Noel Gallagher: “Cosmetically, Manchester changes… but it forever stays the same”
By Alex Cooper
When Noel Gallagher was sitting at home locked down in 2020, he had a lot of time, like the rest of us, to reflect. The product of this reflection is his new album, Council Skies. Exploring young love, and coming of age in the “concrete and the dirt” of council estates, The Mancunion sat down with Noel Gallagher to find out more.
“This is the first album which my actual band all played on, because usually I would do it all myself”, Noel Gallagher tells the Mancunion. “When you eventually get to hear it, it’s very eclectic. It’s not as far out as Who Built The Moon?, but there’s a run of the first 6 or 7 songs, not one song that follows the other is the same stylistically.” Referencing the infamous addition of Charlotte Marionneau to the band on his last studio album, Gallagher adds that “there’s no scissors on it.” One rumour dispelled, at least.
Council Skies comes from the name of a collection of Pete McKee art, which Noel Gallagher owned and caught a glance of it on his coffee table when writing the titular song. “He paints people from council estates […] I just glanced at that book that was on a coffee table at home and I was like ‘ah, f*ck, hang on a minute’.” “I called Pete and I said, ‘am I alright using this?’, and he said, ‘yeah of course’, and then it all started to take shape really.”
Lockdown was also an important factor in the writing of the record. “If you can put yourself back into that period, we didn’t really know what the future was going to be because none of us had lived through a pandemic before. We were kind of stood, looking at the skies going ‘What the f*ck? What is the next few years gonna be like?’ […] I was just reflecting on how I’d got to where I’d got to and I had a lot of time to sit and think about it. It’s a reflective album, more than anything.”
The other important factor, of course, is Manchester itself. The streets of Longsight and Burnage is where Noel Gallagher grew up, and his music is forever linked to the city. Council Skies reflects this, with the photography for the album (shot by legendary Mancunian photographer Kevin Cummins) features locations from Gallagher’s life in the city. “I took photographs of significant spots on the way into town from Burnage. There’s Sifter’s Records”, infamously referenced in Oasis song ‘Shakermaker’, “there’s Burnage Community Centre where we used to go glue sniffing, the Apollo, the shops of Levenshulme and Ardwick and Piccadilly Station […] it’s got a very council estate, northern feel to it.”
The front cover artwork is of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ equipment set up on the centre circle of Maine Road, the demolished stadium of Gallagher’s beloved Manchester City in Moss Side, which is now a housing estate.
While Noel Gallagher is keen to stress that the album isn’t about Manchester, it’s clear that his love for the city is something that has influenced Council Skies. “When you go back to Manchester, you’re very aware that you’re in a city with a strong identity, with an amazing history, and an amazing musical history, and a very f*cking cool present […] it’s why people like us, we never really lose our accent because it’s embedded in us […] when I go back to Manchester, on the surface, there’s a new street here, there’s a new thing in the Northern Quarter there, but it never really changes because the people are the same.”
Growing up in Burnage, a stone’s throw away from Manchester’s student areas, Noel Gallagher is well acquainted with Fallowfield. “I used to work at a restaurant that used to be called the Jabberwock. It’s a big old pub on the corner […] I used to be a dishwasher, just on a Saturday night. One of the guys that used to work in there was the drummer from Magazine.” The building that housed the Jabberwock is now occupied by 256 and Studio Bar. “And of course, one of the maddest buildings of all time, The Toast Rack […] because the album artwork took a few twists and turns, I got a load of old pictures from Manchester from the 60s and 70s, and there’s an amazing picture of the Toast Rack. What a f*cking mad building that is!”
Noel Gallagher keeps returning to the same strand of thought on Manchester, which is that the more it changes, the more it stays the same. “When I follow [Manchester] City away, I don’t go in a box, I’ll go on the terraces with fans. The culture and the language and the humour is still the same as it was 30-40 years ago, just that people are wearing different clothes. With cities like Manchester and Liverpool and Dublin and Glasgow, they’ve all got a soul, and it’s in the dirt under your nails. It must be something in the water where cosmetically, the city changes, but it forever stays the same.”
Council Skies’ singles display many different sides to Gallagher’s musicianship. There’s ‘Pretty Boy’ which is reminiscent of The Cure’s style, the noir of ‘Dead To The World’, and the soaring titular track, where the video was filmed at the recently reopened historic venue New Century Hall. “When it was decided ‘Council Skies’ was going to be a single, it was like, we’re going to have to film it in Manchester, and then somebody had showed me pictures of New Century Hall and the lighting rig that’s in the ceiling. We were going to film it outdoors in Manchester and I was like, ‘Look, it is going to f*cking p*ss it down’. It rains in August so it’s going to f*cking rain in March.”
“You know down each side of the room, there’s those padded bars right the way down the wall that you can lean on. They had in them the longest ashtrays in the world. It was one big ashtray, and it was just like a trough […] all the fellas used to stand smoking while their wives were all dancing on the dancefloor to whoever was playing that night. They were all drinking bitter and smoking.” Gallagher also notes that Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones played there in 60s and 70s, which musician, journalist and friend John Robb told him during the shooting of the video. Robb makes a cameo as a barman.
“This is again one of the great things about Manchester. An old building like that, it never gets knocked down, it’s been kind of reimagined, and now it’s reopened and it’s great. Whereas, in London, that would already be flats, because London’s forever expanding and it’s a sprawling thing. That would be luxury flats now. And it would be a piece of local history gone forever.” The more it changes, the more it stays the same.
Noel Gallagher will return to Manchester on the 26th of August, headlining the first major outdoor show in Wythenshawe Park. “My promoters were saying that they were thinking of doing this regular thing in Wythenshawe Park, and this is before they knew anything about the album. Ironically, this is gonna be my first British gig promoting an album called Council Skies, in the middle of the biggest council estate in Europe. It just all fell into place which is f*cking magical.”
When asking if Mancunian gigs are still the best and most special for him, there isn’t an atom of doubt in Noel Gallagher’s tone. “Of course. Mancunian gigs, either side of the show itself are quite stressful because you know everybody and everybody knows you, and they want to get in, and there’s tickets and guestlist and then you’ve got to stick around and see everybody. But the crowd itself, someone was asking me to describe a Mancunian crowd, and to me, it always just looks full of f*cking young people. More so than anywhere else I ever play. People go to concerts in London. And they stand there, and they want to hear this and this and this, and they f*cking leave because the tube f*cking shuts at 11 o clock. Whereas I just think Manchester’s all for kids, just out having great time.”
Manchester is like this in the present day. Just one glance at listings and there’s at least ten gigs a night in town, and they’re more often than not sold out. Bands without singles rub shoulders with the authors of their hopes and dreams, and the music that these budding musicians got hooked on in their bedrooms becomes a pillar of community. “And it was always the same.”, Noel Gallagher agrees. “More articulate people than me have tried to sum it up down the years but I guess, the one quote we always go back to is the one from Tony Wilson saying, ‘we do things differently up here’. There’s always been this thing about youth culture, and youth culture itself is not as mainstream because everything’s geared towards the economics of f*cking ridiculous pop music. But you have to go looking for it, and you know, that’s no bad thing really. But it’s there, and it’s vibrant, and it’s young, and it’s f*cking cool.”
“In the late 80s and early 90s, Manchester was the centre of the universe almost. But just because now there’s not huge, big f*cking bands, one a week coming out of Manchester doesn’t mean it’s not happening, it is happening, you’ve just got to go and look for it […] I do pity, pity isn’t the right word, my two teenage boys now. They were born and raised in London, and I often just think how different they would be if they were Mancunians. They’re still cool and my children and all that, and they’re amazing, but I just think how different would they be? Because they look like Mancunians but sound like they’re from the home counties.”
Life is different for Noel Gallagher now, and Council Skies’ reflection doesn’t stop at the music. “I tell my kids tales of growing up [in Manchester] and they literally don’t believe you. And I’m just like ‘mate, this is like a regular thing, this is a daily thing up there’.” I tell him there’s a man at my local pub that sells cheese; he recalls that someone used to sell legs of lamb at his. Strangely, our conversation comes full circle, as things in Manchester seem to have remained remarkably untouched between generations. “The more they change, the more they stay the same.”, Gallagher proclaims. It’s very hard to disagree with him.
Council Skies is out 2nd June. Pre-order here.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds play Wythenshawe Park on 26th August.