With sore throats, sunken eyes, and a bassist about to go AWOL, the American tour is quickly unraveling. Still, Noel understands that constant crises come with the territory. “People encourage rock stars to act like children,” he says. “You can act like a big spoiled baby and people think it’s great.” He doesn’t sound like a man raging at his brother, but rather like a man who knows exactly what his job is, reading his résumé out loud.
By Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a marginally shorter version) in the January 1996 issue of Details.