My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ever since I heard “Cars” on the radio in 1979 at the age of 14, I’ve been a Gary Numan fan. He was different. He was strange. He made good music. I enjoyed his first few albums and then lost track of him. Well, recently, I’ve renewed my interest in Numan and have purchased quite a few of his albums, including some older ones I didn’t have and some newer ones that are quite different from his old sound. And I’ve really enjoyed listening to his music again. For a long time, I wondered what this unusual person was like. He obviously had been influenced by glam and Bowie. But how much? And the fascination with the synth? It’s like they were made for him.
I found out about this book last year and immediately wanted to get it. It’s Numan’s autobiography, but it’s from a British publisher and is apparently out of print because you can’t get new copies. It was also published in 1998, so it’s not brand new. Still, it sounded promising. A couple of months ago, I found a bookstore in England that had a good used copy they would sell me for an obscene price, but I bit the bullet and paid and it was for some reason shipped through Switzerland and arrived at my house last week. I was elated.
I dove into the book and couldn’t stop reading. It was everything I had hoped for and more. It’s an excellent autobiography, very personal, very telling, very detailed, very good.
Numan was born Gary Webb to doting parents who pretty much spoiled him. He was initially a good student, but as he approached his high school years, became rebellious and was kicked out of school. From an early age, he showed an appreciation of music and of airplanes.
He learned to play the guitar at a young age and played at being in a band with some friends. This was news to me, because I’d always thought of him as a keyboardist. I didn’t even know he played the guitar. He eventually formed a band as a late teen called Tubeway Army and they were signed to a small label, where they put out their first album sometime around 1977 or so. However, as Gary was the driving force in the band, they changed the name to Gary Numan and Tubeway Army and later just to his name. (He had come up with a more “interesting” surname than just Webb.)
His album Replicas came out in 1979 and was an immediate hit, much to everyone’s surprise. “Down in the Park” was a great song, and there were other good ones on it too. He then felt pressure from the music label to come up with something else, so later in the same year, he released the classic, The Pleasure Principle, which featured “Cars” and soon both the song and the album were number one on the charts. He was a star at the age of 20.
Now bear in mind, he was very much an introvert — except when he was on the stage. He was a loner, he felt uncomfortable with other people, he was socially awkward, and he liked technology more than he did people. When he discovered synthesizers in a studio, it not only changed his music forever, it changed his life. Now he was the front man, no longer playing guitars, and his band was synth heavy. In 1980, he released Telekon, which I believe also hit number one with great songs, such as “This Wreckage” and “We Are Glass.” His devoted parents were now part of his crew. His dad was his manager, his mother, his wardrobe designer and in charge of the new fan club. All of a sudden, he was rich and bought houses and cars and eventually even an airplane that he learned to fly. He went on tours of both Europe and America and even though he never played to big audiences, he usually connected with his fans in a big way. Except his tours lost money. A lot.
In 1981, Dance was released with the single, “She’s Got Claws,” and it too was a hit. His music company was putting pressure on him to become more dance-oriented, though, and his stuff, while it sometimes had a beat, was more tech-based. His lyrics were also strange, drawing on his love of Philip K. Dick and Williams Burroughs.
It was at this point he started to slip. In 1982, he released I, Assassin, but it didn’t do as well as his previous records and the press was absolutely just slaughtering him publicly, something he never understood and something that would never change in his career. The press hated him. As he continued to release albums, other New Wave, synth-heavy bands started competing with him and he couldn’t get any more radio airplay, which just killed his career. Soon, he split from his label, and finding little interest elsewhere, formed his own. However, instead of concentrating on his career, he stupidly signed insignificant indie acts and plowed money into them, which he subsequently lost. By the mid to late ’80s, he was no longer musically significant, even though he continued to produce records. And he went broke. In debt, even. He had to sell the houses, cars, airplane, etc.
Let me interject. He met other musicians along the way. At one point, he was elated to get to meet his hero, Bowie, to do a television concert. Well, Bowie blew him off and got him tossed off the show. That really hurt him. However, he also got to meet Queen, and writes that they were tremendously nice to him and he had a great time hanging out with them. That was cool, as I’m also a Queen fan.
During Numan’s down time, he decided to embark on a crazy journey — he flew around the world. It’s a really interesting tale in the book and it was a harrowing journey, including getting arrested in India on suspicion of being a spy! He got so good at flying, he eventually became an instructor and did air shows.
Back to the music. A couple of things happened in the mid ’90s to turn things around for Numan. First, popular bands started doing Numan covers in concerts and on their albums — groups like Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, The Smashing Pumpkins, Fear Factory, Hole, and many more. Many musicians cited him as being a major influence on their own career. And he came back out of the shadows and became sort of in fashion again. Also, he found a new sound. He moved to a heavier goth/industrial sound with more sobering lyrics and, as a result, gained a new audience. Since then, his albums have sounded this way and I have several and I just love them. They’re brilliant. Nothing like his early stuff, but that’s okay. Musicians have to grow and change or they’ll become stagnant.
It was around this time that he met his wife, Gemma, and they’re still together — I follow both on Twitter — and they have three daughters. He’s made back some of his money, although I don’t know how much, but things seems pretty good for him. And that makes me happy.
This book looks deep inside Gary Numan and it’s a real treat to read about his happiness, his insecurities, his victories and his defeats. It’s a very personal autobiography and I can’t endorse it strongly enough. Heavily recommended.