Back To The Future:
The Pleasure is Gary Numan’s
Almost three decades before Janelle Monae and Lady Gaga were creating dance pop hits behind the visages of androids and avant-garde performance artists, a socially awkward Englishman was experimenting with synthesizers and creating a somewhat bleak and harsh new form of synthpop. His alien/android-like persona was less an act and more a way to deal with his social anxieties. And his dystopian themes and cold electronic pop would unwittingly become popular in the early ’80s, going on to influence would-be musicians from many genres.
Whether Monae or Gaga directly cite Gary Numan’s work as inspiration, there’s no denying that this synthpop pioneer was years ahead of his time in many respects. With his sounds popping up in pretty much every contemporary genre of popular music aside from country, artists such as Nine Inch Nails, the Foo Fighters, Basement Jaxx, Marilyn Manson and Atlanta’s own SlowEarth have sampled, covered or collaborated with Numan in recent years.
While his entire catalog has helped spawn everything from the current goth/industrial scene to modern hip-hop beats, there is one Numan album that has held more sway over the generations of musicians that have come along since it was release in 1979 than any other. And that album is The Pleasure Principle, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year with live dates in Australia and the United Kingdom. The United States leg of the tour begins this month, with Atlanta being only the second date of the tour.
Having released two previous albums as Gary Numan and the Tubeway Army, The Pleasure Principle was Numan’s first solo album, containing the hit single “Cars,” which has been covered by cyber metal band Fear Factory. “Metal” has been covered by Nine Inch Nails and Afrika Bambaataa, and “M.E.” was sampled as the backing track for Basement Jaxx’s “Where’s Your Head At?,” making The Pleasure Principle Numan’s most sampled and covered album.
For this anniversary tour, Numan and his band (Ade Fenton and David Brooks on keyboards, Richard Beasley on drums, Steve Harris on guitar and Tim Muddiman on bass) will perform The Pleasure Principle in its entirety, followed by a collection of newer material and other fan favorites.
“I’m not actually a big fan of the retro thing,” says Numan from his home in rural England. “I kind of have a chip on my shoulder about all that stuff, but nonetheless 30 years is a long time and it’s a notable anniversary. So that’s why we’re doing it. It’s been sampled by a lot of people, so it’s become a lot bigger and more well known to a new generation of people than when I first wrote it. The Pleasure Principle [is] about 45 minutes, which is only half the show. The second half is primarily new stuff and more recent stuff, so it pleases me somewhat that I can finish the show by bringing everything up to date. It’s a nice way of showing where the music evolved from.”
Not surprisingly, The Pleasure Principle, with its synth-heavy sound, hasn’t always been appreciated by Numan as much as others. But coming back to this innovative material 30 years later has given him a new understanding of why it has been such a seminal work.
“Because so many people have done cover versions of songs from The Pleasure Principle and sampled it and so on, I’ve actually grown to like it a lot more than I did when I actually made it,” he admits. “Of course, going back and learning the songs again to go out and play them live, I’ve come to realize that it was actually a far more unusual album than I realized at the time. I get to play keyboards on all the songs on The Pleasure Principle, which is something I haven’t actually done in years. As a musician, it’s kind of fun to go back and play all these keyboard-oriented songs. Even though [my music] is still very electronic, I usually have people behind me play all that stuff. But with The Pleasure Principle, because there are so many keyboard lines going on, I just go out there and do it myself.”
While the impact The Pleasure Principle has had on some of today’s better known musicians (not to mention it helping pave the way for ’80s new wave acts like Adam Ant, Depeche Mode and the Human League) is undeniable, the reciprocal influence some of these artists have had on Numan has inspired him to continue making innovative (though not as commercially viable) music in recent years.
“It’s certainly something you don’t ever dream of when you’re making these things,” he continues. “You’re just trying to get the song to sound as good as you can. You have no idea how it’s going to affect people, and certainly not for such a long period of time. Because of that, some amazingly good music, much better than mine, has been done in the years afterwards. I am, in turn, a massive fan of some of these people. A band called Pop Will Eat Itself did a song of mine called ‘Friends,’ a really, really old song, that, again, was a brilliant version. I eventually recorded another song called ‘Pure’ that actually started out as a cover version of their cover of my song called ‘Friends.’ Quite often what these people do is really inspiring to me and I take what they did to improve my song and try to improve on it even more. I really enjoy listening to the cover versions, but quite often you can really learn how you could have done it differently and it helps your songwriting.”
In much the same way that Numan’s innovations showed a guitar-based rock culture what keyboards could be capable of, the lyrical themes on much of Numan’s early work, including The Pleasure Principle, foretold a paranoia-filled future where robots and humans cohabitated a world largely devoid of normal emotional and social interaction. Though that world is not quite a reality 31 years later, we are arguably not that far from it with technology making human interaction more and more computerized and less personal. But Numan seems to disagree.
“For a while there was a gang running around London on the underground train system when I wrote The Pleasure Principle and the Replicas album,” he says. “They would arrive at the station and, as the doors opened, they would leap out and beat up anybody that was there, get back on the train and do it again at the next station. It went on for a few months and was quite a big thing, and that was where the name for the band Tubeway Army came from initially. So I started to write loads of stories about what I thought London might become in 10, 20 or 50 years time, all very sci-fi based. And all of that just became absorbed into the lyrics. It was a very magnified, extreme version of what might happen, all based on that one thing. There were machines that could think, mechanical prosthetics with cloned human skin and all that sort of stuff. I think a lot of it is sort of nonsense now. I’d like to go back and revisit [those songs] now to actually check and see if any of that has happened or not.”
An avid airplane enthusiast outside of music, Numan also proved his worth as a racecar driver a few years ago in the British reality show The Race. While he was likely chosen to participate for obvious reasons (“Cars” remains his biggest hit to date), his abilities behind he wheel made him the overall leaderboard winner (despite his loss to AC/DC’s Brian Johnson in the finale). With songs like “Airlane,” “Cars” and others, it seems that The Pleasure Principle may have been prophetic in more personal ways as well.
“I’ve always been fascinated with and wanted to fly airplanes,” he says. “So it was there then and it’s been there ever since. I’m not really as much of a car person as some others that I know. The whole thing about ‘Cars’ is that I’m very uncomfortable when I’m out around people, which is why I live in the middle of the country and I don’t live in the city. I don’t like lots of people around me, and when I do go into town, the car has always made me feel safe and always felt like protection. That’s really what ‘Cars’ is all about; it’s more to do with fears and insecurities, really, than anything else.”
With The Pleasure Principle being Numan’s most commercially successful album, it may be easy to overlook the fact that he has continued making inventive and dark electro-rock (following a period during the ’80s and early ’90s when his output suffered due to his focus on what might gain him more commercial success). He also has two new albums currently in the works, Dead Son Rising and Splinter, and will play some of this newer material on this tour.
“I’m getting a bit bogged down and I’ve decided to just put Dead Son Rising to the side and concentrate on Splinter because I’m doing a bit on one and a bit on the other and things are going quite slow as a result,” he says. “It’s been a long time since the last album, so I need to up my game a little bit and get on with it. And I’m going to try to get Splinter, with maybe one or two songs being brought over from Dead Son Rising, done as quickly as possible.
“The new stuff is much bigger, much more powerful and slightly more conventionally written,” he reveals. “The choruses have become bigger parts of the songs, whereas on The Pleasure Principle the choruses were kind of just the things that came between the verses. But this tour really does highlight the differences between what we were doing then and what we’re doing now and how big a change there is. It’s kind of interesting to have them going back to back like that.”
Photo by Ed Fielding.