One balmy afternoon in autumn 1994, two young (ish) blokes from Lancashire sat in the neat little yard of a Camden townhouse drinking tea and playing acoustic guitar. It was Noel Gallagher’s guitar and garden and I was his “student”. “That change that you like, the third chord, it’s an A minor seventh… try that,” he said, handing me the guitar. He was right; it is A minor seventh. The song was his composition Live Forever, one of the greatest moments on the terrific Oasis debut album Definitely Maybe.
It was the first time I’d met him although, like everyone in the rock media, I’d known all about him for the whole of that year. It was impossible not to. The real insanity was a year away, which is why I could sit in such benign equanimity in his garden without being at the end of a long lens or suffering a fan scaling the garden wall.
Not long from that moment, this house (soon to be christened Supernova Heights) would become London’s party central and thus the hedonistic hub for the global rock, fashion and film glitterati. Because by then, London would be the undisputed cultural capital of the world, due in no small measure to the house’s owner and by then much stronger fare than tea would be regularly on the menu here.
But for now, it was the serene and balmy calm before the storm and Noel was happy to teach his songs to visiting hacks, even – maybe especially – ones from Manchester’s unfashionable little neighbour Wigan and ones with, as he later told me, “the worst haircut in the pop business”. Given the stolid immobility of Noel’s barnets down the years, this still rankles a little.
It was Alan McGee who first told me about Oasis. The son of a Glaswegian panel beater who’d used his dad’s redundancy money to start a fledgeling record label called Creation, McGee’s garrulous recommendations of his latest pash were the stuff of affectionate legend.
But he seemed even more wide-eyed and zealous than usual over this new band, discovered when they gatecrashed another of his band’s gigs at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow.
The omens were not auspicious: Oasis had a terrible name and came from the nondescript Mancunian suburb of Burnage. But when you first saw them, static and contemptuous as they were, it was instantly apparent that here was a grand, swaggering, working-class rock ’n’ roll band the like of which we had not seen for years.
As of 2016, it seems unlikely we will see one again. Liam and Noel Gallagher’s fissile chemistry fired the fledgeling Oasis. The Rain was Liam’s band. But returning from a tour with Inspiral Carpets, Noel saw them at Manchester Boardwalk.
Swiftly informing them that they were terrible – his actual assessment is more scatological – he played them three of his own songs written in a storeroom while skiving from his job at British Gas. Upon hearing them, the band agreed he should take charge.
This incident tells us much about the Gallagher brothers’ testy but knowing mutual regard. Noel was older, savvier and the best musician and songwriter of the group. Nonetheless, he saw that in his annoying kid brother, British rock had its most compelling frontman in a generation.
For his part, Liam, cocksure as he was, grudgingly acknowledged that Noel had the chops and tunes. With the support of McGee and the Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr (who’d heard their tatty demo and immediately told his manager to sign them), their incendiary, chaotic live shows made them the most talked about band in Britain.
Their first London show at the Water Rats club saw hundreds turned away. In March 1994, their first European gig was abandoned after the band drunkenly brawled on the ferry. Noel later told me, with the wry smarts that would make him a dream interview, “I’m not around when this sort of thing is going on. I’m in bed reading The Independent with a glass of orange juice”.
Early singles Supersonic and Shakermaker fanned the flames and then, on the eve of the release of their first album, Radio 4’s August news programme PM asked, “Are Oasis really the future of pop?”
The answer, at least for while, was yes. 1995 saw the Gallagher brothers rocket through the firmament, bickering as they went. A rivalry with Blur simmered after some nasty remarks from Noel in an interview but again, there was much self-awareness on both sides about the “feud”.
Sitting with Alex James, Blur’s bassist and cheesemonger, in his Seven Dials flat one afternoon, we heard Wonderwall by Oasis for the first time. “That was the point at which I knew that for a while, it was all going to be Oasis and we should just sit it out,” James told me later.
This imperial period in Oasis and Noel Gallagher’s fortunes culminated in Noel glad-handing new PM Tony Blair at Downing Street in 1997. In their own landslide victory, Oasis at Knebworth created the biggest demand for concert tickets in British history the year before. More than four per cent of the population applied. 250,000 attended over two sell-out nights. They could have sold out another 18.
Those heady days seem far off now. Many people regard their love affair with Oasis, Britpop and Cool Britannia with the sheepish, hungover embarrassment they’d look back on a one-night stand.
Not so Noel Gallagher, who’s smart enough to know that there was good and bad in the achievements of that era, that they made him a very rich man and that they were a lot of fun.
The fun didn’t last though. Excess led to depression and panic attacks, Oasis albums became bloated and dreary, and on 28 August 2009, after a serious barney with Liam, Noel quietly and somewhat wearily announced his departure from Oasis.
Like his beloved Beatles, the end was more whimper than bang. But the intervening years have been fascinating.
Against all expectations, not least Liam Gallagher’s, his outfit Beady Eye – for which most of Oasis stood by him, tellingly – has stalled while Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds has become a major global live draw working a mature rock gloss on the raucous Oasis template.
Noel Gallagher remains one of pop music’s most convivially mouthy and entertaining figures and a new movie about the band, Supersonic, will keep the Oasis myth alive and fuel the constant talk of reunions. Director Mat Whitecross has said, “Neither of them has discounted the idea… It will happen, I’m sure.”
For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure, too. But it may be a way down the line yet, and it might be as well to put away any breakables when it does. But something about those brothers is going to live forever, or at least for a while longer yet.
Oasis In Their Own Words is on iPlayer now.