Sunday, July 20, 2008

6. Oasis' (What's The Story) Morning Glory? (1995)

My biggest complaint about this album: the drummer.

I can't stand that fucking drummer. 'What drummer?" you say. The new drummer. Noel Gallagher decided to kick out the first drummer. The thing is, there was nothing wrong with the first drummer. Maybe he thought Alan White would add some "finesse" to the drumming. But as Neil Young's producer once put it, "The more you think, the more you stink." And for me, the second Oasis started thinking, that's the exact second they started stinking - not much, maybe only just a little bit at first, but it was downhill from there. Apparently Noel thought that Tony McCarroll "wouldn't have been able to drum the new songs," and that Alan White was "one of the best drummers I've ever met in my life." What was he smoking? Actually, I know the answer to that, but I still think he blew it.

Most of you are probably wondering what the hell I'm talking about and have never even given two ounces of thought to the quality of the drumming on (What's The Story) Morning Glory?. To tell you the truth, I hadn't either. Back when I didn't know what I was missing. Here in the U.S., most casual listeners are probably inclined to think that Morning Glory is the only Oasis album. But this is not so. Like most of you, I figured that the drumming was just fine - nothing spectacular, but certainly nothing embarrassing. That is, until I soaked in the blazing majesty that was Tony McCarroll. You see, Tony McCarroll rocked. Hard. Sure, maybe he didn't have the fanciest fills, or the firmest grasp of complicated time signatures, but this is Oasis we're talking about here! He laid the beat down like a glistening ocean, so that all the Gallagher brothers needed to do was just push off from the coast and sail along the surface. He had a great "snapping" sound: tight, focused, danceable even. You know the saying, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? Well Tony McCarroll was not broke. But they canned him.

Apparently the Gallagher brothers, and everyone else in the band, just plain didn't like the guy. As Ian Robertson, one of the band's roadies, describes in Britpop: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock, "There's always somebody who gets the kicking on any tour, but it's not usually somebody in the band...It was 'You're a fucking shit drummer, I'm going to sack you, you're going to be back on the dole before you know it, what the fucking hell are you wearing that shirt for, why are you shagging her,' just everything." Apparently Tony was oblivious. "We were chatting on the tourbus one night, and he said, 'I can hack it, because I'm in the band. I am the drummer with this fucking group. The rest of it is incidental.'"

Too bad he became the band's punching bag. Because thanks to the Gallaghers' arbitrary whims, we got Alan White, or "One Trick Alan" as I like to call him. "One Trick Alan's" one trick is a cluttered, tumbling, wimpy little drum roll. This is the only rhythmic flourish that Alan knows how to perform. Half the time he sounds like he's playing with brushes. Brushes! On an Oasis album! Sure, maybe Noel figured Alan's style would be better suited to the plethora of ballads on Morning Glory, but what I liked about Oasis' Definitely Maybe-era ballads was that they rocked. Suddenly with One Trick Alan it was like Noel was flashing a big neon sign with the word "BALLAD" on it.

So once it dawned on me that I couldn't stand One Trick Alan's drumming, I have to say I've never been able to listen to Morning Glory quite the same way again. I'll be bobbing my head in excitement to "Hello" but I can't help but imagine how much better the song would be without his simpering little affectations. It's all over the place! He can't keep his fidgety little hands still. He craps all over "Wonderwall," splooges all over "Champagne Supernova" - the guy drives me crazy. He breaks rule number one in Little Earl's Cardinal Rules of Drumming: don't call too much attention to yourself. He goes WAY overboard with the fills. And you know, maybe if he could do more than just one kind of fill I'd be more forgiving. But he does the same lame piece of goo over and over again! Maybe someday I'll get the master tapes and I can just mix him out. (Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes in his All Music Guide review that "Alan White does add authority to the rhythm section." Are you serious? Erlewine probably figured he just had to say something because, otherwise, why the hell else would Noel have bothered to switch drummers unless he just wanted to show everybody that he was a big fucking idiot?)

Well, One Trick Alan doesn't bother me much on "Hey Now," "She's Electric" or "Morning Glory," I will say that much. But if Tony had been the drummer on this album instead of Alan, then who knows, we could possibly have our number one pick right here. "No Fancypants Tony" actually does make an appearance on "Some Might Say," that single having been recorded before his sacking, although he's mixed really low and doesn't sound all that amazing either, now
that I think about it.

I have a few other complains, I suppose. The hilariously boneheaded sense of humor that the boys displayed so charmingly on Definitely Maybe is not as evident, another sign that perhaps Noel was beginning to take himself a little too seriously. But flashes of the old "first absurd line that comes into my head" school of lyric-writing are still around in "Some Might Say" and "She's Electric." I mean, who can forget these gems:

'Cause I've been standing at the station
In need of education in the rain
You made no preparation
For my reputation once again
The sink is full of fishes
She's got dirty dishes on the brain
All my thoughts been itchin'
Itchin' in the kitchen once again


She's got a sister
And God only knows how I've missed her
And on the palm of her hand is a blister
And I need more time

On the whole, though, Morning Glory finds Noel in an increasingly moody, reflective state of mind. For a guy who should have been on top of the world, he sounds pretty terrified. It's like, "Holy shit! All my life all I ever wanted to do was be a rock star, and now I am one, and Jesus Christ what the hell do I do now?" In the hands of others, the whole "Oh my God I'm so rich and famous and woe is me" schtick can be quite embarrassing, but, as with the Rolling Stones before them, Oasis' vulnerability is particularly surprising and affecting because it clashes with their public persona of sheer and absolute confidence. I think one of the mistakes Oasis made after Morning Glory was in assuming that sheer, absolute confidence on its own could be appealling. But confidence mixed with doubt - now we're talking.

That whole Yin-Yang of "We're great/we suck" is present right from the get-go, where the hushed, distant strum of the (by now instantly recognizable and almost groan-inducing) acoustic riff from "Wonderwall" is swiftly overtaken by the wailing electric guitars of "Hello." At first Liam sounds as though he wants you to get the fuck out of his face: "I don't feel as if I know you/You take up all my time." But the song strikes me as more brooding than celebratory. Noel expresses his post-fame midlife crisis with a startlingly vivid metaphor: "It's never gonna be the same/Till the life I knew comes to my house and says 'Hello.'"

And then there's "Wonderwall." There may not be another man, woman or child on this earth who needs to hear "Wonderwall" again. Personally, if I hear "Wonderwall" anywhere else outside of the context of this album, I can barely even listen to it anymore. But nestled in its original spot on Morning Glory, it's gold. I mean, it's all about the album pacing folks. After the foreboding "Hello" you slide right into the relatively more upbeat "Roll With It" (which I still find hard to believe was the band's entry in the Battle Of Britpop, so blantantly does it scream out to me "Solid Album Track But Not A Single"), and then from there, courtesy of one of the greatest "cough segues" in rock, you go into those opening acoustic guitar chords, and there's just something about it that draws me in and grabs my attention every time, like "Hmm, what do we have heaaah?" Although many have assumed Noel wrote it as a love song to his girlfriend, he explains now, "The meaning of that song was taken away from me by the media who jumped on it. How do you tell your missus it's not about her once she's read it is?" Rather, he says, "It's a song about an imaginary friend who's gonna come and save you from yourself."

Then we come to what is probably my favorite song on Morning Glory, "Don't Look Back In Anger," which not only rips off "Imagine," Bowie, Dylan, and Pachelbel's "Canon In D" in the space of one song but also Oasis' own six month-old single "Whatever," and yet still somehow manages to be a flaming work of genius. According to Wikipedia, Noel "admits that he was under the influence of substances when he wrote the song, and to this day he claims he does not know what it means." Clearly the approach worked. It also helps that Noel decided to sing this one himself, giving the tune an even more confessional feel. I like Rolling Stone's theory the best, that it's about "the star's inability to sustain a relationship on the road." When Noel sings, "Please don't put your life in the hands/Of a rock and roll band/Who'd throw it all away," it's like the ultimate admission of worthlessness: "I'm no good, you can't depend on me, please don't get your hopes up."

So who the hell is Sally? In the words of Noel, "I don't actually know anybody called Sally. It's just a word that fitted, y'know, might as well throw a girl's name in there. It's gotta guarantee somebody a shag off a bird called Sally, hasn't it?". You see, the details in a Gallagher lyric don't really matter, as long as they convey the broad outlines of a situation. "Stand up beside the fireplace/Take that look from off your face"? Whatever the hell he's talking about, I think his performance puts over an overall sense of frustration and discord. And yet, despite all the turmoil, "Sally" takes the high road and suggests the singer not "look back in anger." I mean here is the question: can you come away from the pain of experience and not succumb to bitterness and regret? For Noel I imagine it was difficult to do so, and apparently grasping the impossibility of such magnanimity, Sally qualifies her request with a final, perhaps more realistic, plea of "at least not today." It gives me the chills every time. ("Anger" is also possibly the only track on the album that might benefit from One Trick Alan's lazy, tumbling style. His drum roll that puncutates Noel's raging guitar solo before the final chorus is perhaps his one true crowning moment of glory).

So maybe I'm being a little hard on the album. Number 6? Sure, I may not like the drummer and I may miss the more overt sense of humor, but listening to it now, and comparing it to most rock albums of the '90s and beyond, what impresses me most about Morning Glory is that so many of the songs are...good. And good in different ways. No one ever singles out "Hey Now!" for example, but "Hey Now!" would probably be the best song on any rock album released today. (It also contains another classic set of "Noel Gallagher lyrics that are this close to being bad but are actually good": "I took a ride with my soul by the side of the road/Just as the sky turned black/I took a walk with my fame down memory lane/I never did find my way back.") I never much cared for "Cast No Shadow" (One Trick Alan is particularly aggressive on that one), but at least it adds variety. Otherwise it's wall-to-wall winners. And by the time you get to the end, where even some of the best rock albums pretty much run out of gas, you find yourself stumbling upon...oh, what's this? Oh, it's only "Champagne Supernova."

On a more personal note: Morning Glory is probably the most well-known album on my list, and the only album I discovered in reasonable proximity to the moment of its popularity. I remember being at summer camp in 1996, at a time when I was rather green in the ways of the world. While I was busy standing in a field under a starry sky teaching astronomy to 12-year-old kids, some of my fellow counselors were smoking pot and attempting underage sex. These days, of course, I am much more accepting of friends who enjoy mild drugs and random physical liasons. But back then it was quite confusing. So for the rest of that summer, every time I heard "Where were you while we were getting high?," I would always say to myself, "I know where I was. I was in that field, staring up at the stars, apparently clueless and impossibly wholesome." And every time I came to the roaring bridge near the end, where Liam sings, "But you and I/We live and die/The world's still spinning round/We don't know why/Why, why why why," almost as if he's pissed off at the meaninglessness of the universe, (I love how the song moves from tranquility to almost a sort of rage), and the guitars surge as the boys wail "Nah nah nah," I used to imagine myself looking up at the starry sky in that field at summer camp, watching as the placid constellations exploded into fiery psychedelic creations, like the perfect audio/visual expression of my disillusionment with my fellow teenagers. I could be a bit dramatic in those days. But then again, so could Noel Gallagher.


Herr Zrbo said...

I've never seen someone pay so much attention to the drummer before. I'm not familiar with Tony McCarrol's "work", but I would think that as long as someone can keep a beat they're doing their job (please correct me if I'm wrong, does anyone play drums here?).

Sure, you've got your famous guitarists and singers, but how many famous drummers can you mention? There's Phil Collins when he was in Genesis and the dude who lost his arm from Def Leppard. And Ringo.

Little Earl said...

Some people (I think Yoggoth is one of them) don't really pay attention to things like drumming in the least. For my part, sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. As far as I know, my take on the whole Oasis Tony McCarroll/Alan White deal is rather idiosyncratic and I have never heard anyone else express the same opinion (or even seem to care much at all). But that's what I'm here for, right?

I don't know about the general public, but as a music geek I could name you several "famous" drummers. Keith Moon (The Who) and John Bonham (Zeppelin) are generally considered the two best drummers in rock. I'm also a big fan of Mitch Mitchell (Hendrix's drummer) and Topper Headon (Clash), and there are plenty of others as well. It just depends on whether or not you're into that sort of thing. Most of your favorite bands probably use a drum machine or a synthesizer anyway!

Herr Zrbo said...

"Most of your favorite bands probably use a drum machine or a synthesizer anyway!"


Well, I know there's famous drummers like pretty much everyone we've mentioned here, but are they famous or famous for their drumming? I don't think anyone is really famous for their drumming, are they?

richard said...

little earl. i am writing a book and was wondering if you mind me using part of this blog in it? i would obviously credit the quote to yourself. If this is ok can you email me at