In Oasis’ heyday, tracks like ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ were sing-along favourites. Every teenager knew the words to their favourite songs by memory and took great pleasure in howling them into their friend’s ears while simultaneously dribbling Buckfast down their shirt. But in recent years, anti-Noel sentiment has led many to accuse the songwriter of penning meaningless drivel. In their eyes, Gallagher’s lyrics are the perfect reflection of Oasis as a whole: swagger over substance. In an effort to readdress the balance, I’d like to propose the following: Gallagher’s lyrics betray an incredibly inventive approach to language that we’d do well to treasure.
Noel was the perfect foil to his brother Liam. While the latter was brash, extroverted and hot-headed, Noel was internal, witty and pensive. Liam might have spent his adolescence developing a cool walk and reputation as a brawler, but Noel spent his getting stoned out of his box, writing songs and listening to The Beatles. No wonder the pair fell into their respective roles with ease. For manager Alan McGee, Noel’s early lyrics were a sign that this might be the band to unite classic rock ‘n’ roll songcraft with the angsty attitude of late ’70s groups like Sex Pistols and The Damned. “It’s just punk,” he said of ‘Bring It On Down’. “You’re the outcast / You’re the underclass / but you don’t care ’cause you’re living fast.’ I just loved it.”
McGee recognised something essential about Gallagher: his ability to capture the mood of the times with a simple turn of phrase. Take the “sink is full of fishes” line from ‘Some Might Say’. It’s just one example of Gallager contrasting the domestic with the outlandish. It’s there in ‘Morning Glory’ too when Gallagher sings: “All your dreams are made / when you’re chained to (your) mirror with (your) razor blade”. These contrasts between mundanity and fantasy crop up time and time again, always evoking a simmering frustration with the working week and the myth of domestic bliss. These are lyrics born from the aspirations of a working-class guy determined to leave the world with more than he started with, to experience a world previously out of reach.
This aspirational tone is present in Ray Davies’ lyrics for songs like ‘Dead End Street’ by The Kinks. Indeed, Gallagher’s lyrics make frequent references to The Kinks and their countercultural contemporaries. The “Another sunny afternoon” line in ‘Morning Glory’ is a clear reference to the Kinks song of the same name. Meanwhile, the speaker’s desire to “start a revolution” in his bed in ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ – itself a reference to playwright John Osborne’s Kitchen Sink drama Look Back in Anger – echoes Jonh Lennon and Yoko Ono’s notorious ‘Bed-In’ for peace in 1969. That’s to say nothing of the line in ‘Supersonic’ in which Liam sings: “You can sail with me in my yellow submarine.” Whether deliberate or otherwise, this littering of countercultural references allowed Gallagher to steep his writing in a collective cultural history of the UK, which in turn cemented Oasis as the embodiment of the UK’s second – and perhaps final – musical golden age.
Most criticisms of Gallagher’s lyrics settle on the fact that they are fundamentally nonsensical. The worst offenders are in tracks like ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, ‘Champagne Supernova’ and ‘She’s Electric’, the latter of which contains perhaps the most pointless line in pop: “And on the palm of her hand is a blister /And I need more time.” But no lyric is ever pointless. Viewing songwriting as an exercise of inexactitude is to misunderstand the difference between penning a song and, say, a diary entry or a wedding speech. Unlike both of those things, lyrics are governed by rhyme, melody and rhythm, all of which have a huge influence on which words sound good together. Sorry to state the obvious but lyrics aren’t meant to be read; they’re meant to be sung. Sure, the image of a man “caught beneath a landslide in a champagne supernova in the sky” might not be the most accurate evocation of a certain emotion, but it is perfectly suited to the sonic mood of the track as a whole.
Anyway, whoever said nonsense was something to be avoided? There can be a logic to even the most absurd texts. Take the work of Irish writer Flann O’Brien, famed for his explorative use of language. In his book The Third Policeman, nothing holds its normal form, not even language. Policeman transforms into the bicycles on which they get to work just as words bleed into one another, melding in strange and fascinating ways. Ireland has a long heritage of writing of this kind. James Joyce imbued texts like Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses with a playfulness that has come to feel uniquely Irish. Now, I’m in no way comparing Gallagher to Joyce. I’m merely suggesting that Gallagher, being of Irish stock, also upholds this approach to language, using words to convey an emotional impression rather than as tools to articulate lived experience in the most precise way possible.
Lines like “walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball” might seem utterly meaningless, but through Gallagher’s juxtaposition of images, he manages to convey a raft of possible interpretations. Again, the line might not capture the feeling of walking down the hall, but it certainly captures the feeling of being very, very high. Lyrics such as these betray a view of language as fluid and malleable. For the songwriter, English is far more than an assortment of rule-bound hieroglyphs; it is a world begging to be played with.