One of the founding fathers of electronic music, Gary Numan’s influence extends far beyond his lone American hit, “Cars,” which still stands as one of the defining new wave singles. That seminal track helped usher in the synth pop era on both sides of the Atlantic, especially his native U.K., where he was a genuine pop star and consistent hitmaker during the early ‘80s.
Even after new wave had petered out, Numan’s impact continued to make itself felt; his dark, paranoid vision, theatrically icy alien persona, and clinical, robotic sound were echoed strongly in the work of many goth rock and (especially) industrial artists to come. For his part, Numan just kept on recording, and by the late ‘90s he’d become a hip name to drop; prominent alt-rock bands covered his hits in concert, and a goth-flavored brand of industrial dance christened darkwave looked to him as its mentor.
Numan was born Gary Anthony James Webb on March 8, 1958, in Hammersmith, West London. A shy child, music brought him out of his shell; he began playing guitar in his early teens and played in several short-lived bands. Inspired by the amateurism of the punk movement, he joined a punk group called the Lasers in 1976 and immediately inserted his driven personality. At their first rehearsal he had the band renamed to Tubeway Army, replaced their repertoire of cover songs to those he’d written himself and took over vocal duties.
Numan’s love affair with electronic music came the day he walked into a studio to record the first Tubeway Army album. What should have been their debut punk album, for new indie label Beggars Banquet, became an electronic step into a new world when Numan was allowed to use the studio Moog synth, an instrument he’d never seen before, and knew nothing about. There and then, by stumbling experimentation, he converted those punk songs into fledgling electronic gems. A hard fight with the record label followed as he tried to convince them that his vision for this new electronic music was viable. He won, the Tubeway Army album was released and did well enough for Beggars to send the now passionate and enthused Numan back into the studio to record their second album, the legendary Replicas. By now Numan was researching every other electronic artist he could find and was particularly impressed, and inspired, by the enigmatic John Foxx and his band Ultravox.
Replicas was released in early 1979. Its accompanying single, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” was a left-field hit, topping the U.K. charts and sending Replicas to number one on the album listings as well. (The record also included “Down in the Park,” an oft-covered song that stands as one of Numan’s most beloved tracks amongst his fans). Numan had become a star overnight, despite critical distaste for any music so heavily reliant on synthesizers, and he formed a larger backing band that replaced Tubeway Army, keeping Gardiner on bass. The Pleasure Principle was released in the fall of 1979, now under the name Gary Numan, and spawned Numan’s international hit “Cars,” which reached the American Top Ten and hit number one in the U.K. The album also became Numan’s second straight British number one. He put together a hugely elaborate, futuristic stage show and set off on a huge world tour.
Numan returned in the fall of 1980 with Telekon, his third straight chart-topping album in Britain, and scored two Top Five hits with “We Are Glass” and “I Die: You Die”; “This Wreckage” later reached the Top 20. In 1981, Numan announced his retirement from live performance, playing three farewell concerts at London’s Wembley Arena, just prior to the release of Dance. While Dance and its lead single, “She’s Got Claws,” were both climbing into the British Top Five, Numan attempted to fly around the world, but in a bizarre twist was arrested in India on suspicion of spying and smuggling. The charges were dropped, although authorities confiscated his plane. He eventually succeeded though and made it back to the UK on Christmas Eve 1981.
His retirement proved short-lived, but when he returned in 1982 with I, Assassin, some of his popularity had dissipated -- perhaps because of the retirement announcement, perhaps because the charts were overflowing with synth pop, much of which was already expanding on Numan’s early innovations. I, Assassin was another Top Ten album, and “We Take Mystery (To Bed)” another hit, but in general Numan’s singles were starting to slip on the charts; the title track of 1983’s Warriors became his last British Top Ten hit.
Numan and Beggars Banquet subsequently parted ways, and Numan formed his own Numa label, kicking things off with Berserker in late 1984. (Sadly, longtime collaborator Paul Gardiner died earlier that year from a drug overdose.) Released in 1985, The Fury became the last Numan album to reach the British Top 20 (until 2013’s Splinter). Over the next few years, Numan collaborated occasionally with Shakatak’s Bill Sharpe, releasing four singles from 1985-1989.
Following 1986’s Strange Charm, Numan signed with IRS, but the relationship was fraught with discord from the start. IRS forced Numan to change the title of 1988’s Metal Rhythm to New Anger for his first North American release since 1981 (and also remixed several tracks), refused to release his soundtrack for the film The Unborn, and would not fund any supporting tours for New Anger or 1991’s Outland. When his contract expired, Numan returned to Numa for 1992’s Machine + Soul but has always remained unhappy with the album. In fact, by his own admission, Numan’s career seemed to be over at this point. With no record deal, few fans and huge debts, Numan effectively abandoned all hope of reviving his career and went back into the studio as a hobby, and in so doing set off in a new musical direction. Heavier, darker and more aggressive than anything he’d done before, he rediscovered his love and passion for music, and his fans rediscovered him.
The industrial-tinged Sacrifice, the first glimmering of Numan’s return to critical favor and underground hipness, was released in 1994. Over the next few years, bands like Hole, the Foo Fighters, and Smashing Pumpkins covered Numan songs in concert, and Marilyn Manson recorded “Down in the Park” for the B-side of the “Lunchbox” single; moreover, Nine Inch Nails cited Numan as an important influence, as did countless others. With his fan base refreshed and expectations raised, Numan delved deeper into gothic, metal-tinged industrial dance on 1997’s Exile.
However, he didn’t truly hit his stride in this newly adopted style until 2000’s Pure, which was acclaimed as his best work in years and expanded his cult following into new territory. Into the new millennium, a number of Gary Numan compilations hit the shelves, as well as 2003’s Hybrid, which found him reworking and modernizing his earlier pop hits. Jagged was released in 2005, and incorporated an even heavier industrial goth sound. The album was co-produced with Ade Fenton, who returned for the 2011 follow-up Dead Son Rising. That same year he appeared on Gloss Drop from post-rock group Battles, lending his vocals to the album’s “My Machines” single. In 2013 he released his 20th studio album, Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind). Splinter saw Numan back in the UK Top 20 album charts after 30 years and was widely reviewed as the best album of his career.