Some music rivalries are forever etched into the history books of popular music: Biggie vs. Tupac. Blur vs. Oasis. Fleetwood Mac vs. Cocaine. These are the knockout, all-time fights that pit legendary artist against legendary artist. However, for every top-billed marquee feud, there are at least ten floating at the bottom of the bill. These are the skirmishes that never quite proliferated in the same way, or for whatever reason, failed to land the necessary traction to remain forever remembered in the public consciousness.
Take, for example, the early 1980s feud between iconoclastic artist David Bowie and electronic forerunner Gary Numan. Nowadays, this might not seem like a fair fight, but Numan deserves credit for shaping much of the synth-pop ’80s aesthetic, from both his solo work and his early days with Tubeway Army. Before ‘new wave’ was ever a genre with a name, Numan was creating synthetic electronic music with a distinctive mix of punk, Kraftwerk, and goth rock. Basically, if it wasn’t for Numan, the early ’80s boom of synth-pop, the mid-1980s new wave scene in America would look and sound drastically different.
That wasn’t enough for Bowie, however. While being interviewed by the NME earlier this year, Numan recalled the time where he and Bowie crossed paths at The Kenny Everett Christmas Show in 1980. Both were set to perform, but allegedly, Bowie felt that Numan was copying his act and demanded he be taken off the roster of performers.
“It bothered me at the time because I was a massive fan and he’d been such a big part of my life for so many years so I was pretty disappointed – and the fact I got taken off the show afterwards,” Numan recalls. “But I later came to realise we all go through periods when we’re more fragile or paranoid and not sure how we fit into all of this.”
Numan continued: “Although I was hurt, I never harboured any ill-feeling. It was good because it humanised him for me – he went from being an untouchable godlike figure to a human being. I never held a grudge about it. It just became a funny story to tell.”
Numan was on a solid roll at this point: ‘Cars’ had topped the UK charts the year before, and his then-recent LP Telekon was another chart-topper. The world of synth-pop was beginning to solidify, and Numan was one of its figureheads. Surely Bowie, who had transformed so many times by 1980 that he was practically on his tenth incarnation or so, saw the changing tides complete with his influence and was forming a plan to find his own place within it? Or maybe he was feeling a bit out of touch and threatened by this new group of artists who so clearly were stealing his bit.
“I think there was an element of that,” Numan ultimately concludes. “I never got to meet him afterwards and ask, but my feeling was at that moment I was the current big thing in weird make-up and I don’t think that period was the best for him. I know many people that met him and he was lovely, and I wish I’d met that version.”