Each week, Frequency Rotation probes a different song with a science fiction or fantasy theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.
This Sunday, synthesizer icon Gary Numan will kick off a North American tour in support of the 30th-anniversary reissue of The Pleasure Principle, the innovative album that contains his lone U.S. hit, the new-wave classic “Cars.” It’s hard to believe—especially for those of us who grew up in the 1980s—that Numan is still active and popular in the far-flung future he once so icily, nasally warned us about. Yet here he is; and strangely enough, his music sounds as futuristic and frigidly hypnotic as ever.
Unlike the vast majority of his new-wave peers, Gary Numan still tours, makes new music, and still the respect and adulation of a rabid group of fans—many of whom, like the Foo Fighters, Marilyn Manson, and Nine Inch Nails, have covered Numan songs and voiced their undying devotion to his music. Numan, however, wasn’t born fully formed. After trying his hand at guitar-heavy, punk-influenced rock with his group Tubeway Army, he boldly struck out into uncharted space with his 1979 single, “Down in the Park” (a stunning live version of which is featured in the post-punk documentary, Urgh! A Music War). Instead of relying on the same old guitar, he patched himself into tomorrow and let his synthesizers do most of the talking. The result is as breathtaking as cold metal on bare skin.
Cabaret Voltaire, the Human League, and OMD were just three of the many electronic bands starting to rise in England at the same time as Numan. All of them were influenced by the technocentric minimalism of Kraftwerk, the German trailblazers whose 1977 album Trans-Europe Express made Low and Heroes—David Bowie’s ’77 excursions into bleak futurism—sound downright old-fashioned. With its brooding use of synthesizers—which at the time were become increasingly cheaper and easier to use, making them, in essence, far more punk than any guitar—“Down in the Park” may as well have been Kraftwerk’s and Bowie’s test-tube baby.
That’s not to say the song isn’t unique. While trafficking in proto-techno austerity and glam-rock melodrama, “Down in the Park” draws deeply from the Ballardian automobile-fetishism Numan would explore later in his most famous hit. “I was in a car crash / Or was it the war? / Well, I’ve never been quite the same,” he sings, evoking a chilling near-future where friends have names like Five, humans are others, and sadistic automatons perform atrocities on people for the entertainment of passersby: “Oh, look, there’s a rape machine / I’d go outside if it looks the other way / You wouldn’t believe the things they do.” With the success of “Cars” in 1980, Numan the solo artist became a poster boy for ’80s pop—but “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” this ain’t.
Numan’s Wikipedia entry says that his music simultaneously embraced and feared technology. But that’s a pretty pat reduction of Numan’s thematic palette. Like his heroes Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard, he looked at technology and the sprint toward the future laconically and unflinchingly. There’s no fear in Numan’s music. He sings about dystopia as if he were Ice Cube rapping about Compton or Lou Reed groaning about the Lower East Side—as if he owned his domain, as if his world’s beauty and grotesquery were worth cataloguing, maybe contrasting, but never judging. Ascribing anxiety to his brave noise would be to hint at some kind of squishy internalization. Numan, however, has room in his insides for neither sentiment nor apprehension. He’s already packed full of ice cubes and microchips.
So go ahead, all you doubters, haters, ironicists, and snarky VH-1 countdown hosts: Poke fun at Gary Numan all you want. He’s outlived one-hit-wonder status, the ’80s, and even his own genre. And he will surely outlive you—even if he has to morph into some half-ice, half-android creature to do so. Farewell, human beings; long live the Numan being.
Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club, plays guitar in some bands, and sadly sold his ’70s Roland analog synthesizer years ago. His debut novel will be published by Quirk Books/Random House in 2012.