In 1980, Gary Numan was the man. Two years later he was busy evading financial ruin and enduring the unenviable position of honorary whipping boy to a fickle and mostly vicious music media. After 18 years, it's now finally acceptable to acknowledge Numan's contribution to musical evolution. Just don't call him the grandfather of electronica. He's so much more comfy with 'godfather'.
His music was innovative in its deconstruction - bleak, synthetic beats and melodies were the vehicle for futuristic, bizarre and frequently self-absorbed lyrics delivered in his unmistakable nasal monotone. He constantly explored recurring themes of alienation, detachment, the power of machinery, the absence of God. Elsewhere, in secluded pockets of the world, other visionaries were experimenting with various pieces of electronic musical hardware, but the 80's electro-pop explosion was still a few years away. Stadium cock rock was suspect and superceded, punk was starting to stink like so much roadkill.
On the eve of the release of his 1979 solo debut Replicas, Numan had few contemporaries interested in the possibility of pop success via the synthesiser. 4 Weeks later, he was on Top of the Pops performing his brand spanking number one single Are Friends Electric?. He was 20 years old. His image was pure sci-fi: here was the paranoid sole survivor of some alien race; the icy replicant with no perceivable emotional capacity. His presence seemed to violently polarise the public - he was either ritualistically adored or vehemently hated. There was no middle ground. For the Luddite majority of people, Numan came to symbolise everything that was to be feared about the impending digital age. He fit too neatly into a barren vision of a future where technological advancement equals the death of our human-ness. The machine age. An android era devoid of passion. Patently, Numan scared the living crap out of your average Joe.
In retrospect, his frequently overzealous fan-base, the Numanoids, were probably equivalent in numbers to the percentage of people in any population who can be regarded as people prepared for, and excited by, the ramifications of a dawning epoch. The futurists of the world. Either that, or the kids just thought he was damn saucy. Regardless of the theory, they rendered his first 3 albums consecutive number one hits, riding on the (still universal) appeal of tracks like Cars, Down In The Park, We Are Glass and I Die : You Die.
Then, in a flurry of bizarre and increasingly self-inflated business decisions (that he still has trouble accounting for the reasoning of), things started to go horribly pear-shaped for Numan. Some critics attributed his unceremonious decline to an uncanny knack of simply saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to invariably the wrong people. But history has repeatedly proven ad nauseum that a bad attitude is one of the last things you need to worry about checking at the door when your office is the big bad world of rock and roll.
Unfortunately, Numan suffered a malady infinitely more reprehensible in the eyes of the popular press - he was an unashamed, card-carrying nerd. And he still is. The difference is that in the last 3 years, the concept of nerdy has become a badge that proudly proclaims "My mum may still dress me, but let's face it, I am smarter than you". As opposed to being a reason to systematically and publicly humiliate some poor bastard for 17 years straight.
In 1981, at the peak of his popularity, Numan announced his intention to quit the world of live performance and made a typically melodramatic exit with 3 costly, sell-out Wembley shows. (The reasons are myriad: "I wasn't comfortable with performing. I never knew what to do with my hands. I can't write when I'm touring. The pressure is too great. It just doesn't work for me.") He then settled down to enjoy his Ferraris and private aircraft and promptly retired to the English countryside to embark on frequent nightmarish PR mishaps and politely crash the occasional plane. When he picked up the phone 2 years and 2 not-so-hot albums later, and told Beggars Banquet he intended to start releasing his albums on his own Numa record label, they probably weren't terribly upset. Numan's goose was nicely basted and just entering the oven.
"The only thing I can liken it to," Numan says of his Big Dipper of a career, "is this: imagine you are standing on the platform at a train station and an express train is passing. You reach out and grab onto the outside of one of the carriages as it flies past. Suddenly, you're hurtling along at a million miles an hour, while attempting to stay attached to this train. Then you fall off. What are you going to do? You stand up, shake yourself off. And all you can do is start walking in the same direction the train is heading and hope one day you'll catch up with it again."
Which is precisely what he did. Out of his Middlesex studio he released an album virtually every year for the rest of the 80s and into the 90s. Then a little band called the Foo Fighters covered Down In The Park for the soundtrack of a quaint TV show called The X-Files. Shortly thereafter, Hole, Beck, Weezer, The Prodigy, Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson, among others, were queuing up and falling over each other to admit the influence Numan had on their careers. He's been consistently covered live over the 2 years and last year had the dual auspices of a tribute album released in his honour, as well as the satisfaction of watching the press pin the "godfather of electronica" moniker on him. Now he's got a new record label and his new album, the Exile is on the shelves, has just toured the UK and acted in his first movie role. It's a funny old world isn't it?
Numan asserts that if the cream of the current musical crop hadn't suddenly become gripped by Gazza-fever he would have simply released Exile himself and it would be exactly the same album. That I can believe. What I don't understand is how the man could have been arrested in India on suspicion of spying as he flew over the country during a round-the-world solo flight in the 80s. And the fact that his wife Gemma, when asked at age 12 what she was going to do when she grew up, responded "When I leave school I won't need a job, because I'm going to marry Gary Numan". A very funny old world, indeed.
Exile is out now through Festival.