Reviewed on this page:
Tubeway Army - Replicas - The Pleasure Principle - Telekon - Sacrifice - Pure - Dead Son Rising - Big Noise Transmission - Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)
Gary Webb came of age when punk was sweeping the UK, and so the ambitious lad formed Mean Street, which released one track ("Bunch Of Stiffs") before splitting up, and then Tubeway Army, which landed a record deal with Beggars Banquet. (He changed his name a couple of times along the way, ending up with Gary Numan.) If he'd stuck with punk rock we wouldn't know who he is today, but fortunately he stumbled on a Moog synthesizer and soon used it as the foundation of a new style that drained the lifeforce out of punk's disaffection, telling stories of deep alienation from - though still with a curiosity about - the sea of humanity. Far from the first New Waver, Numan was the first to craft a synth-based hit single ("Are 'Friends' Electric?"); he soon dropped the band name and became a solo artist, though still backed by bassist Paul Gardiner and drummer Cedric Sharpley. His next album produced his biggest hits in the U.S., "Metal" and especially "Cars," a disturbing cocktail of fear and isolation with a simple but ineluctable melody that struck a chord in tons of kids like me who didn't understand why this weird, lonely-seeming guy was so compelling - I didn't want to be him, exactly, but I felt that he spoke for me in some important way. (I'm not saying Numan is or was really like that, any more than Pat Benatar struggled through contentious romances: they owned those niches, though.)
Numan moved on from his "Machine" period, and as he became more like any other pop artist most folks lost interest; he retained a cult following through the 80s, though, and starting with 1994's back-to-basics Sacrifice he began garnering critical respect as well. And for a take on the cultural significance of Numan's work that's much smarter than mine, see this Robin James post.
Live At The Roxy 1977 (rec. 1977, rel. 1981)
We don't normally list bootlegs, but these tracks did eventually see legitimate release (on the 1998 CD issue of Tubeway Army).
As the only live document of this period, it's worth a listen just to hear that Numan really was fronting a revved-up, guitar/bass/drums band ("I'm A Poseur"). The audio quality is poor, and the performances are just as primitive, one brief three-chord number after another (future outtake "That's Too Bad"; a cover of "White Light/White Heat") with bleated vocals and undistinguished lyrics. Of the thirteen songs here, "My Shadow In Vain" is the only one that made it to a contemporaneous Tubeway Army release. (DBW)
The Plan (Tubeway Army: rec. 1978, rel. 1984)
Early demos made for Beggars Banquet, which they only released after Numan split for his own label. Numan was prolific right from the start, so many of these tunes had already been discarded by the time he started recording a proper album ("Out Of Sight"). There's nothing special about these takes on "Something In The House," "The Life Machine," et al.; one nice surprise, though, is "Thoughts No. 2," an early version of "It Must Have Been Years." Generally the tracks are in the same bare-bones upbeat rock mold as the debut ("This Is My Life"), though "The Monday Troop" has a Bowieish dreamy quality.
Tubeway Army (Tubeway Army: 1978)
Numan may have started as a punk rocker, but he had the sensibilities of a tunesmith, so by this debut he was already putting together short, snappy slices of pop rock ("Joe The Waiter").
Numan's minimalist arranging style is on full display on tunes like "My Love Is A Liquid": guitar, bass and vocals each play simple lines which remain distinct but lock together into a seamless whole.
Which might put you in mind of The Jam, except that his melancholy strain is already evident ("Every Day I Die"), and at this point Numan didn't have many memorable melodies. ("My Shadow In Vain," though, is the same tune as "My Sharona.") Looking forward to his breakthrough sound, a couple of tunes do have prominent, chunky synth ("Are You Real?"; "Zero Bars (mr. Smith)" also has the electronic claps that would resurface on "Cars").
Replicas (Tubeway Army: 1979)
Numan went synthesizer-crazy, right from the first note of "Me! I Disconnect From You," with only a couple of guitar-based tracks recalling the band's debut ("It Must Have Been Years," with a lengthy, audacious guitar solo).
While the extensive use of Minimoog and other keyboards was indisputably key to the sound, more crucial to my ears is his newfound sense of structure and ability to access different moods: The multi-part "Are 'Friends' Electric?" became a #1 single as much for its melancholy feel as for its striking hooks; "Down In The Park" stiffed on initial release but it's just as powerful, and has remained a concert staple to this day.
Thematically it's a science fiction concept album, coherent if not terribly sophisticated: Machines, robots and androids ("machmen") on one side, humans on the other, and it seems the narrator's sympathies don't exactly lie with the flesh and blood folks ("I Nearly Married A Human," an instrumental).
Numan's vocals suit the material perfectly: his tenor doesn't have much power so when he reaches for emotion it becomes almost a yelp, which conveys the sense of a person trapped in his shell but doing everything he can to break free.
Like most of his catalog, this has been re-released with plenty of B-sides ("Do You Need The Service?") and outtakes ("We Have A Technical," another austere, arpeggiating synth fantasy that's quite solid, presumably cut from the LP for its eight minute length).
The last release as Tubeway Army; also the end of Numan's platinum blond period.
The Pleasure Principle (1979)
A full commitment to synth, with no guitar at all - though there's some programmed percussion, often Sharpley's drumming and Numan's vocals are the only human traces in a bleak robotic landscape. Ironically - and I think I'm using that word in its pre-Morrissette sense - he creates that effect by relying heavily on the Moog's "Vox Humana" tone ("Tracks").
At the same time, the compositions have simpler structure and less emotional breadth than Replicas.
The singles "Cars" and "Metal" encapsulate the approach, and most of the tracks stick very close to the blueprint ("Observer," for example, is in exactly the same vein as "Metal"), though "Films" edges toward funk and "Complex" incorporates viola (played by additional keyboardist Chris Payne).
I get more out of the other albums of the period because Numan rides his one horse so hard: coherence of theme and purpose are great, up to a point... The longer tracks ("Conversation"; "M.e.") suffer most from the limited palette.
The CD re-release includes the B-side "Asylum," two demos ("Random" and "Oceans") and four live tracks also released on Living Ornaments '79. (DBW)
Along the same lines, though there are hints of the more expansive sound Numan would soon overdo: notably, clavé rhythms on "Remind Me To Smile" and "The Aircrash Bureau" and even a little guitar ("I'm An Agent").
The brooding, self-lacerating "This Wreckage" (with a bridge in Japanese) is probably my favorite Numan track, and the title track and "Remind Me To Smile" are in a similar vein.
By the end of the album, though, the mournfulness swallows up every other emotion ("Please Push No More"), as mournfulness tends to do.
The original US version had non-LP single "I Die: You Die" (which sounds a lot like "M.e.") instead of "Sleep By Windows"; another single, "We Are Glass," did not appear on a contemporaneous album. The bonus tracks here are nothing great, some near-instrumentals ("Photograph") and a
Richard Clayderman-style remake of "Down In The Park."
Living Ornaments '79 (1981)
The first of many live albums; mostly songs from Pleasure Principle.
(The version I've heard - including a detached-yet-forlorn cover of "On Broadway" - is a later double-CD formulation.)
Living Ornaments '80 (1981)
Set list largely drawn from Telekon and Replicas.
Living Ornaments '81 (rec. 1981, rel. 1998)
A double album, drawing on music from the previous albums plus the forthcoming Dance. (DBW)
Like his contemporary Joe Jackson, Numan quickly turned his back on the approach that had brought him success. But where Jackson moved away from the mainstream, Numan moved toward it, and over the next ten years he leaned increasingly on standard pop tropes.
There's a lot of fretless bass and pseudo-Latin drum programming ("Night Talk"); "Crash" is the only throwback to the previous discs.
Houses Of The Holy bonus point: He had a song called "Dance" but didn't put it on the album; it's since been added as a bonus track.
The last Numan album to feature Payne, Gardiner and Sharpley - they soon formed their own group, Dramatis, and Numan guested on their single "Love Needs No Disguise." Gardiner also released a 1981 single, "Stormtrooper In Drag," written and produced with Numan, which is also included as a Dance extra.
I, Assassin (1982)
Pino Palladino's on bass, and there's even more percussion than on Dance. So the end result is somewhat funky dance-pop with stiff vocals - not in a Talking Heads way, in a Thomas Dolby way ("War Songs"). The album is consistently mediocre, never dreadful but never extraordinary, and as the grooves don't develop, stretching each one to six minutes was not a great idea. "We Take Mystery (To Bed)" was his most recent UK chart hit to date.
Oddly, though, the best tracks from the sessions were held back, only released on CD years later: The guitar-heavy, ominous "This House Is Cold" and "Noise Noise" don't fit the mo.
The last album of Numan's fretless bass period, with Payne and Sharpley temporarily returning. The recording sessions were overseen by guitarist Bill Nelson, but he later withdrew from the project and isn't credited as producer.(DBW)
The first release on his own Numa Records, and the beginning of his brief blue hair period.
Synths come back to the fore, mostly replacing the Cool Jazz bass and Red Shoe Diaries-esque saxophone, but this time they're the blunt, blaring Wave tones popularized/run into the ground by Trevor Horn.
White Noise (1985)
A double live album, drawing mostly on the previous two albums plus a passel of his reliable early hits ("Metal"). Everything gets the subtle-as-a-brick Berserker treatment, with synth and drums obliterating everything in their path.
The Fury (1985)
Strange Charm (1986)
Metal Rhythm (1988)
He switched to IRS Records at this point. The pop trends of the past several records continue here, with backing vocalists often drowning Numan out ("Devious"; "Voix"), and the clanging programmed drums and synth slams recall 80s ephemera like The Power Station ("America"; "New Anger" sounds depressingly like "Addicted To Love"). The low-key "Don't Call My Name" is the standout track. A partially remixed and reconfigured version of the album was released in the U.S. as New Anger.
The Skin Mechanic (1989)
Automatic (Sharpe & Numan: 1989)
A collaboration with keyboardist Bill Sharpe.
Machine + Soul (1992)
Released on a reactivated Numa, this is simultaneously under- and overproduced: the programmed drums are so perfunctory they sound like demo tracks, but then there's layer upon layer of backing vocals, guitars, you name it ("The Skin Game").
The song material is similarly muddled, as he alternately aims at enthusiastic engagement or icy detachment, never achieving either. In this context, the cover of "U Got The Look" isn't particularly odd - it's as miscalculated as the rest, and in precisely the same way (a cover of "1999" was recorded at the same time and later released as a bonus track). (DBW)
Dream Corrosion (1994)
Live, and supposedly this tour is where he got the idea to strip away all the excess layers and get back to basics. But I can't hear that: There are loads of backup singers (including one who seems to have escaped from an old Meat Loaf record), overly peppy drums, synths that sound like fake horns ("My World Storm") and light funk rhythm guitar ("Respect"). The set is unusually Tubeway-heavy, including rarely played tunes like "The Machman" and "Jo The Waiter."
I think the sound mix got screwed up somehow, and that's why it's practically his only release that's not currently available.
Numan took stock after a string of commercial disappointments, and decided to jettison all the session musicians, backing vocalists and other pop accoutrements, ending up with a dour industrial sound built on drum loops and slow-moving synth, plus a little guitar ("Scar").
Some of the material is lively - "Love And Napalm" could practically be Duran Duran - but more often it's downeriffic ("Deadliner"), suiting Numan's voice as well as the backing ("You Walk In My Soul").
Though a key turning point in Numan's career, it's far from his strongest set of compositions, as many of the tunes are barely there ("Desire") and the drum programming is often intrusive ("Magic"). Bonus track "Play Like God," in the same style as the rest, is one of the few non-LP B-sides that's better than most of the album cuts.
Dark Light (1995)
Human (Gary Numan and Michael R. Smith: 1995)
Material originally composed for a film soundtrack, and to my ears it's just a collection of undeveloped atmospheric doodles. (DBW)
Released on Eagle Records. Numan was a tax exile at one point in the '80s, but I doubt this title has anything to do with that.
Based on one listen, the stripped-down approach is similar to Sacrifice, but the song material is far more downtempo and downbeat.
Live At Shepherds Bush Empire (rec. 1997, rel. 2004)
A third album following the Sacrifice "industrial tartare" template, and it's the loudest of the bunch, with the cathartic "I Can't Breathe" and the loudest guitars I've heard from him on "Little Invitro"; there are also some quieter numbers like "Prayer For The Unborn." The dour tone, grinding drum loops and measured pace are unvarying (the whispery "RIP," a concert staple), so if you're down with his program you'll enjoy the whole ride.
I find the sameness a bit wearing, though, particularly when "Listen To My Voice" rolls out the same "nyah-nyah nyah-nyah-nyah" keyboard theme we'd just heard on the dramatic, sneering title track.
After this release, Numan went more than five years before putting out a new studio album.
A remix album with three new tracks, including a collaboration with Rico that became a hit single ("Crazier") - though much of his work in this period shows an industrial influence, that's the one straightforward Nine Inch Nails copy ("Closer," specifically).
Hope Bleeds (2004)
Fragment 1/04 (2005)
Fragment 2/04 (2005)
Recorded the night after the previous disc, with basically the same set list.
Numan set up another label for himself, Mortal, and settled on a formula of syncopated electronic percussion and lots of open space, periodically invaded by buzzing synth ("Slave"; "Melt"). It's an effective strategy ("Pressure") but overused, without much variation from track to track.
The disc was reissued two years later in a two-CD format as Jagged Edge.
Produced with Ade Fenton; after this release Numan went another five years between studio albums.
Jagged Live (2007)
Telekon - Live (2008)
As I've said before, I love classic album tours but don't love the live albums drawn from those tours. I will say, though, when Numan decided to go that route he went all out, playing not only the original LP tunes but also all the contemporaneous B-sides and extra tracks ("We Are Glass"; "Photograph"). He dutifully recreates the original arrangements and approach; if you want to hear re-interpretations of the material, Numan has thoughtfully put out plenty of other tour documents.
Replicas Live (2008)
The Pleasure Principle Live (2010)
Dead Son Rising (2011)
Fenton co-wrote all the music in addition to producing with Numan; I don't know exactly what Fenton contributed but the overal results are excellent. The pace is deliberate throughout, and the atmosphere is somber, but apart from that there's tremendous variation from one track to another: There are rousing arena rockers ("Big Noise Transmission"), echoey elegies ("Not The Love We Dream Of"), creepy, whispery mood pieces (the near title track "Dead Sun Rising"), and more (the instrumental "Into Battle") - and in addition to forming a diverse whole, each compostion succeeds on its own terms.
Though Numan's long been vocal about his atheism, the lyrics contain several allusions to Christianity ("Resurrection"; the album title), or maybe it's just me.
Keyboards are center stage as usual, but guitarists Steve Harris (no, not ) and Tim Muddiman add additional textures (acoustic on "For The Rest Of My Life"; power chords on the unsettling, anthemic "When The Sky Bleeds He Will Come").
And while his early industrial records overuse canned drum patterns, at this point the percussion (programmed by Fenton) is closer to standard rock drumming, rarely calling attention to itself.
Surely no new Numan record will have the impact of Replicas or Pleasure Principle, but the artistry of this set surpasses either.
Also in 2011, Numan appeared on Battles' "My Machines."
Big Noise Transmission (2012)
Live, featuring plenty of tracks from Dead Son and lots of very early material ("Every Day I Die").
One track after another has a medium-slow, malevolent bass vamp overlaid with creepy synth for an effect that's as disturbing as it is danceable ("The Fall"; "We Are The Lost") - fulfilling a promise he's made more than thirty years before, this is what it sounds like when the machines rock. The approach overwhelms the fragility of "Down In The Park" but otherwise it works wonders, reinvigorating past work (the 80s outtake "Noise Noise") and showing off new ("When The Sky Bleeds He Will Come," rapidly gaining on "This Wreckage" as my personal favorite).
When you consider the show also features the first appearance of "Everything Comes Down To This" - the studio version would appear on Splinter - I think it's clearly the place to start with live Numan.
Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind) (2013)
Fenton and Numan split their responsibilities this time: Fenton's the sole producer, Numan's the sole composer.
The results are similar to Dead Son, running the gamut from dirges (title track) to slow-burners ("We're The Unforgiven") to pulse-pounders ("I Am Dust") without ever cracking a smile.
Occasionally the formula feels tired ("Here In The Black," where the whispering sounds more mannered than creepy and the riff is "Kashmir Lite"), but generally it still works: "Love Hurt Bleed" is a magnificent riff tune, while "Lost" is unexpectedly tender. The band includes guitarists Steve Harris and Robin Finck.
Please click no more.