Luke Haines is an English musician and writer. He has recorded under the name of the Auteurs and Black Box Recorder. His books include the bestselling Bad Vibes – Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall. His latest solo album, Smash The System, is out on Cherry Red Records on October 7, 2016. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter and his website.
Noel Gallagher’s latest solo album begins with a brutal edit into lo-fi studio ambience, and then a count-in: exactly the way “Taxman,” the first track from the Beatles’ Revolver, begins. So, in case you were wondering, Gallagher demonstrates straight away that he hasn’t moved on one centimetre in the past 20 years. This is the first track of the disastrous Chasing Yesterday Tomorrow, and “Riverman” is the name of the song. It is, of course, being a Noel “song,” not an original title/idea/thought. Nick Drake had the title originally; it’s a song from his 1969 debut album Five Leaves Left. But Drake’s “River Man” is built on unusual time signatures, subtle orchestration and a mantric, mystical, spare lyric. It is a masterpiece, whereas, with its “Wonderwall” chords and “baggy” shuffle beat (or what Steve Albini refers to quite excellently as “The Little British Drumbeat”), Noel’s “Riverman” falls mightily short of being a masterpiece. This ain’t no ballad. It’s a bollard. As if all this weren’t bad enough, Noel has felt duty-bound to “write” some lyrics over his rotten stew and duly invokes the first line of George Harrison’s “Something” to get the old Gallagher blunderbuss lyric method a-rolling. Somehow, Noel manages to come up with 11 lines of hard-won doggerel, concluding with “I waited in the rain, my feet too wet to stand in… but somewhere in the crowd she heard me jingle-jangling.” Noel Gallagher is 47, far too old to be “jingle-jangling” in the crowd. Indeed, whilst taking up the challenge to actually sit through Yesterday’s Chase for Tomorrow I am reduced to letting out audible groans, whimpers of “Jesus Christ” and “Noel, you poor sod” after something called “The Girl With X-Ray Eyes.” (Sample lyric: “Going nowhere down the hill is hard to swallow like the pill/that was twisted on your tongue by the sea that was standing still.”)
It wasn’t always this way. But it mainly was. Oasis were a good band, with a shamanic singer and a pretty average songwriter, who managed about one and a third decent albums before the rot set in. The rot being “Wonderwall,” a song that invented an unwanted genre: dad-rock. “Wonderwall” is, of course, the King Dad of all dad-rock songs. The Big Daddy Daddy Long Legs of Dad. So Dad that Fathers for Justice should use it as an anthem. “Wonderwall” was also the moment that Noel decided that, to be a “proper” songwriter, his songs should be portentous and have gravitas. Which is a pity. Noel’s best song from the early Oasis days is a fantastic ditty called “Round Are Way.” (The ugly, illiterate use of “are” matters not a jot.) It contains the genius lines “Round are way birds are singing/Round are way birds are minging.” Noel was channeling the greats — and he didn’t even recognize it. Poor Noel.
I ain’t no grammar wanka. And in rock & roll you may as well keep it dumb, mum. The two greatest lyricists in rock are Geezer Butler (who wrote the words for much of Sabbath’s classic output) and Iggy Pop. Their greatest works are some of their dumbest. “Generals gather in their masses/just like witches at black masses,” sang Ozzy in “War Pigs.” “Now I wanna be your dog,” sang Iggy Stooge, along with plenty of other genius moronic drivel on the Stooges’ first album. The beauty of these examples is that the writer has applied no filter. Ozzy/Geezer/Iggy have decided to say something, and have addressed it in the simplest way possible: by pushing it out of their idiot brainboxes and yowling it out from somewhere within the sixth dimension of utter nowhereness. The imbecilic and the banal are transformed into poetry.
On Yesterdays Chase Today, Noel’s lyrics have reached an almost admirable new nadir. Lines such as “I’ll follow you down to the end of the world just to wait outside your window” cower in the mix like frightened, unflushable turds in the shitter. Luckily, Noel has found a new role as a sort of People’s Raconteur, and a new Noel album is an excuse for the Noel Gallagher Interview. And whenever Gallagher is called out on some questionable view, he responds with the line, “Come back to me when you’ve headlined Glastonbury.” It’s easy to imagine William Blake trying to explain his visions of Christ and Noel raising his eyebrow in that mock-quizzical way, looking into the camera and saying, “Tell you what, mate, come back to me when you’ve headlined Glastonbury.” In fact, Noel seems to lay claim to ownership of playing Glastonbury — and if I ever refer to it as “Glasto,” make me go there for the weekend as punishment — but then I guess it was the one time he was never questioned: on his musical conservatism, his dwindling songwriting, even his godawful lyrics. It was a time when 300,000 people could sing back drivel at the beaming songwriter. A kind of human mass-entertainment version of the dog having his vomit returned to him.
It’s the conservatism that rankles. Musical and otherwise. Media Noel has taken to putting down (the harmless) Ed Sheeran — for his, in Gallagher’s view, musical conservatism. Not noticing that if he were to collaborate with Sheeran it would hardly change his music drastically. It might even sharpen up his lyrics and force him to kick out all that simpleminded fake ponderous wisdom, which is an odd contradiction, as Noel is smart enough at least to know that no song is ever going to change the world and we are all fucked. The excellent Sleaford Mods also know that we are all fucked, but their songs sound like surrealistic rants from a John the Baptist figure speaking in tongues. Noel doesn’t like Sleaford Mods very much. “Come back to me when you’ve written a chorus,” says Noel. Poor old Noel.
And then there is the other kind of conservatism. That horrible vainglorious period when Noel and Alan McGee were courted by New Labour. A couple of rock & roll dunces led like lambs into the political media death-mincer. And those nasty boasts about wealth and commercial success that have been a feature of the Gallagher interview from day one. Nowadays, though, Noel sounds less like a working-class Manc on the make and more like a self-made Tory boasting to the other golf club bores about his new mooring in the marina.
But even after all the above, Noel comes across as a decent enough guy. He’d be OK in the pub. (Well, he probably wouldn’t be OK with me in the pub after this.) You’d trust him to look after your cat as well. (Although I wouldn’t trust him with my cat, not after this.) But it’s his reactionary fear of the extraordinary, and the clapped-out Cloughie act, that need questioning. These are ultra-conformist times we live in; the imagination is unwelcome, the maverick is unwelcome and the weirdos need not bother turning up. The music industry and the publishing industry are grasping at straws to survive. The middlebrow media have a stranglehold on culture, and art is, amazingly, still seen as “not for ordinary people.” Poverty abounds. No one wants to hear a rich man boasting, but when Noel speaks, people listen. As for the records, they sound like they’re getting harder and harder to make. Noel never seems like he’s had any fun making them. The slow turning of the cogs in his brain grinding to a halt is almost audible. So, as Noel has all the money in the world — as he is often so keen to tell us — maybe it’s time to give up.