Gary Numan was entirely on his own wavelength when his ‘metal machine/electronica’ music bolstered the post-punk and new wave scene in the late ’70s and ’80s. Many would call him a pioneering electronica musician, although he would argue this point. In addition to his artistic innovation, he is a very humble individual. Numan accredits his success to luck and timing and says that “there were people doing electronica before me and better. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Referring to a band who made electronic music before he did, he said, “Ultravox were on their third album, I think when I made my first. And it was better than mine, and they didn’t make it then, you know, and I did. So I’m just really aware of how good the people were that I was trying to be like. And yet, it happened to me.” Numan is painfully aware of other such bands and their original forays into electronic music.
While he may have a point that he wasn’t the absolute first musician to use electronic instruments, it is no small feat to achieve the commercial and artistic success that he did. With three of his albums in the top 20 charts simultaneously, an achievement that only The Beatles could boast up until that point, Numan brought electronic music to a whole new audience. After which, popular music was never the same again. Gary Numan was a pioneer.
Before his career truly took off, Numan always knew that he wanted a record deal. Around 1978, punk music was exploding across the world. He decided to hop the bandwagon and created his band, Tubeway Army, which was initially exactly that, a punk outfit. When recording their first album in a rented studio in London, he came across a Moog synthesizer that was left there from the last group. Up until this point, Numan would never have thought that he would find himself as one of the biggest electronic musicians in just a year’s time.
Looking back at this time period and the state of electronica, Numan noted, “although I liked some electronic music I still associated it mainly with pompous supergroups and disgusting, self-indulgent solos that went on for half an hour.” Upon finding the synthesizer in the studio, Numan said, “luckily for me, the synth had been left on a heavy setting, which produced the most powerful, ground-shaking sound I had ever heard.” After this point, there was no going back for Numan. While recording Tubeway Army’s self-titled debut, Numan decided to write synth parts in addition to the guitar music that was already written. For their second record, however, Replicas, Numan wrote all the songs on the synthesizer. This record proved to be the right move for Numan, as this would be the first of his three most successful records. Replicas went straight to number one in the UK.
As a performer, as was the case with so many performers involved in post-punk and new wave, Gary Numan wanted to emulate David Bowie. After the Starman himself, Numan was one of the more successful performers to emulate Bowie’s technique, perhaps only rivalled by Adam Ant. Numan’s character reflected his music; he was a cold, machine-like alien from the future. Phil Oakley from The Human League said it best: “he developed his persona based on David Bowie, as we all did, but he took one of the colder ones and it worked really well for his music.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of Gary Numan is that he never toured or played a single major show besides empty bars, prior to his music hitting the charts. Gary Numan achieved national fame with his second album, Replicas, and secured his world domination with his follow-up, The Pleasure Principle. Following the release of this album, Numan and his group embarked on a world tour that entailed a lavish light show. He started the tour at the Glasgow Apollo and this is where he realized how big Numan really was. His fame dwindled as quickly as it came — and it was a long and hard come down.
Despite the struggles that this brought, Numan always had a down-to-earth attitude and even though his fame waned after his 1980 record, Telekon, Numan kept on making music and stayed true to his own line of artistic vision.
The six definitive songs of Gary Numan
‘Are Friends Electric?’ – Replicas (1979)
‘Are Friends Electric?’ was released with Gary Numan’s band, the group he entered the music world with, Tubeway Army. It was also Numan’s first major hit. The track is off Tubeway Army’s second album, Replicas, and would begin what would become Gary Numan’s most successful period of his musical career.
The song got Gary Numan, and his Tubeway Army, on two of the most popular music shows in Britain, The Old Grey Whistle Test and Top Of The Pops, in the same week, no less. The former of the two shows were typically for rock bands, whereas Top Of The Pops was catered to pop stars at the time; Gary Numan, a strange and unique animal pulled off both, which says a lot about his unique performance style.
The track is a good example of what Gary Numan was all about and what he would further become. Prior to making music full time, he wrote science-fiction short stories; these stories and their characters would find themselves in his dystopian-themed songs.
‘Down In The Park’ – Replicas (1979)
Tubeway Army’s first record was predominately punk rock centred around and written on guitars. By their second album, Replicas, Gary Numan began writing on keyboards and synthesizer. ‘Down in the Park’ was the first song Numan wrote primarily on keys and his first release that laid the foundations of his trademark electronic sound.
Gary Numan stated that Replicas is teeming “with images of decay, seediness, drug addicts, fragile people and the abandonment of morals. The bisexual allusions are partly based on encounters I had with gay men, most of who were much older than me, who had attempted to persuade me to try things.
I was never interested in gay sex….but the seediness of those situations left an impression which I used in Replicas.”
‘Metal’ – The Pleasure Principle (1979)
Like so many of Numan’s songs which explores the relationship between technology and man, ‘Metal’ is about a robot who wishes it was a man. The album, The Pleasure Principle, as a whole, is considered a significant one in the evolution of electronic music.
What differentiates a song like ‘Metal’ from the rest of the electronic fold is that it simply rocks. All the songs on The Pleasure Principle, especially ‘Metal’ in particular, sound like there are guitars being used. On the contrary, there were no guitars used whatsoever on the album. The dystopian electronic singer plugged his synthesizers into guitar pedals, giving it more of a distorted effect. This especially adds to the whole ‘metal machine’ aesthetic.
The song and the album as a whole details Numan’s fear and his embrace of technology. He said, “the last living machine. Its own power source is running down. I used to have a picture in my mind of this sad and desperately alone machine standing in a desert-like wasteland, just waiting to die.”
‘Cars’ – The Pleasure Principle (1979)
Hands down, Numan’s most popular song of all time, ‘Cars’ immortalised Numan and brought him to ungodly and ‘machine like’ stardom. Many in the States still think Numan is nothing but a one-hit-wonder, but they are missing out on the rest of the wonderful and terrifying world of Gary Numan. The singer noted that he wrote his earworm of a song in just under 10 minutes. The subject of the song once again is technology.
While Numan never considered himself a true innovator of electronic music and was trying to emulate his favourite electronic artists at the time, artists of today, such as Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, cite him as an undeniable influence. Numan said of the electronic scene at the time of this song’s release:
“I felt really proud to be part of the electronic thing, in general. You know, it did feel as if it was at the very front end of something new and exciting. The albums that were being made by the electronic people felt as if they were important records because it felt like an important time — as if this is a new door opening to what music had to offer. And I felt really proud to be just a small part of that. So when I was making Pleasure Principle I didn’t think much more than that.”
‘M.E’ – The Pleasure Principle (1979)
Arguably one of his best songs he ever wrote, it almost sounds like a Black Sabbath song; Gary Numan is definitely the electronic world’s rocker. As previously noted, there were, however, no guitars used on this record. “I was just a guitarist that played keyboards. I just turned punk songs into electronic songs,” he would say about himself.
While Gary Numan did ultimately become a fully-fledged electronic musician, he did so cautiously: “I didn’t go the technology route wholeheartedly, the way Kraftwerk had done. I considered it to be a layer. I added to what we already had, and I wanted to merge that. There’s plenty of things about guitar players, and bass players, and songs I really love that I didn’t particularly want to get rid of. The only time I did get rid of guitars was on Pleasure Principle, and that was, in fact, a reaction to the press.” Gary continued,
“I got a huge amount of hostility from the British press,” continued Numan, “particularly, when I first became successful. And Pleasure Principle was the first album I made after that success happened. I became successful in the early part of ’79 and Pleasure Principle came out in the end of ’79, in the UK, anyway. And there was a lot of talk about electronic music being cold and weak and all that sort of stuff. So I made Pleasure Principle to try to prove a point, that you could make a contemporary album that didn’t have guitar in it, but still had enough power and would stand up well. That’s the only reason that album didn’t have guitar in it. But apart from that one album they’ve all had guitars – that was the blueprint.”
‘We Are Glass’ – Telekon (1980)
With the momentum created from the success of The Pleasure Principle, Gary Numan at the time, felt like he could do no wrong, not because of arrogance, but because he knew how fragile fame and popularity were and that it could disappear as quickly as it came, and ultimately knew he had just to be himself.
‘We Are Glass’ was Numan’s first release since his last record and proved to be a massive hit, reaching number five in the UK charts. This song and the album marks a shift for Gary Numan’s composing style, back to guitars and would use them on the album, stating, “getting rid of guitars had been a mistake.”
The song would feature new instruments entirely, such as piano and viola. Numan once told the story that prompted him to write this song. “Somebody once told me, a man from Omni, said 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.”