Sometimes there are major recording artists you just haven’t paid much attention to. Just recently, I’ve gotten super into Gary Numan, and I’m going to enthuse for a bit on why he’s amazing. I first came across him (besides hearing the ubiquitous Cars) when Noel Fielding/Vince Noir gushed about him in The Mighty Boosh and conducted a pretty charming interview with him on radio. In short, in my estimation Gary Numan was doing with New Wave music what needed to be done – embracing the novelty and coldness of synth instruments to express (in some songs) the sci-fi dystopian themes that never quite congealed in Bowie. Where Bowie never really ejected from the trappings of rock music, Numan and New Wave did some of the dark-room experiments that needed to be done. Gary Numan is like the lost Bowie character that the Thin White Duke never quite transitioned into after drowning in cocaine and absconding to Berlin.
Influences & Machines
Gary Numan (real name Gary Anthony James Webb) was the frontman for a late 70’s band called Tubeway Army. They released a self-titled debut album in 1979, but later that year they changed direction a bit and released Replicas, a new wave album that would be the first of a three part arc of Gary Numan’s Machine era (Replicas, The Pleasure Principle, and Telekon). Numan’s music during the machine era echoed some of the tracks on Bowie’s Low and had parallels in artists like the John Foxx led Ultravox, and I would argue, The Human League.
Many people considered Numan’s work to be derivative of Bowie’s work with Low, prefigured by Station to Station and the aesthetics of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Dylan Jones of GQ magazine observed disapprovingly in 2011, saying “the early Eighties were full of young men and women either pretending to be David Bowie or using one of his many characters as a blueprint for their own tawdry space-faces, but few copied so poorly as Numan.“ Both reference William S. Burroughs as an influence, and in an interview with Melody Maker magazine in 1979, Numan mentioned that “It was Bowie who got me into [William S.] Burroughs. There was so much talk about him that I read him to see what all the fuss was about. And it was good. I could see why Bowie relies on him a lot…well, I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t. I think Bowie relies on him for actual technique, whereas I rely on him more for words and structures.” Numan almost directly quoted Burroughs’ “Astronaut’s Return” in his single “Down In The Park” (the defining alternative-discography track) when he questions his own memory about whether he was in a car accident or a war. Besides Burroughs, Numan makes pretty direct references to Phillip K. Dick (even anticipating Ridley Scott’s coining “replicants” for Bladerunner) and more oblique references to J. G. Ballard. The Internet Review of Science Fiction ‘zine notes that “Numan was clearly doing his homework, and doing it thoroughly: where Bowie made use of big names like Kubrick and Orwell, Numan was going for the lesser-known but more authentic works of Philip K. Dick and [Michael G.] Coney.” Bowie even seemed to be making a snipe at Numan in his 1980 song “Teenage Wildlife” – and they’ve had something like an uneasy mutual respect since.
Industrial & Electroclash
I’ve never been much for new wave music in general, having grown up in the 90’s when New Wave felt kind of effete, tired, and too poppy. In the 1970’s the concept of Industrial music was being developed by figures like Genesis P’Orridge, which in my opinion came to fruition in the early 90’s with artists like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. During the 10 years after the Machine albums, Numan was trying to do what Ultravoxx, Bowie, and Prince were doing combining electronic elements with R&B, Jazz and rock. Prince is even quoted in “Prince in the Studio” by Jake Brown with this little exchange: “‘do you like gary numan’ ?…prince asked him…’you know, his album replicas never left my turntable…there are people still trying to work out what a genius he was’ ….”Gary never quite succeeded in this direction, even in his own opinion. Where electronic music was getting warmer with Techno and Rave and the kids were taking MDMA, Numan found his voice again in the alternative darkness of Industrial with a string of albums starting with Sacrifice that had tracks (if not whole albums) that could stand toe-to-toe with Trent Reznor’s.
As Nine Inch Nails became recognized as one of the enduring voices of Industrial music, it’s interesting that both Bowie and Numan collaborated with them. On Bowie’s Earthling, there’s a track produced by Nine Inch Nails and Photek called “I’m Afraid of Americans” – the video for which features Trent Reznor stalking Bowie through New York City. Bowie toured with NIN co-headlining the Outside Tour in 1995, and performing among other songs NIN’s concert-favorite “Reptile” off of The Downward Spiral. Numan has himself worked and performed extensively with Nine Inch Nails. Reznor himself claims to have listened to Telekon every day while working on Pretty Hate Machine. In their perhaps brashly named “Wave Goodbye Tour” Nine Inch Nails played Numan’s Cars and Down in the Park, and in 2013 Numan took Bowie’s place performing Reptile.
If I could recommend one track from Numan’s Industrial music, I’d probably pick A Prayer For the Unborn – an expression of Numan’s atheistic streak that illustrates one profound element of his late career: this is not inauthentic. In the wake of real lived tragedy, a series of miscarriages, this is a protest against the divine fit for the lips of Job but with the final rejection of hope that Job had. Dark stuff.
In the late 90’s there there was a movement called electroclash that took the best of New Wave back to the discotheque. If this sounds unfamiliar, Soulwax’s 2 Many DJ’s / Radio Soulwax series is an indispensable introduction. Electroclash included bands like Ladyhawke, Little Boots, Peaches, Fischerspooner et al. There are lots of electroclash aesthetics prefigured in Numan’s music and stage persona, here’s just a couple examples:
Simon Reynolds’ Energy Flash penetrates to the heart of the new aesthetic – the rejection of “wholesome authenticity in favor of all things synthetic and fake.” (Energy Flash, 484) In drug terms, this means “removing the Ecstasy vibe” and circling back to the old disco drugs, “..the pre-E era when clubbing was all about cliquishness and ‘the beautiful people': an aristocracy of larger than life characters…” What may have eventually made Electroclash spend itself was being “trapped by its tongue-in-chic-irony.” (Energy Flash, 487) Being numb, alienated, neurotic, and isolated now feels too much like a prolonged Xanax or Prozac treatment – because there are drugs for it the music seems empty as an expression of the non-feeling. Irony works well for criticism, but it’s hard to build something lasting from it.
Following the Electroclash movement there was later another 80’s revival – still going on – affectionately described as “synthwave” or sometimes “nu wave.” In a sense, synthwave has come full-circle, returning to the sci-fi roots of new wave with bands like Kavinsky, Anoraak, movies like Tron: Legacy and books like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Numan has been vindicated: if his Machine trilogy seemed ahead of its time, the aesthetic was developed through cyberpunk fiction and movies, and that work is on the cusp of a renaissance.
Numan himself, though, has just released albums that reflect feel of his Crawl single – revitalized Industrial. Consider three songs Numan has been a guest on in the last 5 years:
Whatever your estimation of this new work is, it doesn’t sound particularly like his 80’s material. Since the Machine era, Numan’s songs from that series have been sampled extensively* and covered and covered well by tons of groups.** It’s curious that Gary himself doesn’t really value the nostalgia of it. He says in a 2013 interview in Electronic Musician that “I just don’t feel like going back to that. If I did, I don’t think I would find them particularly exciting; it would feel like a step backward. It might be a chip on my shoulder that I have about nostalgia and retro. I got into electronic music because it was so forward looking.” The thing is, the songs Gary made back then have become new wave standards the way we used to think about folk standards. His songs are among the source material for artists picking up synthesizers and looking to play something that’s a cultural touchstone. Whatever Numan makes now can be a meaningful contribution to a second or third wave Industrial canon, but his best work has already become a legacy – a reference point for electronica that can’t be recreated.