On Gary Numan

Hmmmmmm according the search facility and my tags I haven’t talked about Gary Numan here before. That seems a very strange oversight on my part considering the lengths I’ve gone to to talk about Abney Park. But then Numan’s music has been in my life for longer than AP and I’ve been working on that book project for the last few months, so I guess it makes some sense.

Even though Gary Numan started releasing music about 4 years before I was born, I wasn’t raised on that kind of music. I was raised on Queen, Alice Cooper, Meat Loaf and Jeff Wayne, rock music that’s very different to Numan’s original electronic style. I suspect that, by the time I became aware of music in general, he was on the downturn of that part of his career.

I remember the 1996 Carling advert that used Cars as the music, despite the fact that I was 13 at the time (and would never drink Carling) the advert stayed with me. But that was back in the day when you couldn’t just search the internet for an advert for a song (well technically you could but you know what I mean). Then I saw the BBC TV series I Love The ’70s/’80s/’90s , I think they talked about Gary Numan at the end of the ’70s series. Again I was impressed with the music but I was into Cradle of Filth and Nick Cave at the time and 70s/80s electronica didn’t fit with that. Though I did decide that Gemma Numan was my hero for marrying her teen idol (yes I was (am) one of those music fans).

Then I went to The Carling Leeds and Reading Festival in 2001 (Carling again) for the experience. I’d say 80% of the experience was that camping sucks, people are stupid (they burnt down the toilet block in our field and had the riot vans out every night) and sunburn is not for me. I’d never do an overnight festival again unless I had a guarantee of a hotel faaaaar away. But the other 20% of the experience was the music. Of the bands we actually went to see only really remember Marilyn Manson and System of a Down with any clarity. Apparently Green Day headlined on the Saturday, I don’t remember that, but I do remember pitying the poor security guard who had to restrain Iggy Pop by his sweaty leather trousers. Yuck! But I do remember this conversation word for word –

Me:- Oh my gods! GARY NUMAN is playing the dance tent!

Friend:- Who?

Me:- You know, did Cars and Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

Friend:- Eh?

Me:- remember that advert with the guy walking over the cars to get beer?

Friend:- Yeeeeaaaah….

Me:- The guy who did the music from that.

Friend:- Oh.

Me:- sod ya, I’m gonna go anyway.

And I did. And I was amazed. I usually find an artist online and listen to their music a lot (legally I might add!) before I’ll pay to go to a concert, this was one of the few times I’ve gone in without much prior knowledge and the only time I’ve gone straight out and bought the album. That was the year Pure was released and it was a totally different sound to what I’d expected, and very different to his Bladerunner-esque early work (I didn’t hear his *ahem* …interesting middle period until much later!). It’s a wonderfully understated and intensely angry piece, and pretty much became the soundtrack to the my degree.

Up until that point I’d been used to concerts at arenas and huge venues, I hadn’t yet been to the kind of gigs that are frequented by hardcore fans. This was a tiny tent in the middle of the afternoon but the energy was great. Some people had clearly come to the festival just for Numan and some of us hadn’t seen him before but still everyone sang along.

To me that’s one of the best aspects of seeing Numan live and has held true every time I’ve seen him. Unless it’s an unreleased track you more or less hear the concert in stereo, even trying to sing quietly a few hundred people still sound quite loud. It’s truly an experience when everyone starts dancing along to Are ‘Friends’ Electric? especially if you’re at the front against the barriers. OW! It’s also clear how much enjoyment Gary Numan gets from performing, I’ve not seen a grin that big on many performer’s faces.

This is the version of Are ‘Friends’ Electric? that he is using these days (I wish I knew where to get it in MP3 format) but I love the way it takes advantage of the audience’s habit of singing back. It’s also nice that he is willing to play his “classics” without either getting surly about it or just banging out the exact same song every time, as his new music has evolved its completely right that the rest of his performance should move on to match. Some of the people who won tickets to the concert last night were surprised that it wasn’t just like the other 80s revivals that have become so popular recently, but then they were also surprised that the fans ranged from 14 to 60+ and all had the same level of devotion. Speaking of the fans, watching a middle aged couple in townie attire lovingly singing Pure to each other, including the line “Hey! Bitch!” was adorable. The show started with a pretty heavy version of Down in the Park that really set the tone and made the point that this wasn’t just a direct ripoff of old hits. Here’s a crackly phone video (I think you can see my hand in one of the shots, I was directly in front of Numan, to the left of the person filming) but I think you can get a bit of an idea what the singing was like. It was like that throughout the show.

Not only does Numan clearly enjoy performing, and isn’t adverse to updating his songs, he also has a sense of humour about them. I think last night was the first time I’ve ever seen a performer stand in the corner of the stage staring at the ceiling, waiting impatiently for the song to be over, as Gary did with Cars. I don’t know if anyone else would have gotten away with it but frankly it was hilarious. He’s come along way from his early staring blankly at the camera phase. This live recording from 1984 (when I was 1!) sums up the sense of fun –

But at the same time there’s also a hell of a lot of heart. I don’t know how he can keep playing Prayer for the Unborn at so many shows, the man clearly has epic strength. Again, it shows in the audience, everyone slows down, even if people keep singing along you can still feel the hurt and mourning in it. Maybe that’s how he keeps doing, as one of the YouTube commenters says, it’s something of a religious experience.

That’s not pop music. Gary Numan is way more than Cars. If you read to the end of this I hope you’ll look up the albums Pure and Jagged, to hear his new work, or Hybrid to hear the modern remixes of his old work. The new album Dead Son Rising, is due out on 5th September 2011. I personally can’t wait.



Filed under Essay, Music, Review

3 responses to “On Gary Numan

  1. Ken Walton

    Funnily enough, though I’m currently writing an RPG based on Abney Park, the first writing I ever made money on was a short science fiction story, based on “Down in the Park” with which I won £100 in a national schools story writing competition. With which I bought a typewriter, with the aim of being a writer. (Took me a while). I sent Gary a copy of my story, and he sent a really nice letter back saying how much he’d enjoyed it and how he hoped I’d be a successful writer.:-)

  2. Pingback: My Top 5 Albums of 2011 « The Alternative Hausfrau

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