It’s 1978. Genre-defining punk rock bands like The Clash, The Ramones and the Buzzcocks have punk rocked their way from the underground to the top of the record charts. But for Gary Numan, he’s got plans all of his own.
With all of the empowerment and establishment-defying power that the genre brought, it was never going to last forever. As the ’80s were approaching, the new decade would bring new possibilities and music would change forever.
And that’s exactly what happened for Gary Numan. Originally signed to a record label as the frontman for three-piece punk band, Tubeway Army in ’78, they would never land themselves in the genre that he describes himself as “dying on its feet”.
“I don’t think I ever really sat in that whole synth pop thing very well anyway,” Numan says. “I think that people like Human League and people like that were much better at doing the pop thing than I was. I honestly feel that I accidentally collided with pop music, when I wrote ‘Cars’.”
“It’s like I was going that way, and pop was going that way and we just met briefly. Then I carried on going that way and it did its own thing. So I never really made a conscious decision to change music from one thing to another really, I just lived my life and what went in, came out.”
As the story goes, Numan stumbled upon the synthesiser while recording Tubeway Army’s first album and insisted that the whole thing be re-recorded. Amateurishly playing around with the synth, he transformed it from drab old punk rock to electrifying new wave. It was a time for experimentation, expanding the imagination and for Gary Numan, accidentally colliding with electro pop.
“I mean I’m a shit musician, to be truthful, I can’t play guitar very well, I can’t play keyboards very well. I don’t sing great, you know I’m alright. I’m not interested in music, I’ve never in a sense, wanted to learn how to write music. If you asked me to play a chord or a G on a piano: not a clue. I don’t care. My interest in music is sound, noises.”
Love Classic Rock?
Get the latest Classic Rock news, features, updates and giveaways straight to your inbox Learn more
Making a punk rock album was the last thing Numan was interested in doing, but at the same time, he says that he wasn’t trying to replace the guitar. And while the punk rock was on its way out, long before that people had been wondering if rock itself was dying too.
But Numan wasn’t one of those people. He says, “As far as rock being dead, I never thought that for an instant.” He just knew that the synthesiser was “revolutionary”. “It was really exciting [discovering the synthesiser], but honest to god I wasn’t trying to replace anything, I wasn’t trying to get rid of guitars.”
He continued, “I was just loving the fact that there was this new machine that could do all these new things, if you listen to my early stuff it’s still got drums and it’s still got bass. There’s guitar on ‘Are Friends Electric’ – which is meant to be this groundbreaking electronic anthem. There’s guitars all over it. I was just trying to add a new layer to something else, to make it more than what it had been before.”
“I really wasn’t trying to get rid of rock music. Guitar’s my favourite instrument. It’s the most fun thing to play, but from a career point of view obviously synthesisers have been more important to me.” No,” he takes a second to pause, “I love rock music.”
Being boxed in was never for Gary Numan, as much as radio stations and media back in the day tried to attach him to ‘Cars’ for the rest of his life, by the time the ’90s came around it was clear that he had broken the mould and gone on to make the music he was always meant to: industrialist, (sometimes brooding) electronic rock.
And since the decade which preceded the turn of the century, Numan has stayed the course, writing and producing music which forms enquiry and begs deep thinking of its listeners.
His latest album Intruder is about climate change and what the Earth would say to us if we could speak. “Would it be hurt and betrayed, disillusioned, disappointed, all those things – would it be angry? Presumably,” Numan wonders.
“Would it want to fight back, is it already fighting back – has it been for some time? All of those ideas were flowing through the album before the pandemic happened.”
“The idea of the Earth fighting back was already well established in some of the lyrics before COVID happened. So it was weird when COVID came along. Weird to me because I mean I saw COVID in the light of Intruder, and I saw COVID as being a visible sign of the Earth fighting back, but it probably isn’t.”
“You know it’s probably just another random virus that popped along from somewhere and has nothing to do with any kind of scheming of the planet. But because of where I was in my head and making the album and thinking all these things through and I was deeply in it when the pandemic came along.”
“There’s a song on the album called ‘The Gift’, that takes a point of view of COVID being a weapon. I probably wouldn’t have written ‘The Gift’ if it hadn’t been for COVID. But the rest of it would have been there because the same idea was already running through it. It was weird though… it was weird that it happened just as you’re making an album about the Earth fighting back and it was strange.”
Luckily for Numan, he’s always kept his studio sessions predominantly a solo event, meaning that the over the last year or so, the pandemic didn’t hinder his creative process in the slightest. For Numan, being in the studio with others while making music would be nothing short of a “nightmare” for him. So if anything, it didn’t even impact his creative process at all.
“Songwriting is very much hours and hours and hours of tweaking tiny little detail.” He added, “So it’s really boring, you know it’s like watching grass grow or paint dry, it really is a spectator sport, watching somebody songwriting is really boring. And you don’t want people sitting over your shoulder.”
Quite the opposite end of the spectrum, Numan isn’t exempted from experiencing the void that is live music, both as a crowd member and as a performer.
Looking ahead, before Numan is able to return to the regularly scheduled live concerts, for now he’s about to make his grand foray into the world of digital streams, delivering his fans a special performance of his brand new album, ‘Intruder: The Worldwide Concert Premiere’ straight to our screens on June 17th.
“It’s a bit of a weird thing, doing a full on gig with no audience… that’s bizarre,” Numan says on the concept. “You don’t realise how you feed off of the energy that the audience is giving you and how much of your confidence to move around and to do all your strange shapes. It all comes from people being there and screaming at you and being enthusiastic.”
Here’s hoping that we can all get out there together soon. As Gary Numan once said, staying in your car might be safest of all, but where’s the fun in that?
Gary Numan’s Global Virtual Event: Intruder – The Worldwide Concert Premiere
Date: June 17th, 2021
Tickets: Click here to buy tickets.