Is Noel Gallagher An Avant Garde Experimentalist?

Noel Gallagher has plenty of fans, but his critical reputation as a play-it-safe luddite is unfair, argues David McCarthy.
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Noel Gallagher has plenty of fans, but his critical reputation as a play-it-safe luddite is unfair, argues David McCarthy.

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The final release from Oasis was a 22 minute long single track and Noel Gallagher starts 2012 with own new solo EP named 'Moneyshot single of the month' in dance music bible DJ Mag. So perhaps it's time to re-assess The Chief's somewhat unwarranted reputation as a trad-rock luddite.

Paul McCartney has spent much of the past twenty years trying to reverse the widely held (mis)conception that he was the twee 'music hall' tunesmith of the Beatles looking on forlornly as John Lennon fought on the barricades at the forefront of the Sixties pop art culture revolution.

The truth of the matter was that in those tumultuous mid-decade times Lennon was spending his nights with wife and child ensconced in his Surrey mansion, whilst McCartney lived in the centre of Swinging London checking out Stockhausen concerts, Antonioni screenings and a multitude of grass-roots hippy happenings on a nightly basis.

Most people assume it's the familiar sound of a cello on the opening bars of  on 'Wonderwall' but in fact it's the sound of an extremely rare original Mellotron Mk2

Noel Gallagher's near obsession with the Beatles is of course a matter of record, but it's mostly used as a brush to tar him with a position mired in the past rather than to consider he might also be a fan of their more experimental achievements.

As soon as the big money started rolling in for Oasis, Noel was able to finance additions to supplement the simple guitar/bass/drums foundations of 'Definitely Maybe'. Most people assume it's the familiar sound of a cello on the opening bars of  on 'Wonderwall' but in fact it's the sound of an extremely rare original Mellotron Mk2. Ok, so tracking down a bit of kit that was popularised by The Fabs and The Moody Blues more than 25 years earlier wasn't exactly pushing the technological envelope in 1995, but it was a subtle signifier of things to come.

A year later Noel hooked up with The Chemical Brothers in the studio, after knowing them from his days as a regular at The Heavenly Social' and having added them to the bill of the Oasis Knebworth dates. The collaboration produced 'Setting Sun' and became the Chems first number one single. Yes, there's more Beatles again with plenty stolen from ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, but the end result also happened to sound like the bleeding edge of the mid Nineties dance-rock crossover.

The third Oasis album 'Be Here Now' followed in '97 and is mainly remembered for overblown multi-tracked guitar layered nose-up rockisms. But Noel later explained that lead single ‘D’You Know What I Mean' grew around a drum loop sample from NWA's 'Straight Outta Compton' and said "It can get a bit soul-destroying in the studio, you know, trying to play somebody a drum beat from an N.W.A record. And everyone's just looking at you like you're fuckin' speaking French or something.”

The use of drum loops became a constant theme in his approach from then on, with 'Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants' single 'Go Let It Out' leaning heavily on a Beta Band-ish loop and loose vibe, whilst album opener 'Fuckin in The Bushes' was a vocal-less riff-driven collage built around a Mitch Mitchell sounding drum loop and snippets of sample voices talking about the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival. Hardly  the same kind of stuff Ocean Colour Scene were bashing out at the time.

The best example of the gap between the public image of Oasis and Noel's own musical tastes is probably 'The Hindu Times', lead single from the following album, 2001's "Heathen Chemistry". In demo form it is a huge, sampled-drum and guitar riffing monster, sounding like something Rick Rubin would have made at the height of his gonzo rap-rock powers. The released version is a much tamer, band-played version that seems to play more to the crowd than the original intention behind it.

As the 10th anniversary of 'Definitely Maybe' was looming Oasis returned to Cornwall's Sawmills Studios for the first time in over a decade. This time round though, dance mavericks Richard Fearless and Tim Holmes of Death In Vegas were in the producers' chairs, Liam having already worked with the pair on the title track of their own 'Scorpio Rising' album. “We kind of thought it’s time to step outside of our own studio and go and try something a bit different" Noel later explained, "but we didn’t have the right songs to go and tackle the project”.

"It can get a bit soul-destroying in the studio, you know, trying to play somebody a drum beat from an N.W.A record. And everyone's just looking at you like you're fuckin' speaking French or something.”

The sessions were aborted by early 2004. The six tracks that were recorded have never surfaced in any form and are still the Holy Grail of unreleased Oasis tracks for many fans.

A major fall-out of the recordings was the subsequent departure of long-term drummer Alan White. The Oasis camp are famously tight-lipped about the reasons behind parting company with past members, but it's heavily rumoured that theunexpectedly sudden event was down to White's dissatisfaction with having to compete with the heavy use of drum loops in the studio. His brother (and Paul Weller's long-term drummer) Steve White wrote on his website at the time that "the spirit of being in a band was kicked out of him".

When the new album 'Don't Believe The Truth' was finally completed, the Japanese version contained the bonus track 'I Can See It Now', which reflected Noels' then-recent discovery of Krautrock and was deemed authentic-sounding enough to be included in a subsequent tribute album to original masters of the genre NEU! a couple of years later.

Things were to get even more interesting for the seventh (and final) Oasis album 'Dig Out Your Soul', which came as a 'deluxe' version featuring a second album-length collection of alternative versions and remixes from old collaborators including The Chemical Brothers and Richard Fearless.

But Noels' most experimental departure was left to the very last - a personal infatuation with the Amorphous Androgynous (nee future sound Of London) led to them being given album track 'Falling down' to remix. They delivered a 22 minute long opus which deconstructed the song and warped it back together in a hugely ambitious Psychedelic-rock version. "It's a staggering piece of music," Noel said of it, "Monumental even. All superlatives will apply." It became the very last release to bear the name 'Oasis' on the label.

Noel's current 'High Flying Birds' solo album has done little to dent his trad-rock image, and was not helped by his own championing of "AKA What a Life" as a 'dance' track when it clearly sounded more like a Doves song being played by The Charlatans. However, once again things are perhaps not quite as they seem - at Noel's request, James Lavelle in his UNKLE guise has re-worked the tune (and another not included on the album) into two eight-minute long masterpieces which the February 2012 issue of dance bible DJ Mag calls "an essential, sensational release".

With his debut solo album firmly aimed at middle-of-the-road Oasis stadium fans Noel may have played the safe 'career' card, whereas paradoxically the material he first began working on after the band split will be released as his second album later this year. It's a collaborative effort with Amorphous Androgynous and they've been given free reign to wreak the same sonic havoc they brought to 'Falling Down'. "How we’ve envisaged it is like a modern take on Dark Side Of The Moon, with lots of texture and ambient noise on it" Noel said recently.

Hopefully the as-yet-unnamed collection might at last see a more public recognition of The Chief's more experimental leanings.

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