Liam Gallagher does not make a terrific ambassador for Great Britain — or his gender, for that matter. Granted, he loves to hear himself talk. It's just that the 23-year-old lead singer of Oasis is happiest when he's doing or saying something obnoxious and stupid. Which means he swaggers through life in a state of almost constant euphoria. Like now, for instance. The setting is the Brit Awards, England's equivalent to the Grammys, and Gallagher is onstage, bent over and pretending to receive an enema from the Best Album statue he and his band have just won for their second album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory? After a few moments, he strolls back to the podium for an announcement: "Fuck."
Then, Gallagher stuffs his hands deep into the pockets of the winter coat he's wearing despite the balmy indoor conditions. "Anyone tough enough to take us off this stage can come up now," he says. And although the room is a pasty sea of other British bands with one-word monikers — Blur, Radiohead, Supergrass, Pulp — no one takes him up on his offer. At this moment it's official: These five working-class kids from Manchester, England, are the kings of the English hill. There is no band bigger or more loutish in all the land.
Gallagher and the other members of Oasis relinquish the stage and saunter back to their table for more celebrating. Carrying a pint of lager and directing the charge is Liam Gallagher's 28-year-old brother, Noel, the band's lead guitarist and songwriter. Behind Noel straggle guitarist Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs, bassist Paul McGuigan and drummer Alan White, who replaced the band's original drummer, Tony McCarroll, just before the recording of Morning Glory last year.
It is Morning Glory that is the focus of the night, and with the help of the single "Wonderwall," the album has captured the rapt attention of the rest of the world. But it is the band's attitude — personified by the Gallagher brothers' enthusiastic drug use, fighting and self-consciously outrageous rants to the press — that has made Oasis their own traveling sideshow.
"We like annoying people," says Noel matter-of-factly. "It's a Manchester thing. It's a trait. We just like pissing people off." Almost lost in the maelstrom are Oasis' two albums of undeniably catchy British Invasion-inspired pop. Horribly derivative, yes, but also incredibly addictive. What's more, the group has expanded on the pure bluster of its 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe, adding a softer, more layered sound for Morning Glory. While the first record was relentless rock & roll, the second gently winds its way through the songs. While Liam used to adopt a Johnny Rotten-style sneer, he now sings.
"I had no idea, even after the first album, that Liam could sing like he did on 'Wonderwall,'" says Noel. "I had no idea that any of us could play as well as we did on Morning Glory. I hoped we could, but I didn't know. The whole of the first album is about escape. It's about getting away from the shitty, boring life of Manchester. The first album is about dreaming of being a pop star in a band. The second album is about actually being a pop star in a band."
What being a rock star means most to the brothers Gallagher is freedom. Freedom, for the first time in their lives, to purchase what they want when they want it. Also the freedom to make complete and utter asses of themselves in any way they see fit.
"We've got this reputation as being hard-drinking, groupie-shagging, drug-snorting geezers," says Noel, who recently made the ultimate rock-star move by hiring a bodyguard. "There's always people who want to test you."
Are Oasis in fact hard-drinking, groupie-shagging, drug-snorting geezers? Noel leans back in his chair and smiles contentedly. "Yeah."
To the members of Oasis, everything comes down to class. Not social graces and manners, mind you, but class. As in working, middle and upper class. They are from Manchester, and they are working class. Period. It's as much a part of their identities as their surnames.
"I ain't got no chip on my shoulder because I'm working class, I just know who I am," says Liam. "I don't look down on no one. If I was middle class and my ma gave me everything, I'd admit it. I've got money now, so if I have kids, I'm gonna give my kids everything."
As children, Liam and Noel shared a bedroom. It is a grievance Noel still brings up because their brother, Paul, 18 months Noel's senior, had his own room. For the most part, their daily life was fairly routine. The brothers played soccer, fought, listened to music and skipped school in order to fight, listen to music and play more soccer.
"It's funny, because I don't really remember much about that time," says Noel. "I wouldn't say it was a happy upbringing, but it was normal. The only thing that separates us from people in Manchester now is that I'm sitting here, and all those people are still doing heroin and still on the dole. But we were no different. We've got no qualifications between the five of us. We're not academically qualified to do anything."
Schoolwork was particularly tough on Noel because he suffers from dyslexia. "I didn't know what it was at the time," he says. "When I write, I'll give it to someone else to read, and they'll say, 'This doesn't make any sense.' And then I'll read it back to them, and they'll say, 'Half the words are missing.' But to me they're there."
At B, just as Noel was beginning to develop an interest in playing guitar, he was thrown out of his music class at school. To make matters worse, the following year the Gallaghers' father — a construction worker by day and occasional country-music DJ by night — abandoned the family.
"I haven't seen him since I was 18; I'm 28 now," says Noel. "I only started to be in a group when I was 24, so from 18 to 24, I had no inclination to talk to him. I don't see why that should change just because I've made a lot of money. He's still a twat and always will be a twat. I don't care if he's living on his own or on the dole. He was always a cunt. He was never there. He was always at the pub. When he finally left, we were glad to be rid of him."
Liam is even more succinct: "If I saw the cunt, I'd kick his ass."
In retrospect, Noel realizes that life for his mother could not have been easy — "Me mum's stronger than all of us," he says — but he still views the entire situation as "inevitable." It happens, he says. Families break up, fathers flee, and sometimes mothers are left alone to raise their kids. In the Gallaghers' case, it was 9-year-old Liam and two teenagers, Noel and Paul, who never adopted a paternal role toward their youngest sibling.
"This might seem very cold and hard, but when you come from Manchester, I wouldn't say it's a brutal upbringing, but it's a very down-to-earth, working-class upbringing," says Noel. "You've got more things to think about than your little brother's emotional stability. You've got to make a fucking living to make ends meet."
Toward that end, Noel tried his hand at crime. At 18, he got caught burgling a house. Soon after, he escaped Manchester as a roadie for the band Inspiral Carpets.
That left Liam back at home, age 15, about to be kicked out of school for a fight that ended with his getting cracked in the skull with a hammer. Not that Liam was upset — he quickly landed a job building fences.
"Everyone else was in school, and I was making 70 pounds [$108] a week," says Liam. "I was fucking rich. So fuck them. I told the teacher he could stick it up his ass."
It was Paul Arthurs — dubbed Bonehead at age 9 because his father made him wear a crew cut — who first recruited Liam, McGuigan (also kicked out of school for fighting) and drummer McCarroll into Oasis. Even then the outlook for success looked bleak until Noel reappeared in Manchester in 1992. Returning to his hometown after four years spent huddling around other people's guitars, Noel launched a successful coup, seizing control of Oasis by insisting that he play lead guitar and write all the songs. There was little resistance.
"I knew something was around the corner, but I didn't know what," says Liam of the band's early days. "I just knew I didn't want to work."
But what if your brother didn't write songs?
"That's like, 'What if the fucking world was square?'" says Liam. He pauses as if to find the most perfectly offensive example, then continues: "'Or what if the queen had fucking 10 tits?'"
So with Noel in the band, Queen Elizabeth on the throne and two years of practice under their belts, Oasis traveled to a club in Glasgow, Scotland, talked their way onto the stage and ended up scoring a record deal after just six shows. Since then, Definitely Maybe has become the fastest-selling debut in British history, McCarroll has been fired, McGuigan and Noel have relocated to London, Morning Glory has hit the Top 5 in America, and Manchester has become more a part of Oasis' past than their present.
"I still live in Manchester, but I'm not part of it anymore," says Arthurs, who is married and has a 1-year-old daughter. "When we started the band, people would say, 'Come to the pub, have a few beers,' but we'd say, 'Nope, we're rehearsing.' I had two mates who I'd known all me life that were getting married, and they said, 'Come to me wedding,' and I said, 'No disrespect, but I'm working, I'm rehearsing.' That's how serious we were. So at the end of the day, there's no one left for us in Manchester. They've all said, 'Fuck off.' But now we're up here and looking down at them and saying, 'If that's what you want, then fuck you.' I've probably got one person that I grew up with that stood by me."
There is no reason for Michael Hutchence to be carrying a concealed weapon, but if by chance he were, the members of Oasis would be in grave danger.
"I believe Michael wants to slap my face," says Liam, recognizing this peril as he wobbles to the podium to receive the award Hutchence is presenting. The Inxs frontman steps quietly to the side, and Noel leans in front of his brother. For a moment, it seems as if taste and judgment might prevail. Wrong.
"They really shouldn't let has-beens hand out awards," says Noel. He pauses to contemplate a more lengthy acceptance speech. "I'm rich," he says, "and you're not." Yes, we are back at the Brit Awards, and the winner once again is Oasis — the category, Best Video; the song, "Wonderwall."
In many respects, "Wonderwall" represents all that is Oasis. It's a beautiful song with a timeless melody that sounds deceptively effortless. But trying to discern what in the hell it means is nearly impossible.
"A wonderwall can be anything," offers Liam. "It's just a beautiful word. It's like looking for that bus ticket, and you're trying to fucking find it, that bastard, and you finally find it and you pull it out, 'Fucking mega, that is me wonderwall.'" Thank you very much, Liam.
In actuality, "Wonderwall" was written for Noel's girlfriend, Meg Matthews, at a time when she was out of work and he wanted her to know how important she was to him. Why he chose the word wonderwall (the title of a George Harrison solo album) is something not even Noel seems to understand. It's as though his musical inspiration comes from the Beatles (probably a good thing) and his lyrical muse from Dr. Seuss (probably not). An example: "The sink is full of fishes/She's got dirty dishes on the brain/And my dog's been itchin'/Itchin' in the kitchen once again."
"I know, I know, I get lazy," says Noel. "I'm not John Lennon. I'm not trying to say anything. I'm just trying to entertain people. Sometimes you don't care about trying to make the lyrics make sense. Fuck, it's only lyrics. I oughta make an album of instrumentals." He pauses. "When I'm sober, I think too much about the lyrics. I'm at my best when I'm pissed out of me head and I just write. I mean, 'Roll With It' is like" — he bobs his head mockingly — "who cares. Even 'Don't Look Back in Anger' doesn't mean anything, even though it's a great song."
He's right. "Don't Look Back in Anger" is a great song. But it's like an attractive blind date who turns out to have no conversational skills whatsoever. Just ask Liam.
"There's shitloads of meaning in the songs," says Liam, even though moments ago he'd claimed not to know what any of the songs meant. "I don't know what they mean, but there's still meaning there. They mean things, but I just don't exactly know what."
The songs on Definitely Maybe were great because of their attitude, not their substance. "Cigarettes and Alcohol," "Rock 'n' Roll Star" and "Supersonic" were all rock songs about rock songs, just as Morning Glory's "Cast No Shadow," "Don't Look Back in Anger" and "Champagne Supernova" are more about their own grace than their lyrical content. Not to mention that Oasis should be proud to have avoided being sued for plagiarism on the new album. It's a step in the right direction. On their debut, "Cigarettes and Alcohol" directly ripped off the opening riff of T-Rex's "Bang a Gong," and "Shakermaker" was the subject of a lawsuit after Coca-Cola noticed that the band had directly lifted the melody (and some of the lyrics) from its jingle "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." In the end the courts ruled that Oasis had to change some of the words.
"We ripped it off, so they had the right to sue us," says Arthurs. "Fair enough. People will steal from other bands but change the lyrics. We just did the same thing but kept some of the same lyrics in." He pauses. "We drink Pepsi now."
Doesn't Noel feel it's an insult to be involved in litigation over stealing from an ad campaign? After all, advertising executives aren't exactly noted for their edgy content. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is such a thing as being too catchy. He disagrees.
"Look at Nirvana," says Noel. "They were the fucking best, and that guy [Kurt Cobain] was the king of the catchy fucking rock record. You could not write catchier tunes than him. So I don't think you can be too catchy. As long as you have your Marshall amps on 10 and it makes people's eyes water."
It's the second day of the video shoot for "Champagne Supernova," and Liam has had enough. He springs off the bed he has been sprawled on for hours and storms off the set. "I can't be lying there and having a camera pointed at me," he yells. "I have a cold." The director Nigel Dick walks over to where Liam is sitting, kneels beside him and speaks softly. "No," says Liam, flailing his arms. "I can't be lying there, cameras right there in my face. No." He points toward his nose. "I have a cold."
It's time for a lunch break. While Noel, White and McGuigan head toward the dressing room, Arthurs and Liam (miraculously cured of his malady) light out toward the pub. It is the standard scenario: Liam and Arthurs stick together, loudly; McGuigan and White stay close, quietly; and Noel spends much of his time alone or conducting band affairs. It is, after all, Noel's group in almost every sense of the word — music, lyrics, business decisions — and the other four members accept this willingly.
"It's better to have one person in charge than five," says Arthurs. "It gets done a lot faster that way."
Liam sits next to Arthurs in the pub and explains his often tumultuous relationship with his brother: "I don't think there is a difference between me and Noel. He's a cunt, I'm a cunt. Don't let him spin you; he's a cunt, I tell you. I'm the one who gets made out to be the cunt, but he makes me be the cunt. He pushes me into that cunt zone."
Liam and Noel may share the same zone, but that doesn't explain the distance between Noel and the rest of the band. One reason for this distance might be that while Liam and the band had never traveled outside of England before Oasis, Noel was more worldly, having circled the globe with Inspiral Carpets. "I'm a lot more levelheaded than the other guys," says Noel. "When we went to Japan, I'd been there five times already."
"It's too bad in some ways," he adds in a rare touching moment. "I would have liked to have experienced it with them."
In conversation, Noel is more relaxed and thoughtful than his brother. It's as though he has to strain to come up with the kind of obnoxious quotes that Liam spews naturally. Noel manages, of course, but it often seems as if he is battling his instinctively nicer impulses. When Noel's friends heard a tape of a fight between the two brothers (the obscenity-laced shouting match was released as a single and reached No. 52 on the British charts), Noel says they were shocked that he could get so angry.
The Kinks' Ray Davies not only knows about battling with his band mate brother, Dave, he also presented Oasis with last year's Best New Band award at the Brits. "When you're with your brother in a band, it winds up a situation and makes things more prickly," says Ray. "You're pushed together more often. That aggravates things. But on the other hand, there's a certain amount of telepathy involved."
The Gallagher brothers' stormy relationship has received plenty of attention in the English tabloids lately, with stories about their drug intake and brawling now as commonplace as those on the royal family's bed hopping and divorces.
"We've been on the front page of the paper, where it said, ‘Oasis in Drug Shock,’" says Noel. "Shock to who? It would be a bigger shock if we all went to church: ‘Oasis in Religious Shock.’"
Actually, only Noel and Liam partake in harder drugs (their narcotics of choice are cocaine and ecstasy), while Arthurs and White stick to alcohol, and McGuigan smokes marijuana, seemingly to the exclusion of staples such as food.
"I just like gettin' out of it," says Noel. "I like the feeling of lying on the fucking floor, being out of my head. I guess in the long run you think about your body, but until it happens, well…As long as it doesn't affect the work."
During the last year, other things have disrupted the work. First, McCarroll was canned and is now suing the band for unfair dismissal. "He's being a dickhead about things, so he can fuck right off," says Liam. "We never knocked about with him. We weren't mates. He was just a lad who could drum. We needed a better drummer, so we got one. Even if he was our mate, it wouldn't matter. He wasn't a good drummer, and that's the point." (McCarroll could not be reached for comment.)
Enter Alan White, a mild, likable London native who once walked out of an Oasis concert because he was unhappy with the drumming. White met with Noel on a Sunday, appeared on the weekly British television show Top of the Pops on Wednesday and began recording Morning Glory the following weekend. "We went out for a beer, came back and had a jam, and that was it," says White. "I thought they'd be a bunch of nutses, but they weren't, really."
Then just when the retooled band was about to embark on yet another tour, McGuigan suffered a bout of nervous exhaustion that left him unable to leave his bed except to crawl to the bathroom on his hands and knees. It was a frightening scenario, especially since McGuigan is not your typical candidate for nervous exhaustion. In fact, he possesses a level of activity that would make Buddha look like a speed freak. During the two days on the video set, he rarely leaves the same chair, rolling joint after joint and speaking in a voice barely above a whisper.
"I don't really do anything," says McGuigan. "I don't fight now, but I used to be a bad one, just punching people. I used to have a temper, but I don't no more. I changed. Now I just sit in the corner and light up. Watching football is my main hobby. Watching football, watching videos about football, reading about football and talking about football. That's pretty much all I care about."
While McGuigan was incapacitated, Oasis recruited another bassist, who played a handful of shows with the group in the United States before quitting. That led to a tour cancellation until McGuigan could get himself slowly up and running again.
"Things were going too fast," says Arthurs, back at the pub with a pint in hand "Guigs' leaving made us all sit down. Reality check. We didn't see that coming."
Arthurs leans back in his chair as a band crew member sets three more pints of beer on the table. The subject is changed to why a plethora of Manchester bands — Charlatans U.K., Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets — were considered the next big thing, only to fall flat on their faces.
Liam scoots up in his chair: "Wanna know why? Wanna know why? Wanna know why? They weren't scary, any of 'em." But really, is Oasis all that scary? Liam smiles. "Yeah. We're scary enough."
With that, Arthurs abruptly grabs the tape recorder, tilts forward to place it under him and farts loudly into the microphone. Liam in turn laughs like he has just seen the queen with fucking 10 tits.
Half the time I can't think of anything valid to say, so I just say the most outrageous thing I can."
Apparently, Noel can't think of anything at all to say. At the moment he is wielding a bottle of champagne like a weapon, spraying it across the stage over his band mates and into the attentive audience. It is the Brits' grand finale, the Best Group award, and Oasis have captured yet another trophy.
To offer a little perspective on the voting committee's taste, Bon Jovi beat out Green Day, Foo Fighters, Garbage and TLC for Best International Group. Still, no one in the auditorium doubts Oasis' British dominance. Just two days ago, predicting this very outcome, Noel vented about the very bands he is now showering with alcohol.
"I'm in the best band, and I've just written the best album," said Noel "So as far as I'm concerned, everybody can" — all together now — "fuck right off. Those other bands are not even in a position to string my guitar at the moment Fucking wankers, all of 'em."
Noel laughed loudly and then waited a long moment. "But I mean it, man. Do people really think that on the back of our success, these other British bands are going to go to America and be successful? That ain't gonna fucking happen."
True enough. While a few bands are beginning to have modest success in America (Elastica, Radiohead), it hardly warrants the exhaustive hype about a nouveau British Invasion. Those groups certainly haven't been able to knock Oasis off their home perch. Tonight, Oasis have virtually swept the Brit Awards, shutting out their archrivals, Blur (whose chief crime seems to be singing about Britain's middle class), and tweaking the interest and ire of the country's press by first agreeing and then refusing to play at the ceremonies.
According to Noel, the next two months are of supreme importance to Oasis. You see, Noel is a Gemini, and he believes this is an important factor in understanding why his songwriting skills often lay dormant during most of the year and flower during spring. During the past few years, he has written the bulk of the band's songs from March to late May, after which they are handed over to the rest of the band when it assembles in the studio.
"Sadly, that's the way it is," says Noel. "I can't make no bones about that. I'm in charge. They don't give a shit anyway, those four."
Oasis' attitude seems to be, if it sounds like the Beatles, record it; when in doubt, defer to Noel; and whenever possible, draw attention to yourself. Unlike many American bands that crave success without public scrutiny, Oasis are nostalgic for earlier times, when rock stars were congratulated for doing lines of cocaine off groupies' stomachs before throwing TV sets through hotel windows. Rather than anonymity, Oasis long for constant adulation.
"I nearly got ripped to pieces in Italy by about 2,000 people, so I guess it's bye-bye freedom," says Noel with an ear-to-ear grin. "This will all pass in about five or six years. We have the rest of our lives to sit around our houses and be inconspicuous. Now is our time. We're in the eye of the hurricane now, and one day it's going to blow out. We'll look back in our late 30s, no worries, and we'll still be able to get together and say, 'We were good, man. In fact, we were the best. And this is what we built.' As for now, it's a small price to pay."
But is it all too limiting sometimes, this life that exists only within the confines of Oasis? Noel claims he could have the same kind of success without the other members — "Good music is good music," he says — but recently he turned down an offer of nearly $800,000 to write the music for the film The Crow II on his own, insisting that if he has songs to write, they should be for Oasis.
"Who wants a life outside of Oasis?" says Noel. "Without music, there would be no point in being around. I'm not saying I'd kill meself, but if I got my hand chopped off in a car crash, I'd have to have music. It's everything. It's the be-all and end-all of my life. Fuck art. Drawing pictures — big deal. And I don't read. I sometimes read books about groups, but I can't read fictional books. Somebody telling a story — how boring."
Forget mentioning that there might be people out there who find the practice of writing songs boring or that recent history is littered with the carcasses of British bands that purported to be bigger than the Beatles. There's a good chance Noel's just spouting off anyway, acting obnoxious for want of anything worthwhile to say. After all, it works. Just ask his brother.
Liam, do you ever get sick of being full of shit?
"No," answers Liam immediately and without taking offense. "I love hearing myself talk."