Gary Numan was the first pop star I ever loved. At the tender age of 11, I watched his début Top of the Pops performance in 1979 and was immediately catapulted into a new world of mystery and glamour, one which would remain with me throughout my formative teenage years. I was a fanatical Numan fan in those days. Between 1979 and 1986 I bought everything he released, played those records over and over again, memorized all the lyrics, learned his discography off by heart, was a loyal member of his fan club, read and re-read interviews with him, copied his logo on every available surface, stuck posters of him on my bedroom wall, wrote projects about him at school and saw him live three times. At a time when most of the boys in my year at school (those that were interested in music, anyway, which was by no means all of them) were in thral to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, I was the only one who liked Gary Numan. I loved his music as much for the piercing clarity of its synthesized melodies as for the emotional lyrics that seemed to speak directly to me. It’s Gary Numan who I have to thank for bringing music to the forefront of my interests, where it has remained ever since.
Following that legendary Top of the Pops appearance in 1979, I went out and bought the single “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” This song, with its towering wall of electronic sound and its devastating vocal performance, was music I had waited all my life to hear, and if push came to shove would still be in the running for my favourite song of all time. My copy, purchased (like most of my music back then) from the record department of WH Smith in Salisbury, came in one of those simple plain white paper sleeves with a hole helpfully cut somewhere in the middle so that you could read the label. BEGGARS BANQUET, it went. TUBEWAY ARMY. ARE “FRIENDS” ELECTRIC? Turn it over and it went BEGGARS BANQUET. TUBEWAY ARMY. WE ARE SO FRAGILE. Sadly I missed out on the limited edition picture disc and even the picture sleeve of this single, although I picked both of them up later.
I didn’t go a bundle on the follow-up, “Cars”, which seemed a bit trite and repetitive at the time (and still does, actually). It was the third single, “Complex”, that really sealed the deal for me. From its lengthy, electronically treated violin intro to its final choking plea of “please keep them away, don’t let them touch me/Please don’t let them lie, don’t let them see me”, this was a song that reached new heights of emotional sensitivity. And the pieces finally fell into place when I acquired copies of the albums Replicas and The Pleasure Principle, both of which revealed the breadth of Numan’s conceptual visions even as they brimmed over with great tunes and memorable lyrics. One song in particular deserves special mention. A grim, filmic evocation of a future society on the verge of collapse, “Down in the Park” was and remains a chilling masterpiece.
The reissued début, Tubeway Army, by the way, wasn’t half bad either. Picked up in the old HMV Shop in Southampton on one of my occasional visits there, its shouty guitar-fuelled energy was a fascinating early step on Numan’s road to stardom. Plus, it contained the queasy and haunting “Jo the Waiter”, a rare acoustic outing and one of my favourite Numan songs to this day.
The emergence of Telekon and its associated singles in 1980 was an event weighted with expectations for me. “We Are Glass” and “I Die: You Die” were hugely powerful and anthemic songs, but there was an air of ponderousness about much of the album that bothered me slightly. Still, I desperately wanted to go to the Southampton Gaumont to see Numan live, but my pleas fell on deaf ears (I would have to wait three years to get my wish). At this point, still only 22 years old and immensely troubled by the pressures of fame, Numan temporarily retired from live performance. He did three inspirational “farewell” shows at Wembley Arena and then radically rethought his approach.
In retrospect, it was the release of “She’s Got Claws” in August 1981 that signalled the beginning of the end for Gary and me. From its ridiculous title and cover image onwards, the song was terrible, a turgid slice of anaemic electro-funk that had nothing at all to do with the infectious synth pop I loved so much. What was Numan doing? Why had he made such a catastrophic change of direction? I had no idea, but I was mightily confused, a feeling that was only partly alleviated by the Dance album a month or so later. It was a brave but entirely uncommercial piece of work, and if I lamented its relative lack of catchy melodies (“Stories” and “You Are, You Are” being the honourable exceptions), I was intrigued and finally affected by the long and complex architecture of “Slowcar to China” and “Cry, The Clock Said”.
Gary’s new, funk-based direction began to take hold with the following year’s I, Assassin. The album definitely had its moments (“Music for Chameleons” and “We Take Mystery” were particular highlights), alongside some fairly indifferent material. The rot really set in, however, with 1983’s Warriors. The change in sound since 1979-80 was drastic and seemingly irreversible. The songs were generally too long, they lacked memorable tunes, the lyrics were increasingly insipid and the bass, drums and female backing vocals drowned out my beloved synthesizers and the cold steel of Numan’s voice. This unwelcome trend continued on the subsequent and progressively uninspired Berserker, The Fury and Strange Charm, the latter being the last Gary Numan album I ever bought. It was an ignominious end to my years as a Numanoid; but it was Gary who had left me, not the other way around.
It was during this period of artistic decline that I did finally manage to see Gary Numan live on the 1983, 1984 and 1985 tours, each time at the Southampton Gaumont (now the Mayflower). It pains me now to think of my late, much missed and mourned mother, waiting uncomplainingly in her car outside the Gaumont to bring me home to Salisbury after the 1983 show, the first concert I ever attended. The shows themselves were very special events for me, and there were enough thrilling old songs to hide the inadequacies of the newer material. I could never quite get over the fact that Numan was right there in the room with me, and this, together with the light show, the wall of sound and the cheering of the audience all around me, combined to make these hugely exciting and memorable events.
Last month, then, I found myself at the WUK for my first Gary Numan concert in, oh, twenty-nine years. In the meantime, of course, Numan’s career has undergone a remarkable turnaround, with the hopeless white funk thrown out in favour of a harder-edged industrial sound. His critical reputation thereby restored, and with folk like Trent Reznor now acknowledging his influence, Gary’s stock is at its highest since 1980. I’ve not been following this reinvention myself, preferring to cherish my memories of those incredible early years and secure in the knowledge that, however many people now come out in favour of Gary Numan, I can say I was there first.
The concert was, of course, greatly enjoyable. Numan is now a massively impressive frontman, throwing all manner of rock star moves and singing with remarkable confidence as his superb band energize the music with crunchy guitar and fizzing synth tones. Inevitably, recent songs dominated the set, with only “Metal”, “Films”, “Down in the Park” (a spine-tingling moment for me), “Cars”, “I Die: You Die” and “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” present from the early days. I remain unconvinced by the newer material, which is low on melodic inventiveness and seems to place excessive reliance on heavy drumbeats for effect. But those six songs were enough to plant the happiest of smiles on my face and transport me magically back to my distant boyhood, to a time when I needed a hero and found one in Gary Numan.