Everybody remembers their firsts. The first single that you bought? The first album that you bought? The first gig that you went. Yeah, Gary Numan was my first. Well, to be more honest, Gary Numan was the first ever gig that I went to. I was taken by my eldest brother to see him play in Cardiff, along with my sister and some of their Numanoid friends, during his tour in support of his 1985 album “The Fury”. To be honest, it would have been better if I’d seen him play live in support of the previous album, “Berserker”, because that was a bloody awesome album. “The Fury” was ok.
Actually, “The Fury” was the start of the end of my musical relationship with Gary Numan who had been a central influence upon me towards the end of the 1970s, primarily because my eldest brother was a serious Numanoid. He had all the records, so I could borrow them from him. After “The Fury”, Gary Numan albums lessened in quality and the singles gradually stopped being played on the radio. The following album, “Strange Charm”, was probably the last time that I heard Numan singles on the radio apart from the occasional collaboration (such as the 1985 “Change Your Mind” single with Bill Sharpe of Shakatak which came from the eventual 1989 “Automatic” album; with the Hugh Nicolson “Radio Heart” project in 1987; with the “Like A Refugee” Dadadang project in 1994). I heard some of these but they didn’t really sound like Gary Numan, precisely because other people were in charge and Numan was just being the voice.
It wasn’t until 2003 that I heard a new Gary Numan single on the radio (and bizarrely on Top of the Pops of all places) that sounded like it belonged totally to Numan. It was taken from a remix project called “Hybrid”, and featured a new collaboration with whoever the hell Rico was (apparently a respected industrial musician who had toured with Numan) but seemed to be different from all the others, as this seemed to be Gary Numan taking the lead and back in control again. Enjoy the video:
It got to number 13 in the singles chart. In 2003. What? The same Gary Numan who was the subject of perennial piss-taking regarding hair transplants and failing to fly around the world single handed? Really? Except this Gary Numan seemed to a cool Gary Numan – something that I don’t remember possibly since the release of the “Cars” single off “The Pleasure Principle” album in 1979.
I went out and got “Hybrid”, and also got “Pure” (which was the album previous to it, from which some of the “Hybrid” tracks had been remixed) which had garnered a huge amount of critical praise that had generated all sorts of musicians wanting to collaborate and remix his material. It was a critical and commercial rebirth of an artist who was the first to admit that he had lost his way during the second half of the 1980s. I suppose in some ways it echoes what I experienced towards the end of the 1980s as I lost direction myself.
The more I take a look inside, the more I’m fried
The more I understand the ride, the more I slide
The more you put me back in line, the more I tried
The more you looked into my eyes, the more you lied
This was a darker, harder edge Gary Numan sound that was clearly influenced by a newer generation of industrial-techno rock such as Nine Inch Nails, Fear Factory (who covered “Cars” with Numan on vocals – if I find it, I’ll add it onto the end as a treat) or Marilyn Manson. The guitars were back to the forefront again, the hair was dyed gothic black (and successfully transplanted to enable much enthusiastic head-banging) and the attitude was equally darker than dark – harking back to the darker tone of his earliest recordings, especially “Replicas” and “Telekon”.
Numan himself puts this down to deciding to stop making music that he imagined would get played on the radio. Instead, he decided to make music purely for himself and his own tastes (encouraged by his wife, who had herself been a member of his fan club and had strong opinions on what had gone wrong with his music), even if it meant that his singles would no longer receive radio play and his album sales would only appeal to his core audience.
The first album that resulted from this new attitude was “Sacrifice” in 1994. On this album, Numan abandoned the musical tricks that he had previously relied upon in a bid to make his music more ‘radio-friendly’, such as saxophone solos, funk rhythms, slap bass and female backing vocals. These were dropped for a synth heavy back-to-basics approach that saw him playing practically all instruments himself. The result was a more industrial sound that appealed to fans of the merging “dark-wave” sub-culture, and it earned the first favourable critical reviews since “Replicas” (under the Tubeway Army band name) in 1979.
This led to a further critically applauded album in “Exile” in 1997 that further developed the heavy industrial sound, and saw younger audiences start to attend his live shows. Here is the “Absolution” single that I never heard played on the radio, and didn’t even know had existed until 8 years after it had been released – and it is a bloody corker of a song:
Now go listen to the “Hybrid” album remix by Andy Gray which ramps up the intensity and drama. This was really strong music but nobody apart from the hardcore fans knew it existed.
When “Pure” was released in 2000, it was critically lauded across almost all music magazines and websites but still failed to set the charts alight – although Numan himself insists the number of illegal downloads (at the height of peer-to-peer file sharing culture – remember Napster?) was responsible for losing a significant number of album sales. It was not until the release of the “Crazier” single (and the associated “Hybrid” remix album) that Gary Numan could finally lay to rest those lost and floundering late 80s years of wasted promise.
Here’s the evidence: Gary Numan on TOTP (with the collaborator Rico on co-vocals and guest head-banging):
Yes, I didn’t imagine it.
I come back crazier, but feel much better
You come back crazier, you’ll feel better
These words are very true.
The second half of the 1980s were a bad time for me musically. Many people blame this on the influence of Live Aid in 1985 for reinforcing the supremacy of rock dinosaurs like The Rolling Stones. Others blamed it on the rise of the super production team, particularly Stock-Aitkin-Waterman who provided a veritable train of hit singles for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Rick Astley. However, these things would not have mattered for me if Bowie had still been producing albums of quality and distinction. Sadly, the Nile Rogers produced “Let’s Dance” was his last great album of the 80s. “Tonight” was based around the totally un-Bowie like decision to build on the fan base he had gathered during the “Serious Moonlight” tour and essentially do more of the same – except the songs were generally average and the production by Hugh Pagdham (yes, who? Genesis and Phil Collins? Oh, interesting choice Mr Bowie) was pop sheen rather than the disco-funk sheen provided by Nile Rogers. “Never Let Me Down”, released in 1987, was better but the concept of a return to rock ‘n’ roll was marred by some dodgy songs and let’s not talk about the “Glass Spider” tour. No, I’m convinced that the best Bowie album of the second half of the 80s was “Blah Blah Blah” by Iggy Pop.
The other major musical movement of the late 1980s was Acid House. I loved the idea of acid house as a youth movement. I even have memories of having an obligatory smiley t-shirt and rave dungarees as I was getting ready to move to Nottingham to start my Creative Arts degree. I only had one small problem with acid house… the music was crap. It would be a few years before The Prodigy started to realise the genius of mixing rave and rock together to produce something as startling as “Firestarter” in 1996.
As a result of this confusing music scene, I found myself relying on Peter Gabriel’s “So” album for my art-rock thrills, whilst most of my friends headed in an increasingly rock direction (either via the Goth sensibilities of The Cult, or The Sisters of Mercy – or in the direction of rawk via either “hair metal” bands like Motley Crue or the developing thrash aesthetic of Metallica or Megadeth – yes, I’ll tell you about my adventures in rawk in another blog).
My girlfriend was a big musical theatre fan, which actually provided me with some interesting discoveries, but I found myself needing that slightly obtuse output that I had earlier gained through prime Bowie, Iggy and Roxy Music. Therefore, I found myself turning back the clock to listen to classic Bowie etc. as I was finding it more and more difficult to get inspired by new music. If I had listened to the brilliance of John Peel on the radio late at night, I may have picked up on the likes of The Pixies much earlier and found myself saved. However, for reasons that I still cannot really understand, the Peel show stayed off my radar.
So I found my musical aesthetic floundering during the later half of the 1980s, and I only really managed to find my way back in the early 90s as I started to discover the artier end of the rising Britpop movement, particularly the likes of Pulp, Elastica, Suede, Placebo and Blur – and the Manics who managed to be slightly out of step with the scene until the release of “Everything Must Go” in 1996. This obviously led me in the direction of Radiohead, when they came of age with both “The Bends” and “OK Computer”. However, I didn’t only confine myself to British music as I was able to discover bands from the artier side of the Grunge scene, particularly The Smashing Pumpkins who released a whole series of exceptional albums in the mid 90s, and this in turn led me to both Marilyn Manson (who released one of my all-time favourite albums with “Mechanical Animals” in 1998) and Nine Inch Nails.
So I was familiar with the industrial rock mood that Numan was pursuing on “Crazier” by the time I heard it in 2003, but it was great to here that screeching voice doing something vital and alive again because I made me feel vital and alive.
It is good to come back crazier.
As a post script, Numan has since continued on this singular path, sometimes working with techno producer Ade Fenton (as producer), releasing Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind) in 2013 – becoming one of my top ten fave albums of that year. It reached number 20 in the album chart, and proved to be his biggest selling album since “Warriors” back in 1983. Sometimes, just sometimes, there are happy endings…
Here is the lead single, “I Am Dust”: warning, there is some strobe effects in the video that might impact people with photosensitive epilepsy…
Welcome back Gary – it is good to have you here again… crazier or not.
Oh yes, here is the Fear Factory take on “Cars”:
Yeah, your original is still better Mr Numan…