I was a devout Numanoid as a teenager. Every format of every record was in the house. Several live concerts were attended – and there were meets & greets with the great man at record store signings. Even now, the last letter of my signature tails off in the same way as Numan’s – sad, but true. Diminishing returns in the mid eighties were tolerated, until the (still) horendous offering of 1986’s “I Can’t Stop”. Advice to parents – if you wish your music-obsessed cherubs to become accountants, search for the “Wogan” TV appearance of this on youtube – you’ll be guaranteed to find their ipods in the dustbin the following morning.
The Gary Numan of 2013 is undeniably powered by his resurgence in the nineties. Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and practically any new band that faintly meant something dropped Numan’s name in every interview they were party to, and thus introduced him to their own fans’ collections – just as Numan himself introduced the likes of John Foxx and Kraftwerk to groups of naïve teenagers in 1979. Numan’s stylistic and music approach in turn has borrowed back from his willing disciples, and the sound these days is of a dense, layered, dark goth-rock tour-de-force, with elements of the characteristic monophonic analog synth passages of old seeping through.
Much of tonight’s set is lifted from his new album “Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)”, his first Top 20 chart placing since 1983’s ill-advised “Warriors”. Every so often, Numan employs a different visual image – the success of which can be gauged in the amount of copyists amongst the fans. The top hat and ghostly panstick on the cover of “Splinter” is a complete failure – in the sold-out Roundhouse only the merchandise staff and around three or four fans attempt the look – onstage Numan himself doesn’t even bother. The band look like a gang of hardened thugs you wouldn’t want to mess with. Gary appears in similarly blackened T-Shirt and jeans. The Numan of old barely moved onstage due to inexperience and nerves. Today we see him going overboard trying to inject life into the proceedings – at several points bobbing his head up and down so much you wonder if in mid-November we are indeed still in the throes of Halloween, and maybe the buckets of apples in water are missing from the stage props.
Unfortunately tonight’s set is tampered by the mushiest sound I have personally heard at the Roundhouse. “I Am Dust” bulldozes its way towards a partisan crowd who are clearly lapping this up. Numan’s vocal range on this track is surprisingly high and strong, and even though the full effectiveness of his vocal isn’t represented here due to the aforementioned technical difficulties, Numan’s live vox – barely developed in days of old – is now an assured,confident, viable focal point. “Metal” from 1979’s “The Pleasure Principle” follows immediately. This is obviously a fan-pleaser, as the song’s viewpoint of the future was already dated when the song was originally released, so now it seems to serve a purpose as a touch of light-hearted comedy. “Films”, from the same album, has weathered better – the rantings of a crazed movie director over a harrowing soundtrack seem more potent and compelling than ever.
“Here In The Black” is deliciously brutal tonight and successfully fuses the band’s ultra-tightness as a unit with the obvious enjoyment they have playing the newer material. “Down In The Park” from 1979’s “Replicas” presents a paradox. Musically it is Numan’s finest five minutes – the instrumental backing accurately depicting the bleak, unrelenting future the song portrays – yet now, with the passing of time, the lyrics do not seem to deserve this majestic accompaniment, as today they appear clumsy and somewhat shoe-horned. They are devoid of the staying power of the verses of the song’s contemporary, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”, more of which later. “Lost” from “Splinter” offers a tranquil respite, but the song appears to affect Numan deeply. He is seen vainly trying to stop himself from crying. The song must have a profound effect – and maybe a hardcore fan may impart the reasons – but even though this song has been played throughout this tour, it’s obvious that the track strikes an emotional chord with its creator. (Note – whilst going to press I have learned that the father of Numan’s guitarist and keyboardist, Steve Harris, had passed away over the last couple of days. I send my sincere and heartfelt condolences).
Pre-gig research on the net and a pre-show chat with a fan who had attended every show on the tour informed me that – as of old – each show was to feature the same setlist. To my (and undoubtedly the travelling fan’s) surprise, a new addition to the set is unveiled – 1980’s “I Die: You Die”. The second of a batch of Numan songs to breach the cardinal rule of not writing about the music press (1978’s “Critics” – excellent pop punk – written before he’d even released a record! – and 1985’s “Call Out The Dogs” – anyone remember that? – fine – moving swiftly on) – and yes, while the words are a whingefest, it’s always been a terrific record and is without question the hallmark of tonight’s set. The power, enthusiasm and audacity of the performance made me wonder if this was introduced because more press would attend the London show than any other on the tour, and it may have been his jokey way of having a pop. Well, if it was, he could not have applied a more agreeable method. (Top) hats off to ya!
Predictably, the encore includes his two number one singles. “Cars” is a pedestrian (pun unintended) affair, but “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” presents itself with an exquisite new arrangement, where Numan’s verses are sung with the sparse arrangement of an electric piano. Where this song has suffered over the years is the ingratiating live addition of a “Woah Woah Woah Woah” call and response section during one of the song’s famous instrumental passages, subverting the original version’s cold, calculated, detached delivery to a mind-numbing football chant. The show climaxes with “My Last Day” from “Splinter”, a song engineered to stir the hearts and keep the tears flowing. It may well have done that for me if I could have understood the words.
As Gary Numan was such an integral part of my musical upbringing I like to peek in at his career from time to time. His fanbase is still incredibly devotional, he has a huge and deserved belief in his new material, and his importance in modern music is probably greater than in the halcyon days of chart success and multi-million sellers. Tonight however, his stamp on authority was regrettably tarnished by the mush that constituted as sound – whether that was a fault of the venue, staff, or just circumstance I cannot say – but it just took the edge off what wasn’t a classic, but certainly was a positively accomplished performance.
Review by Lee McFadden (photo provided by duncan@9pr)