For The Love Of…Gary Numan

Gary Numan has ascended to legendary status, literally in his own lifetime and rightfully so. He is a pioneer, an innovator, a visionary, creator of huge melodic hooks and an incredibly nice and humble bloke. All the accolades spinning his way are lavished on him by others, not sought by the man himself, he is far too modest for that and this is the essence of his magic. So many performers name-check Numan nowadays; Lady GaGa, Prince (when he was alive, obviously), Damon Albarn, Trent Reznor, Kanye West, Moby and Dave Grohl to name a few, and his influence and impact on modern music is undoubted.

Nine Inch NailsReznor even reckons that Numan may have invented industrial music and while this may just be hyperbole, listening to his early work you can hear where Trent may be coming from; Replicas, Telekon and The Pleasure Principle all dabbled in the aesthetics and philosophy of industrial music, portraying stark dystopian vistas and post-apocalyptic ruinscapes. Those three albums could have been performed by robots or machmen (reference there to a Numan song from 1979’s Replicas). Channeling his inner Ballard, Asimov and Philip K. Dick, those early albums tackled isolation, alienation, artificial intelligence, horrorscapes and mind control (Telekon is particularly disquieting).

Warriors in 1983 and Berserker in 1984 furthered this style by fusing electro and funk with heavy, arpeggiated synths and a gloomy post-apocalyptic style. Warriors drew heavily from Mad Max and Berserker played with heavy metal riffs and chugging synth leads all programmed on the PPG Wave machine by the ‘Wave Team’. Throughout, Numan eventually became the ‘iceman’, with white face and electric blue hair. It was a striking and stylised look that represented the music perfectly.

Throughout the eighties Numan‘s electro-rock industrial sound progressed, many tracks resembling the more accessible moments of Skinny Puppy check out “Assimilate“, Ministry’s “All Day“, from the fantastic Twitch and “Iceolate” by Frontline Assembly.

As a live act Numan is almost unsurpassed. A consummate performer, his shows are often adrenaline-fuelled and dazzling spectacles of shattering sound and pulsing light shows. Numan himself is comfortable and dynamic on stage, a far cry from the nervous and rigid performer of his early years. I remember his appearance on Top of the Pops in 1979 performing “Are Friends Electric”; his stiff, robotic posture, sullen expression and thousand yard stare. Years later he admitted to having stage fright and creating personas to deal with this, which has worked out pretty well for him.

The Numan of today is assured, revelling in his performances, pulling shapes with abandon, smiling, riffing with his band and the audience, and dominating and controlling the stage. To be at a Numan gig is a collective experience, one that stays with you and surpasses most other live experiences you will have.

To witness the Numan re-birth has been revelatory and wonderful. From the dark days and low-point of Machine and Soul to the heights of 2017’s Savage, peaking at the top of the album charts (the first time since 1980’s Telekon), this acclaim is fully deserved and frankly overdue. Awards and accolades have followed and while contemporaries have continued to trawl the nostalgia circuit, Numan has progressed and re-invented himself to remain relevant and even continue to blaze a trail.

His body of work is impressive. Twenty-odd studio albums in forty years is some output and trying to put them in some order has been a daunting task, even for a fan such as myself, however I have attempted to do this here. Hope you enjoy reading and revisiting some of the music, it has been a fun and nostalgic trip for me and has reinforced my love and respect for the man himself.

Note: I have left out The PlanThe Radial Pair, Human (with Mike Smith) and Automatic (with Bill Sharpe). I have also only covered the original releases, not extended re-releases (even though one or two of these have been alluded to).

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The Pleasure Principle
Released: September 1979
Label: Beggars Banquet
Highest UK Chart Position: 1

The album that changed so much. With The Pleasure Principle the die was cast and new wave fully-entered the electronic age. Guitars were eschewed and the synthesizer reigned. Producing the singles “Cars“, “Metal” and “Complex“, The Pleasure Principle doesn’t have a weak moment. The mix of live drums, bass and bass-rumbling Moog synths is powerful, giving the album an, at times, epic feel. “Films” and “M.E.” are two great examples of the sheer size and scope of the songs featured on the album. While “Cars” was an easy choice for a single, “Complex” was braver, with it being a slow-moving and downbeat track that didn’t really suit the singles market. However as proven with “Are Friends Electric?“, Beggars Banquet were prepared to take a chance and more often than not it paid off. Lyrically this album is among my favourites; sci-fi paranoia is everywhere and the images created fuelled my childhood imagination:

‘We’re in the building where they make us grow / And I’m frightened by the liquid engineers / Like you’,

‘All that we are / Is all that you’d love to be / All that we know / Is hate and machinery / We’re engineers’ 

‘And M.E., I eat dust / We’re all so run down / I’d call it my death / But I’ll only fade away / And I hate to fade alone / Now there’s only M.E’.

Best track : Metal

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Released: April 1979
Label: Beggars Banquet
Highest UK Chart Position: 1

There is no way of overstating the importance of this album, it is huge and changed the way electronic music is viewed and consumed for good. “Are Friends Electric” and “Down in the Park” both dwell within the vinyl grooves and their impact on so much electronic music to follow is massive. Ironic that one of Numan‘s finest hours isn’t under his own name. The transition from punk band to electronic act appeared to be smooth and instinctive and this was to be Numan‘s last album with the Tubeway Army name attached. This is a virtually flawless album and sounded so far ahead of the curve it was ridiculous. Only Ultravox and Human League were doing anything similar without really breaking through into the mainstream, Numan managed this with Replicas and the world sat up and took notice. Every song is a potential hit, right from the opening “Me, I Disconnect From You” with its ice-punch, synth arpeggios and Numan‘s cold, robotic voice through the non-radio-friendly 5 and a half minute masterpiece “Are Friends Electric” to the spooky, JG Ballard inspired “Down in the Park”. It’s worth noting the re-issue contains the brilliant “Only a Downstat” and “We Have a Technical“, both of which, I think, are worthy of inclusion on the original release.

Best track: Down in the Park

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Released: September 1980
Label: Beggars Banquet
Highest UK Chart Position: 1

Spooky, atmospheric and cold, Telekon is a masterpiece of alien electronics. Every track oozes dislocated eeriness, it’s like each song has been created by a slowly malfunctioning android orbiting the earth in a decaying spaceship. Tracks like “I Dream of Wires“, “Remember I Was Vapour” and the title track flicker in and out of our reality, pulsing with a nagging disquiet. Telekon brought back guitars and upped the inclusion of strings, notably Chris Payne on violin and viola, that became almost imperceptibly entwined with the spectral analogue synths. It was through this album that I first became aware of and fell completely in love with Prophet and Jupiter synths, a love that has not diminished in the slightest over the intervening years (my monthly electronic radio show is named after the Jupiter synth). Interestingly Telekon is the album Trent Reznor had on continual play during the recording of Pretty Hate Machine and Robert Palmer famously recorded a version of “I Dream of Wires” which is pretty good.

Best track: Telekon

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Savage (Songs from a Broken World)
Released: September 2017
Label: BMG
Highest UK Chart Position: 2

His voice has never sounded better, the synths swoop and fly and the melodies are epic. There is so much to love about this album. Numan has sealed his ascension to the eternal dark electro goth lord with this release. It is remarkable that his songwriting has seemingly improved with time, the melodies are bigger and swoopier, the drums more shattering and the subject matter more relevant and prescient. Numan is still a pioneer, re-molding electronic music into his own image and he shows no sign of compromising, he is as singular in his vision as he was when he started out forty years ago. Numan is stadium electro-rock, nothing can contain him now.

Best track: When The World Comes Apart

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Released: September 1981
Label: Beggars Banquet
Highest UK Chart Position: 3
Best track: A Subway Called ‘You’

Dance was quite a shift from Telekon. The icy synths were still there but jazz and funk elements had been added giving the sound a noir-ish feel. The image was also striking, Numan seemingly inspired by the burgeoning New Romantic scene and the 1930’s style of double-breasted suits and trilby hats. Tracks like “Slow Car to China” and “A Subway Called You” are dark, sultry and spooky with serpentine bass and misty synths. “She’s Got Claws” was the main single and featured some serious saxophone action from Mick Karn (who also provided the fretless bass). There are some wonderful moments on Dance and it’s an album worth re-visiting especially for the near-pastoral “Stories” and “Metal” re-work “Moral“.

Best track: A Subway Called ‘You’

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Tubeway Army
Released: November 1978
Label: Beggars Banquet
Highest UK Chart Position: 14

Not strictly Numan but proto-Numan. With his Tubeway Army pals, Numan blurred the lines between punk and new wave, introducing synthesizers to the mix of guitars, drums and bass and seemed to elevate the music to a new level. While punk purists scoffed, those in the know lapped it up, luxuriating in the deep bass growls of the Moogs. Who knew guitars and synths could co-exist and still sound punk, well Numan did and he cranked it all up. The punk aesthetic is still there, it just has a strange otherworldly hue to it, adding layers and textures to what are pretty simple and straightforward punk-rock songs. “Friends“, “My Shadow in Vain” and “Are You real?” are common-to-goodness punk pop of the highest order, similar in ways to earlier songs such as the surf-punk “That’s Too Bad“, “Oh! Didn’t I Say” and “Mean Street“, the addition of synths pushing them firmly into New Wave territory. Big shout for “Jo the Waiter” which is a timeless classic and I saw performed live once.

Best track: My Love is a Liquid

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Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind)
Released: October 2013
Label: Mortal Records
Highest UK Chart Position: 20

Icy, dark and industrial, Splinter is a dense and layered exploration of the human soul. Opener “I Am Dust” is borne of a tragic and disturbing beauty and sets the tone for the album. Numan‘s songwriting is sublime, every song is wonderfully crafted, with the loud and quiet production absolutely pinpoint sharp. Ade Fenton has made such an impact on Numan‘s sound and it is evident here, bright and cavernous with flourishes of melodrama and electronic majesty.

Best track: Love Hurt Bleed

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I, Assassin
Released: September 1982
Label: Beggars Banquet
Highest UK Chart Position: 8

An incredibly listenable album, every track has punch and pace, in part due to Pino Palladino‘s incredible bass and the burbling rhythms of the LinnDrum used throughout. The synths achieve escape velocity with regular aplomb throughout, soaring and warbling with operatic intensity. This is Numan shifting his sound towards a funkier and more electro-synth sound utilising the bass as more of a lead instrument. Palladino‘s bass shapes each track, infusing an elastic snap to the melodies. The extended version features the b-sides including the utterly brilliant “Noise Noise” (one of his best), “War Games” and the fun and improvised “Bridge? What Bridge?

Best track: White Boys and Heroes

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Released: November 2000
Label: Eagle
Highest UK Chart Position: 58

This album came 3 years after Exile but sounded light-years ahead. Such a leap. Sound, production and scope has increased to Gothic cathedral proportions. This is 8 years post Machine + Soul and is a hell of a turnaround. At this point Numan is approaching a second creative apex and cementing his electro-industrial-goth sound with dark and brooding electronics, grinding guitars and thunderous basslines.

Best track: Walking with Shadows

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Released: November 1984
Label: Numa
Highest UK Chart Position: 45

Both Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher of Depeche Mode are big fans of this album and it has aged well, still snarling with a choking menace. Underrated and beset with distribution problems when released, Berserker is now viewed as a classic album of dark and cyberpunk industrial electronics. The beats are chugging and the PPG Wave Machines and OBX’s throb with cold, metallic menace. This is the sci-fi of Philip K. Dick and John Carpenter. It is the soundtrack to the most perfect and clean-edged post-apocalyptic ruinscape you could possibly fathom. Oh yes, and that image, probably Numan‘s most striking, memorable and iconic look ever.

Best track: My Dying Machine

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Released: October 1994
Label: Numa
Highest UK Chart Position: 99

This was the return of the prodigal. After several years spinning in orbit Numan achieved planet-fall with Sacrifice. Having channeled the likes of Nine Inch Nails he embraced darkwave and gloomy electronic industrial to produce arguably his best album for ten years. Two years post Machine + Soul and we get Sacrifice and things have moved on considerably. The influence of Gary‘s soon-to-be wife Gemma is evident and it seems he is reborn, taking inspiration from Depeche Mode‘s 1993 Songs of Faith and Devotion. This was the album that restored hope among fans and foreshadowed the path Numan would be walking over the proceeding 25 years.

Best track: Bleed

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Released: October 1997
Label: Eagle
Highest UK Chart Position: 48

I remember hearing previews of “Absolution” and “An Alien Cure” on Numan‘s 1996 Premier Tour at the Hammersmith, London and was really excited by the prospect of the new album, the album that was to become Exile. Strong songwriting, loads of Gothic and swirly atmosphere and hugely melodic hooks were the strong points, all let down by soupy production. It really does sound like it was mixed through a duvet which is a shame as Exile features some of Numan‘s best mid-90’s moments. “Dominion Day” is anthemic, “Dead Heaven” is so beautifully melodic, “An Alien Cure” is a dark-lord masterpiece and the title track, “Exile“, closing out the album is an understated masterpiece of atmosphere and nuance, the piano is gorgeously evocative and the song features a double chorus. Exile is full of eerie landscapes and sprawling synth melodies, a real precursor to what was to follow post-2000. If it could be resurrected and re-mastered then it would earn a place higher up in this list.

Best track: Dead Heaven

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Released: September 1983
Label: Beggars Banquet
Highest UK Chart Position: 12

I really like this album. Electro-funk has always been a guilty pleasure of mine and Warriors is packed full of slap and fretless bass, saxophones and cool synth sounds. Big shout to “Poetry And Power” an absolute belter of a b-side and “My Car Slides (Part 1)” and “(Part 2)” as two of his best b-sides ever, though “Poetry And Power” could be trimmed by around a minute, it just lingers and then peters out rather disappointingly. “My Car Slides” is a beautiful two-parter; part one is mellow and floaty while part two is jacked-up electro funk of the smile-inducing kind. What a set up. Those saxophones full of grooving bees and the pure slow-crawl synth stabs – brilliant. The album is full of nice touches and plenty of atmosphere, notably “The Iceman Comes” is a beautifully diaphanous swirler that is as ephemeral as the foggy synths and trippy production.

Best track: My Centurion

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Released: March 2006
Label: Cooking Vinyl
Highest UK Chart Position: 59

Ade Fenton‘s production is a revelation and steps Numan‘s game up; he is no longer following others, he is leading from the front. Electro-industrial has become his sound, he has taken gothic, darkwave electronics and injected it with the DNA of Replicas, The Pleasure Principle, Berserker, Warriors and Telekon, imprinting the previous 25 years of sweeping synths and spooky atmospherics. If ever an album was fog-shrouded and designed for the darkening moors this is it. Perhaps moon-streaked clouds and the baleful howling of wolves could only increase the pure gothic-ness of the album. There are several standout tracks including the sinister “Haunted”, the anthemic “In a Dark Place” and the propulsive “Melt“.

Best track: Haunted

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The Fury
Released: September 1985
Label: Numa
Highest UK Chart Position: 24

I absolutely loved this album when it came out in 1985. I was obsessed with “Your Fascination” and the rest of the album grew from there. The hard, funky, industrial chug of the PPG Wave still sends chills. Right from the off, the scene is set, Blade Runner samples ghost in on “Call Out the Dogs” which thrums with a hard-edged metallic industrial throb. “Creatures” is pure sleaze-core funk and simmers through its five minute run in contrast to the bright and velvety “God Only Knows“, a song clearly about his near-fatal plane crash from a few years previously. Overall, The Fury is a patchy album that hasn’t aged particularly well and remains firmly rooted in the mid-80’s. Still, it’s an album I enjoy revisiting. Oh yeah, and “Your Fascination” also featured one of his best b-sides in “We Need It” which definitely should have made it onto the album and features some of the thrummiest and coolest synth sounds to feature on a Numan record.

Best track: Your Fascination

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Dead Son Rising
Released: September 2011
Label: Mortal Records
Highest UK Chart Position: 87

Patchy at best and collection of off cuts but nonetheless it is officially canon. Containing ideas and tropes Numan had been working on for a Sci-Fi novel, it is uneven and inconsistent with a few powerful and searing moments. Quite a few of the tracks have been resurrected from demos from as far back as 2000 and features deep house producer and Office Gossip maestro Nathan Boddy plus live stalwarts Tim Muddiman on bass and Steve Harris on guitar. The synths are wonderfully crunchy, the riffs grandiose and the melodies catchy. Some of it does sound like it was inspired by Reznor‘s The Fragile but we’ll forgive Gary for that.

Best track: The Fall

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Metal Rhythm
Released: September 1988
Label: IRS, Illegal
Highest UK Chart Position: 48

So, the brass samples jar, the funk spangly guitar is slightly irritating and the backing vocals are amped up, but there are still some great moments on this record. To be fair, we had been heading this way following Strange Charm and would hit the apex with 1992’s Machine + Soul but at least Metal Rhythm could still manage huge arcing anthems, the kind of thing Numan does so well. Melodies punch their way through some cheesy production, factory preset synth leads and over-the-top backing. Metal Rhythm was the first release on IRS and it sounds like a Numan tribute album, that is, just what the record company thought Numan should sound like. The lead single, “New Anger“, sounded suspiciously like Robert Palmer‘s “Addicted to Love” and was intended to be one big ‘fuck you’ to those writing him off, while actually being symptomatic of the steep decline Numan found himself in. This theme ran throughout the album, the return of the pop star and, while containing enjoyable moments, was ultimately flat and uninspiring. “Voix” is a brilliant moment of vexation. “Respect” is a song of barely disguised vitriol aimed at Hohokam (very probably)New Anger, the US release, features a good William Orbit remix of “My Dying Machine” but I have no idea why that, and “A Child with the Ghost“, were included.

Best track: Voix

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Strange Charm
Released: November 1986
Label: Numa
Highest UK Chart Position: 59

Opening with “My Breathing”, Strange Charm achieved it’s peak within the first six minutes, after that, it all went down hill. “My Breathing” is still one of his finest moments and some 32 years on, has still lost none of its impact, it is simply a blinding tune of sci-fi pyrotechnics and continues sends shivers. I have always liked “I Can’t Stop” and “The Sleeproom” is atmospheric and features a beautiful chorus. “New Thing from London Town” is an enjoyable curiosity. By all accounts, Strange Charm was an absolute nightmare to record and it shows, some tracks sound half-finished, others under-produced or disjointed, at times it’s almost as if he has lost faith in the songs and went with the version in front of him. “The Need” is a good example of all these issues and it is horribly messed-up electro-funk sludge.

Best track: My Breathing

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Released: March 1991
Label: IRS, EMI
Highest UK Chart Position: 39

Often sounding like Machine + Soul precursor, the nu-funk, nu-jazz flavours are there as are the female backing vocals and garish saxophone. There are solid songs; the ballad “Dream Killer“, “Soul Protection“, “Confession” and “My World Storm” are strong and possess catchy melodies and some ace cyberpunk/sci-fi movie samples, however there are many weak moments such as “Dark Sunday” (horrible sax, over-wrought backing vocals and hideous jangly guitar), “Devotion” is just plain awful and “From Russia Infected” should be great (there are some lovely atmospheric touches and cool use of samples) but doesn’t work, mainly down to some grim synth brass presets.

Best track: My World Storm

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Machine + Soul
Released: September 1992
Label: Numa
Highest UK Chart Position: 42

A low point. This album was borne of much pain and terrible personal circumstances. Numan was financially and creatively in limbo and this album was the stark manifestation of this. Tapping into the alternative/G-funk explosion, pretty much every track here is a misstep, from the dreadful “Poison” to the misjudged Prince cover “U Got The Look“. Probably one best avoided and used for context purposes only ‘cos things got better after this…they got a lot better.

Best track: Machine and Soul

There you have it, a list of Numan‘s albums for good or bad. It’s my list, you will have your own list which is fine. I do not dislike any of the albums here, I just like some more than others. Big thanks to the Numanoids group on Facebook for their input and Ian A. who has accompanied me to so many Numan gigs over the past 30 years and knows more about the man than anyone else I know – you sir, are an absolute gentleman.

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1 Comment

  • I have all numan and tubeway army albumns they all good does a good concert I like the science fiction influencesci read asimov etc before I became a fan its easy too pick faults but some one like me with no musical ability has no reason to be critical off any of his music he puts effort in to what he does he signed cd and book for me he seems a kind decent person

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