Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Shock of the Numan: Electric Music to Freak your ‘Friends’

It is safe to say that Gary Numan (solo, or with his Tubeway Army) was never a critical favourite, but perhaps the time has come to recognise his contribution to a particular strand of dystopian science fiction and musical innovation. As a pioneer of popular synthesiser music, he brought both content and medium from the margins and the avant-garde to Top of the Pops. The mechanised sound and image was undoubtedly refined from Kraftwerk and David Bowie’s earlier templates, but his lyrics, at least up to 1980’s Telekon, are imbued with the bleak futurism of his literary heroes. The defining album Replicas, released in 1979 at the height of both Numan’s creative powers and popularity, is based on “a series of short stories... concerned with London in a few decades time”, distilled into a set of three/four-minute pop songs. This is his explanation of one of the central themes, and specifically those of his first number one single, ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’:

Machines were made with cloned human skin, making them almost identical to humans. These were called 'Friends' and carried out a wide range of services from police officers to prostitutes. The only difference was the eye, they had a horizontal black bar as the pupil, rather like a sheep.

By his own admission, Numan was consciously echoing concepts expressed in the work of Philip K. Dick, primarily his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – probing the nature of reality, the essence of humanity and the notion of the simulacrum. The resultant sound was like nothing on earth, with Gary an alien, android or replicant, constructing a cold, otherworldly persona. Part of the same song/story cycle, ‘Down in the Park’ (“where the machmen meet”) combines sci-fi imagery with the alienated, violent dystopias of Crash and A Clockwork Orange, performed live in all its strangeness. Then there is his rendition of ‘M.E.’, with Numan rising, caged, as if from the subterranean depths of Metropolis, before emerging, cutting a singular figure in his jumpsuit as he intones lyrics of isolation and despair from the perspective of “the last machine left on Earth”. His other number one single, ‘Cars’, remains a prescient vision, which certainly resonates with anyone exposed to the UK’s public transport network on a regular basis, while ‘I Nearly Married A Human’ captures the elusive Numan sense of humour (though in fact he married a fan, one of his devoted Numanoids). ‘Listen to the Sirens’, the opening song on the first Tubeway Army album, references another seminal Philip K. Dick novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, in its introductory line; he is also an avowed admirer of J.G. Ballard, though he never paid homage as overtly as his contemporaries the Normal did with their ‘Warm Leatherette’.

So much for the texts; Numan’s pop-cultural influences extend from the groups who followed the path he charted, such as Depeche Mode, the Human League and Japan, to luminaries of the formative New York hip-hop scene – Afrika Bambaataa commented that he “was so spooky, so spaced out and it sounded like the future of music to me.” Just as Gary himself has acknowledged his debt to various literary inspirations, there is a sci-fi novel featuring a character speaking entirely in Numan lyrics (Sean Williams, Saturn Returns, 2007), and then there were the Sugababes, returning him to the top of the charts by sampling ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’; you can even visit a themed establishment in Wolverhampton, the Numa Bar. In truth, it is easy to mock the man for his love of flying, conservative politics, and especially the unabashed ambition to succeed, which aroused the ire of the late 70s music press – then, as now, he and his music were deeply unfashionable. Fashion is nothing if not fickle, however, and there have been suggestions of a critical re-appraisal. For all the variability of his later output, the early albums (1978-80) stand as his legacy, bridging the worlds of popular music and dystopian literature like no-one before, or since – yesterday’s ridiculed eccentric may yet prove to be tomorrow’s prophet.

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