Listening to Sirens: Gary Numan’s Broken Mind

Cover photo of Gary Numan's Splinter
Gary Numan: Splinter

With the release of Hesitation Marks  — Nine Inch Nails’ first album in five years — Gary Numan’s new work, Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind — his first album in seven years — might easily be overlooked.

Numan, primarily known for the 1979  earworm “Cars” (a song used to advertise everything from automobiles to, most recently, Target stores) , rode the crest of the nineteen eighties new British invasion. His success was bolstered by a then burgeoning MTV — which following its launch in 1981 only had about 200 videos to cover its 24/7 rotation; the result: clips like “Cars” were shown at least once a day. It also helped that the single had one of the catchiest bass riffs ever, complemented by the then still relatively new technology of two moog synthesizers.

Numan, however, working in the late seventies with his band Tubeway Army, was no “one-hit wonder” in his homeland; previous releases were quite successful: 1978’s Tubeway Army opens with the unforgettable “Listen to the Sirens”; 1979’s Replicas, which includes the stark and sinister classic “Down in the Park” also spawned a #1 hit single in the UK with “Are Friends Electric?”

Combining the synthetic sounds of synthesizers with the acoustic punch of a solid rhythm section, Numan’s quite deliberate pop sensibility stood in stark contrast to the themes of a cold, dystopian future revealed in his lyrics and embodied by his often emotionless, robotic voice.

Inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard as was (the far superior band of the same period) Joy Division,  Numan and others found themselves in the wake of punk but before the dawn of “college” or “alternative” rock.  They were the “new wave” — a label rarely used by the bands themselves but quite appropriate seeing as how their literary idols Dick and Ballard were known as part of the “new wave of science fiction” in the late 60s / early 70s just as filmmakers  Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were referred to by critics of their time (the late 50s and early 60s) as La Nouvelle Vague. Seems there was always some new wave in art; why not let the critics assign the label. What did it matter?

Numan himself referred to his work as “machine rock” — a likely antecedent of  the “industrial rock” moniker applied to bands like Ministry, KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails a decade later. But even among contemporaries, these labels favored by critics were the stuff of comedy and competition among the artists themselves.

Ian Curtis, for example — the  enigmatic genius who fronted the brief but brilliant Joy Division — seemed unimpressed by any labels assigned by music journalists — as well as any forced comparisons among diverse acts; when asked by a reporter who compared Joy Division to Gary Numan and wondered what Curtis thought of Numan’s claim that “machine rock is the future,” Curtis replied:  “No disrespect to Gary Numan, but what we do is what we do.”

Perhaps the label that fits best, then, is the one used by writers for Sounds magazine in the mid to late seventies: post-punk. In the wake of the spirit of DIY, aggression and rebellion that was punk, a new movement emerged. To paraphrase an astute observation made by someone uncredited in an April 2005 issue of Mojo Magazine writing about Joy Division, this movement, instead of saying “fuck off” said “I’m fucked.” Thus is summed up the aesthetic for many of the British bands of the late seventies and early eighties (the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, and [the band that rose from the ashes of Joy Division] New Order — just to name a few) — an aesthetic even evident in the more accessible work of Gary Numan: the paranoid “here in my car, I feel safest of all / I can lock all my doors” quickly turns to the lonely plea of “will you visit me, please, if I open my door?” Intentional isolationism. Losing one’s self in the machine. These were among Numan’s major themes.

Though never taken as seriously as other often over-serious artists of the period, Gary Numan is unarguably a progenitor of modern alternative rock. As such, he deserves our attention with his return this coming Fall. The single from the forthcoming album, “I am Dust” is currently available for streaming on his and other websites (and is included as an embedded object here).