One Side Of A C90 From Synth Pop Pioneer Gary Numan
, November 17th, 2008 14:23
David McNamee trawls his crate of Numan records to select ten delicacies to fit on one side of a 90 minute cassette
From: Hammersmith, West London
Genres: Rock, electronic, synthpop, New Wave, post-punk, Dark Wave, experimental, industrial, gothic rock, punk rock
Instruments: Vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass, synthesizer, percussion
Years active: 1977 – present
Associated acts: Tubeway Army, Dramatis, Paul Gardiner, Bill Sharpe
Albums: Tubeway Army (1978); Replicas (1979); The Pleasure Principle (1979); Telekon (1980); Dance (1981); I, Assassin (1982); Warriors (1983); Berserker (1984); The Fury (1985); Strange Charm (1986); Metal Rhythm (1988); Automatic (1989); Outland (1991); Machine + Soul (1992); Sacrifice (1994); Exile (1997); Pure (2000); Jagged (2006)
1. 'Down In The Park' (from Replicas, 1979)
In the space of 12 months, with the release of Replicas and The Pleasure Principle in 1979, and Telekon in 1980, the 21-year-old Gary Webb had become Britain’s Bestest Pop Star. Now, some cynics might suggest that those three albums are the only Gary Numan you ever need to hear. Of course, The Quietus doesn’t endorse that view. The pre-Replicas Tubeway Army recordings are awesomely jagged alienation-punk, Dance is a misunderstood masterpiece, and even in the ugly bombast of his 80s albums there’s some grimly fascinating work. But if you don’t like the music on this mixtape – drawn from that halcyon 1979-80 period – that other shit won’t stand a chance. So let’s start with ‘Down In The Park’, released under the name of Numan’s punk band, Tubeway Army, but with solely Gary writing a new, primarily synthetic, pop music into existence. ‘Down In The Park’ is a daydream wishing someone with too much imagination and not enough social skills away, through time, but materialising ominously in dystopia. Now watch Gary pootle moodily about in a Sinclair C5 while he sings it.
2. 'I Die: You Die' (single, 1980)
Unbearably sensitive, thin-skinned to the point of translucency, by 1980 The Nume is a multimillionaire and Britain’s most famous pop star, and he hates it. The people loved him – possibly the only mainstream pop audience in chart history to truly appreciate the unheimlich in TOTP-pop – but the ‘critics’ loathed him. ‘I Die: You Die’ thematically reprises Numan’s pain at being judged (“They crawl out their holes for me… Hear them laugh, watch them turn on me… See my scars, they call me such things”), but this vengeful, driving pop isn’t in the least bit mopey, it’s a sleek, sexy vehicle that the brittle Numan encases himself in (like the ‘Cars’ he’d previously rhapsodied, and in which he sulkily cruises about in this video) and safely gun down his detractors. The mumbled final line, “But I’m still frightened by the telephone”, is a semi-coded admission of fragility.
3. 'I Dream Of Wires' (from Telekon, 1980)
The adolescent sci-fi fantasia of Replicas cloaked a sequence of actually proper poignant lyrics, with Numan seemingly oblivious to how his stories were articulating his own tangle of insecurities and frustrations with his world (he wasn’t diagnosed as having Aspergers Syndrome until recently). By Telekon, he’d moulded a lot of that cryptic, ‘robotic’ language around his own ‘issues’, but ‘I Dream Of Wires’ is more obviously a nostalgic fantasy; ‘The last electrician alive’ looking back with bitter fondness on his role as ‘the Sparkle’ in the empty comfort of a cold future.
4. 'Are ‘Friends’ Electric?' (from Replicas, 1979)
The strangest Number One single ever.
5. 'Cars' (Premier Extended Mix) (single, 1996)
Numan’s biggest hit is by no means a bad song. Embdedded in an album of machine-cold synth orchestras – sentimental melodies that reach out to hug you with holographic fingers – ‘Cars’ is an agoraphobia anthem, another barrier between Gary and the other humans. But as a single, the new wave-catchy ‘Cars’ was easily adopted as a drive-time standard. As with most cases of a hit whose success so disproportionately eclipses the rest of an artists oeuvre, ‘Cars’ is often resented by hardcore Numanoids. This redressing of the 1987 ‘E-reg’ mix of the 1979 song – used to promote Carling lager in a 1990s TV ad – is different enough from the over-familiar synth-jerks of the original to reawaken love for ‘Cars’ though.
6. 'We Are Glass' (single, 1980)
"Somebody once told me that he thought I'd been put here by... something... aliens or something, to carry out a cause... which I thought was very flattering but a little silly... 'We Are Glass' I wrote because of that, y'know, like all pop stars are put here for reasons".
7. 'This Wreckage' (from Telekon, 1980)
And this is possibly the strangest Top 20 hit of all time. The harrowing opening lines “So what if God’s dead?/We must have done something wrong” set the stage for the slightly one-note anti-religious goth-industrial music Numan would find favour in the rock world with in the 90s and 00s. The rest of ‘This Wreckage’ though examines the shellshocked pop automaton Nume felt he had become: “Turn out these eyes/Wipe off my face/Erase me”. After the album’s release, Numan would quit touring, retreating solely into making stranger and more confused sounding albums, until when he returned to the fray, just a few years later, he was dismissed by some as a deluded has-been.
8. 'Metal' (from The Pleasure Principle, 1979)
This is the perfect metal beat that Nume progenitor John Foxx sought when he combined the rhythm of Ballard with drum machines and sheets of synths.
9. 'M.E.' (from The Pleasure Principle, 1979)
‘M.E.’ provided the huge, coiling synth riff that Basement Jaxx would build ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ around, and which would further the critical rehabilitation Numan had enjoyed since 1997’s Random tribute album, peaking with Richard X’s Number One welding of ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ and Adina Howard’s ‘Freak Like Me’. Most reworkings of Numan would rebuild the drum tracks with booming beats, as his early music experimented with using synth-as-percussion, emphasising the rhythm with just handclaps or thin ‘Heart Of Glass’-style drum machines.
10. 'Me! I Disconnect From You' (from Replicas, 1979)
I don’t think anyone ever made alienation sound more graceful.
- Ultravox - 'New Europeans'
- Japan - 'Ghosts'
- John Foxx - 'Underpass'
- The Human League - 'Don’t You Want Me'
- Fad Gadget - 'Collapsing New People'
- Visage - 'Frequency 7' (Dance Mix)
- Skinny Puppy - 'Assimilate'
- Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – 'Electricity'
- Information Society - 'What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy)'
- Soft Cell - 'Tainted Love'
- Devo - 'Whip It'