How “Wonderwall” made Oasis huge—and still haunts the Gallaghers

How “Wonderwall” made Oasis huge—and still haunts the Gallaghers

That Oasis wasn’t immediately massively popular in the U.S. was surprising. After all, Britpop’s hooligans had all the ingredients for musical dominance from day one. Vocalist Liam Gallagher and his older brother Noel—a pair of rowdy Manchester loudmouths who survived tumultuous childhoods—oozed confidence and charisma: Early interviews often devolved into bouts of profanity-filled shit-talking during which they attacked other bands and, more often than not, each other. In 1995, NME journalist John Harris even released a single, “Wibbling Rivalry,” consisting of nothing more than an audio interview with the brothers that deteriorated into incomprehensible and hilarious bickering. 

Still, Noel Gallagher backed up Oasis’ braggadocio (and overshadowed their snits) with serious songwriting talent. The band’s 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe, was full of soaring, brilliant guitar anthems indebted to The Beatles and the Stones. The album’s lyrics fantasized about the good life: adrenalized rock ’n’ roll, debauchery, everlasting love, perfect relationships, and that superhuman feeling that comes from rock music. Liam Gallagher’s nasal sneer perfectly captured the album’s optimism and handled the album’s other big influence—the brash glam rock of the ’70s—with appropriate swagger. In contrast with the Serious Grunge Bands of the day, the members of Oasis were far more interested in actually enjoying themselves and their music.

Definitely Maybe made Oasis hugely popular in the U.K., giving rivals Blur actual competition for Britpop supremacy. Yet the band remained just an alt-rock curiosity in the U.S. until the 1995 release of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, and its hit single, “Wonderwall.” A No. 2 hit on the U.K. singles charts, the song also spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, starting in late 1995 and dribbling into 1996. Morning Glory had just as many hooks as Definitely Maybe, but its ambitions were greater: It was a collection of anthems rather than rock singles. Drawn-out tunes such as the psychedelic sprawl of “Champagne Supernova” and jangly distortion hurricane of “Morning Glory” were the norm; even the catchiest singles (“Don’t Look Back In Anger,” “Some Might Say”) hovered around the five-minute mark.

Among these grandiose songs, “Wonderwall” stood out for its simplicity. Widely believed to be about Noel’s future wife, Meg Matthews, the tune is dominated by acoustic-guitar strumming (courtesy of Noel and Paul Arthurs) and Alan White’s gently pattering drums. Arthurs’ Mellotron, which adds cello-like grooves underneath, and Noel’s resigned piano coda provide subtle color. Over the top were Liam Gallagher’s vocals, which often landed just slightly off-kilter. In particular, when he wails the chorus, “Because maybe / You’re gonna be the one that saves me / And after all / You’re my wonderwall,” his voice wavers back and forth between flat and on-key—and it’s an entirely effective delivery, as it makes him sound far more vulnerable. 

The idea of looking to someone else for salvation isn’t unique to the lyrics of “Wonderwall.” After all, the idea that love saves is a well-worn thematic trope in both secular and Christian music. However, the protagonist in “Wonderwall” has to defend his feelings (“I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now”) and seems uncertain whether his beloved is up to the task of redemption (“I said maybe / You’re gonna be the one that saves me”). Rather than describe a swaggering lothario, “Wonderwall” represents someone who’s an insecure underdog at heart. 

A song rooted in insecurity—and finding concord in a relationship—turned out to be in sharp contrast to Oasis in real life. Noel Gallagher’s bombshell about the song’s real origins drove that point home: Instead of a song about his future wife, “Wonderwall” was apparently actually “a song about an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself,” he told the BBC in 2002. Counting on a pretend pal for rescue could seem like a profoundly sad act of desperation, but “Wonderwall” feels more like a charming expression of child-like optimism—and a rather poignant one at that, considering it came from blokes better known for their shenanigans.

In this way, “Wonderwall” recalls Definitely Maybe, whose themes included wishing hard for something to come true. “Digsy’s Dinner” imagined what a perfect relationship might be, while the fame of the character in “Rock ’N’ Roll Star” was dubious: “In my mind, my dreams are real.” Naturally, these inward-focused songs also contained more than a touch of self-absorption. 

But upon closer look, so does “Wonderwall,” though its vanity is rooted in melancholy. The phrase “I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now” is as narcissistic as it is defensive, even if the line is rooted in self-doubt. Lyrics seemingly pointing to extinguished love are ignored as the song pushes forward its declarations of devotion. It’s a mystery if the so-called “wonderwall” has been swayed by this sweet talk. Even the repetition of the song’s final line, “You’re gonna be the one that saves me,” doesn’t clarify; the lyric can be interpreted as delusional, optimistic, or joyous.

In a testament to its ambiguity, “Wonderwall” has been interpreted hundreds of different ways over the last two decades. The most notable cover version is arguably Ryan Adams’ stripped-down, reverb-slathered cover on 2003’s Love Is Hell Pt. 1 EP, although Jay-Z’s take on the tune—he scornfully rapped over the song at the 2008 Glastonbury Festival, allegedly in response to a spat with Oasis—comes in a close second. Since Oasis’ acrimonious 2009 split, the brothers have also “covered” their own tune: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds has continued to perform “Wonderwall” live, while brother Liam Gallagher’s post-Oasis band, Beady Eye, also performed the song live at the 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony. According to Noel, that was only after he declined to appear—and before they could perform the song, Beady Eye had to pass along a re-recorded version for approval.  

That a song so focused on achieving solace with another person has become the source of interpersonal friction and discord is rather ironic. But “Wonderwall” is all about messy emotions. And in the end, its sentiments—that you can’t always get what you want, that love is uncertain, that reaching out to others is frightening—give the song much broader appeal. After all, both hearts-for-eyes lovebirds and mopey forever-alones can relate to romantic ambiguity, and confusion is timeless. Yet the song is oddly applicable to non-romantic situations, too—everything from Hannah and Jessa’s awkward tub rendezvous on a recent episode of Girls to a boozy bar sing-along seems like an appropriate time to crank up “Wonderwall.” The song fosters communal bonding. Despite its innate melancholy and loneliness, “Wonderwall” continues to unite more than it separates.