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Numan, Gary

Entry updated 26 October 2021. Tagged: Music, People.

(1958-    ) UK pop composer and performer. Numan achieved a shortlived but notable commercial success with a series of futuristic songs performed to the accompaniment of electronic synthesizers, very much under the influence of Kraftwerk. Although the youthful angst of this music does sometimes veer into self-melodramatic nonsense, at its best these plangent soaring synth-melodies their pulsing, mechanic beats, and the mournful, slightly nasal vocals of Numan himself, create powerful and atmospheric aural sf landscapes.

Numan's first release, Tubeway Army (1978, as by "Gary Numan and Tubeway Army"), though modishly spare and electronic, focused on contemporary urban spaces and is not sf. But his first major success, Replicas (1979, again as by "Gary Numan and Tubeway Army") is organized loosely as a concept album, greatly influenced by Numan's reading of Philip K Dick: in a near-future metropolis the cyborg "Machmen" oppress the human population in the service of shadowy "Grey Men" rulers. The album's most enduring track, "Are 'Friends' Electric?" owes a good deal to Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968): the striding synthesizer baseline and Numan's ability to inject a heartfelt though affectless anxiousness into his swooping vocals make this a great pop song, and classically Numanesque. Indeed, the inverted commas isolating the word "Friends" in the title nicely captures the surly, miserabilist, adolescent tone of the whole. Another sf-themed track on this album is the choppy "Praying to the Aliens". The Pleasure Principle (1979; this and subsequent albums were as by "Gary Numan") is an equally assured and atmospheric piece of music. Several of the best songs on this collection are sf, including "Metal", sung from the perspective of a robot yearning for humanity. The big hit from the album, "Cars", though of a piece with the machine-obsessed and alienated mood of all of Numan's work, is not sf. Numan's fascination with machinic Dystopia continued in Telekon (1980), most markedly in the title track and the song "I Dream of Wires". This album, the last of Numan's releases to achieve a number one chart ranking, is seen by many as bookending his most significant period as a recording artist. Later 1980s albums brought diminishing returns from his distinctive mixture of glum vocals and synthesizer accompaniment, a style that was by now culturally ubiquitous. The very un-danceable Dance (1981) is not sf; I Assassin (1982) aims for a 1930s "noir" atmosphere and Warriors (1983), for all that its cover-art is of Numan dressed up like Mad Max, has very little genre content.

By 1984 Numan, less commercially successful than he had been, was releasing material on his own label, and a harder, more industrial heavy-rock style was starting to replace his earlier idiom. A fascination with cyborgs and the machinic alienation of the human remained, as with the albums Outland (1990) and Machine + Soul (1992); but his most recent work, Sacrifice (1994), Exile (1997), Pure (2000) and Jagged (2006), gives voice to a rather overplayed rage against organized religion and "God", an aggressively pursued heretical theme that is far less shocking than Numan perhaps thinks it is.

One character in Sean Williams's sf novel Saturn Returns (2007) speaks entirely in Numan lyrics. [AR]

Gary Numan (born Gary Anthony James Webb)

born London: 8 March 1958


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