Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Brother Beyond

Once or twice in a generation, pop music generates a rivalry that has the press gnawing upon it until they get bored and move on. The fact that the rivalry was, probably, their creation in the first place is neither here or there, the scamps.

In the 1960s we had The Beatles and The Stones; 20 years later, it was Duran Duran in a battle of hairspray with Spandau Ballet. They were followed after the intermission by Simple Minds and U2, a bout clearly won by the latter who went on to meet Coldplay in an exchange of ideas about fair trade coffee.

Thankfully, with the exception of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., few have ever turned really nasty (although there were rumours of an ugly backstage spat between Mozart and that pipsqueak Beethoven at Glasto '90. 1790.)

It is, though, unusual that a member of pop's great firmament should find themselves absorbed by not one but two rivalries in the course of their career. Lily Allen came close by issuing the pop princess equivalent of the closing time "come on then!" to Courtney Love and Katy Perry, but to my knowledge, only Noel Gallagher has been embroiled in a full-on, no-holds-barred rock'n'roll dust-up twice.

The first came to a head on August 14, 1995 when, through either disruptive thinking or unbelievable stupidity, Blur's Country House was released on the same day as Oasis appropriately brought out Roll With It. Being the height of the silly season the event was marked by being the lead story on a host of organisations customarily indifferent to such triviality. It even made the BBC’s 10 O'Clock News, with summer stand-in presenter John Humphries harrumphing with unease as he introduced that evening's 'fancy that?' piece on the affair.

Planted, not particularly deeply, within the Blur-Oasis rough-and-tumble was the British class obsession: Blur's lower/upper-middle class art college background was pitched into the contretemps, with Oasis - hailing from Manchester's hardened streets - a journalistic gift. For a year or so it made for mildy amusing copy, but the true outcome of the handbags between Blur and Oasis (which saw Liam Gallagher turning his wannabe school playground bully persona up to 11) was to mask the simmering sibling rivalry within Oasis itself.
Part of me wishes it had ended like that. It would’ve made a great headline: ‘Plum throws plum'.
The sparring between the brothers Gallagher maintained the band's reputation from the moment they first emerged in the early 90s until its bitter end in 2009. For a while you could be forgiven for thinking it was part of their schtick. 

Fast-forwarding through more than a decade-and-a-half of simmering fraternal discord, the eventual separation of Noel and Liam Gallagher, the spiritual heart of Oasis, came as no surprise to anyone. The denouement unfolded backstage at the Rock en Seine festival in Paris when a row about the junior Gallagher's Pretty Green clothing label led to him threatening his elder brother with, first a guitar, and then a piece of fruit. 

"On the way out he picked up a plum and threw it across the dressing room and it smashed against the wall," Gallagher Senior recounted at a press conference last July to announce his debut solo album, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. "Part of me wishes it had ended like that. It would’ve made a great headline: ‘Plum throws plum',"

So, with Noel walking out of Oasis on the basis that he'd had enough of Liam being a twat (not necessarily his words, but not unlikely either), and his brother regrouping Oasis as Beady Eye, ("Shitbag" is all the monobrowed one could muster on Twitter) we have been presented with that hen's tooth of the pop world - a second great rivalry.

Musically, neither Gallagher has moved on with their respective projects. Beady Eye's Different Gear, Still Speeding and ...High Flying Birds could easily have been named Oasis: What Happened Next. Both Gallaghers remain rooted in the Beatles/Kinks/Steve Marriott-60s-vibe-with-psychadelic-hints that became the stock-in-trade of Oasis, and continues to be Paul Weller's muse to this day.

Solo albums invariably represent freedom and a chance to explore music that wouldn't have worked, or been accepted in a group environment. Some are pure self indulgence, some offer a cathartic release valve.

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds is neither indulgent or cathartic as it's perfectly clear the 44-year-old Gallagher really couldn't care less about what anyone, least of all his brother, thinks of him. It might not offer any dramatic directional surprises, but it is certainly the album of a supreme and natural songwriter, confidently enjoying his job. 

Scanning the track listing, titles such as The Death Of You And Me and If I Had A Gun might fool the lazy journalist into thinking this is an album about Our Kid. It isn't. The Death Of You And Me, the album's first single release, is a Ray Davies-esque jaunt which includes a riotously carefree New Orleans trad jazz accompaniment created, apparently, by the various members of the production team impersonating brass instruments.

If I Had A Gun is just an unashamed love song built around Gallagher's favourite F#m7 chord (think Wonderwall, viewers) and more Mellotron and grungy Gibson to keep things from getting too sloppy. The happy-go-lucky, hippy-dippy 60s sentiment continues with Dream On, picking up the Oasis template for such throwback fluff with a song Gallagher himself brands "pop for pop's sake - a tune so good maybe people won't listen to the words".

Where Gallagher does let loose with his creative spirit, and shakes off his clear affection for The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, you get something that would make you put down the dishmop. AKA...What A Life! is such a track. With its chugging piano rhythm - reminiscent of Al Stewart's On The Border, or perhaps On The Border covered by the Scissor Sisters - it pounds along with a thudding big sound that defies the fact it was recorded by Gallagher in a tiny studio with the teaboy providing the piano sample (fact).

In the olden days, a great album was marked by a bold opening track, something intriguing to end Side 1 and keep up interest to turn over, a lively commencement to Side 2, and a memorable closer with, ideally, a lengthy guitar solo to take you into the album's outro. Stop The Clocks has that. Written by Gallagher ten years ago while in Thailand, had it have been recorded then it may have been just another Champagne Supernova. Without the Manchester scally act, it takes on a much more interesting dynamic, as rich and as curious as anything on Paul Weller's 22 Dreams, layered with more prog-ish coatings of Mellotron, acoustic guitar and organ, and closing with a storming piece of guitar work from Paul 'Strangeboy' Stacey, a former Oasis session player who brings Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds to an end with fretwork that would leave the sky black with hats if it had Johnny Greenwood's name attached to it.

Noel Gallagher is, by his own admission, neither a great guitarist nor a gifted technical musician, but he gives what you and I want, sometimes, more than anything else in a record - a good time. Something to make the morning commute more bearable, something to tune the world out, to make washing up or other household chores pass by with vim, vigour and other brands of household cleaning products.

While ...High Flying Birds will never be a solo album to have the world shouting, in unison, "I never knew he had that in him", for all its resolute rooting in territory Oasis rarely - if ever - strayed from, it reeks of unbridled enjoyment. That of its originator, as well as that of us listeners.

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