Song From A Broken World: A look at the tumultuous musical career of Gary Numan

It’s probably a safe bet to say that no one expected Gary Numan’s career to turn out the way it has – least of all Numan himself. It’s over 40 years since he first entered the music business, with a chance encounter with a synthesiser in the studio where he was recording with Tubeway Army leading to a radical shift in sound. The punk-influenced songs of Tubeway Army were quickly altered to make use of this exciting discovery, leading to a commercial breakthrough and one of the defining sounds of the new synth-pop genre. Whilst he was not the first major synth-pop artist – with Ultravox! releasing arguably the first British synth-pop single with ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’, and The Human League setting out in the late ‘70s to intentionally be a synth-pop band (rather than a pop band that used synths) – few artists had as much success as Numan did. By taking the experimental approach of ‘60s and ‘70s electronic music, whether it be the work of Delia Derbyshire, Wendy Carlos or even the electronic aspects of the British prog and German krautrock scenes, and wedding it to an overt pop sensibility, Numan contributed greatly to bringing synth-pop to the masses.

Yet despite his commercial success (initially with Tubeway Army and then later under his own name), it wasn’t for a considerable time that Numan was respected in the press, with the British tabloids of the ‘80s being especially vicious. Whereas Kraftwerk had an undeniable sophistication and a certain otherworldliness about them, and the synth-based music of David Bowie and Brian Eno were regarded as forward-thinking masterpieces, Numan’s music was regarded for much of his career as simple and crude, being met with scorn by the music press of the time. It’s an uncharitable assessment that overlooks Numan’s hook for melody, and the way he took what was, at the time, an esoteric approach to music and gave it huge pop appeal. In retrospect, Numan’s influence over vast swathes of music is undeniable, whether it be the synth-pop of the ‘80s, industrial metal or even hip-hop and dance, with many of his songs being covered or used in samples.

The self-titled Tubeway Army is where Numan’s roots in the early punk scene are most evident. Initially written as a collection of scrappy punk songs, they stand out from other bands of the time due to their dystopian, sci-fi lyrics and the use of keyboards. The ideas that would come to define Numan’s sound are in their infancy here, with ideas being experimented with even if they aren’t fully-formed.

It was with 1979’s Replicas that those early ideas began to find their proper form. The synthesisers are more prominent in the song construction, and the sci-fi concept is much more fully formed, with Replicas arguably being that most rare of things – a punk rock concept album. And it is punk, more or less. Replace the synths with power chords and most of these songs wouldn’t sound too different. The exceptions to this are the most notable (and best) songs though, some of which still stand out as some of the best music Numan has written. ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric’ is a pop song that disregards many of the conventions of pop music (being stitched together from two separate songs, and having no proper chorus); and ‘Down In The Park’ would be a deeply haunting piece of music even were it stripped of its nightmarish lyrics.

Following the massive commercial (if not critical) success of Replicas, the Tubeway Army name was ditched with Numan stepping forward as a nominally solo artist, even if there was considerable continuity in the musicians involved. Released just six months after Replicas, The Pleasure Principle contains many of Numan’s best-known songs, including ‘Metal’, ‘M.E’ and most famously ‘Cars’. A growing tension in Numan’s music was evident here, with strong melodies often standing in contrast to a creeping paranoia. That sense of darkness and paranoia become more pronounced on Telekon, released a year later. Another huge commercial success, it was the first time Numan’s private life had a clear impact on the music, with Numan’s unhappiness with what fame was bringing him evident in songs like the delicate ‘Please Push No More’ and ‘Remind Me To Smile’.

1981’s Dance is often held up as the point where it started to go wrong for Numan. The run of Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon represented huge commercial successes in a short space of time, with huge tours and attention to boot. Yet despite what its title may promise, Dance is an album heavy on introspection and sorrow. The first half of the album consists of sparse, almost ambient tracks, with the opener ‘Slowcar To China’ being over nine minutes long, as is ‘Cry The Clock Said’. The second half of the album is relatively more commercial, but this still represented a tough sell, especially as funk and jazz were growing as influences on Numan’s sound at a time when more conventional synth-pop was popular. Though the album still sold well it was the first Numan album not to top the charts since the debut with Tubeway Army. Whilst Numan would never again reach such commercial heights, Dance is evidence of an artist unafraid to take risks and have faith in his audience to follow him, and it contains some of Numan’s best, most vulnerable writing. It’s also notable for the way Numan plays with gender roles at times, from the cover photo to some of the lyrics on songs like ‘Night Talk’ and ‘Boys Like Me’.

I, Assassin continued in a similar style to Dance, with jazz and funk becoming just as integral to Numan’s sound as synth-pop. Numan’s confidence in the material was not felt by his fans, with his commercial decline continuing. Though the album does contain some highpoints – such as lead single ‘Music For Chameleons’ – in hindsight it is the first inessential release Numan put out since the Tubeway Army debut.

If Dance is viewed as the point where it started to go wrong for Numan, then Warriors is the point where it undeniably was all going wrong, perhaps best demonstrated by the way Numan initially ran a poll where his fans could decide the album title, only to overrule their choice of This Prison Moon. A mix of behind-the-scenes label troubles and creeping insecurities in his own talents led to Numan sharing the studio with a host of different musicians and engineers, many of whom had competing visions for the music. The album is drenched in fretless bass, saxophone and female backing vocals, suffocating any of the elements that made Numan’s music so notable and interesting in the first place. Whilst Replicas and Telekon demonstrated how relative minimalism could make for strong, powerful synth-pop songs, Warriors is a perfect example of how more can be less – a trend that would play out for much of Numan’s work in the rest of the ‘80s. It’s also interesting how, whilst previous albums Dance and I, Assassin also often featured fretless bass and saxophone, they were used in service of the songs. In contrast, their prominent use on Warriors often feels forced, as if Numan felt their inclusion was required even if they were not a natural fit. It’s interesting to imagine versions of songs like ‘This Prison Moon’ and ‘The Tick Tock Man’ where they are stripped down to their essentials just as early songs like ‘Metal’ were, with superfluous saxophone solos and meandering backing vocals removed, but sadly this will only ever remain a thought experiment. There’s the core of good songs here, but they’re suffocated by excess.

After Warriors, Numan was at the start of a new chapter in his career. Disillusionment with record companies led to him founding his own label, Numa Records, with Berserker being the first of his solo records put out by the label. The lack of outside interference led to a fresh burst of creativity, with songs such as ‘My Dying Machine’, ‘Cold Warning’, and the title-track being among the best Numan put his name to in the ‘80s, blending an industrial edge with his funk and synth-pop sensibilities. Yet those insecurities which plagued Warriors were still present, with some of the tracks being overwhelmed once again by overindulgent additions. It doesn’t help that for every stand-out track, there is one that drifts along without purpose, such as ‘This Is New Love’ or ‘Pump It Up’, adding nothing to the dystopian sci-fi concept of the album, which was inspired by a series of Fred Saberhagen novels. Though the album as a whole is best described as “mixed”, it is still an interesting listen, and demonstrates that Numan’s funk-infused direction held promise even if it was never fully realised. At the time of writing, the best way to do this is through fan uploads on Youtube – the album hasn’t been reissued since 1999 and is not on streaming services, meaning that CDs sell for over £30 when they infrequently appear for sale.

Following on from Berserker, it’s impossible to deny that Numan’s career carried on a downward trend, both commercially and artistically. From the mid ‘80s through to the early ‘90s, The Fury, Strange Charm, Metal Rhythm and Outland form a run of albums that reveal an artist struggling for relevance and inspiration, losing sight of what made their music so interesting in the first place. Sales of albums and tickets declined, and though Numan closed Numa Records after Strange Charm owing to a lack of sales, even signing to I.R.S. – who had released well-selling albums by bands like R.E.M. – could not stop this slide. It’s hard to find much in them worthy of the time of even the most die-hard fan. The songs, almost without exception, lack direction or personality, often being far longer than they need to be. It’s that lack of personality which is so sad about them. The early Numan albums presented something new and different, driven by a sense of character that was an interesting contrast to the robotic persona on display. It’s also interesting to see how Numan’s image developed during this stage. Whilst he was no stranger to changing his public persona with different albums – with the androgynous android of early albums shifting into the more chic image of Dance, to the leathers of Warriors and the striking blue and white make-up of Berserker. But as the ‘80s went on and Numan’s music struggled for direction, so too did the on-stage image he presented, with clips of him unenthusiastically rocking out in a leather jacket with “NUMAN” studded on the back being particularly painful to view.

Heading into the ‘90s, Numan’s career was at a low point. His last release for I.R.S., 1991’s Outland, has one worthwhile moment – the emotional final track ‘Whisper’ – but is otherwise painfully dated and lacking in inspiration. The follow-up, 1992’s Machine + Soul, is the nadir of Numan’s discography, a shiny pop record that had blatant commercial aspirations, chasing radio play at the cost of all else. Numan has been scathing of it in retrospect, even going so far as to admit in multiple interviews that he regretted releasing it.

It was hitting this lowest of points that caused Numan to reassess what he was trying to do with music. Seeing his attempts at writing what he thought would be commercially-successful music fail, he went back to basics, writing mainly for himself. The result of this was 1994’s Sacrifice, the album which marked a rebirth of sorts. Gone were the funk and jazz elements, and in their place was a cold, almost minimalist take on industrial rock and darkwave, heavily inspired by Nine Inch Nails and the Depeche Mode album Songs Of Faith And Devotion. Released on his re-activated Numa Records label, the lack of large label support meant the album did not sell well upon release, but it marked the re-emergence of Numan as a creative force, and ushered in the next chapter of his career. It’s the kind of album that the phrase “comeback” was designed for – full of personality, with a renewed sense of purpose and self-belief, it showcases all of Numan’s talents and strengths. An extended version was released in 1995, stretching the songs out further to better build the brooding atmosphere, and this is the version to go for.

The follow-up, Exile, was released in 1997. Building upon the sound established with Sacrifice, Exile went further into the exploration of dark, personal lyrical themes, with apocalyptic religious imagery recurring throughout the album. The sense of tension throughout is incredible and it’s this, rather than the industrial metal guitars, that make the album feel so heavy. Opener ‘Dominion Day’ is surely one of the best songs Numan has penned. As with Sacrifice, Exile was not a large commercial success, but the two albums were the first that met with near-universal critical praise – an ironic inversion of his early career, when albums would sell hugely but be scorned by critics. 

Along with these albums, the success of bands and artists from different genres in the late ‘90s served to rehabilitate Numan’s reputation. The 1997 tribute album Random included contributions by high-profile musicians of the day like Damon Albarn (Blur), The Orb, Moloko and Republica, helping introduce Numan’s music to a new audience (though it’s interesting to note that of the 26 covers on Random, almost all of them are from his earliest, most popular albums). On the heavier end of things, Fear Factory’s cover of ‘Cars’ – with a guest spot from Numan himself – was a huge commercial hit, and the 2000 remix album from Nine Inch Nails, Things Falling Apart, included a cover of ‘Metal’. Numan would later appear live with the band to cover the song, helping to cement a reciprocal relationship of inspiration, with Numan and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor both talking openly of the way the music of the other had inspired them. 

It’s on the heavier side of things that Numan evidently felt more at home, and his albums have doubled-down on that since 2000’s Pure. Industrial metal guitars are now as integral to Numan’s sound as synths once were, and albums such as Pure and Jagged demonstrated an ability to blend these heavier sounds with a similar sense of character and atmosphere as those first records had, albeit in a different way. The aggression is much more overt now, and performances of old songs – such as ‘Cars’ and ‘Metal’, which remain mainstays of live shows – owe more to the covers by Fear Factory and Nine Inch Nails respectively than they do their original versions. The commercial success has also returned, with 2017’s Savage (Songs From A Broken World) reaching number two on the UK album charts, which is no mean feat for an artist who is over 40 years into a career that, for a long stretch of time, looked to be as good as over.

In hindsight, it’s interesting to note how this third arc of Numan’s career came about. By recognising that his attempts to chase what he thought was the zeitgeist of the day weren’t working, he was able to focus instead on making music that he enjoyed, commercial considerations be damned. This combination of sincerity and talent led to a creative and commercial rebirth, which shows no sign of dimming with the release of Intruder in May 2021 – which will be Numan’s 19th solo studio album. There’s a lesson in there for musicians of all levels. It was by focusing on creating the music he enjoyed and that spoke to him that Numan was able to resurrect his faltering career, leading to arguably his most consistent and successful period yet.

Intruder is out 21st May. Order here.

Words: Stuart Wain

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