When a founding member of a rock band leaves to go solo, it’s to reach new heights. And yet, it wasn’t Noel Gallagher’s plan. He knew eclipsing the fame of his band Oasis was impossible. In fact, he wouldn’t try. When Noel Gallagher walked away in 2009 from the legendary band he founded, he said goodbye to everything. No more massive record sales. No stadium shows. Going forward, he was heading back to square one.
Musicians had done this before. In 1993, the most influential indie band in the world was The Pixies. Its singer and principal songwriter Charles Thompson blew it all up. Changing his stage name from Black Francis to Frank Blank, Thompson faxed the news of his band’s dissolution to everyone and immediately released a solo record.
Seven years later, the singer and songwriter of Smashing Pumpkins would do the same. Billy Corgan’s band had been arena kings for years. Smashing Pumpkins was still huge. Nevertheless, Corgan would dismantle the band and move on to a solo career.
Billy Corgan and Frank Black had the same usual goal. They wanted to reach new heights as solo acts. The bands they shut down had been world-famous. Corgan and Black knew the same level of success was likely not achievable. They were realistic. And yet, they saw an opportunity to perfect the musical styles they made famous. By continuing on their musical paths, they could find greater artistic satisfaction as solo artists and find critical acclaim that made up for lost attention being on their own.
In the 1980s, Sting had shown the way. No one would say Sting’s solo material bested his hits in The Police, from “Roxanne” to “Message in a Bottle.” Sting did keep writing in the same vein, however. His pop songs became more complex and layered without losing the relatability that his Police songs had. As a result, Sting enjoyed rave reviews for his jazzy solo tunes. Sting’s transition from band leader to solo artist led to a greater level of personal success, the new heights that any solo artist could hope for. At Sting’s level, artistic success was the best play a self-aware musician could make.
The similarities between Sting, Corgan, Black, and Gallagher end with them blowing up their old bands. Noel Gallagher didn’t leave Oasis to chart new heights. He wasn’t interested in perfecting his musical style, either. In his mind, he had perfected it.
Noel Gallagher gives interviews like Londoners take buses. Talking with The Guardian in 2019, Gallagher explained why he won’t reform Oasis. “Artistically, why do it again?”
Noel is refreshingly candid about the effect his songwriting had on rock music. No false modesty here. Noel talks about Oasis as if he is another fan. Oasis was clearly the last great rock band ever to do it. The hits were both immensely popular and recognized by critics as rock standards. Oasis was everything to everyone; arena rock, indie rock, beach music, lad music, girl music, city music, and date music. “Wonderwall” could be heard in a frat basement and also in a 12-year-old’s bedroom.
Gallagher once said, ‘when bands get big, they say “we’re not worthy.” But Oasis was worthy. We were that good.’
Cue the Morgan Freeman meme. “He’s right, you know.”
Billy Corgan and Frank Black would eventually reform their old bands. They both saw that solo careers couldn’t bring the attention that a band concept could offer. If you’re going to work just as hard as a solo act, why not get ten times the attention in a band?
Noel Gallagher isn’t interested in the music he did before. He feels it was perfect. He’s now “following his muse,” making what interests him. After abruptly leaving Oasis, Gallagher began writing and performing under the name “Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.” Was it a new band? The inference was there. As it turned out, it was simply a creative way to say “Noel Gallagher and touring musicians.” Understandably, not a band.
Great musicians don’t want to repeat themselves. Matt Bellamy of Muse has gone back and forth between writing out-there songs and rewriting his old hits. Fans can demand something you don’t want to do. When you give it to them, the same fans can reject it as unoriginal. When you’re famous, when you already have hundreds of songs under your belt, knowing what the next song should be is, possibly, a guessing game.
Noel Gallagher has removed this tension. His solution? Refuse to follow your artistic path altogether. For example, Noel Gallagher became famous for writing songs on guitar. Easy. Remove the guitar from the songs. Noel’s subject was the nobility of the everyman. He grew up in poverty and understood the outsized advantages the rich and famous enjoyed. And so, Noel Gallagher wrote about the rich inner life that everyone enjoyed.
Slip inside the eye of your mind
don’t you know you might find a better place to play“Don’t Look Back in Anger”
His songs were wildly popular because, among other things, they made everyone feel special. We were all human, which meant we were all creative. We all mattered.
Today? Noel Gallagher is a rich man. He has jokingly boasted in the press, ‘I’m the only guy I know who’s worth 77 million pounds.’ Noel’s songwriting subject has changed. He’s no longer an everyman. He’s a sophisticate. The songs are now… impressionistic.
If I had a gun
I’d shoot a hole into the sun
and love would burn this city down for you“If I Had a Gun”
It would be unfair to pit older Oasis songs against a later career effort. Oasis material was forged at a seminal time in Gallagher’s life. He was writing for his survival. Oasis songs were direct because Gallagher wanted them to sell and sell big. Now that Gallagher lives comfortably, he can test out a higher form of art, or so goes the thinking.
The point of comparing both lyrics is the loss of a relatable nature in his newer worldview. A love-so-big it can cause destruction is an avant-garde theme we can fathom, if not personally relate to. Many of us would like our romantic love to make the world a better place, not bring it down. The rhetorical aspect of this lyric also bumps a listener used to Gallagher’s lyrics working effortlessly. “If I were a rich man” is relatable. “If I had a gun” is almost nonsense. In England, maybe. America has lots of guns. Millions, in fact.
Noel Gallagher has heard the criticism. He doesn’t care. As he tells interviewers, he isn’t writing for Oasis fans anymore. Gallagher apparently felt hamstrung by Oasis near the end. He wrote for his brother Liam Gallagher’s declining voice, a harder and harder challenge, he relates. Noel also wrote within Liam’s narrow view of what was good. ‘I don’t like quirky weird things ’ he mimics Liam saying. Noel wrote songs for a band he began to hate.
“It was inevitable,” Noel says about the breakup.
Thirteen years later, most of the original fans have come to terms. Where to go from here? Noel is shutting out the world and doing his own thing. Is it really so different from the bedroom musicians all over the world? These passionate hobbyists follow their muses and reject all criticism to the contrary. Ignoring criticism is one reason 99.9% of musicians never emerge from the bedroom. Hasn’t Noel Gallagher joined their ranks?
Of course, Noel Gallagher still sells records. Everyone knows he still tours and can chart #1 in England just by getting out of bed. He’s esteemed in his home country. The love he receives from British fans for a lifetime of worthy achievements keeps him looking successful. England is the Oscar Wilde totem for Noel’s career, the painting in a closet keeping him young, as if he left Oasis only yesterday. His fans have spent years pretending Noel is still famous. It feels good to think so. It keeps the past alive.
Wasting no time to establish a solo career, Noel released three studio albums through “High Flying Birds,” as well as a greatest hits collection. It was an impressive amount of music over 10 years. Was the music itself impressive? Good notices came in from the UK critics. Fans who sided with Noel in the Oasis divorce were positive. Noel’s singing voice was a familiar, grounding element. The first album was also Oasis-like. It helped.
Noel had written himself songs to sing in Oasis. They served as counterpoints to the big rockers Noel wrote for Liam to sing. One of these, “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” is seen as possibly Oasis’s greatest tune. Noel’s songs in Oasis were softer, darker, and more wistful than the brash anthems. Oasis albums had a one-two punch, Liam-Noel.
It surprised no one that a Noel solo record was full of counterpoint songs. Without Liam’s swagger to set the tone, the album felt half-finished or at least lacked energy. A none-two punch? Noel even bragged that his first solo album was full of songs from the next Oasis album that was never to be. He seemed to taunt his brother. You could have sung these songs if only you had behaved.
It’s hard to envision Liam singing “If I Had a Gun.”
Excuse me if I spoke too soon
My eyes have always followed you around the room“If I Had a Gun”
It isn’t Liam’s style to apologize for speaking. The wistful tone on the entire first “High Flying Birds” album was also not very Liam-like, either. Noel always liked to sing his counterpoint songs in a heavy minor key. All the keys on the chain were now minor.
Noel was singing 10 songs in a row instead of three spread out on an Oasis album. It brought into focus Noel’s singing style. For better or worse, Noel has a clear, strong voice. It hasn’t diminished with age like his brother’s to the same degree. A fan can decide whether Noel has an interesting voice which is a prerequisite for rock music.
The British band Kasabian, a contemporary of Oasis that never disbanded, recently changed lead singers. The previous singer emulated Liam Gallagher and had a similar original-sounding voice, albeit in a lower register. Both Liam Gallagher and Tom Meighan have lead-singer pipes. They’re unique, not-too-perfect, and both singers can use them in aggressive ways when called for. They’re rock music voices.
Coincidentally, Kasabian’s new lead singer is like Noel Gallagher. Both have so-called better voices, are cleaner and more pleasant, and with a broader vocal range. Noel’s range is such that he can hold a lyric and make a word soar. The first line on his first solo record; “You can’t fight the feeeeeeelllliiiiinnngggg.” Noel uses this technique often. On his next record, the first single’s refrain is, “In the heeeeeeaaaat of the moment.”
“Can Liam do this?” Noel seems to ask in the number of times he uses this vocal flair.
The first “High Flying Birds” album wasn’t really very Oasis, despite Noel’s claims he pulled songs from the next Oasis album. Any fan can tell you the best thing about Oasis was its scope. They wrote and performed huge tunes. Even when the songs were about simple things, like staying in bed all day, the delivery and confidence they exuded were remarkable.
Noel’s first and second “High Flying Birds” albums felt small. It was likely Noel’s goal to avoid competing with himself. It seemed Noel was trying to follow a well-worn path and yet not take the path all the way to its destination. His first two solo albums felt like Oasis B-sides that Noel had chosen to perform. The Liam-voiced tracks were missing.
Perhaps it’s why Noel’s third solo album Who Built the Moon? was so different. Noel worked with a new producer who asked Noel to write more spontaneously in the studio. The resulting music was less somber, still somber, but less so. The songs were even somewhat throwaway at times. “Holy Mountain” and “She Taught Me How to Fly” had lyrics you might mumble your way to discovering in the shower. The music abandoned Noel’s singer-songwriter mold for overproduced pop influences. You could imagine hearing the songs on the radio if the radio still played a 53-year-old man.
A focus on lyrics and music can sometimes obscure the reason a song is good or not. The message of a song, its theme, or “heart” is often the make-or-break element. In Oasis, Noel understood this better than anyone of his generation. He became famous (and wealthy) for repeatedly tapping into what we were feeling inside. These days, Noel varies his musical style. We can like it more (the second solo album) or less (his disco tunes). And yet, with the right sentiment, Noel could continue on the artistic path unique to him.
Sadly, we can’t tell you what most “High Flying Birds” songs are about. Oasis songs were art because they resonated. High Flying Birds songs are art because they’re… obscure? We try to see art in them because we believe Noel is still famous. Noel’s fans are reduced to cork-sniffing the melodies and the vocal allusions of his new output.
Good luck in the afterlife
I hear the mornin’ sun doesn’t cast no shadow“We’re On Our Way Now”
See, “Cast No Shadow” was a famous Oasis song. But isn’t Noel over Oasis? Doesn’t he taunt fans at his live shows with, “Who’s an Oasis fan?” and then play his new disco songs?
As an Oasis fan and a Liam fan (his tune “Greedy Soul” is among his best—no offense to Noel), we’re let down by Noel’s solo direction. Does it need to rock? Does it need to recapture the past? We don’t think so. Noel need only accept the artistic path before him. It’s a message of hope and creativity. The rich man he’s become isn’t feeling it. And so, a few long-time fans are beginning to turn on Noel, not that he cares. Until he can acknowledge the elements of his success, past, and future, he can be found noodling in his bedroom.
This post first appeared at Insomnia at Noon.