‘Wonderwall’ at 25: how Oasis’ unlikely ballad became one of the last rock standards

‘Wonderwall’ at 25: how Oasis’ unlikely ballad became one of the last rock standards

A quarter-century ago, the British band broke into America with an uncharacteristically sensitive hit. The song remains shockingly popular — even if the guy who wrote it isn’t really a fan

Liam Gallagher is rarely at a loss for words, snide or otherwise. But during a recent interview with Rolling Stone, the singer was left momentarily speechless after being informed that “Wonderwall,” the monster 1995 ballad he sang with his old band, Oasis, is on its way to approaching 1 billion streams on Spotify.

“That’s pretty big, man,” Gallagher says, finally, as if it took a few seconds for the enormity of that figure to sink in. Then the old Liam, the one who loves to bash his songwriting brother, Noel, returns. “You know who that is — that’s Noel, probably. He sat there for an hour and a half, constantly on that finger, click click, click. That’s why he’s always pointing at people.”

Jokes (and typical Gallagher-brother shtick) aside, “Wonderwall” has become the song that will not die — a Nineties hit that has transcended its era and become a new standard. Released 25 years ago next month on Oasis’ second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, “Wonderwall’ regularly streams about 500,000 times a week (or 750,000, if audio and video streams are combined), according to Alpha Data, the data-analytics provider that powers the Rolling Stone Charts. Last year, Rolling Stone’s Tim Ingham estimated that “Wonderwall” was generating about $2,650 in recorded-music royalties on Spotify every 24 hours, or $1 million a year. In recent years, as Ingham notes, it’s been one of the few songs from previous century to appear in the Spotify Top 200, a chart dominated by new pop, hip-hop, and Latin tracks.

“Wonderwall” stood out the moment it was released, not simply because it didn’t adhere to the hopped-up new-British-Invasion blare Oasis had become known for. A declaration of love and support for someone who was struggling, it didn’t swagger the way the band’s previous songs had; it was openhearted and earnest, with a melody and busker-simple arrangement that made both Oasis and Liam sound vulnerable. From the start, the song felt timeless — a feeling born out by the fact that it’s been covered roughly 100 times. One Direction harmonized to it on a beach; Ryan Adams and Cat Power each turned it into skeletal mood pieces; Paul Anka recast it as big-band lounge tune; LeAnn Rimes made it a pop-country ballad; and pianist Brad Mehldau transformed it into jazz. “Something about ‘Wonderwall’ has always moved me,” says Rimes. “In the Nineties, I was enveloped in full-blown teenage angst, and it was the perfect soundtrack for it.”

Brian Monaco, president and global chief marketing officer of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which has administered the song since 1994, remembers hearing “Wonderwall” when it first came out. “[Oasis] were coming off all these big rockers and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really interesting,’” Monaco recalls. “It puts an emphasis on Liam’s voice over the instruments, and the emotions are very direct.” Monaco calls “Wonderwall” one of the company’s “most valued songs”—and its catalog includes compositions by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Queen, Ed Sheeran, and Lady Gaga.

Over the decades, the Gallagher brothers have fallen in and out of love with “Wonderwall.” Last year, after he’d toured with Smashing Pumpkins, Noel marveled at its staying power to the British magazine The Face. “The sight of two goths, one in a Rancid T‑shirt, one in a Kiss T-shirt, with their arms around each other, singing ‘Wonderwall’ in Arkansas is not something you see every day!” he said. “And with no reaction to any other single song that we did! What is it about that song? It’s crazy.”

For once, Liam almost agrees with his brother. “I don’t know anything about Spotify and all that,” he says. “But all I can say is people love it. And people hate it. I’m not comparing it to ‘Imagine,’ but a lot of people say, ‘“Imagine” — fuck that,’ but some people say it’s one of the best songs around.”

Another aspect of “Wonderwall” that can be hard to pin down is the inspiration behind it. Given that it was written when Noel was partnered up with his future wife and British club maven Meg Mathews, many have assumed the song is about her. Maybe because the couple broke up in 2000, Noel has taken to discounting that theory: As he recently told BBC Radio 2, “The meaning of that song was taken away from me by the media who jumped on it. And how do you tell your missus it’s not about her once she’s read it is? It’s a song about an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself.”

Liam acknowledges the title’s nod to George Harrison’s experimental 1968 solo album, Wonderwall Music, but also feels his brother’s song harks back to the time when they would write notes and thoughts on the wallpaper in their bedrooms as kids. “But obviously that wasn’t meaningful enough for Noel,” he says, “so he decided to say it was about some girl.”

Katrina Russell, though, remembers the moment she first heard the song. Then and now one of Mathews’ best friends, Russell was at the home that Noel and Mathews were sharing in Camden, London, when Mathews told her excitedly that her boyfriend had written a song Russell needed to hear. “I said, ‘All right, what is it?’ and she said, ‘It’s about me!’” Russell recalls. Noel then showed up and played them “Wonderwall” on guitar. “I was dumbstruck,” Russell recalls. “I thought, ‘What’s a wonderwall?’ I said it to Meg and she said, ‘Don’t ask!’ But it was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard in my life. To write a song like that about someone you love — I was a bit jealous it wasn’t written about me.

When Oasis assembled at Wales’ iconic Rockfield Studios in May 1995 to begin work on their second album, Noel played his brother the song. Liam was far from bowled over. “At first I didn’t like it,” Liam says. “What the fuck is this tune? I said, ‘I don’t like this — it’s a bit fonky.’ I got Police vibes. It was a bit Sting. I like the heavier stuff. I said, ‘This doesn’t suit me, man.’” In the end, the Gallagher brothers decided to split the lead vocals on “Wonderwall” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” Despite his initial qualms, Liam grabbed “Wonderwall.”

“I would have sung them both,” he says. “But he got to sing one of them. I’m the singer in the band and that was my job. And once I sung it, I realized it’s a good fucking tune.”

For a song that would live on as long as it has, “Wonderwall” came together remarkably fast. On a Tuesday that May, Noel recorded his acoustic guitar foundation for the song to a click track. Alan White, newly hired as Oasis’ drummer, overdubbed his part, after which Noel added additional guitar parts (including on an electric) and played the bass himself. To complement the song’s soothing quality, rhythm guitarist Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs opted for a Mellotron; one of the keyboards was still set up in Rockfield after being used on a Verve session.

The basic track was finished that evening. “It was kind of quick,” producer Owen Morris recalls. “When Noel played it through, he was unsure how to come in and out of the bridge, and he asked me which was best, and I told him the simpler way. That would have been a minute decision like that. There wasn’t a lot of agonizing.” (Liam, Morris recalls, wasn’t happy that bassist Paul “Guigsy” McGuigan wasn’t on the song: “That’s not Oasis,” he told Morris.)

The next morning, Liam drank some tea, took maybe a few puffs from a cigarette, and sat down at the microphone. “At that period, Noel would sing a song through once to Liam on acoustic,” Morris says. “Once. With all the phrasing and some of the lines he’d just written. Then Liam would go in and sing it once through. And he would always fucking nail the phrasing start to end. I found that quite freaky. With ‘Wonderwall,’ he said, ‘I’m singing it now!’ And he did, I think, four takes and that was it. People ask me, ‘How outrageous were the sessions?’ I say, ‘We just worked, really.’”

Liam has similar memories of an efficient process. “I was always desperate to get to the pub,” he says. “As soon as I got my singing done, I went to the nearest pub. I didn’t want to sit around and watch people fuck around with guitars and amps.” Later that second day, Noel overdubbed a piano at the song’s end, and a Kurzweil keyboard was used for simulated orchestration. Listening to a mix, Liam told Morris his vocals were too loud and should be lowered. “That’s the only time he ever said that,” Morris says with a chuckle.

Once the entire album was in the can, Morris voiced concern to Oasis’ camp about whether “Wonderwall,” so different from anything Oasis had cut to that point, was rock & roll enough. He was told not to worry; as long as Liam sang it, it was a rock song. According to Russell, then working at the band’s label, Creation, “It was so obvious it was going to be a monster hit. I saw the commercial value in that and just knew it was an anthem straight away. It captures what so many people would want to say to a person they love. A lot of guys especially struggle with voicing emotion, and that’s what that song does.” Morris also recalls Creation head Alan McGee — who was largely out of the picture at the time, coping with substance-abuse issues — telling the producer, “’That’s massive, that’s the big one — put everything into it.’”

“Wonderwall” wasn’t the first single released from (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?; that honor fell to “Roll With It,” followed by “Some Might Say.” But it was the song from the album that impacted the most, especially in America, where it reached Number Eight in the Top 100 and spent 10 weeks atop Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart. And it connected with more than just pub-rock fans; it was the Oasis song for anyone older than 40. As Liam recalls, “Some songs people get straight away, and I think that was one of them.” A camp-lounge remake by the Mike Flowers Pops became a hit in the U.K. during the same time, only adding to the song’s ubiquity. “I remember going into pubs and people would just be singing it alongside the jukebox with their arms in the air,” says Tim Abbot, then managing director of Creation.

Even as Oasis went through several tumultuous periods in the years after, “Wonderwall” persevered. In 2008, it became the focal point of a feud between Oasis and Jay-Z. Told that the rapper would be headlining the Glastonbury Festival that summer, Noel cracked, “I’m sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance. Glastonbury has the tradition of guitar music…. I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.” At the festival, Jay-Z came onstage with a guitar around his neck and mimed along to Oasis’ recording of “Wonderwall” (leading to a massive crowd singalong). At a subsequent show at Madison Square Garden, Jay-Z again revived “Wonderwall,” and rapped, “That bloke from Oasis said I couldn’t play guitar/Somebody should have told him I’m a fuckin’ rock star.”

Over the decades Noel has been infamously indifferent toward the song. “All over the world, in any city you care to name, people will sing ‘Wonderwall,’” he said recently. “I don’t particularly like that song — I think ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ is a far superior song.” As he told Rolling Stone last year, “All the great artists have one of those songs. I’m lucky to have five. And it’s funny, in no fucking way is it my favorite song.”

Liam admits he’s had periods when he was sick of it. “I’ve done many gigs where I say, ‘Here’s a song some of you don’t like,’ but everyone goes apeshit,” he says. “I love playing it now. The minute you don’t, everyone clicks off. People pay fucking good money, and you should give ‘em what you got. The song is bigger than us.”

At the age of 52, Morris is now happily retired and living in Costa Rica thanks to the royalties generated by that song and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? Sony/ATV does not disclose royalty earnings, but “Wonderwall” has popped up recently in the Beatles-fantasy movie Yesterday, a current Renault commercial, and the TV series Roswell, New Mexico. Liam admits that Noel, as the songwriter, receives the bulk of that money. “I don’t get any of that, mate,” Liam says. “That’s why I’m still poor. The publishing doesn’t come near me. If I had all that money, I’d be a cunt like him as well.”

For Russell, “Wonderwall” is a vivid reminder of a larger-than-life aspect of the physical music business that seems as quaint as one of the Gallagher brothers’ early onstage brawls. Back in the day, she was told that the album sold somewhere in the vicinity of 25 million copies worldwide — a figure that now seems inconceivable. “The money that was being thrown around back then was insane,” Russell says. “No one will ever sell records like that again. Adele and Coldplay are amazing artists and they are big, but they will never sell the millions and millions that Oasis sold. It was a time, a place, and a movement that I don’t think could ever be repeated. And that song was 100 percent without a doubt solidly the biggest song they did.”

“Wonderwall” may well be one of the last major standards from what we could call the rock era. Since the mid-Nineties, only a select few rock-based songs — like Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” — have been recorded by a wide range of big-name acts the way earlier classics like the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” Dylan’s “Forever Young,” or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” have been. “Wonderwall” is now on that very short list.

Liam Gallagher agrees that “Wonderwall” has scaled a particular mountain. “I know what you mean — it definitely has a place with the big boys, for sure,” he concedes. “The funny thing is, I don’t even know how to play it on guitar, and it’s probably one of the easiest songs ever. People at parties are like, ‘Play it,‘ and I say, ‘You fucking play it then.’”

Source: Rolling Stone