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