Gary Numan - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Gary Numan is often thought of as one the most influential musicians in his late '70's/early 80's heyday on the emerging sound of synthesizers in pop music. Though he wasn't the first, he was one of the most popular early-on proponents of the extensive use of synthesizers, and has used them in almost every chapter of his career. His early android image is a recognizable signpost from the early 80's, and his sound and sense of style was a major influence on later goth and industrial genres. Numan has maintained a career that has stretched over 30 years, and shows little sign of slowing down.
Gary Numan was born Gary Anthony James Webb on March 8th, 1958 in Hammersmith, in the western part of London, England. Young Gary grew up near Heathrow Airport, the son of a baggage handler father and a mother who split her time between home and employment as a telemarketer. His childhood spent near the airport seemed to contribute to two of his later interests- flying, and his penchant for noise. Gary was a shy child, and didn't socialize much with other children, but was keenly interested in technology and airplanes. When he reached his early teens, he realized that to become a pilot, he would have to go through rigorous academic training, and didn't feel he was up to that challenge. Webb disliked school, and actually was expelled from two schools for disruptive behavior. Instead, he got an electric guitar and taught himself how to play, writing his own songs beginning at the age of 15. After being expelled from school for the last time, Webb found work while at an air-conditioner factory and as a forklift operator for a time. Webb kept his eye out for someone to form a band with, and then answered an ad in a music paper for a band called The Lazers that was looking for a guitarist. Once in the band, he basically took over, and soon formed his own band using the bass player from The Lazers, Paul Gardiner, and his drummer uncle, Jess Lidyard. The three formed Tubeway Army in late 1976, and Webb first changed his last name to the more exotic sounding Valerian, but then soon after decided his stage name should be the more robotic-sounding Gary Numan. Punk was in the air in England, and Tubeway Army were definitely influenced by the new energy and concise, angular song structures of punk, but Numan was also fascinated with some of the older German musicians, such as Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, who used synthesizers in their music. (Numan must have also been aware, at some level, of some of the other newer British bands, such as Ultravox and The Human League, who were mixing synthesizers with newer pop and rock elements.) When Tubeway Army practiced at a studio where someone had left behind a Micro Moog, Numan loved the sounds he could coax out of the instrument, and immediately incorporated the keyboard into the sound of the band. The group played around London and came to the attention of the newly-formed independent label Beggars Banquet. Tubeway Army were signed by the company, and recorded a series of punk-style singles for the label that weren't released until 1984 as the album The Plan (Beggars Banquet). Numan later admitted that he wrote the early punk-sounding songs as a means to get signed to Beggars Banquet.
Once signed, the group went into the studio to record their first album, Tubeway Army (Beggars Banquet), released in 1978. Though there was still some punk angularity in the songs, the album showed the marked influence of David Bowie's Berlin-era albums with Brian Eno and Kraftwerk in the way that synthesizers were brought to the fore in most of the songs. Numan was also developing his cold, android persona, which had as much to do with his natural shyness as it did with his interest in science fiction, especially the writings of author Philip K. Dick. The album garnered the band interest from the British music press, and that publicity was carried over to their next album, Replicas (Beggars Banquet), released in early 1979. Replicas was credited to Gary Numan and Tubeway Army, and by this time it was clear that Numan was the main image and force in the band. He had perfected his chilly android image to a tee, and the album featured even heavier use of synthesizers. The group had an, (almost surprising), left-field hit with the song “Are 'Friends' Electric?” , that went on to be a #1 smash in the U.K., and it catapulted Replicas to the top of the album charts, as well. Replicas also included the song “Down In The Park”, which has been a Numan concert favorite and often-covered song over the years. Numan was now a huge star in the U.K. almost overnight, and used his leverage to dissolve Tubeway Army, (though he kept Gardiner on bass), and form a larger back-up band that would perform under his name alone. Numan also spearheaded a new movement of synth-based bands that played pop, appropriately dubbed “synth-pop”, that dominated the U.K., and to some extent, the U.S. charts, for the better part of the early '80's. Numan returned to the studio quickly to craft a follow-up to Replicas, and at the end of 1979 he released The Pleasure Principle (Beggars Banquet/Arista), an album that would go on to be Numan's most popular album, mainly on the strength of the international hit song “Cars”. Not only was the song a smash in the U.K., but it went into the Top Ten in the U.S. and many other countries, as well. The Pleasure Principle became Numan's second album to reach #1 on the U.K. album charts, and Numan paid back his fans with a futuristic and hugely audacious stage show that even featured Numan singing some of his songs from a cart that he moved around the stage. (The band that he assembled for the tour included members of other emerging synth-pop bands, including Ultravox and Orchestral Manoevres In The Dark.) Numan had amassed an impressive amount of wealth in a very short time, and used this money to both finance his massive tour, (the tour reportedly lost Numan a lot of money), and to finance Numan's new pastime of becoming an amateur pilot. Numan's next album, 1980's Telekon (Beggars Banquet) was released around the same time as two new singles, “I Die: You Die”, and “We Are Glass”, which both became Top Ten singles in the U.K., though they were not included on the album. (Later reissues of the album included the singles.) Numan didn't follow up his success in the U.S., and he is still, (rather unjustly), considered something of a one-hit wonder in America. Telekon stayed true to the synth-pop formula established on The Pleasure Principle, though there was more guitar and some strains of electric funk that were starting to poke through. Numan launched another massive tour, and, exhausted from the pace of the previous few years and financially drained from mounting his extravagant tours, he announced he would retire from live performance after he played a series of sold-out concerts at Wembley Stadium in London in the spring of 1981.
His first album after his live retirement, 1981's Dance (Beggar's Banquet/Atco), saw Numan trying to incorporate more funk and jazz elements into his sound, and included guest turns from members of such bands as Japan, the Models, and Queen. Numan only scored one hit single off of the album, “She's Got Claws”, and the record dropped off of the British charts after only eight weeks. This was the beginning of a gradual decline in Numan's popularity and album sales. With each album he produced in the '80's, Numan would try to change his musical, as well as visual, style, but suffered more and more diminishing returns as he went along. Dance was followed by I, Assassin (Beggar's Banquet/Arista)(1982), which featured Numan wading further into electric funk with the addition of fretless bass player Pino Palladino. I, Assassin contained the hit single “We Take Mystery To Bed”, and made it to the Top Ten on the British album charts. Warriors (Beggar's Banquet) followed in 1983, and continued Numan's drift towards synth-driven jazz-funk. Guests on the album included former Be Bop Deluxe guitarist Bill Nelson and saxophonist Dick Morrissey. Numan appeared on the front cover of the album looking like an extra from the Mad Max movies, and received quite a bit of critical backlash from critics about his ever-changing sound and visual presentation. Numan again toured in support of the album, and after touring was completed, he left Beggar's Banquet and set up his own record company to release his projects, Numa Records. It was clear, even though Numan had more control over his career, that he was creatively adrift, and his next few albums illustrated the point. Berserker (Numa), released in 1984, featured Numan's first use of emerging sampling technology, and featured Numan on the front cover in strange blue and white make-up. Numan toured in support of the album, but it never managed to catch on with the record buying public. Numan also lost long-time friend and bandmate Paul Gardiner, who passed away in 1984 from a drug overdose. Numan next released The Fury (Numa) in 1985, which featured him looking like a second-rate Bryan Ferry on the front cover in a white suit with a red bow tie, and featured generally limp mid-80's dance rock that sounded like he was listening to what was on the radio at the time and trying to make paint-by-numbers electronic versions of them. After releasing a live album from the resulting tour, 1985's White Noise (Numa), Numan released the album Strange Charm (Numa) in 1986. After Strange Charm, Numan had to fold his record label, and went in search of another label to release his material. Numan signed with IRS Records, and released the album Metal Rhythm in 1988. Metal Rhythm was a mix of funk and industrial, and though its harder sound won back some of his old fans and even gained some critical adulation, it failed to sell well. Against Numan's wishes, IRS remixed some of the tracks on the album, changed the covers color scheme, and even changed the albums title to New Anger for it's American release. This lead to tension between Numan and his new label, which would eventually cause a schism between the two. Numan, along with Shakatak member Bill Sharpe, released the one-off collaboration album Automatic (Virgin) in 1989, which featured a more straight-ahead British '80's pop feel. Numan next collaborated with Michael R. Smith on the soundtrack to the film The Unborn, but IRS refused to issue the album, (the record was later released in 1995 under the title Human (Numa)). Numan issued one more album through IRS, 1991's Outland, but after that album failed to sell and IRS refused to fund touring in support of the record, Numan exercised his option to leave the label and reactivated his own Numa label again to release his material. Numan released the 1992 album Machine + Soul (Numa) as something as a last-ditch effort to crack the pop market, but most reviewers saw it as a crassly commercial attempt by Numan to gain popularity, and the album sold very poorly and received terrible reviews.
Numan was by now heavily in debt, and depressed that his musical career seemed to be grinding to a halt. His girlfriend, and future wife, Gemma, who had originally met Numan as a member of his fan club, suggested he stop trying to pander to the pop market and should just work on music that was important to him, and sounded the way he wanted it to sound. By this time, also, gothic and industrial bands like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson were mentioning in the press how much Numan's early work had a big influence on them, and, in turn, Numan had also been listening to them and drew inspiration and influence from their work. Numan's 1994 album Sacrifice (Numa) featured Numan playing almost all of the instruments himself and featured a much harder, industrial sound with more guitar, calling to mind an updated version of what he was trying to do in his Tubeway Army days. For many years, Numan seemed to be behind the curve of what was innovative in music, but he seemed to have found his voice again with Sacrifice, and both critics and his core audience took notice and affirmed that Gary Numan was on his way back. Numan again deactivated his Numa label after releasing the 1995 live album Dream Corrosion, and signed to the Eagle/Spitfire label for his next release, 1998's Exile. Exile was a further refining of Numan's new-found more personal songwriting style and further explored the industrial electronic rock sound he had started on Sacrifice. Numan, buoyed by his newfound success and confidence, toured the U.S. for the first time since the '80's, and was even joined onstage by Marilyn Manson at one stop on the tour in California for a rendition of “Down In The Park”, a song Manson had recently covered. Numan entered the 2000's with a new album, Pure (Spitfire), a new lease on his musical career, and a new wife, Gemma O' Neill, with whom he would have three children with in the coming years. Pure was a distillation of Numan's new sound with his early '80's sound, and though it didn't sell anywhere near the numbers of some of his early albums, it did help to return him to the spotlight somewhat and helped to repair his reputation that had received such a beating through the late '80's and early '90's. Quite a few compilations appeared in the early 2000's compiling Numan's early material, and Numan himself went back over some of his older songs and rerecorded some of them in his more contemporary style for his 2003 double album Hybrid (Artful). Jagged (Metropolis) followed in 2006, an album of all new material that continued in Numan's post-industrial electronic rock sound. Numan again toured the U.K. and U.S., and even toured the U.K. later in 2006 reprising the whole of his (now) classic 1980 album Telekon. In late 2007, to coincide with Numan's celebration of his 30th anniversary in the music business, Numan embarked on a British tour that saw him play the entirety of his 1979 landmark album Replicas. As of last date, Numan is working on three new projects, the first being an alternate/re-mix version of his Jagged album to be called Jagged Edge, the second a collection of unreleased recent songs from his previous three albums tentatively titled Dead Son Rising, and the third, an album of all new material to be titled Splinter. All three projects are due for release sometime in 2009.