Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gary Numan: More Than "Cars," But How Much More?

Here is what most Americans probably think of Gary Numan:

"Ha ha! 'Here in my car'! 'Driving my car'! So funny! He's singing about cars!"

Here is what most Brits probably think of Gary Numan:

"Pop music legend."

Well, maybe not "legend." But in America, Numan was a one hit wonder. In the UK, Numan was a superstar. And in Little Earl's mind?

Eh, somewhere in between.

Gary Numan is like late '70s David Bowie without Brian Eno. Or without David Bowie. He's got the sound nailed, all right; he just needs something worthwhile to sing about. He makes Bowie seem like a heart-on-his-sleeve, confessional singer-songwriter by comparison. Somebody should have just sat down and told him, "Gary, buddy, you can make cool futuristic robot music, but at some point you're going to need to come up with some lyrics that aren't a total deadpan sci-fi joke." Maybe he can't help it, according to this quote from Wikipedia:
Polite conversation has never been one of my strong points. Just recently I actually found out that I'd got a mild form of Asperger's syndrome which basically means I have trouble interacting with people. For years, I couldn't understand why people thought I was arrogant, but now it all makes more sense.
Numan first entered the public eye as the leader of a band called the Tubeway Army, which was essentially Numan's show (their singles now appear on his compilations as if they were originally "Gary Numan" releases anyway). As the Tubeway Army, Numan had a UK #1 hit with "Are 'Friends' Electric?" which sounds to me like some kind of vague reference to Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" I think I might prefer this song to "Cars"; it's a little less gimmicky, a little bit catchier. "Less gimmicky" is certainly not a term that could have be applied to Numan's appearance, which was something like a cross between an albino and Keir Dullea from 2001: A Space Odyssey, although it was apparently not the result of some master plan:
According to Numan, this was an unintentional result of acne; before an appearance on Top of the Pops, he had "spots everywhere, so they slapped about half an inch of white makeup on me before I'd even walked in the door. And my eyes were like pissholes in the snow, so they put black on there. My so-called image fell into place an hour before going on the show."
Hey, and Johnny Cash originally wore black because his band needed to buy matching suits, and black was the cheapest color they could find, not because he wanted to represent the stark suffering of humanity. But you grab onto that image, Gary. You grab onto that image and you run with it.

Numan's first release under his own name was The Pleasure Principle, featuring song titles such as "Metal," "Complex," "Films," and "Engineers." I know about the late '70s gas shortage, but I wasn't familiar with the late '70s song title shortage. Speaking of gas, here's what Numan says about the origin of "Cars":
I was in traffic in London once and had a problem with some people in front. They tried to beat me up and get me out of the car. I locked the doors and eventually drove up on the pavement and got away from them. It's kind of to do with that. It explains how you can feel safe inside a car in the modern world... When you're in it, your whole mentality is different... It's like your own little personal empire with four wheels on it.
With insights like that, Numan could have been the Jack Handey of New Wave. Also, Numan and Trent Reznor are apparently best friends, with Reznor saying that Numan's music has been "vitally important and a huge inspiration," and Numan claiming that "Closer" is "his favorite hit single of all time." I'll bet they're a big hit at parties.

So, "Cars." When I first heard "Cars" in college, it did not sound to me like the work of an artist who may have recorded other worthwhile material. That I believe Gary Numan has indeed done so is his small moral victory, I suppose.


Herr Zrbo said...

About 10 years ago when 'Futurepop' was taking off (yes, this is a VNV Nation story) there was some sort of effort to get Gary Numan recognized as 'the father of Futurepop' (just like Neil Young was bestowed 'the father of grunge'). I don't think it took off, and for all I know I'm the only person who knows this piece of information, it was a really really obscure effort. And no, I was not part of it. And yes, calling anyone the 'father of X' is just a vain attempt at validity.

Regarding the video: I love the guy on the far left who keeps making the robotic slapping motion against his machine to make that whip-cracking sound.

Herr Zrbo said...

Also, Gary Numan is still played at Goth Clubs, both Cars and Are Friends Electric are songs you'll hear quite often.

Little Earl said...

Thank you, Man on the Street.

So, Gary Numan is the Father of Futurepop...and he doesn't even know it!

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Gary Numan is still played at Goth Clubs, both Cars and Are Friends Electric are tunes you'll catch truly regularly.