The Australian - Tuesday 12th August 1997
Much-maligned glam rocker Gary Numan is pop's latest retro hero, in the spotlight with a film and a new album
Out of exile, a new man
Catapulted to pop stardom in 1979, 20-year-old Gary Numan was idolised for a brief time and then, in a flash, became public enemy No 1. Now, after 18 years in self-imposed exile, Numan is back on top again.
The 38-year-old is about to make his acting debut with a lead role as a drug-dealing nightclub owner in a British thriller, Kinsmen. In the next few months he will also marry 29-year-old long-time fan Gemma O'Neill, publish a 'truthful' autobiography, go on tour and release an album, suitably titled Exile.
But, he says, the best thing is that people are finally saying nice things about him. "Over the last six months I have been getting out and about and I have seen a change," Numan says from his cottage north of London.
"I am completely credible now and people are saying nice things about me. People were saying did you know that Beck, Marilyn Manson and the Foo Fighters have been playing your songs live? And I said, 'No, I had no idea'. I have been very hermit-like here and I have not really been aware of what is happening. I don't listen to the radio or read the press. The press has tended to be a little bit unkind over the years so I have tended to step aside from it."
A Numan tribute album, Random has just been released with 1990s pop acts such as Jesus Jones, the Orb, Pop Will Eat Itself, Republica and Blur's Damon Albarn performing Numan covers. Random II, an album of dance remixes, is also on the way.
"The entire Random thing has been a very, very nice surprise for me,"Numan says. "First of all, I had no idea I had any kind of influence on people round the world at all. So for me sitting in my little house in England and hearing about all this was amazing.
"I have been sitting here with a big smile on my face for about six months now and saying 'This is so cool'. To find out people have been influenced by what you have done musically - it is the most flattering thing that has ever happened to me."
Numan says the new interpretations of his work have inspired him to rearrange the way he performs some of his old songs. He particularly likes the Gravity Kills version of Poetry and Power and Pop Will Eat Itself's cover of Friends. He hates one or two of the covers, but won't reveal which ones.
Numan became a pop star at the end of the punk movement in the late 1970s. His dark, synthesized songs and camped-up deadpan robotic stage presence were a refined contrast to punk's spiky-haired, angry, rough-and-tumble rebellion.
Are Friends Electric? went to number one in the UK charts in 1978, followed into the top spot by Cars from the album The Pleasure Principle in 1979. Numan paved the way for other new wave 80s musicians such as Depeche Mode, Human League and OMD.
But while Numan's music topped the charts, there was a severe backlash against his overt desire for fame and fortune. Just as the punks publicly denounced wealth and its trappings, Numan embraced them. Adding fuel to the fire, he called the punks hypocrites.
"The Clash lived in luxury in Los Angeles and were singing about London burning - they had not been there for five years," he says. "Why was it that you could walk into the shop where the Sex Pistols bought their clothes and everything was so expensive the man on the street could not afford to buy it? It was absolute bollocks from top to bottom [but] I have opened my mouth too much about that in the past."
Similar statements resulted in attacks against Numan so vicious he retreated to the English countryside and became a virtual hermit for almost two decades. "It was more than a bad review - it was very, very heavy," Numan says. "One paper said my mum and dad should have been doctored for giving birth to me. It was probably the most aggressive anti-period they have ever known against an act that was successful."
Numan continued to make music from his home studio but avoided the industry social scene and media altogether. "It is a bit depressing to read something shitty about yourself so I just stopped reading it," he says. "But it kind of took me out of the mainstream and I just lost track of who was doing what and what was happening. For about 15 or 16 or 17 years I didn't care what was going on."
From home he also did the artwork for his album covers and now maintains The Official Gary Numan web site. Music took a back seat in the mid-80s when he discovered flying. Numan is now one of only two civilian aerobatic instructors in Britain, qualified to teach experienced pilots to fly World War II combat planes upside down. He also performs aerobatics regularly at air shows.
"It is a reasonably stressful sort of thing - you are four to six feet away from another aeroplane upside down, but you have to let them get it wrong a little bit so they can learn," he says. "There is a fraction of a second between being wrong and being dead so it is stressful really."
Numan now believes that becoming a recluse was a mistake because he was not around to explain himself. "Things written out of spite became rumours and then accepted facts," he says. "If I had not run away....people hopefully would have realised I was not the arrogant-type bastard they thought I was. The problem is I should have expected a certain amount of hostility when I became successful because I was doing something very unusual and because I came in on the back of the punk thing. I said 'I want to be famous; I want to make a lot of money', and of course that was the last thing I should have been saying - so there was a big sort of anti-movement against me. Plus electronic music was relatively uncustomary."
Numan is still pushing his musical boundaries and experimenting with new sounds. Exile will lean towards guitars and industrial sounds. Industrial sampling is now used by some of the biggest bands of the moment, Nine Inch Nails, the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers. However, Numan was banging steel drains with hammers and dragging them along concrete and using the recordings as the rhythm sections for songs as early as 1984.
"I have kind of been into it a long time" he says, "but I honestly don't make any claim of being inventive." Recently Numan recorded the sound of a pump-action shotgun being cocked, slowed it down and played it backwards. "It sounds like the door from hell opening and closing," he says, adding that he has also been trying to sample his cat purring.
While he experiments with the ingredients, the mood pervading his work is always dark and menacing. "I don't like happy, smiley music so my own thing tends to be darker. It is more atmospheric. It is music that makes you think - like a good horror film that puts a chill up your spine but you enjoy it all the same."
He claims to be "terrified" about his impending, and appropriately dark, screen debut. "I turned it down for about three months before they convinced me to do it," he says. "But I realised I would be a bigger fool by turning down the opportunity than by embarassing them by doing it. If I am crap I don't do another one - if I am not crap I might do another one."
Despite one or two errors I think this is an excellent article. The promotional campaign that Shock Records required as part of the deal with Beggar's Banquet seems to be paying dividends. Gary's profile in Australia, though a mile short of saturation coverage, is higher than it has been for some years. Roll on the Australian leg of the Exile Tour!!!!