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Stormtrooper in Drag?… Don’t be a dummy, it’s Gary Numan. November 24, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Music, Uncategorized.
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I’ve been listening to a fair bit of Gary Numan the last couple of weeks. Every four or five years I go through this phase (I have a goth phase too, oh yeah, and a Flying Nun phase now and again… so nothing is every really lost). I can’t really explain it. Back in the day I was briefly into New Romantic and remained interested in his bizarre take on synth driven pop back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And what strikes me now, listening again is just how odd it all is. It’s not Joy Division. It’s very very different. If Joy Division was the sound of the industrial heartlands then Numan was the sound of the suburbs. Odd suburbs. Very odd suburbs. But then suburbs are odd.

On one level it is strangely evocative. Here is Numan singing about alienation, anomie, fear, curious science-fiction vista’s. Androgyny. Androids. Unpleasant but sexless sex. She’s got claws. Stormtrooper in drag. Here in his car. Down in the park. Beside the overpass (okay, that was John Foxx – but hey, it’s not that different). There is a sullen credibility to a voice which surely has to be one of the most unlovely, yet recognisable in pop. The synths power away, foreground and background. Doomy basses, ululating keyboard lines. Jagged melodies will be replaced by frankly pop-like elements. It’s all here. A sort of smorgasbord. Bowie, clearly a significant influence. But not limited to that.

On another level it’s curiously naive. Gary (what a feckin’ awful name) is in a video mugging it up for the camera. Except he isn’t. This is the palpable sincerity of the teenager gazing with rapt narcissistic adoration in the mirror as they mime along to a song. Except it isn’t adoration, it’s something closer to self-loathing and disgust. Albeit no less narcissistic. And the sub-costructivist sets that were the staple of late 70s and early 1980s pop ‘video’s’ do nothing to disguise this. There is no depth, but then again there’s precious little surface.

Yet there is something. The lad had a way with lyrics, with vocals. With curious stop start breaks in songs. A synth would slow in remarkably ugly fashion, fall to silence. He would whisper/say ‘stop’ in that dull monotone. A breathy pause. Then ‘start’. The synth would drone in an ascending scale into life again. Magic in 1979 in world where computers still largely occupied cabinets. This was the future. Your future. And mine too. This was the Big Machine we’d all be working on, the digital organic interface we’d all be willingly or unwillingly plugged into, decades before cyberspace, years before Bladerunner. Stuttering and starting. And Numan (what a feckin’ awful name, too) was in control. Albeit hating every minute of it.

Robert Christgau once reviewed Tubeway Army with the following:

Replicas [Atco, 1979]
Resistant as I am to the new strain of synthesizer punk now reaching us from England, I didn’t connect to this for months–not until I listened to the singing. Numan’s lyrics abound with aliens and policemen and pickups in what sounds at first like the worst sort of received decadence, but his monotone is too sweet and vulnerable for that impression to stick. To you it may be sordid sex and middlebrow sci-fi; to him it’s romance and horror. The debut (Tubeway Army, Beggar’s Banquet import) is faster, more pointed, and includes no instrumentals. This is catchier, more haunted, and includes two. B+

Although Christgau, being no slouch, also noted when quality control began to dip.

The Pleasure Principle [Atco, 1980]
Once again, metal machine music goes easy-listening. But last time the commander-in-chief of the tubeway army was singing about furtive sex, policemen, and isolation, while this time he’s singing about robots, engineers, and isolation. In such a slight artist, these things make all the difference. B

It’s not ideological. Gary was a self-proclaimed Thatcher voter. Until later when he wasn’t. There’s nothing really but one mans self-referential aesthetic. And aesthetics tend to be self-referential.

So it’s a curious blend. Crap. Genius. Which of course is eminently possible in music. I refer you to the career of many many groups.

I treasure those tracks. I’m not surprised they slot right into Sugababes “Freak Like me”. There is a limber quality to them. Something, that other New Romantics and synth driven pop never quite achieved (well maybe Duran, but they too had an oddness, a certain grit, and that too came from the keyboards and that keyboardist). For all his artistic pretensions and actually not bad songs, John Foxx never quite got there. Something that Ultravox, caught between the rock of their avant-garde history and the loud and pompous place that Midge Ure would lead them to never quite caught. Depeche Mode? Too obviously young. Not weird or self-obsessed enough (and they of course were a band). Heaven 17 too clearly on their way to the ‘mature’ end of the pop market. The Human League, good but limited. Talk Talk, yes, they were there too, just about, went off in directions wonderful and unknowable but fading into a strange silence eventually (as did OMD – except they went to bad bad pop places). And Visage and others, merely passing through from nightclub to the palace of excess or sub-celebrity. But then Gary was never New Romantic. His numanoids (ugghhh… what a term… but worse, if you ever met them, what people) were not Romantic. They were just… well, weird. But weird and suburban. Think back to the point about gazing in the mirror. And, for a brief while they were everywhere.

In a way he was always more a ‘Futurist’ as they called them (pretentious? Why yes) than a New Romantic, although the terms were interchangeable, at least at the start. Perhaps he was the only one. No surprise then to see him hook up with various synth luminaries.

People mocked Numan. The British music press was – in particular – excoriating. His flying. His male pattern baldness. His lack of politics, or worse still his Conservatism that belied a lack of politics. His eventual marriage to the head of his fan club (what on earth do they talk about?). But that was to miss the point. He didn’t care. Partly because he didn’t have to. Partly because much of the avant-garde experimentation that the music press championed, or worse again the sub-intellectual jangly and motownish bands (full disclosure, I still love Scritti, but oddly I can’t listen to them much. The songs seem to slide away. Too rarified, too overworked) didn’t last. Wasn’t co-opted by the current generation. And simply wasn’t as downright weird then and, more importantly, now.

He plugged away for two and half decades. Still does. I wonder how he feels now. There have been a spate of cover albums. Some by dance and electronica acts in thrall to his primitive sound. Some by indie musicians who tip a hat to him, which makes a sort of sense. He himself shifted across to Industrial. The nasal whine gone, replaced by whispers. It’s better than Nine Inch Nails. As good – perhaps – than Front Line Assembly. It is credible. Gloomy admittedly, but credible.

And then, this, from 1978.

I didn’t realise it was him at the time. I’m not really fan, you know. And I hadn’t heard it in 30 odd years, was downloading a rarities and demo’s album and found this stuck on the end. But I could sing the lyric immediately. Remembered the video quite well.

Crap. Genius. I don’t think I’ll ever decide. But I think I’ll keep listening.

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Comments»

1. sonofstan - November 24, 2007

The potency of cheap music, eh?

My then (and my first) girlfriend loved Replicas, whereas I – insufferably snobbish about music(then as now) – thought JD, Throbbing Gristle, James Chance and numerous other records I’ve long sold to be much more important; like you, i still know every word of those songs….

In a way, i think Gaz with his affectless narcissism and apolitical suburbanism was a much truer harbinger of the future than Punk, which more and more looks like an end rather than a beginning.

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2. WorldbyStorm - November 24, 2007

A real futurist… eh?

Affectless narcissism… I like it…

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3. Wednesday - November 24, 2007

I never cared for him at the time but only recently I happened to hear ‘Cars’ again for the first time in donkeys’ years and was surprised at how good it was. ‘Are Friends Electric’ has aged well too. Whereas some of the stuff I liked back then sounds absolutely cringeworthy now (step forward Visage). Who’d’ve thought?

I still love Depeche Mode and the first few OMDs. And there’s a lot of really good late 70s/early 80s electro-pop that never really reached the public consciousness on a big scale and now is largely forgotten… Off the top of my head I’d think of Fad Gadget, Polyrock and Bill Nelson in his post-Be Bop days.

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4. Starkadder - November 24, 2007

Numan claims to be suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome,
which a cousin of mine also has.

http://www.metro.co.uk/fame/interviews/article.html?in_article_id=23967&in_page_id=11

This causes some problems
with social interaction, which might explain why Numan
inadvertently came across as distant and arrogant.

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5. John Green - November 25, 2007

First bloke I met in the WRP youth section in 1981 was a Numanoid. Very odd bloke indeed. But then he’d have to be.

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6. WorldbyStorm - November 25, 2007

Ah, Visage. We Fade to Grey was one of the first songs I really loved. It’s still okay. But the rest? OMD, the first two or three albums are cracking up to Architecture and Morality, IMO. But then… oh well. Depeche Mode, I like some of it, New Life etc, but… I’ve never been impelled to buy an album. Fad Gadget yes. Polyrock never heard… Bill Nelson. Sort of heard. Others in that area were I think Thomas Leer on Cherry Red… I still like early John Foxx. It’s slight, but interesting… very pretentious though…

Starkadder. That’s true. I think I heard that as well.

John, a Numanoid in the WRP? What on earth did the other comrades make of him?

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7. John Green - November 25, 2007

I can’t say I hung around long enough to find out. When you find yourself surrounded by the kind of people who were in the WRP back then, and you’re there voluntarily, you have to take a good look at yourself in the mirror and wonder . . .

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8. sonofstan - November 25, 2007

When you find yourself surrounded by the kind of people who were in the WRP back then, and you’re there voluntarily, you have to take a good look at yourself in the mirror and wonder . . .

‘Are Comrades Electric’?’ *big synth riff*

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9. John Green - November 25, 2007

Maybe that explains the narcissism.

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10. Wednesday - November 25, 2007

Polyrock were an American band and maybe a bit more artsy/intellectual than most of the others discussed here. I think Philip Glass produced their records. Their best known tune was ‘Romantic Me':

http://ie.youtube.com/watch?v=_EgvNzWqcRo

And you said the magic words… Cherry Red … I think I love just about everything they put out in the early 80s.

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11. WorldbyStorm - November 25, 2007

The WRP. Now that’s a name to conjure with. Weirdly I never had you pegged for a member John. A long strange tale I have no doubt.

W. Thanks for the link. I’m presuming you have Pillows and Prayers…

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12. Wednesday - November 25, 2007

Not only do I have it, I was listening to it as recently as, oh, maybe a fortnight ago.

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13. WorldbyStorm - November 25, 2007

Great great album.

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14. Wednesday - November 25, 2007

Have you seen this site?

http://thep5.blogspot.com

Links to a lot of downloads. Some amazing stuff there.

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15. WorldbyStorm - November 25, 2007

Brilliant. I hadn’t seen it before actually, that looks like it will comfortably take up lots of time between now and Christmas!

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16. soubresauts - November 26, 2007

Good call (as they say), WbS!

Numan was an original, and it still sounds great. At the same time Kraftwerk were coming up with something special.

But for sheer brilliance and achievement in early synthesizer music, how about Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1979, touring the States:

http://ie.youtube.com/watch?v=P4Q7M6SNjyo

and

http://ie.youtube.com/watch?v=GznecDBMPFk

(Sakamoto’s synth solo!! and Takahashi’s drumming)

More of it starting here:

http://ie.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc_-LRzgZoI

The following year, Sakamoto was working with Sylvian and Japan — “Taking Islands In Africa”…

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17. WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2007

Thanks soubresauts, and thanks for the links. Kraftwerk I love – in a chilly sort of a fashion. YMO I’d not really come across seriously. Great links… I can see yet further time spent investigating them…

And we know our opinion on TIIA by Japan.

Pure genius…

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18. John - November 26, 2007

I didn’t hang around for long, WBS. A couple of trips selling the Newsline around Chalk Hill estate in Wembley and a trip to a WRP youth section get-together in White City and I was out of there. The conversations I had with members on those few occasions were enough to set of alarm bells. I’ve written about them on C&S here and there.

Enough to make a man an anarchist! ;-)

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19. WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2007

I shall go searching for the pieces you wrote John. Sound… well interesting actually…

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20. Club80 - November 26, 2007

Thanks re: the kind words about thep5 website (http://thep5.blogspot.com)!
Club80

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21. WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2007

You’re very welcome. Great site…

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22. soubresauts - December 5, 2007

For post-grad Numan students, in The Independent today:

http://money.independent.co.uk/property/homes/article3221419.ece

Money, property, homes… Huh? It does bring home to you how young Numan was when he first tasted success.

In contrast, I offer, from a closely-related musical genre and era, still life in mobile homes (yes, Japan):

http://ie.youtube.com/watch?v=nhnVcQyjxXI

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23. soubresauts - January 18, 2008

In case you had any doubts about Numan’s weirdness, see

http://news.independent.co.uk/people/profiles/article3346158.ece

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24. This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… John Foxx | The Cedar Lounge Revolution - February 23, 2013

[...] and no mistake. At least he was in the early 1980s, ploughing a furrow parallel to that of one G. Numan. And yet Foxx had got there first with Ultravox – when they were good, or at least not that [...]

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