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Absolutely Fab-ulous

Not since another group of lads came out of the north has a British band stirred up the pop world like Oasis. But is main man Noel Gallagher the new McCartney or just full of hot air?

May 26, 1996|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

SAN FRANCISCO — Noel Gallagher, the creative force behind the flamboyant British rock group Oasis, is surprisingly reflective as he sits backstage after an afternoon sound check at the sold-out Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

Isn't this the brash songwriter and guitarist who has been portrayed in the pop press as arrogant (for calling Oasis the best band in the world even before the group stepped onstage in this country) and even barbaric (for once saying he wished that members of a rival band would get AIDS)?

Wasn't he branded irresponsible in England after acknowledging a history of sex, drugs and juvenile delinquency? And--most outrageous of all to some in an age of reluctant rock stars--doesn't he admit to enjoying stardom?

Gallagher, who turns 29 this week, addresses all those issues thoughtfully in a 90-minute interview, including an expression of regret for saying he hoped the members of Blur would contract AIDS. However, he offers no apology for wanting to be a star.

"When people asked us about the band, I always said I thought we were good--and we were going to be huge," he says, lighting the first of several cigarettes. "To me, that's not arrogance but self-belief.

"But the press is used to having bands go, 'Oh, we aren't any better than anybody. Let's put out singles on some unknown label and be cool.' Well, I would rather be Paul McCartney and not be cool than be, say, the [expletive] Mudhoney and be cool."

The reference to McCartney is no accident.

In its best music, Oasis offers the same seductive, melodic strains and inspirational edge that gave the Beatles their universal allure.

Thanks to the warmth of the group's glorious ballad "Wonderwall," Oasis' second album on Epic Records--"What's the Story (Morning Glory)?"--has sold more than 2.5 million copies in the United States (and another 5 million around the world).

Industry insiders are watching Oasis' progress carefully. Not only could its popularity break down the U.S. resistance to British bands in recent years, but it could also signal a shift in the mainstream away from the anger and alienation of '90s American rock.

Rarely has a band's name summarized its role in rock as well as Oasis. During an age when the paramount theme of quality rock bands is darkness and doubt, Oasis offers the "pleasant relief" of its dictionary definition.

"When I see kids at the shows singing 'Wonderwall' or 'Live Forever,' it makes me feel great, but not in a smug way," Gallagher says. "I'm not saying they are clever songs, but they are honest--and that's what I think people respond to in our music. It gives you the strength to overcome your problems.

"I loved Nirvana, but their success led to thousands of other bands with the same attitude--all saying how horrible life is--and I think people feel the need for another side to the music.

"I've had as bad times as anyone when I was growing up in Manchester, but I'd listen to [the Beatles'] 'I Am the Walrus,' and for that 3 1/2 minutes I was immersed in the lyrical imagery and I'd think anything was possible. It was only when the record was finished and there was silence that I'd go, '[Expletive], I'm still in Manchester.' "

*

One of the great ironies of '90s rock is that baby boomers bought millions of the recent Beatles anthologies, complaining every step of the way that no one writes songs like Lennon and McCartney anymore, while passing by two albums by Oasis that have many of the elements that they prize so much in the Beatles.

Oasis isn't within light-years of the innovation of the Beatles, but Gallagher's songs are blessed with a similar accessibility, melodiousness and emotional maturity.

While many reflect on tensions and doubts, there is an overriding tone of optimism and, in songs such as "Morning Glory," a celebration of the power of music itself: "Another sunny afternoon / I'm walking to the sound of my favorite tune."

Beatles fans will also note that "Wonderwall," the massive hit about romantic commitment and need, takes its name from a George Harrison album title. "Don't Look Back in Anger," another Oasis single, even paraphrases the piano signature from John Lennon's "Imagine."

"Cast No Shadow" is an expression of emotional impotence and self-doubt that stands alongside the Beatles' "Nowhere Man," while "Champagne Supernova" offers the psychedelic wonder of mid-period Beatles.

In ways that parallel Lennon and McCartney in Liverpool, Noel Gallagher and his brother Liam, Oasis' singer, grew up in dead-end Manchester as outsiders. They found their future in music.

Liam, 23, brings to the band a great rock voice--as well as the best cheekbones since Sting. But it's Noel and the songs that give the band its heart.

Janet Billig, who as manager or publicist has worked with such acclaimed American rock acts as Nirvana, Hole and Smashing Pumpkins, calls the Oasis songs "amazing . . . filled with incredible hooks and spirit."

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