For a song that first appeared as a CD-only B-side to a single that didn’t feature on any album, ‘Half The World Away’ has been punching above its weight for some time. Now, it’s the soundtrack to this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert, something which, if your annoying mates on Facebook are anything to go by, is a key event in the festive season.
The cutesy, uber-twee cover is performed by Aurora, a 19-year-old Norwegian singer who released her debut EP earlier this year and is signed to Glassnote Records. Hardly a nobody, but nowhere near the status of Lily Allen and Tom Odell, singers of the past two John Lewis Christmas ads. Yesterday she had just over 11,000 Twitter followers. Expect that to change, dramatically, very soon.
The recognition, therefore, all comes from the song. But how did ‘Half The World Away’ reach the kind of ubiquity where it’s deemed universally loveable enough to appeal to absolutely everybody?
The original version of the song was a B-side to Oasis’ December ’94 single ‘Whatever’, and has since appeared on B-sides compilation ‘The Masterplan’ and Best-Of ‘Stop The Clocks’. It really took on a new lease of life when Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash chose it as the theme to their sitcom The Royle Family, making it perhaps the only B-side every generation of your family knows the words to. Its wistful mood suited the show perfectly, just as it does John Lewis’ tale of an elderly gent feeling lonely at Christmas.
That sense of yearning may have had something to do with it being recorded, quite literally, half the world away from their Burnage base, at The Congress House studio in Austin, Texas while Oasis were on tour in the States. The band’s Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs played acoustic guitar and electric piano that day, and the track’s writer, Noel Gallagher, sang, played guitar and drummed while Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan played bass, although given Noel’s habit of re-recording bass parts on songs during Oasis’ earlier years, The Chief may well have had a hand in that too.
Speaking to Melody Maker around the release of ‘The Masterplan’, Gallagher recalled the session in Austin (“I played the drums on that one, because our ex-drummer wasn’t the most talented people in the world”) and described how he tried to teach McCarrol the shuffling snare rhythm, played with brushes, but gave up after a couple of hours and did it himself.
The song’s instant familiarity and easiness could have something to do with its origins too. To say ‘Half The World Away’ was inspired by Burt Bacharach and Hal David would be to understate things. Listen to ‘This Guy’s In Love With You’, written by the prolific songwriters for Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass and it’s pretty obvious what Gallagher had in mind at the time of writing. He told Melody Maker he moved a few chords around, and “there you go, you got another song,” although he did add that he wasn’t sure anyone likes the song apart from him and Paul Weller, who names it as his favourite Oasis song. As a hat tip, Gallagher occasionally covered the 1968 classic during solo live sets.
Lyrically, it found Gallagher longing for a better place, a new life away from “the same old hole”, and knowing the subject matter of The Royle Family, it seems like a perfect fit, although when Gallagher was first called about the sitcom using the song, a bad connection meant he thought the actual Royal family were asking to use his music. He suggested ‘Married With Children’ instead, but Aherne and Cash insisted on their initial choice.
Years later and the song is far bigger than its origins, an oddity compared to the more bombastic songs in the band’s catalogue and the sort of track Gallagher, as a multi-million-selling, multi-millionaire, is rarely able to write these days. And one thing’s for sure, it’ll make for an extra-good Christmas round at Noel’s gaff.