Gary Numan has never been on firm, 'authentic' ground as a songwriter. Whereas the likes of Oasis slot into a classic pop/rock lineage, Gary Webb (he took on the Numan stage name just in time for his debut Tubeway Army album) was not a fan of '50s or '60s music. As a child the flash of The Shadows' guitars catching the spotlight on a TV show excited his imagination, but the sounds didn't make much of an impression.
In the early 1970s he latched on to David Bowie (circa Ziggy Stardust), Marc Bolan and to a lesser extent Lou Reed, Roxy Music and Mott The Hoople. Once again it was the 'flash' of glam rock that was attractive but more subtly the freakish personas and individualistic music of these artists struck a chord with this softly-spoken introvert. He'd been writing short stories since the age of four and as he took his material more seriously, he started to flesh out his lyrics with ideas inspired by science fiction magazines and authors such as Philip K Dick and William Burroughs. The surreal scene setting, bizarre characters and futuristic themes of these novels offered oblique, otherwordly locations for him to express his own feelings which he would sing with all the introspective frailties of a sci-fi Morrissey. These qualities were already in evidence in the pop-punk of early Tubeway Army, who signed to Beggars Banquet Records in 1977.
By the time Tubeway Army trod the boards of punk clubs such as The Vortex and The Roxy most of the initial idealism of the movement had long since vanished but very few people were ready to own up to the fact. In retrospect some of the early three-minute Tubeway Army songs like 'That's Too Bad' and 'Bombers' stand up well against their contemporaries because of their pop suss and the urgency of recording over 20 songs in a couple of days. It was at one of these frantic sessions that Numan stumbled across his first synthesizer. He certainly wasn't the first musician to fall in love with the Moog's fat, burbling analogue sound but his approach was original. Brian Eno had briefly enjoyed fame in Roxy Music as a fully-fledged low-tech star but he had long since moved into more ambient territory with his mixture of studio strategies and DIY instinct. Apart from their one-off novelty hit 'Autobahn', Kraftwerk's exploration of flawless, machine-made pop hadn't made much of an impression on the High Street and even David Bowie was seen to be retreating to more esoteric ground with the Eno-influenced Low and 'Heroes'. Furthermore, these were well established pioneers rather than a 20-year-old from the suburbs of west London who was signed to a small indie label.
Numan was virtually alone in seeing the possibility of a 'synthesizer star' and much to the critics' initial anguish, he achieved success almost overnight. In late 1978 Beggars banquet released Tubeway Army's self-titled debut, mixing electronics with post-punk guitars and solid, no frills drumming by Gary's uncle, Jess Lidyard. The only other member of the band was Gary's best friend Paul Gardiner (who died of a heroin overdose in 1984) but their record label refused to let Numan take on solo status just yet. Although the post-punk electronica of Tubeway Army was briefly championed in the UK by Radio One DJ John Peel, Numan was in a hurry to get back to the studio. He recorded Replicas in five days at Gooseberry studios in London, utilising a stark, synthetic sound for most of the tracks, punctuated with more guitar-dominated songs such as 'It Must Have Been Years' and 'You Are In My Vision'. The album's first single 'Down In The Park' announced his radical change of direction but no one believed that the alienated, rythmical drone of the follow-up, Are 'Friends' Electric? would elbow its way past the likes of ELO and Blondie to the Number 1 slot.
Within weeks Numan was posing on Top Of The Pops in harsh white light, bringing a touch of showbiz camp to the clipped, motorik repetitiveness of the song. From that moment on he was simultaneously branded 'hero' and 'villain'.
When 'Cars' and The Pleasure Principle album both topped the UK charts in autumn 1979, he put together a
complete package of song, promo video and aloof solo stage image which would act as a catalyst on a new wave of suburban no-hopers who achieved fame through their own synth pop styles. In some cases like Depeche Mode,Numan's success encouraged them to switch from guitars to keyboards. In others, such as The Human League, OMD and Soft Cell, he opened up the market, both in the UK and the States where 'Cars' was a hit in 1980. Nevertheless, his detractors continued to attack him as 'pretentious' and 'bombastic'. This was a little unfair as his mixture of neon-tubed futuristic chic and android-like posing were born out of a strange combination of shyness and a passionate commitment to showmanship. He was often freakishly wooden on stage, an articulate but unwordly young man shoved in front of sold out auditoriums through his own success.
Over the next two years, Numan scored more hits including Top 10 UK singles 'We Are Glass' and 'I Die: You Die', as well as a third successive Number 1 album Telekon, which featured an increasingly opulent sound built out of synths, piano, strings and guitar. Then he announced his intention to give up live performances and made a melodramatic, emotional exit with three lavish Wembley Arena shows in 1981. These 'farewell' appearances effectively ended his reign as a multi-million selling 'popstar' and he took time to enjoy the rags-to-riches trappings of money, Ferraris, sponsored racing cars and, of course, his own aircraft! In any case, The Human League, Duran Duran and Adam Ant were now topping the charts and Numan resolved to experiment in the studio without the pressure of trying to write hits or material he would have to perform live.
On his next album Dance, he explored sparser, more ambient textures and varied percussion. This was a natural direction for him to take as Numan's instictive feel for unusual rhythms runs through all his albums, inspiring electro, hip hop and techno artists to later sample his work. His last albums for Beggars Banquet, I, Assassin (1982) and Warriors (1983) continued to move into fluid funk styles and he had more chart success with 'Music For Chameleons', 'We Take Mystery' and 'Warriors'.
In 1981 a much publicised round-the-world solo flight in his own plane was initially aborted when he was arrested in India on suspicion of spying. Although he eventually achieved his ambition, the newspapers had lost interest and his return home was hardly acknowledged. He did, however, appear on the BBC news after an emergency landing on a road due to engine failure and his bad luck continued when he was charged with carrying an offensive weapon after queuing up at a hamburger stall with an American baseball bat. During this period Numan became increasingly reclusive, ready to face intruders with a harpoon gun in his bedroom. During a six month stay in Hollywood he joined a local gun club and splashed out on two combat rifles, a repeating shotgun (a la Steve McQueen in The Getaway) and a nine millimetre, semi-automatic Beretta pistol. His sense of isolation increased.
The next decade witnessed a gradual decline in his sales as he preached to the converted, releasing a new album nearly every year on his own label. Musically the likes of Berserker, The Fury, Strange Charm, Metal Rhythm and Outland combined forward looking electro-funk with bizarre songwriting and production habits that would make a song seem refreshingly original one day and infuriatingly 'cultish' the next. Although Numan continued to chart in or just outside the UK Top 40, his career was clearly in a rut. To most people he'd become more famous for his flying exploits as an aerobatic display pilot than for his music. When 1992's Machine & Soul followed the usualpattern and stalled at Number 42 in the charts, Numan felt he'd hit an all-time low.
Yet only three years later the musical climate had changed in his favour for the first time in a decade. His mixture of atmospheric textures and power-chorded synthesizers inspired dance artists such as the Prodigy and the Orb and a whole new wave of mavericks began to talk about him as a source of inspiration with many of them also covering his songs - they included Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Marilyn Manson. Jarvis Cocker (Pulp), Damon Albarn (Blur), Tricky, Weezer, Moloko, The Magnetic Fields, The Foo Fighters (Kurt Cobain was also a fan of the Replicas album, especially the track 'It Must Have Been Years'), Smashing Pumpkins and Beck.
In fact, it seemed as if each new cutting edge artist that emerged was later revealed to be a Numan fan, giving him a cultural cool that had eluded him even in the early days. Timed with this, the singer also released his best album in years, Sacrifice (1994). Described by Melody Maker as his 'most consistent album since Telekon', it was a return to the dark electronic chill of his early records.
By 1997 Numan was enjoyoing a full-scale revival, releasing Exile to some of the best reviews of his career. According to The Guardian, 'Gazza's obviously been listening to everything from Roni Size to his own records and the pay-off is a very atmospheric, dark album that is full of great songs.' Q Magazine was also positive, arguing that Exile 'bears a coherent authority, perhaps reflecting Numan's new-found sense of status as muso uncle to an electronic generation.' When the singer played in LA during his first world tour in 16 years, Marilyn Manson joined him on stage for a version of 'Down In The Park.'
Over the last decade, Numan has continued to mine a rich artistic vein with heavy, electronic rock albums such as 2000's Pure, described by Kerrang! as a 'dark and dysfunctional industrial album - if you like your melancholia dense and dynamic you won't want Pure to end.' Three years later he scored his biggest hit in years with 'Crazier', a collaboration with alternative artist Rico which was taken from his critically acclaimed Hybrid album. He's also played a part in three massive worldwide singles - Armand Van Helden's 'Cars'-sampling 'Koochy'; 'Where's Your Head At' by Basement Jaxx (containing samples of two Numan tracks, 'M.E.' and 'This Wreckage') and 'Freak Like Me' by Sugababes, which utilises a huge chunk of 'Are 'Friends' Electric?' and became a UK Number 1 single. In the late 1990s ago Numan scored his biggest U.S. success since 1980 when he teamed up with the rock act Fear Factory for a new version of 'Cars' - the track broke into the Top 10 on American radio.
Just as with hip hop, electro and industrial rock, the 21st Century crop of acts such as The Killers, Goldfrapp, Peaches, The Knife and Late of The Pier would probably have happened without him but he has played an important and intriguing role in their development. While others will claim their influence on these artists and styles, few have retained Numan's passion for new sounds or the bottle to follow through on his ideas. Kerrang! recently enthused - 'put simply, if you're a fan of the bands that he's influenced, you'll love what Numan's doing now. Put your preconceptions to one side.'
In 2006 Numan further consolidated his creative rejuvenation with the release of Jagged, which ranks alongside his very best work. After taking some time off after Hybrid, he found that songs came to him with a fluency that he hasn't experienced in years. This sense of renewed momentum continued when he began experimenting with new sounds in a collaboration with co-producer Ade Fenton (the pair have also worked together on Fenton's 2007 debut album, Artificial Perfect.) The result is a constistenly inventive record full of imaginative arrangements and atmospheric treatments. Fans of Numan's more electronic-based songwriting will no doubt love the icy synthesizer hooks of 'Haunted', 'Pressure', 'Blind' and 'In A Dark Place', while the title track is a powerful synthesis of aggression and beauty conjured up out of machine-made noises and effects. Yet these tracks also highlight that for all the technology on the album, the music is constructed around the kind of melodies that have driven Numan's worldwide sales to over 10 million. His subtle and weird phrasing where he plays around with words and stretches them into something new, creates many sublime moments on Jagged, while Arabian riffs and sky-scraping choruses give the album a distinctive impact.
This is all the more thrilling because the music isn't a pastiche or a sly reference to anyone else, it's very much his own style. Just at the point where nearly all of his contemporaries have either disappeared or compromised to the point where they've lost their identity, Numan has pulled off an album which is heavy and dark but also contains some of his finest songwriting. He's also succeeded in experimenting while retaining the essence of his original appeal.
Now three years on Numan is recording a new album, Splinter which is set for release in autumn 2011. This comes fresh from recent on-stage appearances with Nine Inch Nails in the States and Little Boots in the UK.
He’s also been recently namechecked as an influence by Magnetic Man, Bloc Party and Matthew Dear. As The Guardian recently concluded, 'Gary Numan's transformation from electro-clown into respected, still relevant pioneer is startling. It's Numan's overall sound that counts and for the most part that sound remains edgy and genuinely exciting.'
Gary is currently recording a new album.
QUOTES ON GARY NUMAN:
TRENT REZNOR, NINE INCH NAILS: ''After hearing Gary Numan's 'Cars', I knew I wanted to make music with synthesizers. The Pleasure Principle and Telekon are fucking great because they're so cold sounding. Numan's early albums painted an emotional place that wasn't pleasant to be at. It seemed like creepy science fiction in an unpleasant way.''
DAVID BOWIE: 'Gary Numan has written some of the finest things in British pop.'
DEVO: ''Gary Numan's The Pleasure Principle is so original and cool and ground breaking and in a way classic. Like, it still sounds great today . . . like nothing sounds like that today.'
NME: 'The likes of Timbaland and The Neptunes' minimal pop - comprised of just exquisitely produced drums and simplistic synthlines - are heralded as futuristic genius; Gary Numan was doing the same thing 25 years ago. His influence on hip hop, while rarely recognised, is enormous. His influence on electronic music in general is unparalleled.'
LIAM HOWLETT, PRODIGY: 'Gary represents this whole weird abstract element of music. I wish I'd thought of doing something with him on one of our albums.'
JUAN ATKINS, TECHNO PIONEER: 'Seeing Gary Numan on Saturday Night Live in early 1980 had a big impact on a lot of people who went on to make records. Seeing that was definitely one of the first things to turn me onto electronic music.'
MARILYN MANSON: 'I was always into his apocalytptic fiction lyrics. He pioneered electronic dance music.'
AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: 'Numan was so spooky, so spaced out and it sounded like the future of music to me. Anyone who knows hip hop will be familiar with his track 'Films' from The Pleasure Principle, because that's one of the original hip hop breaks. Everyone was aware of him. You'd be surprised what people like George Clinton from Parliament and Funkadelic used to listen to...'
Artists who have covered or sampled Gary Numan songs, include . . .
The Foo Fighters, Damon Albarn (Gorillaz/Blur), The Dead Weather, Afrika Bambaataa, Jarvis Cocker (Pulp), Beck, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Sugababes, GZA from Wu-Tang Clan, Hole, DJ Hell, Marilyn Manson, Armand Van Helden, Fear Factory, The Magnetic Fields, Little Boots, Basement Jaxx, The Orb
(photo by Ed Fielding)