Fools On the Hill
Noel Gallagher is sitting in the back of a van, speeding through Fairfax, Virginia, the second stop on the American leg of Oasis' 1998 world tour. The songwriter for one of the most popular bands in the world is almost impossible to understand: His guttural accent, thick as a bowl of Manchester porridge, is being filtered through the crisp circuitry of a cellular phone.
Rumored to be only slightly less arrogant and hotheaded than his younger brother Liam (the band's chief vocalist), Noel actually comes across as quite pleasant. His answers are brief and to the point. "We did a show yesterday," he says. "It was our first one in a while, so Liam's voice gave out halfway through, so we had to cut the set short about halfway. But apart from that, it's been really good."
In 1995 the Gallagher brothers predicted on more than one occasion that Oasis would become "bigger than the Beatles," a claim that is somewhat justified in England. All three of its albums have debuted in the UK Top 5, and almost every single -- "Live Forever," "Roll With It," "Wonderwall," "Champagne Supernova" -- has been a UK Top 10 hit. Released in August the latest album, Be Here Now, has already gone quintuple-platinum.
America, however, is not nearly as Oasis-happy. Though the band's second album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? sold more than three million copies stateside, the band has yet to score a No. 1 hit single. In addition we Yanks have bought only 750,000 or so copies of Be Here Now.
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Last year the Gallaghers were said to be somewhat bitter about America's relative indifference. "No, see, that's something that was written up by the press," Noel says while riding through Fairfax. "There is no problem. There never was a problem. We'll take what we can get from any country in the world, anywhere. We couldn't give a shit, really."
Whatever its sales figures, no band in pop music draws more attention to itself than Oasis. As cherished as it is in the UK, the group presents a piss-poor public image. The foul-mouthed, thick-browed Gallagher brothers do almost nothing but insult other bands, brag about themselves, and accuse the press of putting words in their mouths.
Last year Noel's idols, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, publicly dismissed Oasis as a mere flash in the pan. In response Liam announced on the BBC that he'd like to "beat the fucking living daylight shit" out of the two ex-Beatles, while Noel simply called them "jealous and senile."
Often the Gallaghers target each other. Their infamous spats have become the pop-music equivalent of professional wrestling. In 1994 a journalist with Q magazine taped the two brothers arguing about an incident on an Amsterdam ferry from which a drunken Liam was forcibly removed.
"If you're proud about getting thrown off ferries," Noel told his brother, "why don't you go and support West Ham and get the fuck out of my band and go and be a football hooligan? We're musicians, right? Not football hooligans."
Liam: "You're only gutted 'cause you was in bed fuckin' reading your fuckin' books."
Noel: "Not at all. Here's a quote for you from my manager, Marcus Russell..."
Liam: "He's a fuckin'... another fuckin'..."
Noel: "Shut up, you dick."
The fourteen-minute row was actually released on disc and titled Wibbling Rivalry. It became a top-selling record in England and helped galvanize the public's impression of the two brothers: Noel, the serious songwriter, and Liam, the rock 'n' roll animal.
While they take their music seriously, the Gallaghers, critics claim, really aren't worth fighting over. Those endless Beatles comparisons are usually more accusatory than flattering: "She's Electric" features a distinctly McCartneyesque piano vamp, and the title "Wonderwall" was copped from an old George Harrison album. On stage the band's favorite cover tune is "I Am the Walrus."
Originality has never been Oasis' strong suit, and Noel makes little effort to hide the fact. The band's latest hit single, "D'You Know What I Mean?" borrows not only from the Beatles, but also Bob Dylan: "The blood on the tracks must be mine/The fool on the hill and I feel fine/Don't look back 'cause you know what you might see."
Noel is undeniably a strong songwriter, but even the band's fans admit that Oasis is breaking no new ground: The basic formula, from which Noel never deviates, is a midtempo song with a sledgehammer hook and a mountain of guitars. In England, critics prefer Blur, Oasis' long-time foe, which recently released a highly adventurous fifth album that explores lo-fi rock, spoken-word poetry, and other "American indie" styles. Noel claims not to have heard Blur's latest.
"Who? Their latest what, record? Oh, I don't listen to them," he says. "I mean, I only hear what I hear on the radio, and what I hear on the radio's all right.... The rest of it's just the usual indie shite, from what I can recall."
Will Oasis ever do anything similar?
"What," Noel asks, "like make a shit record?"
While he allows that Oasis may do something "experimental" in the future, it's obvious that for now the band is sticking with what works. For those going to see Oasis in West Palm Beach next Thursday, that will mean the usual solid but static performance.
Oasis is well known for its strangely subdued concerts. Live, the group merely replicates its recordings. The three lesser-known members -- Paul Arthurs (guitar), Paul McGuigan (bass) and Alan "Bonehead" White (drums) -- seem detached from the entire process, like session musicians. The Gallaghers, meanwhile, stand almost motionless on stage, their faces blank, as if the several thousand screaming fans in front of them don't exist.
"I'm not that good a musician, really," Noel explains, "so I have to concentrate on what I'm trying to do, or I'll fuck it up, you know what I mean? I have to stand there and stare at the guitar so I know what I'm doing. But, you know, I try."
In England Oasis' rigid stage presence works wonders on crowds: All Liam has to do is finish a song with the words "thank you," and the whole house goes nuts. Americans, however, expect a little more action from their rock concerts.
"Yeah, well, you guys as the audience are supposed to provide the action, and we play the music," Noel replies. "You do the dancing. I mean, I suppose I could run up and down the stage like Slash does with his radio-mic -- but you'd laugh at me, then, wouldn't ya? You'd laugh at me and call me funny names, wouldn't ya? You'd call me a wanker."
It's difficult to reconcile the Gallaghers' just-play-the-music philosophy with their attention-getting antics. Put a journalist in a room with a Gallagher, and something shocking is bound to be said. Asked if he and his brother sometimes play-act for the press, Noel unhesitatingly answers, "Sometimes, yeah! But it's good fun. And especially when the TV cameras are around, it's good to do it then. Well, it gives them something to do, doesn't it, really?"
In a way Oasis has played its cards exactly right. The Gallaghers never watch their step, cover their tracks, eat their words or say what they should. They couldn't care less what the media, other musicians, or even their own fans think about them -- as long as they get to keep playing.
"I think the image that's written about us is not really true," Noel says, though he can't be bothered to say what is true. "It's more of a hassle for us to explain ourselves, so we just let it go and let people think what they want, really."
Oasis plays with Cornershop at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 5 at the West Palm Beach Auditorium, 1610 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $23.50. Call 561-683-6012.
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