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Gary Numan

+ {Tubeway Army} + {Radio Heart featuring Gary Numan} + {Sharpe + Numan}

Inspired by 70s glam icons BOLAN, BOWIE and FERRY as well as synth-pop meisters KRAFTWERK and ULTRAVOX!, singer GARY NUMAN lived the high-life of a poseur rock star and aeronautic pilot. As the brainchild of post-new wave trio, TUBEWAY ARMY, the paranoid and almost robotic `Are “Friends” Electric?’ gave him his breakthrough chart-topper, exploding as it did on to the scene in 1979. Duly re-billed as a solo artist, the equally fruitful `Cars’, once again catapulted the man upwards and into the synthetic-pop 80s, his icy-cold, cosmic orphan, “man-who-fell-to-earth” demeanour rarely raising a smile, especially from himself.
NUMAN was born Gary Anthony James Webb, 8th March 1958, Hammersmith, London. He grew from an introverted teenager to pop musician, his ambitions to be a star outweighing his awkward shyness. As a 16 year-old lead guitarist (alongside singer/rhythm guitarist Mick Fentiman, bassist Gery Fair and drummer Bob Lovell), Gary’s band Black Gold performed in local clubs and bars. With the punk and new wave movement kicking off in 1976/7, gothic Gary Valeriun (as he was then monickered) progressed from his roles in Mean Street and The Lasers to front his own TUBEWAY ARMY outfit; bassist Paul Gardiner was a member of the latter two acts. Vortex regulars, Mean Street, were the closest to break through, but by their split in April ’78, part-timer Gary had long gone; he performed on one track, their version of The VELVET UNDERGROUND’s `White Light, White Heat’, but not their “Live At The Vortex” V/A contribution, `Bunch Of Stiffs’.
TUBEWAY ARMY was basically Gary’s solo project, although he was accompanied on live work by Paul Gardiner and his uncle, Jess Lidyard. Their debut outing, `That’s Too Bad’, was issued by then up-and-coming indie label, Beggars Banquet (home to The LURKERS), in early ’78. A punk-fuelled, BOWIE-cloned platter, it was followed by the equally uneventful, `Bombers’, the latter with a chorus line very much in the “Grip” of The STRANGLERS. An eponymous debut album, TUBEWAY ARMY (1978) {*6} passed virtually unnoticed, its quirky but ominous dirges caught in a musical crossfire between Cockney punk and Ziggy-styled glam-rock; examples `Listen To The Sirens’, `Are You Real’, `Friends’ and `Life Machine’.
Things changed dramatically in June ‘79, when Gary and his gang of two had their first No.1 with the monotonic synth-noir of `Are “Friends” Electric?’, an atmosphere-induced 45 spurred on by a compelling appearance on Top Of The Pops. Its parent album, REPLICAS (1979) {*8}, also shot to the top the same month. Containing an earlier one-that-got-away, `Down In The Park’, opener `Me! I Disconnect From You’, `Praying To The Aliens’ and the title track, the NUMAN era was now in full flight.
A busy year for Gary, in addition to collaborating with ROBERT PALMER, of all people (the man was initially part of offshoot outfit Dramatis), he found time to garner a second No.1 album, THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE {*8}. This collection was previewed with the hypnotic, sweeping electronica of the aforementioned `Cars’ single, by far his most well known track and one that enjoyed a rejuvenation in 1996 after it was used in a British TV advert. This album itself was no “Another Green World” (‘cept maybe Top 10 hit, `Complex’), rather Orwellian and apocalyptic in its simplistic waves of sounds; `Airlane’, `Films’ and `M.E.’ the best on show; one might recognise the riffs in the latter track if one’s a fan of BASEMENT JAXX, in particular, their smash hit, `Where’s Your Head At?’.
NUMAN continued the run of chart-topping albums by way of TELEKON (1980) {*6}, his hypnotic synth-based pop-rock also gracing the upper reaches of the singles chart in the form of `We Are Glass’, `I Die: You Die’ and `This Wreckage’. By this point, however, the London lad was well on his way to becoming perhaps one of most visible targets of critical derision in the whole of the music industry, his neo-futurist posturing, dalek vocals, pretentious, William S. Burroughs-styled lyrics and, worst of all, his vocal support of Margaret Thatcher, raising the not inconsiderable ire of the music press. Nevertheless, NUMAN had a fiercely loyal grassroots following of clone-like fans (second only to NUMAN himself as figures of fun among rock circles), who ensured most of his subsequent output made the Top 50 at least.
Deciding whether to buy concert documents, LIVING ORNAMENTS 1979 (1981) {*6} and/or LIVING ORNAMENTS 1980 (1981) {*6}, put fans in a minor quandary, but either way the sets still soared high in the charts. Incidentally, the early 80s saw Gary taking up flying planes, while he bought his own aircraft (mainly warplanes).
Despite the presence of such luminaries as bassist Mick Karn (JAPAN), drummer Roger Taylor (QUEEN) and erm… Canadian solo artist NASH THE SLASH, DANCE (1981) {*4} was a decidedly un-groovy set of steely electronica and his last to find anything near his potential. But for the likes of lone Top 10 single, `She’s Got Claws’, the album might well’ve found its way into bargain bins a lot sooner. Setting free his one-time backing band (Dramatis), NUMAN released two further, increasingly pompous solo albums in I, ASSASSIN (1982) {*5} and the BILL NELSON-produced WARRIORS (1983) {*4}. Top 20 singles from this period included the Top 20 entries, `Music For Chameleons’, `We Take Mystery (To Bed)’, `White Boys And Heroes’ and `Warriors’.
A lean period for Gary led him in to forming his own label, Numa, basically to issue his own product along with material by his brother John’s outfit, Hohokam. While subsequent albums like BERSERKER (1984) {*4}, WHITE NOISE – LIVE (1985) {*5}, THE FURY (1985) {*4} and STRANGE CHARM (1986) {*5} were met with critical apathy, the fashionista forerunner of the times still had the odd chart hit; the oddest and most productive at the time was his collaborative contribution to (ex-Shakatak) Bill Sharpe’s `Change Your Mind’. It seemed NUMAN was ripe for re-invention, but just what direction was on the horizon? If the subsequent RADIO HEART (1987) {*4} – featuring minor hits `London Times’ and the eponymous `Radio Heart’ – was anything to go by, it should’ve been left at the starting gate. Producers, writers and brothers, Hugh and David Nicholson even had the gall to draw in further celebrity guests ELTON JOHN and his percussionist, Ray Cooper.
Bypassing the rather “passed-it”/PET SHOP BOYS-esque SHARPE & NUMAN collaboration, AUTOMATIC (1989) {*4} – and the Top 50 hits, `No More Lies’ and `I’m On Automatic’ – solo sets such as METAL RHYTHM (1988) {*5} and the poorly-produced THE SKIN MECHANIC – LIVE (1989) {*4} just didn’t cut it with the critics. Commercially, the records only just managed a few weeks in the lower rungs of the UK charts… so where were his fans?
Continuing to appeal mainly to ardent NUMAN fans, OUTLAND (1991) {*5} fared a little better, while MACHINE + SOUL (1992) {*3}, was all machine and no soul. Said to be heavily in debt, and keen to get back in the high life, the ill-advised employment of dance-orientated production duo, Jam & Lewis (example his re-take of PRINCE’s `U Got The Look’), was just cringe-worthy.
NUMAN had now fallen further into cult status, his releases failing to even break the Top 100. The double live set DREAM CORRISION (1994) {*5} was one of many of its kind, although SACRIFICE (1995) {*5} at least took him beyond the realms of ridicule, and into a newfound, industrial sci-fi sound. Taking NINE INCH NAILS and MARILYN MANSON as his musical template, there was guitar-driven gothic gloom attached to his darkest sound-waves yet. Arriving after a remix hit of `Cars’ (plus the live DARK LIGHT – LIVE (1995) {*6} and a TECHNO ARMY (1996) {*4} remix piece), proper follow-up EXILE (1997) {*6} was again proving Gary was no has-been.
Come the new millennium, NUMAN was still churning out the albums, the harsh industrialised textures of PURE (2000) {*6} suggesting that he could easily give the young pretenders of goth electronica a run for their money. It also suggested that after years in the musical wilderness, NUMAN had found a creatively profitable niche for himself; 2003’s HYBRID {*6} – featuring accompanying chart entries, `Rip’ and `Crazier’, was just what it said on the tin – Gary having a makeover. NUMAN-oids have never shirked from buying a raft of exploitative releases from various sources, and while it seemed that gothic Gary was taking a hiatus from the biz, double-live sets (Eagle Records, the main culprit) littered the shops, while the man’s fanclub gave them extras beyond the call of duty.
There’s no doubt that NUMAN had pulled out the stops once again, and together with producer/multi-instrumentalist, Ade Fenton, the singer leant on the side of industrial goth for 2006 comeback album, JAGGED {*5}. Although five years in its shadow, the pair worked well again on DEAD SON RISING (2011) {*7}. Almost cinematic in its spiky but doom-laden approach, long-lost fans were eerily happy to hear his best tracks for yonks; choice cuts being `For The Rest Of My Life’, `The Fall’, `Resurrection’ and `Big Noise Transmission’.
NUMAN hadn’t had a Top 20 album in exactly three decades, a curse rectified by 2013’s SPLINTER (SONGS FROM A BROKEN MIND) {*7}. Admirers of Gary’s gritty goth or DEPECHE MODE-meets-NiN-esque sound and his distinctive shrill were in for treat with opener, `I Am Dust’. With all his former heroes and zeros BOWIE and ANT once again taking centre-stage in among the big guns, the inhuman NUMAN forged out some soaring synths on `Here In The Black’ and `Everything Comes Down To This’, while robotic ballads `My Last Day’ and `Lost’ recouped the man-machine balance from his sulky “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric” salad days. As depicted on the Jekyll and Hyde-like cover shot, the writing was certainly not on the wall for an artist with still so much to give to the globe.
Putting to one side the artist’s post-industrial hour-long soundtrack to John Bergin’s FROM INSIDE (2014) {*6} – co-credited alongside knob-twiddler Ade Fenton – NUMAN again worked with the producer on 2017’s near-No.1 solo set, SAVAGE: SONGS FROM A BROKEN WORLD {*8}; his 21st in all. The futuristic sonic soundscapes that graced the said OST served as grounding for gothic Gary’s follow-up in many ways; its concept, the age-old one, of struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic Earth. From the opening metallic bars of `Ghost Nation’ to the sorrowful finale `Broken’; or the glacier NINE INCH NAILS wasteland of `My Name Is Ruin’ and `When The World Comes Apart’, the narrative NUMAN forged out in blood and sweat is something both eerie and thought-provoking.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Sep2012-Sep2017

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