Buried Under Ice


Ago 28 2008, 6:46

Gary Numan faced a hail of bullets almost as soon as he landed in the UK music scene (a precisely definable, pre-watercooler moment: Tubeway Army’s first appearance on Top Of The Pops in 1979 with ‘Are 'Friends' Electric?’). To an already music-mad 12-year-old hearing a starkly-synthesized Devil’s Interval for the first time, it was obvious that something special and important had occurred; but for the music press of the time, to lampoon and lambast Numan for his makeup, his ambiguous sexuality and his obsession with William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick was a point of honour, even before his various aeroplane-related calamities made it mandatory.

I continued to enjoy his music for several years, from the raw guitar and assault of his early work to later, more sophisticated layerings. But when I left home I also left my Numan cassettes to rot; and unlike most of the other sounds from my childhood I have not successfully revisited and re-absorbed these alien outpurings. Until now.

God bless bittorrent! Downloading an artist’s entire output in one hit is not usually a great idea; you get overwhelmed by quantity rather than by specifics, the natural accretion of taste. But when you already have hindbrain knowledge of the material, what better way to fill your MP3? (Especially if you already paid for it all once, long ago – or, in the case of Dance, three times in various formats.) In fact with Numan I didn’t actually download all of it – the eight studio albums I know and contemporaneous extra material is quite enough to be going on with.

It is a strange feeling, though, hearing this body of work with which I am familiar to the point of trainspotterishness for the first time in twenty years. It’s like meeting someone of whom you have carnal knowledge, many years after they have made a new life for themselves; critical faculties are on overdrive, but there is tenderness underneath, and you forgive the blemishes.

Some impressions:
There is a greater variety of moods than I remember – from the expected icily self-pitying ballads (‘M.E.’) to head-shearing guitar riffage (‘Steel and You’), from mournful violin-soaked wailing (‘Complex’) to cringe-making wank-songs (‘Everyday I Die’), from the disposably funky ('Films') to the spookily abstract (‘Telekon’).

The recent discovery that Numan has been diagnosed with Asperge's Syndrome sheds a different light on his imagined Burroughsian futures; is as capable a writing mode as any, and the perfect vehicle for expressing the lonely present that a young man who finds intimacy difficult must inhabit. Many of the songs are painfully literal: ‘Me, I Disconnect From You’, “I’m never gonna trust you too far” (‘Blue Eyes’). There is also more intentional humour that a non-Numanoid might imagine - “I plug my wife in just for show” (‘I Dream of Wires’), “My dog runs AWOL/ I blame you all” (‘Telekon’).

Tubeway Army, is as good as I remember it. Raw, faux-Punk with equally untreated and too-loud synth bolt-ons. But Replicas, the breakthrough album, is an awkward transition away from the uncomplexity of the debut and early singles towards the futur-nereal sound for which he’s best known. It lacks punch when required on the rockier songs, is overly simplistic when something subtler is asked for, and is really only sustained by that hit.

The follow-up, The Pleasure Principle, is by contrast, surprisingly multi-layered and lacks the expected one-trick-pony starkness. There is a lot more guitar grind on it that I remember; the work is superb; the rhythm section simultaneously crisply mechanical and palpably physical. It is the early highlight of his career; ‘Cars’ possibly the worst thing on it (but then, you knew I was going to say that).

The late Paul Gardiner, Numan's constant sidekck in the early days, was a massively underrated bassist who had the knack of rounding the corners of a foursquare synth-line with a thoughtful, organically twisted and wonderfully mellifluous bass-line. Look at ‘Metal’: its opening uber-moronic synth riff serves to underpin the song; why is there even a bass guitar on there? Because Numan and Gardiner understood that live bass and drums rock. The electronics are, like the sparingly-deployed real strings, like the ever-present vocal harmonizer, a veneer. You wouldn’t build a mausoleum in a tent; Numan’s music rests on mile-deep piles among whose baroque subterranean columns it is a pleasure to wander. Listen to Gardiner’s polished-wood mordents behind the famous synth riff on ‘Are Friends..?’ Although Numan will go on to work with star bassists of a very high calibre, in fact increasingly foregrounding the bass, these understated performances can’t be equalled.

Drummer Ced Sharpley deserves a mention in this regard, too. That his subtle flams and fills also take the edge off the music’s surface inhumanity is actually in accord with the protuberance of Numan’s life story among a world of Machmen and SUs (aeroplanes, crashes and Ferraris make frequent lyrical appearances).

In the days before sequencers and computers, even keyboards had to be performed live; little rhythmic slips constantly pull against the impersonal timbre Numan invariably selects; add in viola and you have an austere music which is still capable of emotional connection. After the break-up of the band, Numan partially succumbed (on Dance) to the lure of actual mechanised sounds, rather than a human facsimile of them, before later moving towards a kind of Funky Industrial Jazz. But while the allowance shrinks to homeopathic quantities, live drums and bass are never entirely abandoned.

In short, like Tubeway Army, the classic band of ‘Are Friends..?’, ‘Cars’, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon is not, as Joe Carducci so charmingly named it in Rock And The Pop Narcotic, ‘fag-wave’. It is a Rock Band in full accordance with Carducci’s technical definition – a permanent band of brothers who make their own rhythms, in real time. In his rush to criticise synthesizer music, Carducci mistook a chromium exterior for a coldsteel heart. Beneath the dry ice and dystopian doggerel, the early Numan music throbs with the warmth of life as it is lived.


  • android9791

    couldn't have said it better myself.

    Apr 5 2009, 6:45
  • DerekBowie

    As someone gradually finding my way through Numan's work, whose favourite is Tubeway Army and then Pleasure Principle, I really enjoyed this journal. I think the aura of Gary Numan amplifies what is already great music into something well out of this world.

    Set 17 2009, 3:57
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