I don’t normally post about stuff that I don’t like. I prefer to praise. The easy kind of praise is to try to suggest that something that people don’t like is in fact brilliant; far harder is to find a new angle on something generally agreed to be great. However, the Guardian today ran a series of extracts from interviews with songwriters and one of the interviewees was Noel Gallagher, who gave us this wisdom on the art of songwriting, his own personal practice, and the cultural context in which he works:
I only listen to music derived or from the 60s. I’m not interested in jazz or hip-hop or whatever’s going round at the minute; indie shit. I don’t loathe it but I don’t listen to it. My education as a songwriter was from listening to the Kinks and the Who and the Beatles. I don’t listen to avant-garde landscapes and think, “I could do that.” I’m not a fan of Brian Eno. It’s Ray Davies, John Lennon and Pete Townshend for me. [. . .] It would take all the magic out of it to break down “I Am the Walrus” to its basic components. I listen to it and go, “It’s fucking amazing; why is it amazing? I don’t know, it just is.” That’s why I find journalists such joyless fucking idiots. They have to break music down and pull it apart until there’s nothing left, until they know it all; they analyse it down until it’s bland nonsense. They don’t listen to music like the rest of us.
First off, Mr G has to be given a certain amount of respect for not dissing music he’s not interested in, although there’s a certain wishy-washiness in his professed indifference to, but not actual loathing of, ‘whatever’s going around at the minute’ — isn’t he even curious? Doesn’t he feel like there’s any competition? But that’s not the main point. The main point is his claim that ‘my education as a songwriter was from listening to the Kinks and the Who and the Beatles. [. . .] It’s Ray Davies, John Lennon and Pete Townshend for me.’
I don’t especially care who Noel Gallagher thinks are his influences, or who he would like us to believe are his influences as a songwriter, or who he would like us to believe he considers his influences. But the Kinks, the Who and the Beatles are not among them.
There was an idiotic media trope in the late 90s which was about asking whether or not Oasis were better than the Beatles. Oasis had beaten Blur in terms of stadium attendance, although nobody realised at the time that Oasis had already peaked, whereas Blur were just about to enter one of their most creative periods. The Beatles invented the modern practice of being a band, wrote the book of modern rock/pop stardom, generated the practice of pop music journalism as we know it and have one of the most covered catalogues of songs of any musical creator in the history of music. Oasis are a pub-rock band that got lucky and their only notable cover version is by Mike Flowers Pops.
It’s not that Oasis don’t have influences. You can hear all sorts of traces of previous music in theirs. Roll With It has always struck me as being 50% Status Quo and 50% late-period Husker Du; the first half of the chorus (‘You gotta rolll with it’, etc.) is generic Quo, and the latter half, with the arpeggiated folk-rock roll down from the IV to the ii chord, is from Husker Du’s Makes No Sense At All, slowed down because Oasis can’t play fast. Don’t Look Back In Anger is early 70s Bowie with any trace of sexual ambiguity ruthlessly expunged, and therefore minus a lot of the fun. Wonderwall vaguely reminds you of lots of people, mostly from the softer end of 80s/90s US alternative rock, but nobody in particular, except insofar as the title is taken from a film that George Harrison did the music for. Oasis don’t even have the manners to steal from obscure bands: the verse of Lyla is a direct cop from the Stones’ Street Fighting Man, but less, you know, good. Of all their singles, Live Forever is the only one where the direct influence of the Beatles can be detected: specifically, the early songs of George Harrison. In terms of its primitive harmonic movement and sulky, leave-me-alone mood, Live Forever is a coke-fuelled, fuzz-addled descendant of Harrison’s early and not very good Don’t Bother Me. To be fair, Live Forever enjoys its own bad humour a lot more than Don’t Bother Me does, but karmically speaking it’s no more dignified.
They used to say that Noel Gallagher was the greatest songwriter since Lennon & McCartney. I used to joke that he was indeed like Lennon and McCartney; he had all of Lennon’s knack for seductive, catchy melody and all of McCartney’s gritty, hard-edged directness.
It wasn’t a very good joke. In fact he’s like neither. Gallagher’s melodies, such as you can call them that, are relentlessly four-square and regular, with none of Lennon’s obsessive rhythmic quirks, such as the brief snatch of 3/4 built into She Said She Said, the kind of song that Gallagher probably imagines to be one of his big influences. Noel Gallagher songs are built on the most basic first position guitar chords because Gallagher’s never bothered to learn any other instrument, and hasn’t really learned the guitar either; McCartney, by contrast, tinkers endlessly with other instruments (most notably the piano) and has written many memorable songs derived from that same tinkering, with a hell of a lot more seductive harmonic sophistication than you can get from just farting about with G, C, D, A minor and E minor. The Beatles’ songs were meticulously arranged, in many cases for instruments such as sitar and French horn which had seldom if ever appeared on pop records before. Noel Gallagher had exactly two ideas about how to arrange Oasis songs: one was to dub endless guitars over the top, and the other was to hire a full orchestra. The Beatles were a band. Oasis was Noel Gallagher and a bunch of fuckwits from Manchester.
Ray Davies? Please. Noel Gallagher wouldn’t dare write something as pawky as Sunny Afternoon, as vulnerable as Lola or as beautifully observed as Waterloo Sunset. Pete Townshend, unlike Noel Gallagher, reads books and writes songs that are about things. Noel Gallagher, on his own admission (‘I’m not a great reader of books; I’m not a great art lover’) doesn’t read books and writes songs that are about nothing.
And that’s not even including the songs that were subjects of lawsuits. Shakermaker rips off the melody from I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing, although the older song is characteristically more interesting than Oasis’ ripoff of it, because having stated its hook it then goes somewhere else with it, whereas Oasis, frozen with ineptitude, hang on the same chord. Exactly the same thing happens with Whatever; having quoted the opening melody of Neil Innes’ How Sweet To Be An Idiot, the tune gets lost in a blurry harmonic mush, whereas Innes’ skilfully-crafted original traverses to a minor key via whole-tone harmony and . . . well, anyway. Oasis paid the composers of I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing half a million dollars by way of apologising for taking their tune and fucking it up, and Neil Innes was awarded a composer credit on Whatever because his line is the only catchy part in the whole song. This wasn’t the band’s only ‘borrowing’ from other bands, of course. Half The World Away doesn’t sound like REM’s Half A World Away, but the titles speak for themselves.
In conclusion, then: Noel Gallagher’s influences are the odd bit of pop music he heard on telly as a kid during the 70s, and the stuff he listened to in the 80s when he was young and impressionable, as opposed to the 60s music he discovered or rediscovered in the 90s, when he was old enough to hear how good it was, but too old to learn anything from it.
Noel Gallagher, I seriously doubt you’ll ever read this, but in the ridiculous arrogance of late-night blogging, here goes: don’t you dare call me ‘joyless’. I love music. I love music which makes me feel good, surprises me, excites me. I love music that comes from a tradition but which makes that tradition seem like a living thing. I love music that seems to come from nowhere, and yet speaks directly to me. I love music that jumbles different things together and forges them into something powerfully expressive that couldn’t have come from anywhere else, but is still a wholly new thing. What I don’t love is your lazy, unimaginative, self-consciously thoughtless, craft-free approach to making music. You dare to call people who love music enough to think about it ‘joyless’? Is it because, if anyone thinks about your music for more than two seconds, it falls to pieces?
Well, as you would say: whatever.