You know a song has reached the pinnacle in rock when it makes people grimace in guitar shops; not because it's bad but because nearly everyone plays it when they pick up a guitar. Smoke On The Water, Stairway… and Wonderwall. Only one is a real songwriter's song; something one player and an acoustic guitar can deliver, and frequently will on high streets and in bars. It's a classic; a timeless sing-along with that elusive kind of universal appeal. But Noel Gallagher's own band didn't even like it when they first heard it.
"Everyone in the band went, 'I'm sorry but I don't f*****g think so," recalled Noel in a recent interview with That Pedal Show. Brother Liam was even more scathing.
"I remember Our Kid saying, and I'll never forget this, 'Why are you writing reggae songs?' And I was like, there speaks a man that has never heard reggae."
The younger Gallagher's confusion aside, at this point it was clear Noel knew what he was doing. From the watershed moment of writing Definitely Maybe's Live Forever, Oasis's songwriter had been in a seemingly endless creative purple patch.
"Because I'd got on such a mission as a songwriter, and it was happening, I could feel it happening, from that day of Live Forever, every song that I wrote, up until I'd say '97, is now world-famous," he told TPS. "And it was just a moment in time where I was living out of a suitcase," added Noel. "I had no girlfriend, had anywhere to live; that was my thing."
The girlfriend part might be questionable when it comes to Wonderwall. Its subject has often been the subject of much conjecture. Assumed to be about the Meg Matthews, who would become Noel's first wife in 1997, Noel put the record straight on that recently.
"When I wrote it, we did the cover and there's a girl on the front who used to work in the Creation offices," he explained to Talk Sport earlier this year. "She had long blonde hair, she looked like my then-wife, Meg Matthews. Doing the interviews for the thing [later], and they say, 'Is this about your wife?', and what do you say? No? So you say yes but it's not about anyone in particular.'
"It's generic, which is why it's so popular, I guess," he added "Most of my great songs are about the universal truths of life? They're not really that autobiographical."
As Fran Healy asked on Travis's 1997 hit Writing To Reach You, 'What's a Wonderwall anyway?' The recording of the song is much more interesting – involving Noel atop an actual wall.
Oasis's second album (What's The Story) Morning Glory was recorded at Monmouth's Rockfield studios in Wales during the May and June of 1995. To mark the 25th anniversary of the album that made the band massive, Noel returned to the studio for the documentary above, and it turned up some interesting details as he dug through his memories in the studio where they were made.
"That's the wall I sat on that day like a f*****g idiot, playing Wonderwall," says Noel at one point as he walks around Rockfield's outer compound. "I remember a load of sheep were watching me do Wonderwall. I don't know who was more freaked out – me or them."
"I remember saying to Owen [Morris, co-producer alongside Noel], I've got this song called Wonderwall – I want to record it on a wall," adds Noel.
So the song came first, it's not actually named after the unsuspecting wall on the back of the studio. But Noel was serious about the idea of field recording with stepladders and £20k of microphones. And it happened.
"I remember being really cold and saying in the mic to Owen, 'I think this is a shit idea.'"
While the results didn't make it into the final version of Wonderwall, Noel's performance on the wonder wall did make the album; you can hear it right at the very beginning of Morning Glory's opener Hello – complete with birds singing in the background.
That was a rare moment of experimentation in sessions that were focussed and relatively fast. In sharp contrast to the previous 14-month sessions the Welsh studios had hosted for part of the Stone Roses' Second Coming album. "I set up everything pretty quickly and Noel arrived at is was really fast," recalls resident engineer Nick Brine in the documentary. "They got used to the place pretty quick. They were buzzing to be here and everyone was in here from 10 or 11 in the morning to late at night every day, there was something going on – it was one song after another."
The residential facilities at the studio made sure the band were on-site – with the exception of trips to the local town Monmouth's pubs with Brine as the designated driver for members who weren't needed at the studio.
Brine is the key figure for details of the sessions, and kept written records from the time. He went into much more detail with Oasis fan and YouTuber James Hargreaves in the video above. Brine confirms the mic setup for the sessions with a Neumann kmi84 for the bright top end combined with the Neumann U47 FET or AKG 414 condenser mics. Liam would use the U47 for his vocals too.
But the acoustic guitar was especially vital on Morning Glory; most of the band hadn't even heard the songs properly before going into record them and Noel's acoustic guide tracks – recorded to a click track with a guide vocal – became the foundation for everything.
"The challenge when we went into Morning Glory was, we never demoed any of it, and I wrote them all on an acoustic guitar on the road or in hotel rooms," Noel confirmed to That Pedal Show.
While Oasis played hard in the evenings, Noel worked hard and sessions were clearly prioritising efficiency; Brine confirms they reused the wall experiment recording for Wonderwall's guide track, while the rest of the songs were done in the studio itself.
The acoustic guitar used on the song is now in Brine's possession after it was gifted to him by Noel following Brine's own guitar getting smashed by Liam in the later Be Here Now sessions at Abbey Road. This Takamine FP-460SC cutaway (with a treo-fitted Mimesis pickup), was used on the album alongside what is believed to be an Epiphone Frontier. The Takamine still has the same strings on it that were used for tracking Wonderwall.
Hargreaves points out that this same Takamine was likely the one Noel used for a 1996 performance of Wonderwall On The Late Late Show, as well as Oasis's MTV Unplugged and Knebworth performances from that year. But the electric guitar used on the song is the one with even greater star quality.
Firstly, the Fender Strat used for the recording is unusual in being the first single-coil guitar Noel used in Oasis. Secondly, he bought it from Johnny Marr – who used it on a number of Smiths recordings. Its year is unconfirmed but That Pedal Show believes it's circa 1965.
"This one I bought off him, because I was feeling a bit bad," Noel explained to TPS, deciding he had to stump up after Marr had gifted him some of his Smiths Les Pauls. "I'd never had a Strat, I'd never played anything with single coil pickups. I'm not sure I knew or was interested in the difference to it. I played this guitar on the Morning Glory sessions – this guitar is on Wonderwall, it's on Don't Look Back In Anger [the solo]."
The part in question doubles the acoustic lead melody in the chorus, with Owen Morris and Bonehead adding additional mellotron parts after Noel had stolen his thunder by playing all the guitar parts on the song.
Over two decades later Noel dusted the Fender Strat down out of storage and wrote AKA… What A Life! from his debut solo album with the High Flying Birds. He then discovered from Marr what he'd written Smiths songs including Girlfiend In A Coma and Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before on it.
As Noel continues to revisit the song live in his solo career – taking some influence from Ryan Adams' plaintive 2003 version of the song that the Oasis songwriter is said to have admired – one question remains, why did Noel let Liam sing it on the album? Especially considering his brother didn't seem to like the song at first.
"I didn't," Noel told Frank Skinner on the latter's TV talk show in 2000. "We had a long heated debate about who was going to sing that song, and in the end his bottom lip went too far down towards his kneecaps. He looked very, very sad. So I said, 'Alright, I'm going to sing the other one, which was Don't Look Back In Anger."
Nevertheless, Noel would often sing Wonderwall on acoustic versions during Oasis sets as the band struggled for a while to perform a full-band version they were satisfied with.
As for how the song was written in the first place, we know from the Gorge Martin video below that a capo Noel was gifted added inspiration on the second fret to a four-chord progression he'd had kicking around for a while. But there are different accounts on the when and where of writing it.
Noel told Brine he wrote it on the train on the way to Rockfield. A tall tale that Noel would often use. As James Hargreaves points out in his excellent video on the making of the song above (well worth watching as it confirms Noel probably tracked the bass and later outro piano on the song too), Noel has consistently said elsewhere that Wonderwall was written over time in various locations, including Brighton, Camden and Scotland. But the initial inspiration for it came after a show.
"A fan one night after a gig earnestly put this thing into my hand and she closed it," Noel told Sirius XM. "She closed it and she said, 'That's your wishing stone, you should write a song about that.' I wrote this song Wonderwall and for a long time the title was called Wishing Stone." Luckily the obvious inspiration of George Harrison's album Wonderwall Music stepped in and a classic was born. But even its writer is still baffled by its legacy.
"My daughter is now 20 years of age and she gets people coming up to her saying, 'No way, did your dad actually write the song Wonderwall?!'" Noel reflected to SiriusXM in 2021.
"She gets mobbed over it and she was;t even f*****g there. It's a strange thing, we didn't perform that song for a long time because we could never get it right. Liam hated it, I'm not sure the rest of the band were too keen on it. Why that song took hold on the planet the way that it did is crazy. There's no rhythm or reason for it. It just is. It's mad when you think of it and I try not to think of it. It's just one of my songs."