If Gary Numan's critical fashionability could be expressed as a graph, it would blip in January 1979, a month in which Numan's Tubeway Army recorded a session for John Peel
, before shooting down to rock bottom, beneath even Status Quo
, where it was to remain from November 1979 until some time in 1997. After that point the generation who had been young enough to experience Numan during his commercial peak were old enough to experience nostalgia for their childhood fancies; and furthermore, Numan had finally produced another batch of worthwhile music, mining a goth
/metal seam which has proved a godsend for his career. Goth/metal itself had been critical anathema throughout the 1980s, laughed at and derided, and there is a sense that its current fashionability is bathed in irony, a desire by the critical cogniscenti to avoid appearing to be obvious.
Numan's rise and fall as a commercial force was sudden and hard to write about nowadays, for he was neither a 'one-hit wonder' nor did he fade out gradually. Unlike M (of 'Pop Muzik' fame), Jilted John, Pete Shelley, The Normal, The Knack, The Skids and so forth, Numan had two hits, albeit that one was credited to Tubeway Army, an ad-hoc assembly of session musicians who backed Numan. Unlike The Human League, he was not at all likeable or charming, and unlike Ultravox his one big hit has not become an iconic symbol of the New Romantic fad. Numan didn't fit in anywhere and was easily dismissed and ignored, as if he had been Hitler without the SS death squads, just a short man with a ranting voice and a prototypical straight edge. Just like Hitler, if you were twelve years old in 1979 and into sci-fi, Gary Numan was cool. The critics hated him, but as a twelve-year-old you didn't even read Melody Maker. Numan was going to make the world a better place and you were on his side. Numan was as fashionable as heavy metal, i.e. not only was he not fashionable at all, he was actively unfashionable. If you were older than twelve years old and you wanted to impress people, you kept quiet about your Numan collection, about your leather jumpsuit and red braces, about your encroaching baldness.
For a very brief moment Numan exactly encapsulated the mood of the times, spirit of juvenile England 1979, 'Blakes Seven', Tom Baker as Doctor Who, industrial collapse, the novelty of the synthesiser, 'cold wave', young men in shirts and ties, straight edge, 'Star Wars', robots, hurt and hate, uniforms etc. 'Are 'Friends' Electric?' got him to number one, as did his very next single, 'Cars'. Meanwhile, the albums from which the singles came simultaneously reached number one in their own charts, whilst Tubeway Army's first, ignored, album climbed into the top twenty. A sell-out tour was followed by the 1980s, which were not kind to Gary Numan at all. Numan's next album, 1980's 'Telekon', also reached number one, but after that the spotty press coverage he had received dried up entirely and he was reduced to driving a Rover 216 by the early 1990s, a sad state of affairs.
Tubeway Army bowed out with 'Replicas', an album which was later credited to Numan alone. 'Replicas' had guitars as well as synthesisers, indeed one of the songs did not have synthesisers at all. 'The Pleasure Principle', the first 'Gary Numan' album, did not make the same mistake. It had no lead or rhythm guitar at all. There were conventional rock drums, an electric bass guitar, a violin and Numan's vocals, but the lead guitar was done with synthesisers. Kraftwerk had ditched all acoustic instrumentation years before, but they were German, and they were not number one. Furthermore, they did not rock. Gary Numan did rock, his amplified synthesisers taking the place of distorted guitars. Whilst Numan's contemporaries were creating cold, clean, dead-sounding electronic music, Numan was creating dirty, fuzzy, metal machine music.
(The decision to use a 'real' rhythm section, brought about simply because the only drum machine Numan could get hold of - the Roland CR-78 - had only one useful rhythm, ensured that Numan's early music did not date sonically in the same way as, for example, the Human League's 'Dare'. Conversely, Numan's lyrical obsession with robots, science fiction and alienation now sounds much, much sillier than the League's simple songs of love).
'The Pleasure Principle' was Numan's high water mark. Two of the tracks were released as singles, 'Cars' becoming Numan's only American hit and most recognisable tune. 'Complex', the other single, was a surprisingly tender ballad enlivened by out-of-tune violin. It was also one of only two songs on the album to have a tune, the others being based rigidly around riffs.
Riffs. In a year when Steven Speilberg's special edition of 'Close Encounters' was packing them in at the cinema, the four-note riff of 'Cars' fitted the public mood. Dah-dah-doo-dah (bum bum), etc, doo-doo, dee-doo; doo-doo, dee-doo. That's how it went. It supposedly took Numan less time to write (on a bass guitar) than it took to play the song all the way through. The other songs on the album were based on riffs. Although not released as a single, the riff which underpinned 'Metal' had the most memorable, a glam-rock shuffle of stunning simplicity. 'Conversation' sounded like 'Cars', 'Engineers' sounded like 'Metal', 'Tracks' sounded like 'Fox on the Run' by Sweet, whilst 'Films' sounded a bit like 'Metal' but more staccato. Note that all the songs had one-word titles, something which was definitely a 1979 thing.
Fast-forward to the late 1990s, 2002 in particular - the very late 1990s, let's say. In August, DJ Richard X took the riff from 'Are 'Friends' Electric?', the lyrics and melody of Adina Howard's 'Freak Like Me', and got the Sugababes to sing it. The result was an odd number one hit single which helped to revitalise the careers of both Numan and the Sugababes; two years earlier Armand Van Helden had extended 'Cars' by six minutes, calling it 'Kootchy', which did nothing for anybody but was on the radio occasionally.
And there was 'M.E.', the last song on the first side of 'The Pleasure Principle'. The riff around which 'Cars' was based had four notes. 'M.E.', on the other hand, had three. It's debatable as to whether it's possible to have a melodic riff with fewer notes; not so much tones (in which case both John Williams' score for "Jaws", and the classic 'Good Times' / 'Under Pressure' / 'Ice Ice Baby' bassline has two tones whilst Nile Rodgers' riff for David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' has one), but actual rhymic note events. 'M.E.' went daaaah, daaah, daaaaaaaah and repeated, the third note avoiding monotony by arriving one note before the second bar. A riff with two notes would only work in the context of repetitions of that riff, whereas a riff with one note is just a note.
The libretto was clearly inspired by Harlan Ellison's 'I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream', appearing to tell the tale of a giant computer left bored and alone after exterminating the human race. The short lyric was over and done with within three minutes, after which the song abandoned the riff and turned into a 'Hey Jude'-esque round, fading away five minutes later. That bit showcased the piercing whine of the Polymoog, an unsuccessful early polyphonic synthesiser which also appeared on the Buggles' 'Video Killed the Radio Star'.
'M.E.' was not released as a single, and live performances did not capture the sheer loudness of the studio version, for Numan compensated for the riff's simplicity by making it very loud. And phased. Performed with a three-oscillator Minimoog and fed through a chorus pedal, the basic sound of 'M.E.' was grinding and metallic, loud and large. This obviously appealed to Basement Jaxx, as they used it for the basis of 'Where's Your Head At?', a single released in 2002, albeit that the riff was re-recorded with even more phasing than before. 'Where's Your Head At?' only reached the top ten, but was a popular radio single, and remains familiar today; of late, it is currently being used to promote CBBC, proof positive of its continued relevance for modern youth.
Numan, the idiot, would turn away from this massiveness. 'Telekon', his next album, had pianos and guitars and sounded dull and weedy. For a decade after 1980 he was of the opinion that jazzy saxophones, fretless bass and female backing vocals were the secret to sonic supremacy, and by 1992's 'Machine and Soul' Numan sounded like a poor amalgam of mid-80s Janet Jackson and Prince. Nonetheless Numan bounced back, helped by the exposure which resulted from all of the above; he even had a non-nostalgic top twenty hit in 2003, his first since 1981.
Gary Numan's 'M.E.' is unrelated to a song of the same name by Underworld, from their classic 1993 album 'dubnobasswithmyheadman'.