Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle Of Synth-Pop

 I confess, I’m an unabashed devotee of all things ‘New Wave’, one of the dominant music genres that hooked fans the world over from the late 70s through to mid 80s.  ‘New Wave’ comprised several factions, including the ‘new romantic’, ‘post-punk’, and ‘power-pop’ movements.  The particular faction that comes under focus for this post is synth-pop, also a major drawcard during that period, and one of its leading exponents (particularly in Britain), in the guise of Gary Numan.  Numan came to prominence as the focal point and chief musical architect behind the group Tubeway Army.  From heading a punk styled rock band to becoming somewhat of a poster child for the British synth-pop (electro pop) movement, the enigmatic Numan carved out a lasting place in ‘New Wave’ folklore.

Born Gary Webb, Numan grew up during the 60s with little more than a passing interest in the pop music of the times.  It wasn’t until the early 70s that he became enamoured with the likes of Bowie (Ziggy Stardust era), Marc Bolan, and early Roxy Music.  But it was almost less about the music and more about the image and stage personas of these artists that registered with young Gary.  He also read sci-fi novels voraciously, and began writing his own lyrics inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick, and William Burroughs.  Numan joined his first band, the Lasers during 1977, aged 19, going under the name Valerian.  His tenure there was brief, and soon thereafter he hooked up with the post-punk outfit the Mean Street, as their guitarist.  He quickly assumed the new moniker of Gary Numan (inspired by an ad in the Yellow Pages for a plumber called Neumann), and also frontman duties, and the band contributed a track to the punk compilation album, ‘Live At The Vortex’.

Towards the end of ‘77 Numan took a further step towards artistic autonomy when he changed the band’s name to Tubeway Army.  The band had been signed to the Beggars Banquet label (a subsidiary of WEA) in early ’78, in the clamouring by record labels for post-Sex Pistols’ punk edged outfits.  During the early part of ’78. Tubeway Army released two aggressively styled singles in ‘That’s Not It’, and ‘Bombers’ (recorded at Spacewood Studios in Cambridge), neither of which made much of a splash on the charts, though ‘That’s Not It’ went on to sell 7000 copies.

It was during this period that Numan became increasingly enamoured with synthesisers and keyboards, and signalled a major stylistic shift from guitar driven punk rock to synth-laced electro pop (heavily influenced by the likes of Kraftwerk, Eno-era Bowie, and early Ultravox).  When it came time for Tubeway Army to enter the studio to record their debut album (the sessions being financed by Numan’s father), there was somewhat of a revolt in the band with several members walking out in protest at the shift in musical direction (they went on to form a new punk group called Station Bombers).  Numan was left to carry on duties with bassist Paul ‘Scarlett’ Gardiner, and drummer Jess Lidyard (Numan’s uncle) to augment proceedings.

Tubeway Army’s autonomous debut album (recorded in just three days) was released in August of ‘78, but initially failed to garner much attention in commercial terms.  Numan remained firmly committed to synth-based pop-rock and it paid dividends via the June ‘79 album release, ‘Replicas’.  The album, recorded over a period of five days in Gooseberry Studios, London, climbed to #1 on the British charts (OZ#11) on the back of the huge British hit ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’.  Released in May of ‘79, the monotonic styled, futurist/sci-fi themed, song entered the British charts the following week.  It sold well initially on the back of a run of 20,000 picture discs.  But the song received a huge boost in profile via a memorable performance from Numan on ‘Top Of The Pops’.  Before going gold the song went electric over the next month and by the end of June had replaced ‘Ring My Bell’ by Anita Ward (see separate post) at #1.  After a four week reign atop the British charts, ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ (OZ#12) was supplanted in top spot by ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ by Boomtown Rats (see future post).

‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ was in essence two pieces of art spliced together, a ballad with robotic styled spoken vocals, married to a clipped, relentless synthesiser riff - the resultant whole being exponentially greater than the sum of its parts.  The ‘Replicas’ album was filled with the same bleak, synthetic sound throughout, punctuated by a handful of guitar dominated songs.  It soared to #1 in Britain (replacing E.L.O.’s ‘Discovery’) during July of ‘79, and Tubeway Army’s debut set was re-released soon after, charting at #14 in Britain at the second attempt.

Prior to entering the studio to record a follow up set, Numan found time to play on Robert Palmer’s 1979 ‘Clues’ album (see future posts).  During this brief detour, Numan decided to drop the Tubeway Army band tag (which he claimed had only ever been in place for touring purposes), formerly assuming solo status, and returned to the studio, this time with backing players Paul Gardiner (bass), Cedric Sharpely (drums), Chris Payne (synth, viola), and Ultravox member Billy Currie (keyboards).

In August of ‘79, Numan released his first official solo single, the hypnotic electronica of ‘Cars’.  Written and produced by Numan, the single entered the British charts almost immediately and sped to #1 for 1 week in September of ‘79, replacing Cliff Richards’ ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’, and in turn being replaced by ‘Message In A Bottle’ by the Police.  The single was backed by an arresting promotional video which highlighted Numan’s neo-futurist posturing, and Bowie-esque look.  Numan recorded the original demo for ‘Cars’ on a bass guitar, and later claimed the song took little more time to write than it did to play.  ‘Cars’ peaked at #9 in Australia, and became Numan’s only foray into the U.S. top 40 (#9), early in 1980.  The song has taken on an almost cult status over time, and several remixes and re-releases have returned ‘Cars’ to the British charts - in fact for a time Numan held the honour of having the only #1 hit to return to the British charts twice more in different forms (a live version in ‘85 and a remix in ‘87).

The follow up single, ‘Complex’, took a decidedly simple route to #6 on the British charts.  The source album, ‘The Pleasure Principle’ (UK#1/ UK#16/ OZ#24 - where it spent 38 weeks inside the top 100) hit the top of the British charts the same week as its release.  The album featured a heavily synthesised sound, and unworldly/futurist lyrical themes. Keyboardist Dennis Haines replaced Currie (who had returned to Ultravox), and guitarist Russell Bell was added for the subsequent tour which took in Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia.  In April of 1980, the first full length music video went on sale capturing Gary Numan’s latest tour, and titled ‘The Touring Principle’.

In May of 1980, Numan returned to the charts once more with the synth-laced single ‘We Are Glass’ (UK#5/ OZ#15), followed a few months later by ‘I Die: You Die’ (UK#6/ OZ#86).  Both songs were lifted from Numan’s second solo album release, ‘Telekon’, which like its predecessor bolted to #1 on the British charts immediately upon its release (OZ#24).  Once again the album featured an idiosyncratic selection of Numan penned songs, attired in an increasingly opulent sound of layered synths, strings, and guitars.  ‘Telekon’ also yielded the UK#20 single ‘This Wreckage’ in late 1980.  However, despite maintaining a high profile in Britain, interest in Numan in the States quickly waned following the initial bout of curiosity surrounding ‘Cars’.

A live double album, ‘Living Ornaments 1979-1980 (live)’ was released in April of ‘81 and peaked at #2 on the British charts.  By this time, Numan had become well renowned for his elaborate live shows, which typically featured a pyramid-shaped stage setup built around fluorescent tubes - Numan would on occasion wave a neon tube about the stage accompanying mock android poses.  Soon after came an announcement that he would no longer tour.  Numan staged three elaborate Wembley Arena shows by way of a fond farewell to fans. But it would prove a short lived decision - Numan would be back touring by June of ‘83 - but one that doubtless bolstered sales of the ‘Living Ornaments’ set.

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