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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Looking Through Gary Numan’s Eyes

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Gary Numan was the gloomy Brit who married the influences of Bowie, Ultravox, and even Jobriath,  hitting huge with 'Are "Friends" Electric?' Now lauded as an electronic godfather, he plays England's Bestival tonight (Sept 6), so we we're taking you down memory lane with this great Paul Morley NME profile published June 9, 1979——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

The list went something like: 2.00pm — Jackie, 2.30pm — My Guy, 3.15pm — Patches, 4.00pm — Record Mirror, 4.45pm — Smash Hits, 5.30pm — Paul Morley.

I am part of someone else's blur. For Gary Numan — who is Tubeway Army — the last few days have been a blur of brand new excitement and confusion. His song 'Are "Friends" Electric?' has surprisingly sneaked into the Top 30.

The success went something like this:

The first few singles are pressed as an attractive picture disc, which pushes the single into the lower part of the chart. The single then receives some airplay and, not being especially repulsive, slides a little deeper into the charts. There then comes the invitation to appear on Top Of The Pops, which coincides with an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. The single then strolls into the Top 30. For Gary Numan all this has happened within a month.

Three weeks ago no one wanted to talk to him. Except me. Now there's a queue. And I'm at the end of it.

"I'm enjoying it," Numan admits limply, coughing from the strain of the day's interviews, "and I'm making the most of it in case the single bombs next week. Two weeks ago I was nothing. For two years it's been like that, exactly the same, and then bang! I've been on the telly twice and done half a dozen interviews in a day. It's like being blinded by your own dream really..."

We talk in a noisy pub just off Wardour Street in the centre of London. In such surroundings Numan flinches a lot and looks a little worried, Numan dislikes pubs. He's teetotal, and the smoke that wafts all around us doesn't help his cough. He also confesses a dislike for crowds of people.

"I'm over the top paranoid," he explains. Wary, weary eyes set deep into a forlorn face seem to confirm this. His hair is black and threatens to recede. Clothes are black and tight, his boots are button up high heels. He's 21.

*

Gary Numan has been Tubeway Army for two years. His backing personnel has constantly switched and changed: "I'm very intolerant and I get fed up with people easily."

Prior to conceiving Tubeway he spent time with groups on the British Legion circuit, and four or five months in Meanstreet, who appeared on the lamentable Live At The Vortex album — by which time Numan had been thrown out. It's a period he looks back on with distaste.

"Some of the songs from that period I used on my first album. I was attracted to them like old photographs and I just wanted those songs out to show them, if nothing else. There's a lot of that in it, a lot of revenge motives all over the place. There's a lot of people who I haven't forgotten who were unkind to me. Now when I'm in the charts and on the telly I sort of smile inside, that they're watching. I'm waiting for them to ring up — 'Oh do you remember me, I used to go around with you'."

I ask Numan what his ambitions were during those Meanstreet days, expecting him to say "I wanted to make my own music". Instead his answer comes quick and wistful: "I want to start my own airplane business. I'm going to buy two Dakotas, paint them up in war colors and do, er, nostalgia trips to Arnhem — you know, where the old paratroopers used to go — and charge them about twenty quid a time. I'd go on the same route as they used during the war. I'm more interested in this than keeping the music going. I don't want to stay in music for too many years.

"I got involved in music because I love everything about it, but now I'm in it you see the other side and it isn't much fun. Not as glamorous and enjoyable as you imagine...All this chart and TV thing, it's only fun while it's new and then it won't be long before it's a job and a strain, and when the whole thing becomes too much business then I'd stop."

Wouldn't there be anything seductive in prolonged success?

"No, I'd find it easy to stop because I'm so interested in flying, I'd have another complete love to go into. It's like giving up Raquel Welch and going into Brigitte Bardot, innit?" If you say so.

The original Numan/Army sound was guitar orientated fast rock, aimless and painless. The impressionable Numan constantly altered the sound, absorbing and exploring.

"Tubeway Army have always been a group on the playing side, but not the creative side. The music changes so quickly. If I have an idea, in three months time it's changed. You hear a new album, new ideas, new instruments...I mean, somebody bought me a piano a year ago, so I started playing keyboards — and look how much that's changed the music."

Numan's new-found love for keyboards — synthesizer and all things electronic — has deepened to such an extent he plans to drop all guitars from his next LP. The next move is to withdraw all human involvement. Then to fly off into the clouds.

*

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Marginally acquainted with his early work for Beggars Banquet — the singles 'That's Too Bad' and 'Bombers', the LP Tubeway Army — and teased a little by the new LP Replicas, I had become intrigued if not intoxicated by the nature of the Numan pursuit. As Numan/Army had developed, and the music had begun to complement the blue-cold Numan world view, which consisted of a series of simple and savage future projections, I began to hear maybe a budding Bowie, or the stirrings of a possible wandering Eno character, or the brother spirit of John Foxx, he of Ultravox, a dealer in adolescent alienation. Wishing to sort out just which pimple Numan was squeezing, I made to interview the man. When I requested the interview Numan was unknown and unfashionable and destined to stay that way, which intrigued me even more, but by the time I came to meet him he was a real chart star, which made me smile.

I still determined to discover his sources, his future route, and how often he grins. He grins quite often, a nervous toothy sort of grin. His main modern musical likes appear to be Bowie, Human League, Kraftwerk and most especially... Ultravox. "I think they're brilliant, the best band in the world and no one's realized it!" he enthuses.

I drop the word pretentious into his lap. "I've never understood this pretentious bit, to be honest. As far as I'm concerned it's showbusiness. You put on a show, you dress up, create characters in your songs, you look like the characters you're creating to portray them, so that people can understand the songs better — and then people say, 'Oh it's pretentious' just because you wear make-up or whatever.

"Pretentious means making claims of great importance doesn't it? Well, there's no way I'm making claims to anything. My songs are just ideas."

If Numan resents accusations of pretentiousness then he's cheerfully and slyly willing to be accepted as contrived. He had mentioned a fondness for Jobriath, and I had dropped the word contrived into his lap. "Yeah, but I don't mind contrived things. 'Cos if something's contrived it shows that someone has gone out and thought about something and worked for it. That's what contrived is. Commendable, isn't it?" The way you say it, maybe.

A picture forms. Mix Ultravox, Jobriath, Biggles and Burroughs, add a dash of mascara and a squirt of childishness, and the dark vulnerable shadow on Numan emerges.

I ask him if he feels some kind of commitment to people who have begun to buy his records, and he's quite taken aback at the idea.

"People shouldn't expect things. If they do it isn't my fault. I make a record and they buy it, but because I make a record they shouldn't have the right to say I've got to make another record.

"I shouldn't have to play live just because I've made a record. I get lots of letters 'cos I'm not into the street credibility thing. I don't like that whole thing at all, I've always thought of it as a very glamorous business, the whole thing about putting on a show. All the anti-hero punk thing, it went against everything I've ever wanted to do.

"Maybe I'll be able to do the plane business and stay in the music business," he eventually decides. So that Arnhem trip business really is serious?

"Yeah, it's serious, it's probably childish...But I think there's a very good market for what I want to do.

"You imagine how many people would want to go in an old war plane, for a start just to be in an old war plane, then to actually fly in it, with the war colors, and then to fly the actual route the paratroopers took back in the war in formation with the another one, together across the ocean, low level runs. There must be an incredible market for that."

I'll be first in the queue.

"You go to Blackbushe Airport every weekend where I go flying and the aeroplane that does the pleasure flights is going up with six people every fifteen minutes non-stop eight hours a day, so you can imagine what it will be like for what I want to do.

"I'll give it a go. If it doesn't work then I'll still have two Dakotas that I can play with myself. I mean John Travolta's got a Dakota."

Of all the Beggars Banquet oddities — Duffo, Lurkers, Ivor Biggun — Numan is the most endearing, and he's due a few more minutes fame than any of those people. And of the fragile freaks that have happily stained the outer limits of rock over the years, from Jobriath to Kid Strange, he is the most likeable and for whatever reasons the most popular.

But of course he has neither the stamina nor the regularity to drift like a Bowie, flirt like an Eno or even whine like a John Foxx. After our conversation, Numan dons neither goggles and gloves to take off for Arnhem, nor slips into a silver suit to swish into a distant metallic androgynous future, but climbs morosely into a taxi for a ride to the Beggars Banquet shop in Earls Court. A sad figure in black who's suddenly been thrust into the unknown. And tomorrow it's Melody Maker.

© Paul Morley, 1979

Read more pieces on Gary Numan — and on artists from Aaliyah to ZZ Top — at Rock's Backpages. 20,000+ articles by the best writers from the finest music publications of the last 50 years.

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