I rarely watch terrestrial television, so TV adverts are not really a part of my life these days. So imagine my surprise when, on one of our rare sojourns into daytime TV, I saw an advert for Numan…had Gary’s fortunes now improved so much that he could afford this?
Sadly not, the advert was in fact for a tablet to assist erectile dysfunction called Numan – was Gary behind this? Has our android loving friend found the solution to ensure a man can be confident in his Metal and can he guarantee We Take Mystery To Bed? (And frankly, if you were going to name an ED tablet after an 80s synth star surely Oakey would have been a better choice? What's next - a lubricant called Kajagoogoo? The mind boggles.)
Anyway, no, it’s not Gary, but pleasingly his fortunes have improved over the last few years. His music is now respected again, he gets hit albums and sell out tours after some pretty rough years in the 90s. And I am really pleased for him. Watch any interview with him and his wife Gemma and you see a loving, funny, family man who works incredibly hard at his music and career.
So it feels a good time to look back at where it all began – his first two hit albums, Replicas with Tubeway Army and The Pleasure Principle, his first solo album proper.
Some quick context first. I was too young when he came out. I remember one of the boys at school describing himself as a “Numanoid” which sounded cool. Plus I’d discovered books by Philip K Dick, and I knew Gary was influenced by him. So I bought The Live EP in 1985 and loved it.
Then a guy I knew at school, Matt Taylor, offered me a half price ticket to see him at Hammersmith Odeon in 1987. The show was AMAZING - incredible lights and a greatest hits show that hooked me in. And it was recorded for a live album called Ghost. You can hear me screaming out for my favourite song, Berserker, right before he played it as the final track. I was so innocent, I had no idea about setlists...I have the live CD and will occasionally pull it out excitedly to make friends listen to 17 year old me yelling out - my claim to fame!
(If you are as tragic as I am, please see YouTube link below, I can be heard at about 1 hour, 3 mins and 38 seconds - though I expect the only person interested in this is me).
Numan gets unfairly denied credibility, but looking back at Replicas and The Pleasure Principle you are reminded how innovative and cool he was. Both were released in 1979, five months apart (can you imagine a new band doing that now?). Tubeway Army's debut album was punk, but their second was a radical new direction.
Numan had discovered a Moog synthesiser while messing around in the studio and had been blown away by the noise he could suddenly create at the push of a button. His label, Beggars Banquet fought this change in direction - they'd signed a punk band and hadn't quite seen the future that Numan had instantly clicked with.
Elsewhere in the country, bands such as The Human League, OMD and Caberet Voltaire had already discovered the potential of electronic music, inspired by Kraftwerk and Throbbing Gristle. Oblivious to them, Numan carved his own robotic look and sound - Bowie fronting Ultravox! and Kraftwerk, but with his own cold, austere persona (his undiagnosed Asperger's he now credits for being a huge help in his career).
Second single from Replicas, Are "Friends" Electric? reached number 1, leaving his electronic peers speechless at this Johnny Come Lately's success with THEIR sound! But his performances on Top Of The Pop and The Old Grey Whistle Test are still mesmerising. This was the equivalent of Bowie's performance of Starman. These performances were unearthly, new, completely different.
Numan's lyrics and music were austere, cold and yet very cool. Although he might not have been first to realise synths were the future, he was the first to capitalise on it and really craft an image that suited the music he made - Bowie meets android meets Blitz-kid.
Me! I Disconnect From You and Down In The Park are still staples of his setlist, and still sound fresh. The former is pounding electronica, a mission statement for his new sound, while the latter is ghostly, steely and stately - it's just cool. The title track is very Ultravox! (the John Foxx incarnation, as opposed to Midge's line up) - its "it could have been you" lyric almost taunting his competitors.
The album isn't perfect, tracks like You Are In My Vision still hark back to his debut‘s punk sound, but overall the album is still a joy to listen to. Closing track, I Nearly Married A Human is a full on dystopian nightmare soundtrack, predating the cold score to Bladerunner by several years. Its title sounds so like a Philip K Dick book title, I had to go double check it wasn't.
Replicas was quickly followed by his solo debut, The Pleasure Principle. Dispensing with any idea this was a band, here was a man very much in charge of his career (though its cover image is part gangster, part bank manager - not sure what was going on here?).
Airlane opens proceedings, it segues perfectly from Replicas' closing track, as if each album one side of the same double. But this album is more refined, Numan had found his sound and is clearly more confident about where he is going - he's moved on tinkering with synths, everything is now driven by this new sound. No harking back to punk now.
Metal continues this new sound with exuberant confidence, its pulsating drums and chiming synth lines played over a metronic bass line. Metal has been covered or sampled by Nine Inch Nails, Planet Funk, Afrika Bambaataa, while M.E. was the basis of Basement Jaxx's Where's Your Head At, yet these tracks rarely gets a mention when people talk about the early electronic music.
The hit is of course Cars - a song that's been resurrected and released more times than even Gary must care to remember. But it's still superb. It was played at our wedding (Mrs JO'B wasn't keen, but I dug my heels in) and the dance floor was rammed. It's an era defining song and still amazing.
Both albums have stood the test of time and remain genuinely pioneering. Gradually over the next three decades Numan‘s career waned. But Cars came to his rescue again - when his confidence was at it lowest, his amazing wife intervened.
She contacted Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails - his band had been playing Metal and were due to play the O2 Arena in London. She asked if he would invite Gary to join him on stage, knowing that Gary would be mortified she asked. Reznor was more than happy to oblige and a reluctant Gary joined him for rapturous versions of Metal and Cars - watch the video below and you will see a man rejuvenated by the crowd's ecstatic reaction.
He's since made some brilliant records - it's a joy to see a man so happy again and so comfortable with his art. And it's about bloody time he got some recognition. I will be going as soon as he plays live! I can't drive though, so no Cars, it's the Tubeway for me...