December 8, 2012
1980: The year I lost John.
We had been mates and Bowie fans, through and through, but some sinister cult had grabbed hold of my friend and wouldn’t let go. The new-found eyeliner I could tolerate, the black shirts even… but the skinny blue and red tie? The robotic dance moves? Really? The funny voice? Really though? The sudden interest in Philip K Dick novels?
John became a Numanoid. I was worried sick, and I’ll bet his mum was too. I wondered if the Bowie camp would ever lure him back. The one and only video tape (they were expensive back then) in his cumbersome piano-key recorder still had Boys Keep Swinging and Ashes To Ashes on it, taped from Top of the Pops, but Tubeway Army’s promo videos and live telly clips started to get more screen-time. I did a good job of feigning polite interest but, secretly, I resented this teutonic-haired interloper massively. I went back to my Bowie albums.
As time rolled on, my anti-Numan stance grew stronger. I felt justified in my attitude when Music For Chameleons came out, signposting a speedy and spiralling decline into stylised schmaltz akin to a super-lightweight Prince or a deluded Brian Ferry impersonator.
But strange things happen in music, sometimes. And many, many years later, I was forced to sharply re-evaluate. I saw Gary take to the stage at the metal-biased Sonisphere Festival and, to my utter amazement, he killed it. This was no new-romantic foppy nostalgia act, enduring it for the dollar – this was a set of keenly-delivered industrialised noise; a powerful blast of attitude and invention that I had not been expecting AT ALL.
That afternoon, just as tonight at the Forum, Gary forced the irrefutable point that time has ultimately been uber-kind to him and his legacy. Tonight he would be preaching to the long-converted rather than trying to impress the metallers. But that didn’t matter. The sonic barrage was just as hard.
Stalking onstage to the throb of ‘Films’, he quickly unveiled his present self as ‘Gary Numan playing the man who plays Gary Numan’. Trent Reznor, for short.
Screaming into the mic, clipped to a battered mic stand held miles away from his mouth at the end of an outstretched arm, he prowled, headbanged, jumped, stomped and rocked back on his heels in a rockist fashion. Nothing was measured for its pretension and applied, as it would have been back in the day. Not once did he swagger like an Austrian prince or fall back on an ‘interesting’ twitch of the head, like a Midge Ure. or a Kraftwerk. This new Gary, bolstered by the flattering emulation and admiration of Reznor and Co, is all about playing things HIS way. Which happens to be their way.
This is pretty hardcore. There is no talking between songs until the first 50 minutes has passed, and there are no oldies to be heard until the very, very end of the gig. Of these, Are ‘Friends’ Electric slips seamlessly into its new electro-guitar landscape while Cars somehow does not. But he has to play that one, really, doesn’t he?
I’m impressed, I really am, when ‘Down In The Park’ is throttled out. It sticks so faithfully to the dark, electronic original, yet so easily slips into this new flavour of energised, Numanoid thunder. A final I Die: You Die and the lights are up, revealing a roomful of elated 40-something blokes and one or two confused young goths.
What a strange new twist to the Gary Numan story. Trying to be Bowie or Ferry or Prince didn’t work out – but playing an industrial goth playing his old self really does. Maybe it’s time I gave John a call.