Monday 23 April 2018

Oasis Essay: Living Forever - Where Did It All Go Wrong?

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One of the reasons Oasis were so big in 1994 is that they were happy. That’s a broad statement obviously and in many ways they weren’t – growing up on council estates, living with drunken relatives who would beat them up, stuck permanently on the dole in Manchester because Margaret Thatcher took all the jobs away: the life of Oasis up until 1994 when things began to happen for them fast reads more like a misery memoir than a source of contentment. And yet if you were to ask the average Oasis fan in the street in those early days whey they liked this band, after answering ‘the danger’ the guitars’ or ‘the guitarist’s monobrow’, many people would tell you that being Oasis fan meant being happy to be alive. It’s an intrinsic part of their sound, particularly on their ‘breakthrough’ third single [  ] ‘Live Forever’. Tired of people in his neighbourhood listening to grunge and watching Kurt Cobain make suicide briefly fashionable, Noel was determined to give his fans something different (‘Here was a man who had everything – and was miserable about it. We had guck all – and yet I still felt that waking up every morning was the best thing ever’ (it speaks volumes that while every other band was covering Nirvana, Noel covers the Neil Young original that inspired him and was quoted in his suicide letter, ‘Hey Hey My My’). Rather than commit suicide because he has nothing left to live for, the narrator of ‘Live Forever’ wants life to continue on always because there is so much more to live for.
Many early Oasis songs concur with this world view. Written by Noel whilst on the dole, on tour as the roadie for the Inspiral Carpets or whilst working in the not often visited basement of a clothes shop, the elder Gallagher dreamed of a better future for him and his potential audience. Though some of his audience latched onto [  ] ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ as Oasis’ early anthem, (‘Is it worth the aggravation to get yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for?’) most Oasis songs from albums one and two tend to be upbeat. [  ] ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ is an obvious opening track for their debut album and is the real Oasis anthem: who cares what is going wrong with your life and how little money you’ve got because you have the potential to be a star, for one night maybe but one night is all you need. There’s a way out of this madness and poverty for all of us, those early Oasis songs claim, there’s got to be. All we need to do is believe, work hard, be true to ourselves and fame and fortune are surely ours. Other songs too share this spirit: [  ] ‘Supersonic’ only needs an alcoholic high to feel amazing. [  ] ‘Round Are Way’ celebrates the most awful grotty grim-einfested graffiti-covered street full o0f layabouts and makes it sounds like an American sitcom, the most wonderful place on the planet. [  ] ‘Morning Glory’ greets every new day with a smile, as the narrator looks at himself shaving and wondering what heights he can scale today. [  ] ‘Wonderwall’ doesn’t even question whether the right girl is there to save the narrator. That’s why early oasis are still regarded so fondly by the fans that were there: they made us feel about our own frequently shit lives, blew away the cobwebs of the late 1980s and early 1990s credit crunch and led us to the idea that life can only get better. Oasis weren’t the soundtrack to what was happening in our lives at the time, necessarily, but better tomorrows.
Perhaps the key track of Oasis’ early optimism, though, is [  ] ‘Going Nowhere’. The title doesn’t scream happiness and the setting of a row with the missus doesn’t bode well, but even though Noel’s narrator is in the cul-de-sac of life, having not achieved of anything, he has the time to dream. Without his girl he can be anything he likes without the pressure to conform. Maybe he’ll even be famous. One of Noel’s earliest songs, it dreams of everything he might achieve one day and how great its going to be – he’s going to buy a jaguar, ‘maybe a plane’ and even if fame only lasts a day that’s plenty enough, he just wants to have achieved something. Oasis then recorded this song, several years old by this point, for the back of 1997 single [  ] ‘Stand By Me’, the long awaited Oasis single the whole world (minus America) was holding its breath for – you can even hear the smug grin on Noel’s face that he doesn’t have to dream anymore, he arrived to sing this vocal in a Jag and has a private plane waiting for him. This isn’t a dream, it’s a reality.
It’s worth noting here that while Oasis didn’t take all that long to make the big time from first note to last and were rather fast-tracked to fame, they’d still waited a long time. Noel was twenty-seven when Oasis released their first single – a short stint in that clothes shop and a few months of being a roadie aside, he’d achieved nothing he could realistically go to the job centre and say ‘have a look, aren’t you proud of me?’ Noel was one of the brainier kids in his school and his teachers had big plans for him to some extent, but he’d spent his youth writing songs that until his brother formed a band for him he’d largely kept to himself. But what Noel always had in those early days was hope: ‘Going Nowhere’ is about the truest song he ever wrote, full of his longing and desperation to be rich and famous. The rest of the band too weren’t in much better shape: though Liam was all of twenty-two he’d been unemployed for six years by the time of Oasis’ first single and hadn’t exactly turned up much during that final year at school. Having been in the position of having a jobcentre breathing down your neck, even whilst poorly and unable to work, I know how hard it is: everyone assumes the worst, they dismiss you and you’re not allowed to have any dreams or any hope if you can’t even get on the bottom rung of the ladder. Despite all this Oasis dreamed and dreamed big.
When that dream is answered with success (what a satisfying trip down to the dole queue that must have been, ‘do you remember that band I told you about? Here’s the demo tape and we’ve been signed for thousands of pounds, so screw you shoe shop job!’), something interesting happens. Noel had around forty of the early Oasis songs written already by the time of that first contract (something surely unique in rock and roll – flipping Ray Davies had only written one song when he got his and the Stones were ‘just’ a covers band!) Without needing to write anymore, Noel is free to sprinkle them like confetti across not only the first two albums but many of the B-sides of the singles too which, generously, often contained three ‘extra’ songs per single alongside the lead track. Noel has been waiting for so long for the world to hear his music that he can’t wait to release them all, right here, right now, and the world is agog at not just the quantity but the quality. Band members often talk about Noel having a masterplan back then, which was ambitious to say the least. Famously he even told the rest of the band that he was holding back [  ] ‘Whatever’ as a ‘Christmas single to make sure it makes number one in our second year’ and [early live favourite [  ] ‘All Around The World’ back for the third album ‘because by then we’ll have got the budget to put some strings on it’. Noel was in it for the long game. But even his long game only got as far as ‘taking the world over’ – he had no gameplan for how to stay at the top.
This leaves a bit of a problem. By 1997 Noel is running out of material and maybe even he didn’t expect Oasis to stay quite so big for so long. That’s the problem with fame: you dream about getting it, but you don’t dream about the effort that goes into maintaining it. At best maybe [  ] ‘Shakermaker’ had been the only song on the first two albums that hadn’t existed when he put pen to paper and by the time 1997 rolled around Noel was pretty rusty as a songwriter. That would be ok except for two things: one is that he’s cut himself off from the background he used to have and the people he used to write ab out. He can remember what it felt like to be young, hungry and penniless, but it’s a memory – it’s not something he’s lived for a while now and the nagging hunger pains have been blotted out by the whizz-bang-whallop of interviewers fawning over you, fans chanting your name and award ceremonies. For a band like Oasis, who thrived on egotism, they weren’t the sort of people to humbly put it down to luck either – they loved the fact that people were hanging on their every word, giving them awards and wanting to sleep with them. Noel can’t write the anthems that connected him to the people anymore – because he isn’t one of them. Instead he’s one of those rich buggers he used to used to write about in song, the establishment figures (give or take a brawl or three), the ‘haves’ in a world where the people who buy your music are the ‘have nots’ of the world. How can you write a song for people who aren’t like you anymore?
The other problem is that being rich and famous is not all it’s cracked up to be. The first two Oasis albums are full of vim and vigour, ready to shake the world by its roots, but starting with album three ‘Be Here Now’ many songs come out like a long drawn out sigh. Noel wanted it all – and now he’s got it he doesn’t want it. Being rich doesn’t cure that nagging sense of malaise and spiritual longing. Being famous doesn’t help him get his dream girl – indeed it gets in the way, as he can’t be spotted anywhere now without press speculation about both what he is and what he’s not up to. Both of them have led to a drug-habit that he would never have had in his earlier life because he wouldn’t have afforded enough to get addicted. Noel feels sick, attending parties with people he doesn’t like, not getting enough sleep, talking the same old stories. He is without the hope that used to spur him on big time – and what is he (or his songwriting) without hope? He no longer dreams of something in the future, because he’s got what he was dreaming of and what can he dream of next – another quarter of a million crowd at Oasis’ shows? More grammy awards? An extra zillion sales? It doesn’t mean anything. He’s achieved everything he ever dreamt of – but all he dreams of now is for it all to be over. At least when he was young and obscure he didn’t have the paparazzi camping in his backyard and the weight of expectations from record labels waiting for his next move. There’s a moment, he says, when he woke up one day in 1997 with a hangover, listened to the complete strangers talking the same conversations about aliens and parallel worlds on drugs downstairs and got up and shooed them away whilst vowing never to take hard drugs again. As far as we know, he kept his word – this is the turning point in Oasis’ history, leaving a party even though his bandmates are still at the table.
For a short while the two sides of Noel’s thinking live happily beside each other in song. One of his few new songs written during the 1994-1996 period is classic B-side ‘Acquiesce’. Interestingly Liam gets the nastier verses to sing, wondering how to ‘wake that feeling inside’ and realising that even a grand masterplan won’t account for it all, that ‘everything is depending on the way the wind may blow’. Noel himself sings the lyrics of togetherness and brotherness, uniting the audience that the Gallaghers have suddenly found themselves with, desperate to pass on some great revolutionary insight to them. But Noel isn’t sure what that is. ‘Be Here Now’ finds Noel trying to speak to his audience time and time again – but the reason that record fell so short in audience expectations maybe wasn’t the long running times or the long wait or even the bad timing when the public mood was downbeat in the extreme. I think it’s the fact that Noel isn’t certain in his message to his audience anymore. He can’t write songs like ‘Live Forever’, because he doesn’t want this messy period of his life to last forever. He can’t write another ‘Wonderwall’ past 2001 about being ‘saved’ because wife Meg Matthews has got fed up of the fame and girls and the touring and has left him. He can’t write another ‘Going Nowhere’ because he’s got everything he once dreamed of and found out that rather than setting him free, the money and status has trapped him, that the things he longed for were only really trinkets. He doesn’t want his audience to dream of being rich and famous because its all an illusion – he wants to be like his audience, but they don’t want to hear that.
So instead Noel writes songs like [  ] ‘D’yer Know What I Mean?’ that gathers together ‘my’ people in one place and pass on words of great wisdom, but then can’t think of anything to say. So Noel instead hides what he’s trying to tell them with a song that’s literally playing backwards for part of the time and a middle eight about ‘meeting my maker – and making him cry’. Noel is all the way up there with a God, but it’s a God who feels betrayed by the gifts he once granted on Noel of being able to write as the spokesperson for a generation. We hear this too in the lyrics of [  ] ‘Magic Pie’ where Noel looks towards The Beatles for inspiration, as ever, and repeats their idea that they got the band name ‘from a vision of a man on a flaming pie’ (John Lennon’s absurdist response to being asked how The Beatles got their name). Noel’s got a ‘secret’, an answer that came to him in a similar vision – but he can’t pass it on because if he does then it’s no good. Instead he remembers a time when ‘I was that passer by’, dreaming of getting a message. However this feeling is there most of all in [  ] ‘Fade In-Out’, an extraordinary song that’s absolutely the nexus point of the entire Oasis catalogue. For two verses it’s business as usual, Liam adopting the smug grin of his early years, as he taunts the audience for not having what he’s got and ‘fading out’, perhaps revenge on all those jobcentre ladies from years gone by. But then something strange happens. Across the second verse Liam has been singing pretty much on his own, against the flow of the band and is largely on his own. By the end of the second verse brother Noel puts him down with a single line (‘That’s what they all say’) and suddenly the song that’s been so under control paws at our throat with a scream that would outdo a horror movie. This world isn’t fun anymore and it’s no longer an unnamed other that Oasis are sneering at – its themselves, fading out, without a doubt, with no masterplan left to help them, sure they’re going to be ‘cast away’.
As it happens Oasis aren’t cast away at this point. They are, however, cast under their own shadow, struggling with a new bassist and rhythm guitar player. With the public moving on to ‘the next big thing’ (I can’t even remember who it was. Kasabian? The Arctic Monkeys? The Mike Flowers Pops?!?) Noel seems to have greeted this with a sigh of relief. The world isn’t looking anymore and he’s down to Oasis’ core audience who will allow him to sing from the heart again. And what a sad heart it is. Noel’s run of songs for albums four and five (‘Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants’ and ‘Heathen Chemistry’) are some of the saddest ever written by anybody, anywhere. [  ] ‘Where Did It All Go Wrong?’ wonders when being a member of the world’s biggest and possibly greatest rock and roll band for thirty years stopped being so much fun. [  ] ‘Sunday Morning Call’ tries to make sense of what happened in the terms of a hangover, reaching out to the fans who too have stopped partying and are trying to make sense of this new scary world where we don’t live forever and things go wrong. [  ] ‘Gas Panic’ takes that Oasis egotism and turns it into paranoia – what if all these people I want to look at me are going to turn on me? – and realises that fame (and drugs) have distanced him from everything; going back home his family ‘don’t seem so familiar’ and reading the papers concludes that ‘my enemies all know my name’. [  ] ‘Little By Little’ returns to ‘my maker’ and asks why he got such a shitty deal, that the ‘wheels of his life have slowly fallen off’ and far from living forever asks himself sadly ‘why am I still here? Why am I really here?’ He may well be addressing the audience too: ‘I gave you everything I ever dreamed of’ he snaps at one point, all but adding ‘so please leave me alone!’ The period B-sides are particularly interesting: [  ] ‘The Fame’ is a specific song rejecting the idea of stardom while [  ] ‘Flashbax’ sounds genuinely nostalgic for ‘the days when I was lost and lonely’.
Interestingly this is where Noel’s major input into the band for whom he was the sole songwriter for three and three-quarter albums ends. It’s the rest of Oasis who pick up most of the story, as Noel by his own admission celebrates [  ] ‘The Importance Of being Idle’. Liam writes about a mysterious someone who might well be his own brother, [  ] ‘Born On A Different Cloud’ reflecting on how miserable and isolated he seems, to quote an Oasis cover of the period, asking [  ] ‘Who Put The Weight Of The World On Your Shoulders?’ Liam even gets the final moment on the final Oasis album , with the bitter and mocking [  ] ‘Soldier On’ making it clear that the band should have stopped when they felt they were on top of the world and that all good things come to an end. Second bassist Andy Bell chips in with [  ] ‘Keep The Dream Alive’, reflecting the bad blood at the end of the Oasis days by saying that effectively he still believes in what Noel used to write about, even if he no longer does. Both of them will explore these ideas further in the quite glorious pair of Beady Eye albums where they come to terms with the fact that the dream they were a part of has ended against their will.
Noel? He’s in a bitter mood. A period B-side has him pleading with the one who gave him this Faustian pact that he’s fed up of heaven and will be happy in ‘the other place…[  ] ‘As Long As They’ve Got Cigarettes In Hell’. Another, passed on to Liam to sing, has him spit out that [  ] ‘Let’s All make Believe’, the complete opposite of songs like ‘Goin’ Nowhere’ and ‘Live Forever’ by claiming that it’s a myth that good things happen to us – the world is a mean place instead, so we have to learn to deal with it. Nearly the last Oasis single is [  ] ‘Lord Don’t Slow Me Down’, which starts with the complaint that ‘I’m tired lord and I’m sick, got a habit that the cat won’t lick!’, but anxious that this rollercoaster ride doesn’t end. The very last Oasis single is [  ] ‘Falling Down’, an adrenalin rush of panic which might perhaps be him realising that he has to move on, but afraid to as this sense of blurry noise and mayhem is ‘all that I’ve ever known’. There was a time when nothing could bring Oasis down ([  ] ‘Bring It On Down’ is, indeed, a mocking song that nothing can bring them down), but now they’re falling down by themselves. Only on [  ] ‘Let There Be Love’ (the ‘real’ end you could argue of the Oasis catalogue) does he find some semblance of peace. For only the second time in the Oasis catalogue the two brothers trade vocals, on lyrics that again acquiesce to fate but in a much quieter and more reflective way. Liam asks the answers, about who gave us the life we lead – Noel replies with love, asking it to heal the universe and calling to those, much like his earlier younger hungrier selves, to step forward anyway because this journey was worth it in the end.
That’s one hell of a journey, from [  ] ‘Supersonic’ to [  ] ‘Falling Down’ in just a few moves, just seven albums (and a bucketload of B-sides) and fifteen years. Oddly enough in his solo work Noel has ditched all sense of the gameplan, of communicating with his old audience, of any thought that he was once young and hungry and hopeful. Instead he’s become domesticated, writing songs about the missus and love and children. It’s that, I think, as much as anything that means I for one don’t think any lasting Oasis reunion will ever happen (although a few one-offs for the right charity or anniversary may yet be possible). Noel had it all and gave it up and leads a different life now. Unfortunately it’s also led to him making some very different music and all that playing with scissors and Gorillaz style production junk has got in the way of the audience he used to speak to. It’s as if he’s put up a wall between himself and ‘us’. That leaves Liam to carry the flag,m which he did in Beady Eye by referring constantly to Oasis and things left unsaid and places they hadn’t been and the fights with his brother that never got resolved. Only on his much delayed solo career has Liam moved on – and even then he’s found peace with his Oasis past, still taunting those who in their enclosed worlds never even realised that there was a dream to be dreamt in the first place and content to walk in [  ] ‘Chinatown’, a (rolling) stone’s throw from the motorways Oasis used to play in case they have him back again.
We give Noel a hard time in our review of his three solo albums because without that dream at the core of his music he really struggles to write. Maybe it’s not too late, with another anniversary looming on the horizon in 2019, to look back at that dream once and for all and have another go. Or maybe not. Oasis were, after all, aptly named. They were once a haven of creative inspirational water in a musical desert and they still were by the end, even if their music changed shape and got miserable along the way (I actually prefer the miserable stuff by and large, song on song), simply by being ‘true’ to themselves and telling the truth as they saw it (no wonder their sixth album is titled ‘Don’t Believe The Truth’, as if even they don’t want to believe it). The world still needs Oasis, the way it did in 1994 (perhaps more so given the rise of music talent-less shows in the years ever since) and it would be a shame if that well in the desert has dried up forever, with Oasis the last stars who lived, ate and dreamt rock and roll. Especially that last bit: dreams are important and even if budding songwriters should be careful of what they wish for (and what Faustian pacts they make with the devil) on balance you suspect Noel would rather have had this life than stayed anonymous and ignored back in Manchester.
Other Oasis related articles from this site you might be interested in reading:

'(What's The Story?) Morning Glory' (1995)
'Be Here Now' (1997)
‘Heathen Chemistry’ (2002)

‘Don’t Believe The Truth’ (2005)

'Dig Out Your Soul' (2008)

'Different Gear, Still Speeding' (Beady Eye) (2011)

'Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds' (2011)  
'Chasing Yesterdays' (Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds) (2015)
Who Built The Moon? (Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds) (2017) 
The Best Unreleased Oasis Recordings 1992-2013
Surviving TV Clips 1994-2009:
Compilation/Live/Solo Albums: 1994-2010
Non-Album Songs Part One: 1993-1998

Non-Album Songs Part Two: 2000-2015

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