Thursday, 17 February 2011

Tubeway Army: the best of Gary Numan

Fans of British electropioneer Gary Numan routinely point to Numan's 1980 Telekon album, which features tracks We Are Glass, I Die: You Die and Remind Me to Smile, as their favourite - Trent Reznor is said to have listened to it every day during the recording of Pretty Hate Machine. Another popular choice is The Pleasure Principle (1979) - it produced Cars, his biggest hit, and M.E., the backing to Basement Jaxx's Where's Your Head At?

Then there are the proceeding albums, from jazz-inflected Dance (1981) to 1984's bleak Berserker, when he dyed his hair blue and covered his face in white make-up. However, my favourite work of Numan's must be the three albums he made as Tubeway Army.

In the late 1970s, Gary Numan, né Webb, was determined to crack the music scene: with his uncle Jess on drums and bass player Paul Gardiner, the trio recorded an album of overtly punk material that secured them a record deal with the Beggars Banquet label. Singles That's Too Bad and Bombers give some idea of Numan's nascent songwriting skill, while other numbers were later released as The Plan, in 1984. (Crime of Passion is an odd inclusion, with its repeated close: 'If you were the only girl in the world and I was the only boy.')

Several tracks, including My Shadow in Vain, Something's in the House and Steel and You were reworked for the trio's eponymous first album proper in 1978. The story goes that Numan found a Minimoog in the studio where they were recording and decided to fiddle around with it, chancing upon the synth sound that would carry him through an incredibly prolific period musically. (For context, David Bowie had just released his Berlin albums, Low and Heroes, while Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine came out in the same year.)

Tubeway Army formed a showcase for Numan's sci-fi obsession: Listen to the Sirens takes its opening line from the title of Philip K Dick's Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, while William S Burroughs' influence is tangible throughout. Jo the Waiter features junkies and overt lyrics ('Jo the waiter held me close, behind the door marked gentlemen') while Every Day I Die is a paean to masturbation ('I unstick pages and read').

Numan developed the sci-fi theme for Replicas (1979), on which he honed his synth sound and, erm, distinctive vocals. At school, we used to pore over the record sleeve, with its black strip in the eye on the back cover (pictured). The album was inspired by ideas Numan had for a novel he intended to write, captured in song titles The Machman, Praying to the Aliens and I Nearly Married a Human.

It gave rise to some of his best-known tracks: Me! I Disconnect from You, Down in the Park (referenced on the cover, pictured top) and Are 'Friends' Electric?, which formed the basis for Sugababes' mash-up Freak Like Me. (A couple of stand-out numbers only appeared later: We Have a Technical and Do You Need the Service? Great fun, it's a song I link with another oddity, Stormtrooper in Drag, remarkably covered by St Etienne.)

Numan went on further to explore alienation in his lyrics, notably for Cars, something he attributes in part to suffering from a mild form of Asperger's. As the 1980s progressed and into the '90s, poor songwriting was coupled with a lack of commercial success for the artist. Once mocked, he seems to have been diverted from his own vision to making music to please his new, largely industrial, fanbase, on such albums as Exile (1997) and Pure (2000).

Related: in praise of Thomas Dolby's The Golden Age of Wireless.

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