Sep 13

OASIS – “Don’t Look Back In Anger”

Popular167 comments • 14,910 views

#734, 2nd March 1996

dontlookback Their title-belt rhetoric, Liam’s snarl, and the brick-wall loudness of Oasis’ radio sound made it easy not to notice how thoughtful Noel Gallagher’s lyrics could be. They weren’t especially clever lyrics, or meaningful, or even coherent, but “Whatever” and “Some Might Say” and “Roll With It” and “Wonderwall” and this one all have a reflective streak – bits and bobs of beermat philosophy giving the lie to the idea that Oasis were only a gang of sneering blusterers. Of course, this is more evidence that Oasis weren’t ever really a Britpop band – that scene had an art-pop appreciation for smart, satirical or formally dense lyrics, and even the unworked songs are very knowing about it (“Woo-hoo!”, indeed)

Noel seemed to prefer offhand sincerity, collages of lines that sound good sung, their emotional payoffs poking through puns, rhymes and boilerplate. According to both brothers, the “So, Sally can wait…” line that rouses “Don’t Look Back In Anger” from its slumberous verses was a happy collaborative accident, Liam pouncing on a phrase Noel had pulled from the air and ordering him to keep it. But the whole song feels like a similar patchwork, really good lines – “Please don’t put your life in the hands / Of a rock and roll band” side by side with fumbling about slipping inside the eye of your mind. The magpie phrase-lifting of the title sets the tone for the whole thing.

It might seem perverse to focus on “Don’t Look Back In Anger”’s lyrics, which are a tiny part of why it got to Number One and why it’s one of the band’s milestone tracks. But the rest of it leaves me almost completely cold, even when I can see what it’s up to. The opening piano, a lift from “Imagine”, is one of the group’s least subtle bits of behavioural priming – this is going to be a Big Song, Noel shooting for the Hall of Fame with a pained, ponderous rock ballad. I rarely like that kind of thing, and no surprise, I don’t really like this. It’s a treacly, high-gravity listen – guitars and drums and strings all jostling for space, dragging each other down. And while Liam’s singing wouldn’t have fitted this song’s rueful tone, Noel’s delivery veers between heartfelt and maudlin – particularly when he lets the song fizzle out at the end. Comparisons to “Wonderwall” – with Liam in total, electrifying command of a much tighter arrangement – are inevitable, and don’t flatter this song.

But something I do appreciate about it is that, in the context of rock tear-jerkers and lighter-wavers, the scrappy lyrics are an asset. There’s a sort of story here* – bye, Sal! – but no message or particular claim of wisdom, nothing you’re expected to agree with. Instead, the song flails about in a sump of self-justification and sentimentality, and is all the better for it. I have been drunk, and I have put big, sentimental rock music on when drunk, and felt the beery swell of nameless emotion just out of reach of my befuddled mind, and while I’d never use this track for it, I can recognise that use in it. That just-out-of-reachness – that catalyst for messy, dredged-up, inchoate feels – is the one way “Don’t Look Back In Anger” does stand comparison with “Wonderwall”.

*Though one particular coherent reading did jump out at me – what if that opening steal isn’t just a signal of the type of song this is going to be, but is an explicit admission: this song is Lennon fanfic, and Lennon is its “you”. It’s a fantasy where Noel gets to be John’s buddy – a Mary Stu. “Take me to the place that you go…” – and there’s Noel hanging out in Strawberry Fields, being there at the bed-in, helping him out – saving him, maybe – with some down-to-Earth Gallagher wisdom, vibing off his presence as “Sally” is left behind – no wonder Liam didn’t get to sing this – and kissed off with a snide cultural reference because that’s the kind of thing John Lennon does for Noel, his best friend forever. And there, walking on by, we shall leave them.



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  1. 1
    flahr on 7 Sep 2013 #

    Better than Imagine. Good guitar solo and probably the best single off of Morning Glory. I’m not usually fond of this sort of big stuff (“One Day Like This” brings me out in hives) but this I love. [7]

    (I appear to be the first voter, which seriously tempts me to give this a 10 just to freak out the next few voters.)

  2. 2
    Chelovek na lune on 7 Sep 2013 #

    Not sure it tells much of a story, at least not one that can be pieced together in semi coherent-fashion, but as a kind of pastiche of semi-psychedelic Beatles it is way better than anything the Rutles ever did. (This may not be the sort of comparison Oasis were hoping for, but still).

    Background music, really, but of a pretty high standard. Not a patch on “Wonderwall” – but what, if not the Rutles, it was like a good Jason Donovan track – oh that’s unduly harsh, maybe Rick Astley – of its day. Jollied up three minutes on the radio, no more, no less.

    And much, much, much, better and indescribably less smug and objectionable than “Imagine”, too.

    a 7 from me I think.

  3. 3
    @jon_roc on 7 Sep 2013 #

    Mammoth anthem tbh RT “@tomewing: “Don’t Look Back In Anger” – beery swayalong or Lennon fanfic? New Popular entry. http://t.co/CjRJmPZGBp”

  4. 4
    thefatgit on 7 Sep 2013 #

    It’s probably one of those Oasis songs, that after “Wonderwall”, is a well worn karaoke standard. Let me tell you it’s much tougher to sing than “Champagne Supernova”. There’s that strangulated bit in the chorus that catches me out, and emphasises the painful truth, that I should never stand up and drunkenly recite Noel’s lyrics into a microphone, especially “Don’t Look Back In Anger”. Or “Wonderwall”. Or “Champagne Supernova”. I have no business attempting any of these. But when they hand out the karaoke songbook, it’s probably the Oasis ones I look for first because they SEEM the easiest to sing.

  5. 5
    The Woose on 7 Sep 2013 #

    I agree that it’s without meaning, that it’s a deliberate attempt to be anthemic, that its 90s ubiquity grates.

    But you know what? It’s well put together and it works, for all its insincerity. I would also go for a 7.

  6. 6
    Tom on 7 Sep 2013 #

    Oh I think it’s very sincere – I never get a feeling of insincerity from them at this stage.

  7. 7
    Dan Worsley on 7 Sep 2013 #

    This does the job, a big portentous heartfelt tune which recalls the glory days of many a golden oldie (bit of Bowie, soupcon of Who, loads of Beatles), Gallagher at his magpie best. Still they were arrogant enough at the time that they manage to pull it off and make it seem important, a statement. It’s an intoxicating concoction but as Tom points out it ultimately doesn’t mean anything.

    If I were being generous it’s a lament for the damage Thatcher and her generation had wrought on Gallagher’s contemporaries and the working class he grew up with, but I don’t think Gallagher’s as subtle as that, I suspect all he was after a ‘Hey Jude’ for the ecstacy generation. I guess it was no surprise that this ended new Labour bating TV epic ‘Our Friends in the North’, both a requiem and a celebration.

    Another 7/10. With a drink or two and an arm around a mate, maybe 8.

  8. 8
    @rocking_bob on 7 Sep 2013 #

    Tom Ewing on “the beery swell of nameless emotion” that is Oasis’s Don’t Look Back In Anger: http://t.co/nlIiHZ64qU

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    Tom on 7 Sep 2013 #

    I can’t remember why I didn’t watch Our Friends In The North, just wasn’t watching much TV at this point I guess. I think I’d have liked this more if I’d remembered it from the context of a good drama series.

  10. 10
    The Woose on 7 Sep 2013 #

    #7 when the Manics saw that final episode of Our Friends.., Nicky Wire was apparently fuming they’d chosen this rather than the (in his opinion) much more suitable (and as-then unreleased) A Design For Life.

    I can see where he’s coming from.

  11. 11
    James BC on 7 Sep 2013 #

    This was when they got to do two songs on Top of the Pops – this and Cum On Feel the Noize. A TOTP first, and possibly last.

  12. 12
    Izzy on 7 Sep 2013 #

    I never much liked this, it just seemed like so much of nothing – epitomised by Noel doing the vocals himself, as if the whole point was to get him to no.1 regardless of content. I don’t buy for a second the idea that he suits this better than Liam. Liam’s the better singer and clearly what elevates them to the upper tiers; he should sing all Oasis’ songs. The same even goes for their blindside bunny, years later, on which I do think Noel does an excellent job.

    The one time I saw Oasis – early enough that they were still on the rise in a reasonable-sized venue, but late enough that they were already obviously going to be the band – Liam cried off sick during the first song and Noel had to do the whole gig himself. I do respect him as a pro for that alone. I wish I could remember more about it, other than feeling of complete anticlimax.

    Listening now, this is okay but a real mixed bag. Half of it is flabby and half good: the verses and the chorus drag, the bridge is fantastic; the end of the guitar solo is nice, the start and other licks are boring; the intro is dull, the outro quite sweet. Could be a five or a six in truth, and in the end I’ll go for the higher number for the shots of them nervously arriving in the taxi, they still look like the novice band they once were, just on the cusp of making it, just before they got lazy. (6)

  13. 13
    lonepilgrim on 7 Sep 2013 #

    I’ve just watched the video again and after about 2 minutes 45 seconds was thinking this isn’t so bad only to realise that there was another 2 minutes to go – and so it drags on. I’d prefer an edited version; it’s got a memorable tune, some poppy catchphrases and is performed with commitment. I don’t know why Noel felt the urge to make it (and so many of their later songs) so long. Still one of their better songs for me

  14. 14
    Dan Worsley on 7 Sep 2013 #

    Just think how long this would’ve been on ‘Be Here Now’, you wouldn’t have got much change out of 15 minutes.

  15. 15
    Ed Furniss on 7 Sep 2013 #

    I was in a mainstream club in the 1990s post-11pm and this song came on over the PA. The effect was extraordinary. The whole club, boys, girls, drunk, sober stopped and sang along – it had the effect of a modern-day hymn, like a football chant or Abide With Me. Whether its lyrics mean anything or not – I think they do, its an battle cry against the ‘woe is me’ grunge generation – or whether the music is a rip-off (I thought Oasis were more an amalgam of Sex Pistols, Slade and La’s actually) or prduction is sloppy, for me this song hits the spot where many more clever, ‘art-school’ pretension could never expect to reach. And Noel’s voice is – and still is – great.

  16. 16
    @bowiesongs on 7 Sep 2013 #

    “This song is Lennon fanfic, & Lennon is its “you”. It’s a fantasy where Noel gets to be John’s buddy – a Mary Stu.” http://t.co/FNYijoFvux

  17. 17
    speedwell54 on 7 Sep 2013 #

    I try not to look back and over analyse stuff too much; liked it enough at the time. I don’t get hung up on the lyric of most things, and it has to be pretty clunky for it to be real downer. This is a mixture of words that go together well, and other lines, but it does “sound good sung”.

    Rewatching the video, it’s not great. I’m not sure it is a story video, occasionally it literally follows the words, but aside from a few nice shots- for me – it is as difficult as the lyric.

    Watching Noel Gallagher’s HFB perform, what is essentially a faithful cover, is somehow more enjoyable.

    For Oasis though, 5.

  18. 18
    Mark G on 7 Sep 2013 #

    #11, not the first (The Jam did “Precious” and “Town called Malice” the same week, apparently the first time since The Beatles), and subsequently The Ramones and The Sex Pistols both did too.

  19. 19
    Will on 7 Sep 2013 #

    Personally, I’ve never been able to see beyond the lyrics with this one. ‘Slip inside the eye of your mind’ What? How do you do that exactly? ‘Her soul slides away’? When was the last time you witnessed someone’s soul slide away?

    Easy to take the piss of course, but it does sound as if NG sat down with the specific intention of writing an anthem, couldn’t think of anything to write about and just chucked together a few random phrases that were passing through his head at the time (some of which he’d already used in previous songs).

  20. 20
    flahr on 7 Sep 2013 #

    incidentally – it’s “Sally CAN wait”

  21. 21
    Kinitawowi on 8 Sep 2013 #

    I can’t not hear this as Hale And Pace’s “Don’t Talk Back You Wanker”. It’s naff, but good naff, and clearly better than most of their stuff… probably a 6.

    #11: I distinctly remember Robbie Williams doubling up during the I’ve Been Expecting You era (with Man Machine and, possibly, [BUNNY])…

  22. 22
    Elmtree on 8 Sep 2013 #

    The video is a real missed opportunity. An Avengers-themed video is absolutely the right way to suggest the sixties without just copying something a contemporary band did, and Noel had the good sense not to cast himself as John Steed-but it goes nowhere and doesn’t fit the mood of the song at all. Shame he never really set his mind to writing the kind of song that would, in fact-trying to write a 60s spy movie-style song might have forced him to write something with a bit more lightness of touch than he ever pulled off.

    Meanwhile, this is about the only time Oasis really nail it on a single. There’s a coherent feel to the lyrics, they sound like they mean something to Noel even if we’re at a distance, and the ending is committed. The guitar arrangement is the problem-it wants to do Hendrix but it’s not that kind of song. Gallagher said later that he couldn’t resist filling up every space on his songs with a guitar lick of some kind, and this is a classic case study. And the pace is very sludgy.

    Am I the only person who thinks that the piano line doesn’t sound *entirely* like an Imagine rip-off? Lennon’s line sounds delicately minimalist and it loops again and again, under the whole song-proto trip-hop, almost, like a Massive Attack percussion loop. Gallagher’s is clearly an intro, and sounds much more knees-up; it sounds like the start of a piece of trad-pop, played at home on a piano that sounds a lot more working-class.

  23. 23
    Ed on 8 Sep 2013 #

    It’s all about ‘Our Friends in the North’, for my money the greatest TV drama series ever.

    If you haven’t seen it yet, you should track it down right now.

    If you have, I defy you to watch this without tearing up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ivHzbw4RLQ

    Simon Cellan Jones, the director, apparently chose the song when it was just an album track on ‘What’s the Story’, and it was pure chance that it was number one the week that the final episode aired.

    In the context of the series, the weaknesses of ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ become strengths. Its sentimentality has been earned, and its borrowings from the past connect the story’s beginning in the 1960s to its end in the 1990s. The episode-ending songs are brilliant every time, but this one in particular becomes an impossiblly powerful evocation of the passage of time, nostalgia and hope, success and failure, life and death.

    As Dan suggests @7, ‘Don’t Look Back’ was a perfect anthem for the New Labour era: full of confidence and commitment, but with an emptiness at its heart. Its use in ‘Our Friends’ both exploits that emptiness, and fills it with meaning.

    For that reason, and that reason alone, it’s a 10 for me.

  24. 24
    swanstep on 8 Sep 2013 #

    When Noel Gallagher threatens to punch you in the nose for this score Tom, you can try to smooth things over by pointing out that in truth you think DLBIA is as good as ‘Hey Jude’ and twice as good as ‘Imagine’. :)

    As for the Lennon fanfic reading, I thought the ‘start a revolution from my bed’ clinched that the fantasy was that Noel (or Noel’s narrator) *was* Lennon (or at least strongly Lennon-like). Listening closely to the line again though, the ‘my’ is kind of swallowed and could easily be a ‘thy’… so maybe.

    Anyhow, I guess I give DLBIA a 6 or a 7 (depending on mood) – it’s lyrically only *just* good enough to pass, but it’s a robust enough tune and arrangement to be IIRC kind of a knockout on first hearing (seeing it in that TV show helps recapture that first innocent-eared perspective – thanks Ed, #23!).

    DLBIA’s not much of an earworm I find, however, precisely because it’s so eager to please that it gets tiresome very quickly. Also, DLBIA is always a little *more* stately than I remember it – does anyone know whether this is one of those recordings, like U2’s Pride (In The Name Of love), where they deliberately mastered it slowly, lowering pitch and smearing out the beats slightly to get a better feel?

  25. 25
    weej on 8 Sep 2013 #

    DLBIA is rubbish of the worst sort, not only offensively bad in-and-of-itself but having a pernicious effect for the following decade and a half, possibly longer. I’ve spent the last 17 years denouncing it to anyone who’ll listen, and it looks like I’ll have to continue here as nobody else is doing so.
    Let’s start with the lyrics. Is there a word to describe something which uses the vocabulary of the last generation to construct something which sounds like it could be meaningful, though it’s just an empty collection of phrases? Let’s call it “meaningish”. DLBIA represents the first truly successful deployment of meaningish lyrics. There is no narrative here whatsoever. I don’t want to suggest Liam & Noel were acting cynically, or that they were stupid, they just found themselves in a situation where they could get away with this shit, and they did. Let’s look at a few examples:

    “Slip inside the eye of your mind” – nuff sed already
    “So I’ll start a revolution from my bed / cause you said the brains I had went to my head” – yes, because that’s John Lennon and something that rhymes with it, fuck’s sake.
    “Stand up beside the fireplace / Take that look from off your face” – Just because your mum said it doesn’t mean it’s useful here, Noel.
    “You ain’t ever gonna burn my heart out” – Do what!? Burn it out? How incongruous and plain wrong.
    “…Sally can wait” Who is Sally? Nobody cares, that’s who. Not even the group.
    “…as we’re walking on by” Oh, now it’s Walk On By.
    “Her soul slides away” – Slides away? What?
    “But don’t look back in anger” Not Osborne, but Bowie – and lifted entirely for reasons of meaningishness.

    Ok, so I’ve basically just listed every line of the first verse and chorus, but you get the point. The fact that they were allowed to get away with pretending to have written an Indelible Rock Classic and have what seemed like the entire nation go along with them just makes me despair. The opening lift from Imagine is telling – I’ve seen the savaging that particular Classic has got on here, but come on, you might think it naive or sanctimonious but at least Lennon was trying to say something. I’d like this to be a case of “destroy your heroes” – in this case by relegating their lyrics further into the realm of cliché – but this is the time Liam turned up at the Brit Award with a scouse accent, and as Tom has said, it’s absolutely sincere.
    The worst thing about DLBIA is what it meant. The art school element of Britpop was dead and buried, the 60s pasticheists triumphant. The political, the experimental, the gay, the weird – these were all swept away by the unstoppable force of this song. Now it was Oasis or Weller on the front of Select every month, and every other group expected to fit in or be ridiculed. For every f-grade landfill indie band of the last two decades who could’ve been trying out new sounds, for every meaningish lyric (Coldplay’s Speed Of Sound is a good example), for the ghettoization of pop music, for New Lad and everything that meant, for a million dicks with acoustic guitars at parties, we have this song to thank.

  26. 26
    Tom on 8 Sep 2013 #

    #24 the fact that it’s “my” bed is the most fannish thing about it surely ;)

    #25 great comment. I think you’re probably right that this is the song where the hegemony shifted to Britrock (though things like laddism were forces well before DLBIA) – re the lyrics style, obviously I’m more charitable to it than you are, but I also get the feeling Noel owes a little bit to self-declared non-lyricist Barney Sumner: patchwork a bunch of meaningless lines together and see what falls out. The difference being in the singing style – Sumner is far more affectless, mocking the listener who expects meaning (while delivering quite a lot of emotional impact anyway, of course). Noel, on the other hand, has a strained, emotional rock singing style and I think that’s where the “meaningish” effect comes from: a trick of delivery as much as verbal content.

  27. 27
    thefatgit on 8 Sep 2013 #

    Weej has now convinced me that DLBIA is a Britpop “Life On Mars”. And I respond to both songs in the same way under the influence of alcohol; they are boozy sing-alongs. Try and analyse them and there’s nothing there. Nothing at all.

  28. 28
    Mark G on 8 Sep 2013 #

    The main problem is that Noel never ever went with anything other than his initial lyric. It’s all ‘first draft’ stuff, which isnannoying as there are loads of great lines set in with random rubbish.

    Oh, and I’m tempted to say “It’s a piano, that is what they sound like” except Noel has form for this kind of thing.

  29. 29
    @weesimon on 8 Sep 2013 #

    Beautiful piece of writing by @tomewing about a song (and band) I loathe, passionately. A joy :) http://t.co/2aoYubKLMS

  30. 30
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 8 Sep 2013 #

    Lodger is by some way my favourite Bowie LP, but I think you have to do a lot of work — and some of it pretty suspect — entirely to acquit the er original “Look Back in Anger” of what weej is calling meaningishness, once you listen past (in turn) Db’s “strained, emotional rock singing style and… trick of delivery”. Was its lyric-writer using Burroughsian cut-ups still at this point? My guess is yes, and if not, he was surely using Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards.

    My caveat, I suppose, would be that (a) I’m bothered least by this particular Gallagher tic, because I don’t pay much attention to songwords at the best of times, and (b) I’m overly fascinated by when once radical techniques begin to return as as merely trad habits.

    That said, “Slip inside the eye of your mind” at least is really not hard to gloss: “the eye of your mind” is a way of saying “your mind’s eye” — to slip behind it is to place yourself (momentarily) in the sensibility of your truest imagining inner self, the mind behind your mind’s eye, where you might find “a better place to play”. (I like the use of the word “slip” here: it suggests that this move is really only an easy step away, and not a hard thing to do, despite being a thing the song is saying that the “you” doesn’t do enough…)

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