by Pete Clemons
Now 60 years old it is good to see Gary Numan back in vogue again. An appearance on the recent ‘for one night only’ remake of the Old Grey Whistle Test drew in a surprising number of positive comments. This up lifting feedback led to a late decision to see him recently at the Warwick Arts Centre which was in support of his latest album ‘Savage’.
One of Gary’s first bands, Tubeway Army, came together during 1977. They signed to the Beggars Banquet label and during 1978 released the singles ‘That’s Too Bad’ and ‘Bombers’. I remember buying these singles because, and it seems strange now I guess, but the attraction was that I noticed on the sleeves that the main man, who had bleached white hair, was called Valerian. Valerian, of course, turned out to be Gary.
Tubeway Army’s debut album was released during November 1978. It came at a time when the initial furore of punk was quietening down. And Gary Numan, apparently, had been a punk rocker and a bit of a loner. However, reading interviews, it turned out that he had not felt comfortable with the punk thing. Also, it seemed he never got caught up in all the drinking and smoking that a lot of us blindly did back then. Gary claims that deep down he was at odds with punk as he didn’t really speak for the people as genre expected. He just wanted to make music.
Gary was though open to musical ideas and it was whilst in the studio that Gary was introduced to a Minimoog keyboard. And this, in turn, gave Gary a realisation as to the power and the depth of sound that was available while in control of such an instrument.
A second album ‘Replicas’, a concept album based around songs about human like androids, was released during April 1979. It was radically different to his previous releases. The music world then exploded on 24 May 1979 when Gary Numan appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, onto the TV screens via Top of the Pops with his band Tubeway Army performing ‘Are Friends Electric’. Here was a guy wearing Max Factor 28 foundation along with eyeliner and creating this huge stir.
It was a sensational look and sound that quickly grabbed the nation’s attention. Comparable, in a way, to which David Bowie had several years earlier. And it was after that Top of the Pops appearance that things escalated at great speed. Both the single ‘Are Friends Electric’ and album ‘Replicas’ hit number one in their respective charts. Gary’s visions were well ahead of their time.
Despite Gary Numan being a member of the Musician Union (you had to be one to appear on TotP) they, as ludicrous as it now seems, tried to ban him and his synthesisers from appearing. There was definitely envy and fear towards the form of electronic music Gary was now pioneering and subsequent vitriol towards him possibly curtailed his career.
By the time of the next single ‘Cars’ the Tubeway Army name had disappeared, and so had Gary’s white hair. It was now jet black. Subsequent record releases were credited to Gary’s name only, as did his next album ‘The Pleasure Principle’, released during September 1979. Additionally, by the time of ‘The Pleasure Principle’ it was not only the band’s that had been removed. There was no sign of any guitars.
‘Cars’ came about, it seems, after an incident in London where Gary felt threatened and locked himself in his car to avoid a beating. 10 million sales of that particular song followed.
A sold out tour ‘The Touring Principle’ called into Coventry Theatre on 23rd September 1979. For this he was joined by special guest Billy Currie of Ultravox on polymoog, violin and electric piano amongst other instruments. Due to the nature of the set however, and the inclusion of some Tubeway Army songs, guitars were present on stage. I do remember that a good few punks turned up that night. I am not sure if they had done their homework on Gary and the fact he had changed his style. But there was a definite hostility in the air. And I do seem to recall some minor tensions amongst the attendees.
It wasn’t as though Gary Numan had invented electronic music. He definitely did not. But he certainly brought it to a wider audience. U.K. based bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (who supported Gary at the Coventry Theatre), The Human League, Ultravox and others before them were all playing electronic music, long before Gary, that had been inspired by the German music scene that sprang up in the late 1960s.
But what Tubeway Army had done was appear to slip in on the blind side of a lot of the music listening public. Plus Gary became a pin up boy for the genre. John Foxx who, at the time of ‘Replicas’ release was still a member of Ultravox, described Numan’s brand of electronic music, at that time, as ‘perfect’.
After the success of Gary Numan, and I am not saying that it was a result of it, bands such as Human League and Ultravox began to reinvent themselves as the music decade of the 1980s began. Looking back now, what Gary brought was a game changer and I now kind of realise what a turning point that ‘Pleasure Principle’ tour had been and how hugely lucky I was to see that gig at Coventry Theatre.