Gary Numan (Webb) originally rose to UK prominence in 1979 with a frigid synthesizer dance hit, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” His basic sound — subsequently very influential in the dance music and new romantic spheres — began with precise, antiseptic synth handling much of the instrumental work, topped off with lobotomized deadpan vocals singing science-fiction lyrics.
His first album, Tubeway Army (released in America three years later as First Album), features primitive electronics and production that show some flair, though guitars dominate and compositions are locked into the three-minute post-punk structure. Shifting the band’s billing, Replicas, on which synth emerges as the dominant instrument, includes “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and reached the top of the British charts. A composite of material from J.G. Ballard novels, Germanic iciness and ’60s pop, the album forged a style that was stunningly new at the time but now sounds hopelessly dated.
The Pleasure Principle, Numan’s first release under his own name, contains the international hit “Cars” and continued Numan’s maturing love affair with the synthesizer. His interest in technology showed itself to be increasing in both the lyrics and the music. Telekon brought guitar noticeably back into the mix. The songs raised Numan’s despondent romanticism to new heights (depths?), permeated by doom and synthetic syncopation.
Living Ornaments ’79 and Living Ornaments ’80, each of which documents a London gig from the specified year, were issued separately as well as in a special boxed set. (All three were, by plan, quickly deleted.) Performances give energy to the songs, and Numan’s live voice is frequently more impassioned than his studio persona’s. The 1979 LP features synthesizer pyrotechnics by Ultravox’s Billy Currie that are unmatched on the 1980 recording.
Dance was Numan’s first outing following the disbanding of his backup group and his retirement from touring. It exposes a flair for ironic lyrics and a most undanceable set of dance tunes, downplaying the beat and showing new interest in melodics. Unfortunately, I, Assassin suggests that Numan had hit a stylistic quandary, as it tended back towards the sound of his hits but — in the wake of new fashions — without any sense of contemporary style. Whereas Pleasure Principle was the vanguard of the future, I, Assassin borders on nostalgia.
Numan’s former backing group became Dramatis, and tried a little of everything — mock symphonics, electro-disco, mainstream pop — on the mistitled For Future Reference. Predictably, the only track worth a toss is the one on which Numan adds his deadpan signature to an otherwise faceless outfit.
Subsequently stumped for a way to revive his flagging career, Numan made the roundly dismissed, almost laughable Warriors. He was much better served by the TV best-of and, surprisingly, a collection of pre-synthesizer riff-rockers dating from 1978. The dozen previously unreleased guitar-based demos on The Plan are punky but clear and nonaggressive, providing an unassuming setting for Gazza’s characteristically robotic voice and ridiculous lyrics, free of the formulaic setting that typified his early hits, some of which clearly had their beginnings in this material. (Three of the songs were re-recorded with keyboards for Tubeway Army.) Funny stuff that holds up quite well and proves he hasn’t always been a bozo.
Numan then began issuing albums and singles on his own Numa label, feeding faithful UK fans, who responded by sending every new item briefly into the lower ends of the charts. He began an occasional collaboration with Shakatak keyboardist Bill Sharpe, producing a neat 1985 single (“Change Your Mind”) and an album four years later.
Abiding interest in Numan’s back catalogue prompted the 1987 release of a comprehensive two-disc, 25-cut (studio and live) career summary, Exhibition. (Selection offers a sampling of classics from the anthology, including an impressive Zeus B. Held overhaul of “Cars,” “Down in the Park,” “We Are Glass” and three others. The unrelated Collection is also a two-record compilation; there’s some overlap with Exhibition, but the focus is on familiar LP tracks rather than hit singles.)
In an unsuccessful bid to move his career out of its rut, Numan got a new record deal and made Metal Rhythm (released in the US, with two swapped tracks and a remix, as New Anger). Except for soulful female backing vocals and technical improvements that bring them into line with contemporary electro-dance sound (if not style — Numan’s hip-hop era has yet to begin), Numan’s new songs are indistinguishable from his old ones. (And the attempted appropriation of David Byrne’s Talking Heads voice is no benefit.)
Recorded live at one London show in September 1988, The Skin Mechanic adds another concert album to Numan’s catalogue with a program of hits (including the umpteenth “Down in the Park” and “Cars” as well as “New Anger” and 1986’s “I Can’t Stop”) played with an eight-piece band.
Beggars Banquet has issued many of Numan’s original albums on twofer CDs, pairing The Plan with Replicas, Tubeway Army with Dance, Pleasure Principle with Warriors and Telekon with I, Assassin. Completists may also feel compelled to shell out for The Peel Sessions EP, three Tubeway Army songs (“Me I Disconnect from You,” “Down in the Park” and “I Nearly Married a Human”) recorded in January 1979, or the superseding Peel Sessions Album, which adds a second batch, four post-Army efforts recorded eight months later.