Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Gary Numan - Planes, Fans & Automobiles

Between recording and touring commitments, Gary Numan found time to attain his commercial pilot’s licence, and later went on to fly solo around the world (in less than 80 days).  His skyward adventures didn’t go by without misadventure though, including one incident in January of ‘82 when he had to land his plane on a public highway near Winchester.  Numan’s love of flying (he has his own collection of vintage military aircraft) may have been in part spurred on by a need to escape some savage critical reviews of his work, with an increasingly derisive approach being targeted at his perceived neo-futurist posturing, synthetically chilled vocals, allegedly pretentious lyrics (heavily influenced by the work of sci-fi authors), and his apparent support of Prime Minister Thatcher - he was in the vast minority of artists to do so at that time.  Regardless, Gary Numan rarely used his music as a soapbox vehicle for political and social commentary, and moreover he retained a solid grass roots following of all forgiving, clone-like fans who referred to themselves as ‘Numanoids’.

Having parted with his backing band (who went on to form the group Dramatis), Numan returned to the studio in mid ‘81, this time with some well known ‘session’ players in support, including Mick Karn (guitar - Japan), and Roger Taylor (drums - Queen).  The single ‘She’s Got Claws’ clawed its way to #6 on the British charts, and helped push the source album, ‘Dance’, to #3 (OZ#85).  Temporarily unrestrained by the need to record music he could reproduce on stage, Numan took time to experiment in studio.  The album featured a slant on electronic dance beats around varied percussive styles, but received poor reviews from the critics.

In November of ‘81, Numan rejoined his ‘Telekon’ era backing band, now known as Dramatis, and released the single ‘Love Needs No Disguise’ (UK#33 - credited to Gary Numan and Dramatis).  Numan then returned to studio work by himself, with augmentation from session players.  The resultant 1982 album, ‘I, Assassin’ (UK#8/OZ#95), explored a more fluid funk style, not altogether immediately accessible to the listener.  The album was preceded by three British top twenty singles - ‘Music For Chameleons’ (UK#19); ‘We Take Mystery To Bed’ (UK#9); and ‘White Boys And Heroes’ (UK#20).

Numan’s 1983 album, ‘Warriors’ (UK#12), attracted the charge of being pompous from some critical quarters, but yielded two top forty hits in the form of the title track (UK#20 - the video for which highlighted Numan's penchant for flying), and ‘Sister Surprise’ (UK#32).  However, by this time it was evident that Gary Numan was experiencing increasingly diminishing returns on the British charts, propped up in strong part by his core ‘Numanoids’ fan base.  In 1984, Numan set up his own record label, known as Numa, serving to release his own material, and that of brother John’s group Hohokam.  The labels’ first album release was Numan’s late ‘84 effort ‘Berserker’ (UK#45), which managed to spawn just two minor hits in the guise of the title track (UK#32), and ‘My Dying Machine’ (UK#66) - the latter an appropriately titled song reflecting the waning interest in Numan’s brand of synth-pop.

Following his short lived ‘retirement’ from concert work, during which he became a virtual recluse, in early ’85, Numan released the Live EP ‘Gary Numan - The Live (EP)’ - UK#27 - recorded during December of ’84 at the Hammersmith Odeon, London.  In February of ‘85, Numan teamed up with Shakatak’s Bill Sharpe on the UK#17 single ‘Change Your Mind’.  Soon after a full album of live material surfaced as ‘White Noise’ (UK#29/OZ#64), proving Numan still had some considerable appeal for the public at large.

1985 saw the release of the album ‘The Fury’ (UK#24), a critically lambasted effort, that failed to yield any top forty singles - ‘Your Fascination’ (UK#46); ‘Call Out The Dogs’ (UK#49); and ‘Miracles’ (UK#49).  Some may have thought that Numan needed a miracle to bounce back from such a critical and commercial calamity, and no such miracle was forthcoming on the late ‘86 album ‘Strange Charm’ (UK#59), though it did spawn two top thirty singles with ‘This Is Love’ (UK#28), and ‘I Can’t Stop’ (UK#27).  The album proved to be the final release on Numan’s Numa label which folded soon thereafter.

During 1987, Numan hooked up with the band Radio Heart on their eponymous debut album, yielding the hits ‘Radio Heart’ (UK#35), and ‘London Times’ (UK#48).  In early ‘88 he teamed up with Bill Sharpe once more on the UK#34 single ‘No More Lies’.  Numan then signed with the I.R.S. label, still a fledgling operation at that time, for the release of his 1988 album ‘Metal Rhythm’ (UK#48).  The new label failed to yield a resurgence in Numan’s commercial fortunes, with the associated singles, ‘New Anger’ (UK#46), and ‘America’ (UK#49) falling well short of expectations.

1989 saw an absence of any new studio material from Numan, though he once more joined forces with Bill Sharpe on the album ‘Automatic’ (UK#59), which featured the UK#44 single ‘I’m On Automatic’.  The live set ‘The Skin Mechanic’ (UK#55) was also released late in ‘89.

The 90s kicked off for Numan with a hook up with several of his ‘Pleasure Principle’ backing players on the March ‘91 album release ‘Outland’ (UK#39), featuring the single ‘Heart’ (UK#43).  If there were any lingering doubts, 1992’s ‘Machine +Soul’ album (UK#42), proved that Gary Numan’s commercial profile had all but faded from view.  The 1994 live album release ‘Dream Corrosion’ became the first of Numan’s album releases to miss the British charts completely, whilst the subsequent 1995 live set ‘Dark Light’ followed suit.  In late ‘95, Numan collaborated with Michael R. Smith on the album ‘Human’, and rounded out the decade with the 1997 solo effort ‘Exile’ (UK#48).

You could have been forgiven for thinking that Gary Numan had gone into exile as nearly three years elapsed before the release of 2000’s ‘Pure’ album (UK#58), which did garner some positive reviews from the music press, and peers in the music industry who were starting to take inspiration from Numan’s distinctive brand of electro-pop.  By now, only the staunch ‘Numanoids’ remained committed to the cause in terms of buying Numan’s work, but they were soon augmented by a respectable number of mainstream fans, who purchased Numan’s 2002 single ‘Rip’ (UK#29), his highest charting single in over fifteen years.  2003 built further on the resurgence of Gary Numan via the single ‘Crazier’ (UK#13), credited to Gary Numan Vs. Rico, and lifted from the album ‘Hybrid’, a collection of reworked Numan hits.  Over the ensuing decade Numan released three more studio albums - ‘Jagged’ (2006 - UK#59); ‘Dead Son Rising’ (2011 - UK#87); and 2013’s ‘Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)’ (UK#20) - his highest charting album in thirty years.

Despite critical derision and dwindling commercial returns over the length of the journey, Gary Numan has been cited as a precursor to, and major player in, the synth/electro-pop scene that burst to prominence in the early 1980s - think Human League, Mi-Sex, Flowers, Visage, Real Life, Soft Cell, the Buggles - see separate posts - and early Depeche Mode, Simple Minds, and Duran Duran.  It’s fair to say that the success of ‘Cars’ Stateside also opened the door for the early 80s British invasion of U.S. charts.  Numan has also been a major influence to many artists including Nine Inch Nails, Midnight Juggernauts, and Iva Davies from Icehouse (see previous posts).  Much of his work has been sampled on other artists’ hit singles, including in 2002 by Basement Jaxx.

Following the release of his latest album, Gary Numan undertook a major world tour from late 2013, and extending well into 2014, in the process taking him closer to a music career spanning forty years, a feat deserving of respect in anyone’s book.

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