March 16, 2005
Dreams in cold storage
Slowly but surely, I've been loading various albums I've bought over the years (which I had previously bought as LPs, cassettes and CDs) into iTunes. Tonight, it's Gary Numan's turn.
I've always thought Numan was underrated. Sure, he was in some ways the definitive, if not particularly exact, Bowie clone, in other ways the less pop version of Human League and Ultravox and Heaven 17, in still other ways, the ugly duckling (and he has one of the worst voices of any pop star I can think of). But neither can I think of too many artists who have written a line quite as useful as this one, spoken to a woman with whom one has a history: "All the things I can say are the reasons I can't." Nor can I think of one who was quite so innovative -- Numan's Dance LP is, in my very humbe opinion, the most interesting and challenging pop album to come out in the entire decade of the 1980s.
There is a shallowness to much of what Gary Numan did, but I hardly think he's as shallow as, say, Adam Ant (who may well be next on my list of '80s pop stars to be iTunized). And some of his Numan's songs actually resonate (at least with me) years later.
Posted by Ideofact at March 16, 2005 11:59 PM
I remember Gary Numan's early days quite clearly but I found him too scary at the time and never got round to buying any of his albums. Maybe I'll be inspired to do so by my favourite recent TV show, the BBC comedy The Mighty Boosh, which concerns the adventures of two idiotic zookeepers: the pretentious, uptight jazz fan, Howard Moon, and the foppish buffoon Vince Noir, who "squanders his gift of speaking to the animals like Mowgli" by talking to them about Gary Numan. In one of the funniest episodes, "Electro", Vince and Howard join an early 80s style band called Kraftwerk Orange whose showcase song goes:
Driving along on the plastic dream
Heart beats fast like a tiny machine
I am electro boy
I am electro girl
Sailing along on a Perspex sea
Crystal moccasins, bionic cheese
I am electro boy
I am electro girl
It all goes horribly wrong when Howard is suddenly possessed by the Spirit of Jazz half way through the gig.
There's a pictorial run-through of the episode here.
Cars is simply an excellent song, even if it suffers from precious New Wave rhythmic feel and voicings. And it was so long before the 80s were revived, and will be long after people forget.
JP -- I like Cars a lot, it's a fine pop tune, and even representative in an odd sort of way. Still, it's not nearly as bleak as some of his later work. Numan verged on mysogyny sometimes, but I think it was more of a sort of uber-male-insecurity complex. "I forgot not to call," he sings in one song, "and now we're out of love." Which actually reminds me a bit of Viktor Shklovsky's 1920s expatriate novel, "letters not about love."
JC -- The lyrics you quote actually do sound Numanesque. I'm surprised he seemed too dark to you -- maybe it's my American circumstances, but at the time, Numan struck me as being a bit of an Alice Cooper or KISS -- sure, the parents hated him, but he was harmless, for all that.
Well I was very young at the time of his debut, not even in my teens. I was probably still into Abba. By the time I was into darker stuff, Numan's star had faded somewhat*, so I listened to The Cure and Sisters of Mercy and the "miserabilism" of The Smiths instead. Gary Numan was on TV here recently - he's quite a self-deprecating, unpretentious person in real life -explaining how he adopted his cold, robotic stage persona mainly because he was so shy and petrified he didn't know what to do, so the fewer movements he made the better.
*Numan was really, really uncool here in the later 80s and the Numan revival only seems to have kicked in over the last decade, with artists like Moby namechecking him as an influence and the Sugababes making it to Number One with their rip-off of "Are Friends Electric?". Sadly this dip in his fortunes might have had something to do with politics- always a major concern for arbiters of taste like the NME- as Numan openly admitted he voted Conservative. But it might just have been the musical mood of the decade changing (for the worse, in my opinion). Some time in 1982, the relative darkness of punk, New Wave and New Romanticism gave way to the sun-tanned, good times buffoonery of Wham and their like. Horrible.
His humor and humility do come across in interviews. Seems like a decent guy.